Monday, May 2, 2016

Political tensions are rising in China in a prelude of what is expected to be an all-out battle between the country's top two leaders -- President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang

Political tensions are rising in China in a prelude of what is expected to be an all-out battle between the country's top two leaders -- President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

Relations between the two have deteriorated sharply in the past year or so. This could be seen during the past two annual meetings of the National People's Congress, China's parliament.

As they did a year earlier, Xi and Li this past March sat next to each other during the plenary sessions. But they never shook hands. They also spoke to each other only briefly. They even avoided making eye contact.

Their behavior was highly unusual. Even last year, the two at least glad-handed and smiled for the sake of the TV cameras, not to mention all those around them.

"Relations between Xi and Li have seriously soured," one political source in Beijing said during the closing days of the Chinese parliament's annual meeting. "Their rivalry could even be divined from a speech Li gave [during the most recent congress] and will become even clearer in due course."

In a government work report that Li gave in speech form on March 5, during the opening session of the annual meeting, he said, "We will improve oversight and accountability systems, root out incompetence, inertia, and negligence, and show zero tolerance for those who are on the government payroll but do not perform their duties."

Li came down hard on paper-shuffling bureaucrats immediately after referring to President Xi's anti-corruption campaign and saying that the Chinese government will step up its fight against corruption.

Apparently, this was Li's way of highlighting the negative effects of Xi's anti-corruption drive, especially the widespread phenomenon of slacking off. It was also a veiled attack on the Chinese president.

Sitting and waiting

Since being inaugurated about three years ago, President Xi has wielded an anti-corruption campaign against his political foes and as a tool to consolidate power.

Even Li cannot squarely challenge how Xi has implemented his campaign; doing so would put his own political fortunes at risk. But Li can play up the issue of officials at all levels of government slacking off.

Hundreds of thousands of government and Communist Party officials at both the national and local levels have been placed under investigation, detained or punished for corruption.

While the officials caught in Xi's dragnet have been labeled by their wrongdoings, it is also true that they helped to boost China's gross domestic product, now the second largest in the world.

Without Xi's anti-corruption crusade, they might have continued to be highly evaluated.

Xi has cracked down on both "tigers" and "flies" -- powerful leaders and low-level officials. But the drive has also left behind officials who now are so afraid of being netted that they deliberately avoid fulfilling their responsibilities.

Unlike in the past, Chinese bureaucrats now shy away from negotiating public works deals while out at night; they fear being turned in, even by their subordinates, for being wined and dined. Instead, they sit, hoping to wait out the raging political storm.

Adverse economic effects

This has adversely impacted the Chinese economy, with numerous projects in various parts of the country being delayed or stalled.

Before Xi became president, local governments would compete with one another to bring higher growth to their economies. Their officials were always ready to heap praise upon themselves.

After Xi took office, though, more than an anti-corruption campaign hit China. The country's economy fundamentally shifted. Years of high-speed growth gave way to a slowdown. Policy changed with the times. It now prioritizes structural reforms that might lead to stable growth.

This, however, has made local government officials even less willing to work hard.

It is a situation that Li, who is supposed to be China's economic czar, regards as intolerable. But what is Li to do? Xi's aggressive consolidation of power has left him with no real authority.

So he is relegated to giving pep talks, like the one he delivered during the National People's Congress. Unfortunately for Li, most bureaucrats are fully aware that the premier's authority is limited. "I will not change anything unless Xi himself gives assurances that I will not fall victim to his anti-corruption campaign," one local government official said.

But since Li's latest pep talk, China's political winds have been shifting, though slightly. The Communist Party is even hearing calls for someone to counterbalance Xi.

The shift reflects party concerns that:

·         Xi has concentrated too much power via his anti-corruption campaign;

·         there is a personality cult being built around Xi;

·         Xi's silencing of the media has gone too far;

·         his political campaign has adversely affected the economy.

Fully realizing how the political climate now favors him, Li has decided to take a first step to counter Xi's unrivaled power.

"Li was also probably feeling a sense of crisis," a Beijing intellectual said. "He apparently thought that if he does not demonstrate his presence now, he could be removed from his post of premier."

On April 15, Li visited the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, Xi's alma mater, where he stressed the importance of education, especially in science and technology. Later in the day, he visited Peking University, his own alma mater.

