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The politics of civil liberties in Indonesia

Crackdown on radical groups aims to remove intimidation and violence creeping into country's democratic process

The politics of civil liberties in Indonesia

Members of Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia during a 2012 rally in Jakarta to protest the "Innocence of Muslims" film. (ucanews.com photo) 

Max Regus, Jakarta
Indonesia

August 10, 2017

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President Widodo has put on a dramatic political performance in recent weeks. On July 10 he introduced a regulation that allows the government to ban groups that go against "national unity and the existence of the Indonesian nation." He followed this by banning Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group known as an anti-Pancasila organization.

While some elements of Indonesian society support Widodo, non-governmental organizations are lining up in opposition. They argue that Widodo is moving in an authoritarian direction.  

 

Radical Attitude 

Indonesia has achieved much in its reformation era. Freedom House (FH) — the main International organization that measures and evaluates the quality of democracy worldwide — rates Indonesia well and gives it a 'free level' regarding civil liberties.

It is arguable then that civil liberties pose a threat to public life through large-scale radical movements. Some radical groups active in Indonesia today played a key role in maintaining 'military power' during the turmoil following the Suharto regime. Nevertheless these groups struggled to benefit from the democratization process and couldn't compete with newer political forces, such as the religious parties. They formed mass organizations in an attempt to maintain their influence.  

Many of these mass organizations use violent actions in the public sphere. Civil liberties seem to be a tool for such groups to discriminate against other groups. It is evident that the perpetrators of violence have shifted. The state used to be the main perpetrator in the Suharto era. Since 1998, mass organizations have become the main perpetrator. It is easy to find mass organizations that are familiar with violent action and propaganda. 

Some radical groups use violent action to control social and political spaces. In many cases, they also dictate and force the government to adopt anti-minority policies and regulations. The amputation of religious freedom for certain minorities groups is based on violent ideologies supported by radical groups. 

 

The Corridor

Theoretically Indonesia's democratization requires civil liberties that guarantee the involvement and participation of all citizens. But a problem is raised when the 'responsibility to respect' fellow citizens gives way to the shadow of radicalism. The state — in light of its democratic values and principles — has to keep and construct a balance of liberties and responsibilities in the public space. Indonesia should learn from its own experiences and challenges. 

At the practical level, when an expression of liberty hurts another's freedom, then the government has a responsibility to step in. We should say that the presence of radical groups inherently lacks respect for other citizens. In this understanding, Widodo's regulation is a 'necessary corridor' for arranging civil liberties in order to actualize a strong 'respect' between people. 

The role of government should be mentioned here; its most important function is to manage civil liberties. It is noteworthy that violence against minority groups in Indonesia often results from a lack of interest by the state. Some argue that the previous regime failed to stop the emergence of radicalism in Indonesia. 

The Indonesian government should support law enforcement in prosecuting radical groups and perpetrators of violence. The state and its institutions should protect vulnerable minorities through presidential regulation. From past experiences, civil liberties can turn bad if violent groups use such freedoms and are not prosecuted.

Widodo offers a new way of guaranteeing freedom of expression to vulnerable religious minorities. Yet the government must also protect members of Hizb ut-Tahrir from persecution after the group was deemed an 'illegal organization' in Indonesia. 

 

Contesting Power

Looking at the Ahok case, when several radical groups came together in 2016 and 2017 to protest against Jakarta's Christian governor, politics was a major issue. Some radical groups that protested against Ahok lined up behind Prabowo in 2014. Now, Widodo’s opponents argue that two years out from the 2019 presidential election, he is starting to consolidate his power by outlawing radical groups.

However, it is arguable whether this is the case. Rather Widodo's decision-making is more likely about making the democratic process a peaceful contest and not just hateful speeches and actions. We may say that the anti-radicalism movement regulations and policies bring new insight and energy into managing Indonesia’s 2019 election, removing them away from radicalism, violence and intimidation.

Father Max Regus is a priest from Ruteng Diocese in Flores and a researcher at the Graduate School of Humanities Tilburg University, the Netherlands.

 

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