In Indonesia, social media checks the military

"Smile before you hit" suddenly seems like perfectly good advice for men in uniform who, in Indonesia, still think they can get away with abusing their powers. These days, in a world increasingly dominated by social media, there is a chance that you will be caught on camera, and when that happens, you might as ...

628170_indonesia_street_fight_2.jpg
628170_indonesia_street_fight_2.jpg

"Smile before you hit" suddenly seems like perfectly good advice for men in uniform who, in Indonesia, still think they can get away with abusing their powers. These days, in a world increasingly dominated by social media, there is a chance that you will be caught on camera, and when that happens, you might as well make sure that you look good.

Last week a young man was attacked by an army captain on a busy Jakarta road. The officer thrashed his victim on the head with a baton while wielding a pistol in his other hand. The fight apparently started after their vehicles swiped one another during afternoon rush-hour traffic. The soldier was in civilian clothes, but what gave him away was not his car's army license plate or his buzz cut, but the arrogant display of power.

The whole thing was recorded in a two-minute video that went viral on YouTube last week. The video prompted a chorus of anger expressed through all forms of social media. The spontaneous public outcry indicated that this was not an isolated incident of abuse of power by the nation's security apparatus.

"Smile before you hit" suddenly seems like perfectly good advice for men in uniform who, in Indonesia, still think they can get away with abusing their powers. These days, in a world increasingly dominated by social media, there is a chance that you will be caught on camera, and when that happens, you might as well make sure that you look good.

Last week a young man was attacked by an army captain on a busy Jakarta road. The officer thrashed his victim on the head with a baton while wielding a pistol in his other hand. The fight apparently started after their vehicles swiped one another during afternoon rush-hour traffic. The soldier was in civilian clothes, but what gave him away was not his car’s army license plate or his buzz cut, but the arrogant display of power.

The whole thing was recorded in a two-minute video that went viral on YouTube last week. The video prompted a chorus of anger expressed through all forms of social media. The spontaneous public outcry indicated that this was not an isolated incident of abuse of power by the nation’s security apparatus.

Accidents happen every day, especially in streets as chaotic as Jakarta’s, and many of them end up with motorists having heated arguments. The difference with this incident is that it involved a military man, and that it was caught on camera.

Commentators on Facebook and Twitter recalled that it wasn’t so long ago that such actions by members of the military went unpunished. Indeed, in the absence of any solid evidence, the military habitually denied that they ever happened. Not this time. YouTube provided the video, and Facebook and Twitter gave people the platform to vent their anger.

The Indonesian Military (TNI), once a powerful and widely feared institution, has little defense against this damning evidence involving one of its men. That the TNI still have some clout, however, was reflected by how long it took mainstream TV channels to catch on to the story. The incident had to become a trending topic in social media first. Once it was the talk of the town, TV finally plunged in.

Confirming that the man in the video was a captain, an army spokesman promised a full investigation. The captain’s version of the account, as related by the spokesman, was that the young man on the motorcycle had been the aggressive one, and that the captain was merely acting in self defense. The spokesman said the soldier was carrying an airsoft-gun, not a standard military weapon, and that there was no danger at any time to the younger man. The officer had only used his gun to intimidate the other man.

Not surprisingly, the army’s official response triggered even more ridicule from social media commentators.

Whatever happens to the army captain next, the episode is already a huge setback for the Indonesian military, which has been struggling to repair a public image tainted by three decades of association with the Soeharto dictatorship.

When Indonesia embarked on democracy in 1998, the military became an obvious target for massive reforms. In the last 14 years, the once powerful military has been put under greater civilian control, made more accountable for its actions, barred from running its own businesses, and stripped of its job of overseeing national security, which is now the chief responsibility of the police. The military’s political influence has been curtailed considerably.

Some things, however, haven’t changed, and one of them is the public perception of the military’s arrogance, buttressed by the power of the gun.

The YouTube video, obviously uploaded by someone using a pseudonym, was aptly called "Palmerah Cowboy," referring to the Jakarta district where the incident was shot. The term "cowboy" refers to the widespread perception that the men in uniform are trigger-happy. While the man in the video did not pull the trigger, commentators in social media were far more ready to believe that the pistol in his hand was real, rather than trust the army’s claims that it was an airsoft-gun or that the captain had acted in self-defense.

The massive outcry over the whole incident shows how far the military still has to go to win the support of a skeptical and increasingly vocal public.

And this isn’t the first time that social media has become the military’s worst nightmare.

In October 2010, when a YouTube video showing soldiers torturing Papuan separatist rebels went viral, the military initially denied it, claiming the video was fabricated. Only later, once it became a major international issue, did the government admit — on behalf of the military — that the video was authentic.

The soldiers in the video were later court-martialed. Although they got off lightly, the episode served as a bitter lesson for the military about social media’s power to check abuses committed by its members. The episode also taught the military that it would hurt its credibility even more if it tried to lie its way out.

Judging by the quick response this time around, the military has learned its lesson after all. All it needs now is to teach its soldiers to smile, since you never know when you you’re on candid camera.

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