Premier Li Keqiang, front left, mingles with students and takes selfies at Tsinghua University on April 15. (China Central Television image)

It was a calculated move to visit Xi's alma mater first. Li was accompanied by Vice Premier Liu Yandong and Guo Jinlong, the Communist Party chief in Beijing who is close to former President Hu Jintao.

The entourage also included many members of the Communist Youth League faction, Li's power base and a massive political force within the Communist Party that comprises former officials of the Communist Youth League.

The faction, which boasts 90 million members, has been led by Hu and Li. Hu has already retired, which leaves Li alone to secure promotions for as many faction members as possible at the party's national congress in the fall of 2017.

Support base

"Li looks as if he picked a fight with Xi, who is unpopular with intellectuals," a university official in Beijing said.

The aim of Li's visits to the two universities was to drum up support among students and intellectuals. Many members of the Communist Youth League faction at the two universities were mobilized for Li's inspection tour.

While lacking support among intellectuals, Xi initially won the hearts and minds of many Chinese thanks to his crackdown on corrupt officials. This fostered an image of Xi as "a champion of justice," though his once astronomically high popularity now appears to be waning.

Xi belongs to both the princeling faction and the second red generation. Princelings are the children of prominent and influential senior party officials; the second red generation is a smaller group of children of revolutionary-era party leaders.

Xi's late father, Xi Zhongxun, once served as a vice premier.

There are many members of the second red generation in the People's Liberation Army, which Xi sees as a particularly reliable support base.

Intellectuals and the soldierly

Highly alarmed by Li's gambit, Xi wasted no time in countering it.

On April 20, Xi made an inspection tour of the Central Military Commission's joint operations command center, in Beijing, and delivered an important speech stressing the results of his military reform drive.

President Xi Jinping visits the Central Military Commission's newly established joint operations command center, in Beijing, on April 20. (CCTV image)

Xi doubles as chairman of the commission, which commands the armed forces. He made a big splash by wearing a camouflage uniform when he visited the military facility, something his civilian predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, never did.

Images and photos of the top national leader in camo went viral. They symbolized a warning of sorts: "The military is on my side. You'd better stop going against me."

Xi's visit to the Central Military Commission's joint operations command center may have also sent a message to another foe -- the U.S. China and the U.S. are locked in an increasingly tense military face-off regarding the South China Sea.

At any rate, Xi's inspection tour and photo op effectively checked Li's move, though the two are expected to continue shadow boxing in the run up to the quinquennial national congress, still a year and a half away.

So it's the intellectuals versus the soldierly as China's two top leaders jockey for position.

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer


Creating Frankenstein: Saudi export of wahhabism

There has long been debate about the longevity of the Saudi ruling family. The debate is fuelled by the Al Saud's Faustian with the Wahhabis, proponents of a puritan and intolerant interpretation of Islam that increasingly is becoming as much a liability as it has been an asset.

The bargain has produced the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in history. Estimates of Saudi spending on the funding of Muslim cultural institutions across the globe and the forging of close ties to non-Wahhabi Muslim leaders and intelligence agencies in various Muslim nations that have bought into significant elements of the Wahhabi worldview range from US$75 to $100 billion.

The campaign is central to Saudi soft power policy and the Al Saud's survival strategy. One reason that the longevity of the Al Sauds is a matter of debate is the backlash to the propagation of Wahhabism in countries across the globe. More than ever before, theological or ideological similarities between Wahhabism, and its theological parent, Salafism, and jihadism and the Islamic State are under the spotlight.

The problem for the Al Sauds is not just that their legitimacy is dependent on their identification with Wahhabism. It is that the Al Sauds, since the launch of the campaign, were often only nominally in control of it and that they have let a genie out of the bottle that now leads an independent life and can't be put back into the bottle.

That is pushing the Al Sauds and the Wahhabis closer to a crunch point that could make things worse by sparking ever more militant splits. These will make themselves felt across the Muslim world and in minority Muslim communities elsewhere in multiple ways, including increasing sectarian attitudes in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The Saudi funding campaign draws from one pot of money. Yet, the goal of the campaign differs for the government and the clergy. For the clergy it is about spreading of the faith. For the government it's about soft power. At times the interests of the government and the ulema coincide, and at times they diverge. By the same token, the campaign on some levels has been an unparalleled success, on others success is questionable and one could go even a step further to argue that it risks becoming a liability for the government.

