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Indonesia’s Gotta Catch All the Communists
A red scare is sweeping Indonesia, digging up the ghosts of the 1965-1966 mass killings, and threatening a fragile democracy.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — What do Pokémon Go and half a million dead communists have in common? They’re both things that, within the space of a few days, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu described as tools of shadowy forces bent on doing the country harm.
On July 18, Ryamizard, a conservative former general, warned the public that the hit game was likely being used by foreign intelligence services to harvest information on vital sites in Southeast Asia’s largest country.
Three days later, it was the dead reds. Following the conclusion of an activist-initiated “people’s tribunal” in The Hague that found the Indonesian government “responsible for genocide” in the 1965-1966 killing of at least 400,000 people suspected of being associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), Ryamizard again fronted the press.
The tribunal’s findings were “lies,” he said. “If we listen to them, we will break apart,” he warned. “This is the work of the PKI.”
In reality, neither of these things is true. Pokémon Go might be annoying to some — and it did suffer from a gaping initial privacy hole — but it’s still just a game. And the PKI, for its part, was wiped from the Earth; those killings half a century ago effectively eradicated the left from Indonesia’s political map, along with many ethnic Chinese. The slaughter, in turn, paved the way for the rise of the late dictator Suharto, whose kleptocracy lasted until 1998 on a base of steady anti-communist propaganda. Even today, both Marxist teachings and the PKI are banned under Indonesian law.
But Ryamizard’s comments are part of a worrying wave of often xenophobic paranoia under the presidency of Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, who was elected in 2014. Despite campaigning on promises of deepening democratic reforms — and pledging to resolve past rights abuses like the 1965-1966 killings — the former Jakarta governor’s rule has been marked by a series of panics over threats that are either grossly exaggerated or straight-up fictional.
Some have come from Jokowi himself. The president has been a strong advocate of the idea (based on questionable evidence) that the country faces a “drug emergency.” Under Jokowi’s direction, the country has executed 18 drug convicts since last year, including four last month. The vast majority of those killed have been foreigners.
Of more concern have been two intertwined scare campaigns being run by reactionaries both inside and outside Jokowi’s administration — often in ways that embarrass and undermine the president.
One is the red scare. Since mid-2015, police, soldiers, and vigilantes have broken up dozens of events, from film screenings to meetings of massacre survivors, which have been labeled “communist.” Meanwhile, Islamists and nationalist groups have held rallies of thousands of people vowing to “crush” communism in cities and towns, and the media have carried grave warnings by prominent Indonesians of a looming red takeover.
At the same time, there has been a rising panic about so-called proxy wars being waged by unnamed foreign enemies against Indonesia. Armed forces chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, appointed by Jokowi last year, has frequently raised the specter of these enemies spreading immorality and drugs in order to create chaos and steal Indonesia’s wealth. In February, amid a nationwide campaign of hate speech against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Indonesians, which was sparked by a backlash against a support group at the University of Indonesia, Ryamizard labeled the fight for LGBT rights as a threat with the potential to do more harm than nuclear weapons.
The defense minister was a driving force in the creation last year of Bela Negara (meaning “Defend the Nation”), an organization that claims 1.8 million members and aims to instill nationalism through paramilitary-style training, including reportedly teaching civilians how to use weapons. Paramilitary groups have been popular in Indonesia since before the Suharto era and played a key role in both the 1965-1966 massacres and violence across the country in the years surrounding Suharto’s fall.
The nationalist tide has left Jokowi’s administration in a policy muddle. Jokowi has pledged to address the troubled legacy of the 50-year-old massacres and in April organized the country’s first symposium featuring both survivors and the military. But no matter what happens, a state apology for the killings is off the cards, presidential spokesman Johan Budi told Foreign Policy.
Budi pointed out that Jokowi has already instructed overzealous authorities to rein in raids against events deemed “communist.” This has indeed happened. But the president has done nothing to muzzle senior figures invoking the red menace or talking of proxy wars.
“The president can’t ignore reports from the community … that there are some people trying to bring the communist party back in Indonesia,” Budi said. “The president has to respond.”
Jokowi’s attempt at the middle road is pleasing no one. Despite the fact that he has given Cold Warriors open slather in his administration, opponents frequently seek to label him as a red in disguise. In June, a collection of former Suharto-era generals organized their own symposium to counter the government’s reconciliation effort. The crowd included members of Islamist street thug groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), an organization formed by generals in 1998 to fight pro-democracy protesters in the streets. Also in attendance were uniformed members of Bela Negara.
Jokowi’s support for even limited reconciliation over the mass killings means “he’s pretty much part of efforts to bring communism back,” Ahmad Shobri Lubis, the head of the FPI, told FP. “It’s a twisted, crazy step. It goes against common sense that the government would ask for forgiveness from criminals. It’s madness.”
But not everyone in Indonesia has bought into the hype. Social media has frequently pilloried the more hysterical announcements, and reactions from some of the establishment — including military types — have ranged from eye rolling to alarm.
In Indonesia’s muddled party system, opinions similarly vary, including within Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who championed Ryamizard’s appointment and has a reputation for brittle nationalism, heads the party.
Others take a different view. The paranoid upsurge is “all bullshit,” T.B. Hasanuddin, a former general and a senior PDI-P politician, told FP.
Behind it all is a collection of former generals who are being driven by two factors, Hasanuddin said. One is fear that a reckoning over the bloody legacy of the 1965-1966 killings — in which the military and traditional elite are deeply implicated — could unleash chaos. The other is a more concerted attempt to use vague bogeymen to fight the country’s democratization, he said. For some, these fever dreams are simply a cynical ploy. For others, they are indisputable fact, born of indoctrination during Suharto’s 31-year New Order regime.
“There are those from the military who, in the way they analyze things, always need there to be threats. If there are no threats, then they need to make them up,” Hasanuddin said. “Now it’s communism.”
Why is all this happening under Jokowi? Less than two years ago, the former furniture salesman was hailed as a new hope in a political system dominated by old faces with ties to the New Order. Liberals flocked to Jokowi’s campaign, seeing him as a democratic bulwark against his main rival, Prabowo Subianto, a former general (and former son-in-law of Suharto) implicated in serious human rights abuses.
But Jokowi has long sought to accommodate the old guard. Even during the transitional period between his election and taking office, Jokowi began an embrace of hard-liners close to Megawati, who retains undisputed control of the PDI-P.
“He’s just weak,” said Ian Wilson, an Indonesia expert at Australia’s Murdoch University. “He’s been outmaneuvered by seasoned players, seasoned brokers, and the kind of warlords of elite politics, including someone like Megawati, [who is] an ultranationalist and a militarist.”
Observers of Indonesia have hoped of late that Jokowi might finally be finding his feet. But even if he is increasingly calling the shots, the result is still a doubling down on his embrace of the old dinosaurs. In a late July reshuffle, the president sidelined Luhut Panjaitan, a relatively liberal former soldier, as the chief security minister and replaced him with Wiranto — who, like many Indonesians, only goes by one name — a former general indicted by a United Nations-backed tribunal for crimes against humanity in East Timor.
Wiranto, a man accused of having command responsibility for militia violence in 1999 that is believed to have killed well over 1,000 civilians, is now in charge of handling the government’s response to past abuses. This includes the 1965-1966 killings and his own alleged crimes.
Few rights advocates now expect much from Jokowi’s administration.
Photo credit: AGOES RUDIANTO/NurPhoto via Getty Images