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Widodo, the death sentence and Indonesia's political vacuum

Max Lane - March 13, 2015

I do not know what the prospects are that President Widodo will stop the current implementation of the death sentence for people convicted of drug related crimes. There is nothing in any of Widodo's statements that indicates a change of mind on this issue.

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera he reaffirmed his decision stating that it was necessary also to "remember the victims". It was not clear whether this was being presented as a means to lessen the criminal activity as a disincentive or simply as punishment. On the other hand, the Indonesian government has now several times announced a delay in the process to await the outcome of legal processes. A positive outcome in one of the legal appeals is probably the best hope of commutation of sentences, although Indonesia is in an unpredictable state and perhaps anything can happen.

Within Indonesia itself there have been people both fighting the executions practically, such as the groups of lawyers, including well known legal figure, Todung Mulya Lubis, who have been assisting in various legal cases as well as speaking out. Human rights and civil liberties organisations have also spoken out. There have been public fora where academics from several different universities have spoken out against the death sentence. These include, among others, academics from the Jakarta State University, University of Indonesia and the Islamic oriented Paramadina University. The English language news media, especially the Jakarta Globe, has strongly editorialised against the death sentences. The Jakarta Globe's editorial was entitled: "Okay, Mr. Tough Guy. We Get It. Now Stop." Former foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda has also spoken out against the death sentences.

In an article on March 8 in the Jakarta Globe, the reporter was able to find street vox pop's both in favour of the death penalty for drug crime convictees as well as those who thought the punishment was too harsh.

Despite these voices, it is probably true to say that they have been unable to make a major impact on the national political discourse. Widodo has announced, or hinted, that there may be an eventual moratorium on the death sentence. This was mentioned at a recent UN commission hearing in Geneva. Such a hint probably reflects a combination of the considerable international criticism Widodo has received, as well as from the dissident domestic voices in society, and perhaps also in his cabinet. Even so, the dominant theme in the mainstream political conversation has not been around the rights and wrongs of the death sentence, but rather around the importance of resisting attacks on sovereignty on this issue, that is of resisting criticism and pressure from outside of Indonesia.

There is a major mismatch between the ideological life of Indonesia society at large and that of the formal political arena, of parties and the parliament. There has been no serious opposition to the death penalty from any party in parliament and, as far as I know, from any parliamentarian. The criticisms have been from outside the "elit politik" as they are called. While things have slowly moved on in many areas from the 33 years of the Suharto era, which ended when the dictator was forced to resign in 1998, this has been least the case in relation to the formal political institutions which are in the hands of the "elit politik", almost all of whom were formed during the Suharto era or see themselves as continuous in one way or another with that era, including Widodo.

The values of the political elite are essentially those consolidated during that era, which began with the state organised mass killings of 1965-66 (hailed as progress by the western countries, including the Australian elite) and which was followed by a twenty year long process of systematic re-education of Indonesian society through both the political parties and the school system, creating a society in Suharto's image. It was not surprising that by the late 1990s', almost the whole of society outside this elite saw it as being a product of K.K.N. Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism. The death sentence was carried out and defended by Suharto both in the form of the mass killings of 1965-66 (with estimates of up to 1 million people killed) as well as a part of the formal court system. In the 1980s Suharto also ordered extra-judicial killings of petty criminals as what he later described as "shock therapy" for society. Thousands were shot dead and left in the street.

The protest movement that forced Suharto's resignation was focused on the K.K.N. issues and the general repression he used to defend a regime of corruption, collusion and nepotism. The movement grew so quickly and pushed out Suharto so quickly, that its agenda did not have time to extend to other questions. The elite was forced to allow the establishment of a Corruption Eradication Commission, that was even given the power to investigate and arrest, without reference to the police or attorney-general. The National Human Rights Commission that they were also forced to establish did not, however, have any such equivalent powers.

So today the mainstream, formalised political establishment whose main representatives are the current parties and their politicians reflect those Suharto era values, both on KKN issues as well as state violence and human rights. As regards the latter, state violence is still a major feature of the political regime in west Papua. Of course, if there is no differences among the political establishment on an issue like the death sentence and therefore there is no public debate with any national profile, then it means there is no big discussion at the grass-roots either. Dissident voices will be mainly fighting inertia.

This situation will change, although the timing is hard to predict. The change that is coming is when organised social forces outside the elit politik, most likely from within the labor movement and university campuses, begin to challenge the monopoly on the articulation of social values by the political establishment, still so marked by the bankrupt values of the brutal and kleptocratic Suharto era. This is why the elite still ban any material on the violent birth of the Suharto era from reaching a mass audience in the country, such as their ban on the films THE ACT OF KILLING and its sequel, LOOK OF SILENCE. Perhaps, the dissident voices on the death sentence, and the campus students defying authority and thugs to screen these films, can be seen as the earliest signals that these changes will come. It won't be an easy transition.

Source: http://maxlaneonline.com/2015/03/13/article-widodo-the-death-sentence-and-indonesias-political-vacuum-by-max-lane/.

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