It may be hard to conceive of Wahhabism as soft power but Salafism was a movement that had only sprouted miniscule communities in the centuries preceding the rise of 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, and only started to make real inroads into Muslim communities beyond the Arabian Peninsula 175 years after his death. By the 1980s, the Saudi campaign had established Salafism as an integral part of the· global community of Muslims and sparked greater religiosity in various Arab countries as well as the emergence of Islamist movements and organizations. The soft power aspect of it, certainly in relation to the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has paid off - particularly in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan where sectarian attitudes and attitudes towards minorities and Iran are hardening.

The soft power aspect has become all the more important with tensions between Iran Saudi Arabia rising in the wake of the execution in January of dissident Saudi Shiite Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, the subsequent rupture in diplomatic relations and multiple proxy wars the two countries are fighting in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

Underlying the Saudi-Iranian struggle for hegemony is what is from the Saudi perspective is an existential battle that is sharpened by uncertainty about the kingdom's relationship with the United States. US officials for much of their country's relationship with Saudi Arabia have insisted that the two countries do not share common values, that their relationship is based on common interests.

Cooler relations between Washington and Riyadh are driven by the fact that those interests are diverging. The divergence became evident with the eruption of popular revolts in 2011 and even more so with the US persistence in reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran that is returning the Islamic republic to the international fold despite deep-felt Saudi objections.

The result has been, with the rise of Saudi King Salman and his powerful son,Mohammed bin Salman, a far more assertive foreign and military policy. Saudi Arabia's new assertiveness is however not a declaration of independence from the United States. On the contrary, Mohammed Bin Salman made clear in a recent Economist interview that it is designed to force the United States to re-engage in the Middle East in the belief that it will constitute a return to the status ante quo: US support for the kingdom as the best guarantor of regional stability.

Saudi regional leadership relies on exploitation of a window of opportunity and extending it for as long as possible. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers – Iran, Turkey and Egypt – are in various degrees of disrepair. Punitive international sanctions and international isolation long took care of Iran.

But that is what is changing. Iran may not be Arab and maintains a sense of Persian superiority but it has the assets Saud Arabia lacks: a large population base, an industrial base, resources, a battle hardened military, a deep-rooted culture, a history of empire and a geography that makes it a crossroads. Mecca and money will not be able to compete, and certainly not with Wahhabism in control.

And that may prove to be the Al Saud's second existential challenge. Wahhabism is likely to increasingly become a domestic liability and a burden in the Al Saud's battle with Iran. As a result, the Al Saud's future is clouded in uncertainty, no more so if and when they lose Wahhabism as the basis for the legitimacy of their absolute rule.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.


India has shown some spine in its dealings with Beijing after many years of playing the nice guy - Dharamsala Conference: Message To China And Pakistan – Analysis

India has shown some spine in its dealings with Beijing after many years of playing the nice guy  - Dharamsala Conference: Message To China And Pakistan – Analysis

By deciding to host a conference of Chinese dissidents in Dharamshala, India has shown some spine in its dealings with Beijing after many years of playing the nice guy. However, by first granting and then withdrawing the visa for the Uyghur nationalist Dolkun Isa, whom China brands a “terrorist”, presumably because of the Interpol red corner notice against him, New Delhi has shown that it is yet to firm up its China policy.

Moreover, the flip-flop has cast doubts over the conference itself. If anything, the episode has underlined the Narendra Modi government’s inexperience in matter of international relations since it should have checked out Dolkun Isa’s background more thoroughly before extending the invitation to him.

It is too early to say if the latest developments presage a return to the pursuit of mealy-mouthed policies with China once again. At one time, India appeared so eager to keep the Dragon in good humour that it even treated the Dalai Lama with uncommon rudeness. For instance, the Tibetan pontiff was once hustled out of his residence in New Delhi and taken to 7, Race Course Road, where he was ushered into the prime minister’s presence by a side door.

Not surprisingly, the Nobel laureate was reported to have been “shaken” by the encounter, for he had never before been treated so shabbily by the Indian leaders who had till then been unfailingly courteous towards the holy man.

