Tuesday, April 27, 2010

As riots return to Indonesia the Government needs to reflect

Within two weeks, two riots — the worst since the 1998 unrests — occurred in Indonesia. The first one began in the capital Jakarta, when the people of Koja, North Jakarta, clashed with officers of the City Public Order Agency on April 14, claiming three lives and injuring more than 100 people. The clash was triggered by the forced attempted removal of the people and illegal buildings at Muslim historical figure Arif Billah Hasan bin Muhammad Al Haddad or Mbah Priuk memorial complex. The site, which has been subject to a land dispute between state-owned PT Pelindo and heirs of Mbah Priuk, is regarded as sacred by local residents.

On April 22, another riot of a different nature broke out at a shipyard in Batam Island, Riau. Angered by racist remarks that “Indonesians are stupid” allegedly made by an Indian expatriate, thousands of dock workers ran amok and set fire to 20 cars and three buildings.

The two riots might have been triggered by a different set of problems. However, the manifest outbursts pointed to one particular situation. They constituted an expression of anger by the “little people” (orang kecil) against those who asserted their “superiority” in an acceptable way. They also reflected public frustration at those who imposed their “authority” with little or no regard for the orang kecil.
The two incidents should be taken by the government as an early warning sign that social tension remains a challenge that requires serious attention. The two unrests over the last weeks clearly indicate the susceptibility of Indonesia’s society to violent means in addressing problems at hand.

Indeed, when the people and state apparatus begin to clash violently, the government should start wondering about what is going wrong in a country that boils people’s emotions. We are often told that Indonesians are generally able to exercise patience and restraint, and they do not easily resort to violence. They often prefer musyawarah (dialogue) over physical confrontation. However, the last two riots, and many other incidents of violence over the last 14 years, seem to suggest the contrary.

In this regard, when elements of society begin to resort to violence in expressing their grievances, the government should start looking at itself before blaming the people. Many instances of wrongdoings by state apparatus are abundant. Corruption, for one, continues to insult the public sense of justice. The recent corruption cases within the tax office, for example, clearly demonstrate the magnitude of the problem in Indonesia.

It would be hard to explain to the dock workers in Batam, or to the people of Koja in North Jakarta, why some state officials can live a luxurious life. It would be even harder to explain to them what is happening with our law enforcement agencies and justice institutions. In such a context, it is hard to blame the people if their trust of state institutions begins to diminish, and be replaced by a sense of frustration.

Growing public frustration often constitutes a recipe for unrest. Within a society where public trust on law enforcement agencies is low, it is only a matter of time before the people begin to resort to their own sense of justice. If and when that happens, public order, and indeed the foundation of the state, will encounter an alarming situation.

It is not too late for the government to address the situation and improve the people’s trust again. The first step toward that direction requires a serious effort at reforming the National Police, the Attorney General’s Office and the Supreme Court. The government needs to ensure that the public can rely on these three institutions whenever they seek justice.

The government needs also to re-educate state apparatus about the nature of their work. They are there to serve the people. It is true that the state has the authority to use force in order to carry out its function.
However, the use of force must be the last resort after all other non-violent means are exhausted. Within a democratic society, state apparatus should understand that public consultation, respect of the people and people’s involvement in the policy process, must prevail.

President Susilo Bambang Yu-dhoyono has made it clear that greater anticorruption efforts are the promise of his second term. For that, he has also ordered state institutions be “cleaned” of corrupt people. Now the people are waiting for the President to carry out his promise in a more forceful manner.

By Rizal Sukma executive director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta.

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