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Indonesian purge on communist symbols draws ire of activists

'Government is trying to re-enliven authoritarianism,' says bishops' conference official

Indonesian purge on communist symbols draws ire of activists

Fake skeletons symbolizing victims of the 1965-66 anti-communist purge in Indonesia are placed on the ground during an Oct. 1 protest in front of Indonesia's presidential palace in Jakarta. Authorities have begun a fresh crackdown on communist symbols. (Photo by Ryan Dagur)

Rights activists In Indonesia have called on authorities not to overreact to the spread of communist symbols emerging in society lately.

Early this week, National Police Chief Gen. Badrodin Haiti said that President Joko Widodo had ordered the police and military as well as the National Intelligence Agency and the Attorney General’s Office to take legal action against the spread of communist symbols.

Prior to the president's order, a clothing shop owner named Mahdi Ismed was arrested on May 8 at his Jakarta shop after he produced T-shirts displaying the name of Kreator, a German metal band along with a picture of the hammer and sickle, the communist symbol. He was released the next day. 

On May 3, in Yogyakarta, the police stopped a screening of the film Buru Island My Motherland, which tells stories from the 1965 communist purge believed to have claimed at least 500,000 lives.  

On the same day, members of the East Jakarta Military District Command seized from a Jakarta bookstore several copies of Hammer and Sickle in the Sugarcane Field, by Hermawan Sulistyo, a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

"This is too much. It seems that the government is trying to re-enliven authoritarianism," said Azas Tigor Nainggolan, coordinator of the Indonesian bishops' Advocacy and Human Rights Forum. 

Nainggolan said the crackdown of free speech and freedom of expression appears to roll back the reforms that Indonesians fought so hard to achieve after the fall of President Suharto in 1998.

Nainggolan told ucanews.com that a photo of him wearing a T-shirt with a picture of the hammer and sickle went viral on social media.

"That photo was taken when I attended a program in Jakarta last week. I bought the T-shirt in Vietnam three years ago. Well, it is only a T-shirt, but people associate it with communism," he said, adding that he has received threats of violence from hard liners in the days since.

Alghiffari Aqsa, director of the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute, said that the police and military violated the civil rights of Indonesian citizens by arresting people without proper warrants.

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"The police and military tend to take arbitrary actions. They are often confused when they are asked about the legal basis for the arrests," he said.

He also said Suharto's New Order regime will return "if the government continues to let such things happen."

Arfi Bambang Amri, secretary-general of the Alliance of Independent Journalists, noted the irony of authorities preventing the May 3 screening of the film in Yogyakarta. 

"This is funny. People can see the film anywhere," he told ucanews.com.

The People's Movement for Democracy said they have recorded at least 41 cases of civil rights violations from January 2015 to this May, including intimidation, harassment and arbitrary arrest.

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