A scheduled meeting between the Dalai Lama and BJP president Amit Shah was abruptly cancelled before Modi’s visit to China in May, 2015. Notwithstanding India’s submissive behaviour, a state-run newspaper in Beijing advised Modi not to play “little tricks” by developing strategic and economic ties with the US and Japan. Moreover, the Indian prime minister was told not to visit a “disputed” region like Arunachal Pradesh and, above all, “completely stop supporting” the Dalal Lama.

There is little doubt that the “appalling old waxwork”, to use Prince Charles’ description of Xi Jinping, repeated to Modi what the newspaper had written, probably after being briefed by the Chinese president’s sidekicks.

Such meek conduct on India’s part continued till the Chinese decided to block India’s move yet again at the UN to declare Masood Azhar as a terrorist.

It is possible that the virtual collapse of Modi’s peace initiatives towards Pakistan is related to the decision to host the Chinese dissidents. It is probably the rebuff which India suffered when the Pakistan high commissioner in New Delhi unilaterally suspended the peace process following the fiasco of a Pakistani team’s visit to Pathankot to investigate the terrorist attack which made India rethink its position after China indulged in its own “little trick” in the Masood Azhar affair.

With the “all-weather friendship” between Islamabad and Beijing blossoming again, it was time for New Delhi to remember the ancient Indian political philosopher Kautilya’s dictum to repay deviousness with the same.

The Dharamshala conference – if it takes place – will be a message not only to China, but also to Pakistan and, more specifically, to its avowedly anti-Indian army chief, Raheel Sharif, that sustained hostility towards India can hurt Pakistan more by boosting the terror network there.

The result will be not only that Pakistan itself will be subjected to more terrorist outrages compared to India, but that every Pakistani travelling abroad will be a suspect in the eyes of the immigration officials at airports. All of this will be more demeaning for Pakistan than what its friendship with China can provide.

For China, the Dharamshala conference will be a reminder to the world about its real status not as a military giant but as a totalitarian regime which poses a threat to the world and to its own people, as Hitler’s Germany once did.

Moreover, the Dalai Lama, the old “splittist” and “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, will once again emerge as the voice of the Tibetans which has been suppressed by China inside Tibet.

True, the conference itself will be no more than a morale booster for the Tibetans who have made India their home as well as their supporters the world over. But reports that China has been seething with rage are not surprising because all dictatorships suffer from an inferiority complex not only when they see that their critics have found a platform, but also because of the knowledge that the latter will be believed more than their repressors.

India, too, will refurbish its reputation as the natural home of the dispossessed. In the 8th century, the Parsis sought refuge in India when Persia was overrun by the Islamic invaders from what is today Saudi Arabia. Twelve centuries later, the Tibetans came to India when their country was conquered by the Chinese communists.

Both the Parsis and the Tibetans knew that, of all the countries, India will allow them to live a life of their own without interference. The Dharamshala gathering will be a reiteration of that hallowed tradition.

*Amulya Ganguli is a writer on current affairs.


5 years since bin Laden death, conspiracy theories abound

It’s been five years since U.S. Navy Seals raided a three-story compound in Pakistan’s northwestern garrison city of Abbotabad and killed Osama bin Laden, America’s most-wanted terrorist.  Residents of district in which America’s most-wanted was killed still have trouble swallowing official version of events


Journalists from the national and international media visit the area every May 2, but seldom find locals who believe the official narrative put out by Washington and Islamabad -- namely, that U.S. Navy Seals conducted the deadly mission without the support or knowledge of Pakistan’s army.

Few local residents buy the story. Even those living next to the compound do not believe that the world’s most wanted man had been their neighbor for years.


Now there is nothing but a heap of rubble and concrete slabs where the compound once stood.

Over the last five years, the street -- now known as "Bin Laden Street" -- has seen the construction of several new homes. The onion and potato fields that once surrounded the compound have since been converted into modern farmland.

Most visitors have trouble believing that this was the place that once dominated world headlines.

In the five years since the dramatic events that took place here, there has been no dearth of conspiracy theories regarding bin Laden’s death, the most common of which is that bin Laden never lived here at all; that the entire episode was nothing more than elaborate theater by Pakistan and the U.S.

"What Osama bin Laden? There was never any such person here," Aftab Qureshi, a resident of Bilal Town, the official name of the locality in which the compound is located, told Anadolu Agency.

"If he was living here, then what were all those intelligence officials -- whose offices surrounded the so-called bin Laden compound -- doing all those years?" Qureshi asked.

He was referring to the local offices of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Military Intelligence, Intelligence Bureau and other intelligence agencies located within a half-kilometer radius of the compound.

The location of the Pakistani army’s Kakul training academy -- a mere 600 meters from the compound -- has added to the chorus of conspiracy theories.

"If someone was standing on the roof of the [bin Laden] compound, he could have easily hit the army chief, who inspects an annual military parade," Mohamed Ashfaq, another Abbotabad resident, said.

According to Ashfaq, each year before the parade, army personnel collect the details of local residents -- and their guests -- for security reasons.

"Can you believe a three-story compound was built only a few hundred meters from such a highly sensitive military installation [i.e., the Kakul academy] and the army didn’t care or inquire about it?" he asked.

He went on to question how the U.S., which claimed that top Pakistani officials had known of bin Laden’s whereabouts, could -- if that that were the case -- still consider Islamabad "a reliable ally in the war against terrorism".

"For most Pakistanis, this is incomprehensible," he said.


Atif Hussein, an Abbottabad-based journalist, believes local residents have good reason to doubt the official story.

"I’ve spoken to scores of people who lived near the compound," Hussein told Anadolu Agency. "Although some of them were next-door neighbors, they never saw anything to suggest that such a high-profile figure had lived there."

What’s more, he added, the compound’s owners -- the Khan Brothers -- were well-known to the area and not at all inclined to extremism.

"People generally believe the whole drama was staged to give U.S. forces a face-saving exit from Afghanistan," Hussein said.

"If the U.S. had produced pictures of a dead bin Laden -- as it did with [Libya’s] Muammar Qaddafi and [Iraq’s] Saddam Hussein -- there would have been little room for all these conspiracy theories," the journalist added.


Sri Lanka’s delicate balancing act - As India, China and the United States wrestle with one another, the Indo-Pacific region faces a precarious situation. Sri Lanka might hold the key to win–win collaboration

The new government has hit the reset button on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, with initial overseas visits by Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to India, Japan and the United Kingdom. Sirisena also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to express his government’s willingness to participate in the Sri Lanka-centric Maritime Silk Road, one pillar of China’s ambitious ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative.

As the three giants — India, China and the United States — wrestle with one another, the Indo-Pacific region faces a precarious situation. Sri Lanka might hold the key to win–win collaboration. By adapting a sophisticated and balanced foreign policy, Colombo can encourage the three major strategic stakeholders to adapt to each other’s presence in the region.

The Indian Ocean is a crucial commercial waterway that carries a large proportion of global container and resource transports. Vast energy and mineral reserves as well as choke points of global trade — the Hormuz, Mandeb and Malacca Straits — are also located in this area. India relies heavily on Gulf oil and more than 80 per cent of vessels transited through the Malacca Strait in 2012. New Delhi will likely become even more dependent on these trade routes as it pursues its ‘Act East’ policy, focused on enhancing ties with Southeast Asia.

Meanwhile, China is ramping up its presence in the Indian Ocean through projects such as the OBOR initiative, which aims to better integrate Asia, Africa and Europe. Beijing has also been building up its naval presence in the region. Under the aegis of anti-piracy, China has dispatched more than 20 naval missions to distant regions in the Indian Ocean since 2008 and has recently set out to construct its first overseas naval installation in Djibouti in the strategic Horn of Africa.

India views China’s growing clout in the Indian Ocean with wary eyes. The OBOR initiative has failed to alleviate India’s suspicions. India has been reluctant to publicly endorse the project and has proposed its own ambitious initiatives, like the Spice Route, instead. India has also adopted a more assertive maritime security posture.

The United States is an enduring stakeholder in the region. Washington has critical economic interests in the area given that Asia has been its biggest commercial partner since 2013. The United States cannot afford to lose strategic ground in this emerging hot spot. Accordingly, the United States has embarked on its Asia Pivot strategy, underpinned by the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

For now, the outlook for mutually beneficial Sino–US–Indian cooperation seems bleak. Sino–Indian relations are marred by longstanding suspicion, while US–China ties are troubled by disputes in the South China Sea. But there is a way forward to harmonious coexistence in the Indian Ocean community of nations. It goes through the tiny but strategic island of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is accustomed to balancing between powerful international actors. Sri Lanka has long relied on loans from the Bretton Woods institutions that came with strict conditions. After the Sri Lankan civil war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was attracted to the no-strings attached loans offered by Beijing. China’s postwar support totaled US$6.1 billion, more than that from the United States, India and Japan combined. In return, China pushed for large infrastructure development initiatives, including the Hambantota Port and the Mattala Airport.

Sri Lanka’s seemingly inevitable drift into Beijing’s arms became known as the ‘Colombo Consensus’. The January 2015 presidential election marked the end of this era and the start of a new Colombo consensus.

Under the new consensus, relations between Colombo and Washington received a boost as leading US officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Ambassador Samantha Power, visited Sri Lanka and the USS Blue Ridge made a stopover in Colombo. Sri Lanka–India ties also took an amicable turn with reciprocal visits between Sirisena and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Chinese presence did not vanish from the island either: following a yearlong suspension, the US$1.4 billion Colombo Port City project was successfully renegotiated and its implementation will continue.

Sri Lanka has managed to strike a balance that accommodates the United States, China and India. Chinese access to Sri Lanka is ensured by the Beijing-financed Hambantota and Colombo Port projects, as well as the development of banking services for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. India is moving ahead with an oil storage facility in the vicinity of Trincomalee while a bilateral Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement continues to provide the United States with a lasting presence on the island. It is clear that in the post-Rajapaksa era, Colombo aims not to grant dominance to any of these three major stakeholders.

Sri Lanka is not the only country to adopt this strategy. Sri Lanka’s position is indicative of an emerging new Indo-Pacific order, where regional countries seek to remain strategically neutral while selectively engaging with the major powers in order to serve their own interests. Sri Lanka’s case suggests that smaller countries are anything but helpless in evolving great power dynamics. On the contrary, by compelling great powers to accept each other’s presence they can serve as catalysts in promoting a harmonious regional order in the Indo-Pacific region.

Patrick Mendis is a Rajawali senior fellow of the Kennedy School of Government’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University.

Dániel Balázs is a graduate student of International Relations at Tongji University in Shanghai. The views expressed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of their affiliated institutions.


Massacre, memory and the wounds of 1965

Doubts and divisions emerge from symposium on the country’s notorious 1965 killings. Yet, there is still hope for reconciling a haunting past.

No one disputes the “National Symposium on the 1965 Tragedy” (Jakarta, 18-19 April 2016) was a historic milestone in Indonesia’s struggle to come to terms with its darkest history, the anti-communist bloodbath from late 1965. However, few can agree what to make of it, how to respond to the initiative, and what to expect from it. The event was full of ambiguities and contradictions that got lost in most reports and commentaries in international and English media.
                                     Read the book available in both English and Bahasa Indonesia

The event was jointly sponsored and organised by unlikely partners: military officers within the government and its strongest critics.  One lesson I took from being an invited speaker (the only one from outside Indonesia)  was that the Symposium manifested, more clearly than ever before, doubts, indecisiveness and divisions both within the country’s political elite, as well as among their critics and human rights activists over what to do with the haunting past, and how to move forward toward some kind of closure.

Notwithstanding the enigmas, the Symposium deserves congratulations for being the first national forum, broadcast live for the global audience, where elements from extremely diverse parties exchanged views. More importantly, there was a common commitment from each party to listen attentively to unpleasant views from other parties.

Exceptions to such novel civility existed. They were rare, including a minor and inconsequential incident, or another that requires further scrutiny. For instance, the audience jeered and interrupted when anti-communist poet Taufiq Ismail read sloganeering poetry about the communist cruelty. In opening the Symposium two retired generals made highly provocative remarks.

Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Security Affairs, Luhut Panjaitan, declared in a loud and commanding voice that there was no way for his government to offer an apology to the victims of the 1965 massacre. He questioned the widely held view of the large number of victims of the massacre (between half to one million). Supporting his statement was his senior Sintong Panjaitan who spoke next. In contrast, to its reaction to poet Ismail, the audience held breath as the two former generals spoke and immediately launched a series of counter-statements.

Their statements flew in the face of the statement presented just minutes earlier by Lieutenant General (Ret) Agus Widjojo, chair of the advisory council for the Symposium. With admirable humility and open-mindedness, Widjojo invited all participants to speak frankly and truthfully, to be prepared to listen to differences and to work collaboratively to seek the best possible scenario that all victims deserve.

One of the most liberal minded officers among his rank, Widjojo was the key initiator of the Symposium. Another key person behind the Symposium, senior politician Sidarto Danusubroto, closed the event with extremely promising statements, in line with those of Widjojo at the outset.

But bad news makes good news. It was the statements from the two Panjaitans that most attracted reporters and commentators in the international media for many days that followed. Such reports suggest the Symposium was a complete sham, or one that was designed to fail. If so, why did the government bother to sponsor it in the first place? Black-and-white journalist reporting is ill-prepared to answer such a question.

As Luhut Panjaitan entered his car and was about to leave the venue, he softened his stance to activists who challenged his statement. He indicated a commitment to visiting the mass graves of the 1965 massacres. Days later, his position softened even further when the President instructed him to be more open to the issue. In less than a week, he said a formal state apology was under serious consideration.

Binary opposites of good versus bad was the dominant perspective at the height of the Cold War leading to the 1965 massacre. This legacy remains alive today and is not confined among international observers of Indonesia. Objection to the Symposium was made by those on the extreme right and left of Indonesia’s contemporary political spectrum.

A number of human rights activists and advocates for the 1965 victims criticised the Symposium. Some suspected it was a government ploy to whitewash and self-exonerate. Others called for a boycott, and called fellow activists traitors for attending.

At the other end of the political spectrum, an anti-communist militia organisation, Front Pancasila, denounced the symposium, calling it a communist event. They vowed to mobilise their mass supporters to disrupt the gathering. They did come to the heavily guarded venue, only to be quickly pushed away by the police after some brawls.

Internal sources told me that the army was very unhappy with the Symposium. Top officers reprimanded Luhut’s for opening the event, calling Agus Widjojo a communist (despite his being a son of a general killed by the left-leaning movement in 1965) and demanded the Symposium be cancelled. Some senior military officers scheduled to speak, including one on my panel, did not show up.

The bits and pieces of contradictory information available at the moment lead me to reread Luhut’s oscillating position. When opening the Symposium, I think Luhut spoke not so much to the audience in front of him, but to the military outside the venue as his target audience, restoring his questioned loyalty to the corps. He may be more concerned with his own career and reputation than the 1965 issue or how it can be resolved.

If forced, he would soften his stance quickly, and move into a safe zone under President Widodo’s more liberal policy. Likewise, if circumstances demand, he would work with human rights activists, but prefers that the latter to do the dirty and difficult work of collecting evidence of the crimes of the state.

This is to ensure that he would remain acceptable to those in opposition to the revelation of truth of the 1965 massacre, and all the consequences that might follow from such revelation.

Ariel Heryanto is Professor at the Australian National University’s School of Culture, History and Language. He was an invited speaker at the two-day symposium on Indonesia’s mass killings, “Dissecting the 1965 tragedy”. 

Indonesian peasant women concrete their own feet for 36 hours in front of Palace to save their farms and local environment from a cement factory

Cementing dissent in Indonesia

                   Female peasants protesting in front of the state palace

A dramatic demonstration in Jakarta that saw peasant women concrete their own feet for 36 hours to save their farms and local environment from a cement factory.

The accelerating rate of land and resource dispossession in post-authoritarian Indonesia has led to a number of confrontations between state and corporate authorities on one side and peasant communities on the other.

Many of these conflicts, though garnering much attention from sympathetic activists, remain localised. However, there are moments when peasants and their activist allies decide to scale up their direct action.

This can be seen in the recent protest of nine female peasants – famously known as the Kartinis – from Rembang regency in Central Java. After travelling over 500 kilometres to protest in front of the State Palace in Jakarta, they decided to cement their feet in opposition of the ongoing construction of a cement factory by the state-owned PT Semen Indonesia in their hometown.

The purpose was to halt the construction of the cement plant and have a dialogue with President Jokowi. It is a part of their longer-term strategy, stretching back to the early days of the plant’s construction in June, 2014. Approximately 680 days have passed since then.

According to Joko Prianto aka Prin, one of the protest coordinators, for almost two years protesting citizens have faced all sorts of threats and persecution from authorities, including being threatened by police and military officers as well as hired thugs. This time, they decided to voice their grievances directly in front of the State Palace because they felt that the government did not pay enough attention to their cause — in fact, the protest site is very near to the famous Kamisan human rights weekly demonstration held every Thursday.

The latest act was not their first demonstration in Jakarta. Last year, the citizens also staged a protest in front of the palace by making noise using alu and lesung – the traditional rice grinder and its mortar.

I had the privilege to observe and participate in the second day of this historic protest on Wednesday, 13 April. This session lasted until 5.50 pm, when the protesters decided to break the cement blocks off their feet.

Organisations whose representatives and activists were present included the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation (LBH Jakarta), the Alliance of Indigenous People of the Archipelago (AMAN), the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), Migrant Care, the Indonesian Labour Union of Transportation-Struggle (SBTPI), the Confederation of All-Indonesia Workers’ Unions (KSPI), IndoPROGRESS, Perempuan Mahardhika, Jaringan Gusdurian, Politik Rakyat, and the National Student League for Democracy (LMND), among others.

Representatives from the National Human Rights Commissions (Komnas HAM) and the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan) were also present. Despite their different emphases, these speakers essentially underlined similar points: the importance of peasant livelihoods, the rights of local communities as citizens, and environmental sustainability.

Two national MPs, Irma Chaniago from NasDem and Siti Mukaromah from the moderate Islamic PKB, were also present at the protest site and expressed their support for the protesters. On the first day of the protest, two high-ranking state officials, the President’s Executive Office Chief of Staff Teten Masduki and the Minister of State Secretary Pratikno also paid a visit to the protesters. Activists took this gesture with a grain of salt. Some even greeted it with suspicion. Considering the government’s continuing lack of attention to agrarian issues, such a critical stance is understandable.

But nothing is more powerful than the message from the protesters themselves, who reminded the establishment about the destruction that the cement plant will bring to their livelihood and the environment.

It is important to note however that despite all the excitement, the protesting crowd remained relatively small. Many of the sympathetic activists and middle-class allies, who knew about the protest from word of mouth and social media, know each other. Perhaps this is indicative of the lack of public awareness of the severity of agrarian problems in contemporary Indonesia.

This lack of public awareness notwithstanding, the acuteness of agrarian conflicts in post-authoritarian Indonesia has increased in the last seven years. According to the Consortium for Agrarian Reform’s (KPA) 2014 year-end report, during the second term of the Yudhoyono Presidency (2009-2014) agrarian conflicts involving peasant communities and state and corporate authorities had increased more than five times, from 89 cases in 2009 to 472 cases in 2014. These conflicts spanned across an area of more than 2.8 million hectares in 2014.

KPA also reports that throughout 2015, the first year of Jokowi’s presidency, there were at least 250 cases of agrarian conflicts in an area of 400,000 hectares. A series of working papers from another agrarian studies think-tank, Sajogyo Institute, also records different forms of multi-layered dispossession in numerous rural communities throughout Indonesia. This does not mean that success stories of peasant struggle are entirely absent. However, success stories remain few in number, and small and local in scale.

Given this bleak situation, the only logical collective response from Indonesian agrarian and peasant movements seems to be to build lower-class social movements and multi-sectoral alliances with other marginalised social forces. With the fragmentation and patronage that characterises Indonesian civil society, efforts to build such a movement are a Herculean task. But it is not totally impossible.

The courageous and exemplary action of the female peasants of Kendeng Mountains – the Kartinis – are an important step to revitalise peasants’ struggle for livelihood. While their small act of protest does not necessarily change the current situation, it at least keeps the struggle alive.

Iqra Anugrah is a PhD candidate in Political Science and Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University. He writes his dissertation on the politics of elite-peasant relations in post-authoritarian Indonesia. He is also an editor for IndoPROGRESS, an online journal connecting progressive scholars and activists in Indonesia.