Thursday, February 16, 2012

Mobocracy Rules in Indonesia, Where the Government Hasn’t Earned Respect

Last weekend, a large Dayak crowd assembled at Palangkaraya Airport in Central Kalimantan to impede the arrival of top leaders from the Islamic Defenders Front, who were on their way to the province to attend an opening ceremony of their new branch there.

In an ironic twist, the leaders of hard-line organization, who are usually not shy about using mass action to cause societal disruptions, were the ones who cried foul this time. They even demanded an investigation of the conduct of the Central Kalimantan governor and the provincial police chief.

While many activists lauded the comeuppance at the expense of the group known as the FPI, people should actually be concerned. The reason this turn of events should worry Indonesians is that apparently it takes a village (with a nod to US Foreign Affairs Minister Hillary Clinton) to stand up to this violent mass organization.

It took nothing less than a group of Dayaks, who have a reputation as fierce, head-hunting warriors infamous for massacring Madurese people in Central Kalimantan during the tumultuous period after the fall of Suharto, to make people think of doing something about the FPI.

Last month, after FPI supporters attacked the building housing the Home Affairs Ministry over a decision to alter several regional bylaws concerning the sale and distribution of alcohol, the minister threatened to disband the organization. But nothing came of the threat. Only the Dayaks seem to be able to put a stop to the FPI.

Why has the government not launched an initiative to solve this problem of violent mass organizations that are out of control?

“Strong backers” is one of the most-quoted reasons for the government’s deplorable responses to the antics of such groups. Some of the mass organizations have their roots in the New Order era, with various vested interests guarding them. Many also emerged in the years after Suharto stepped down; their setup was backed by disgruntled generals who did not like where the country was going. Sometimes they were funded with foreign money, as noted in many excellent briefings authored by Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group.

The mass organizations, however, would not have lasted long if politicians had no use for them. They are mostly used for helping the politicians garner votes, and they are particularly helpful when someone contesting an election is virtually unknown among the electorate. One survey estimates only 10 percent of the population knows who their legislative representatives are. As a result, these mass organizations play a critical role for politicians on the campaign trail.

What our lawmakers do not realize is that by cultivating those violent mass organizations, Indonesia has initiated a vicious cycle. The country is descending into a “mobocracy,” where it takes a mob to get something done, often to the detriment of the country’s interests as a whole. By promoting often-violent mass organizations, they are together building the proverbial doomsday machine, brilliantly illustrated in Stanley Kubrik’s “Dr. Strangelove.”

Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy about the Soviet Union building a machine that would trigger a series of nuclear explosions to annihilate life on earth should the United States decide to use a nuclear device against it. Theoretically, the device is perfect, in that the United States would essentially commit suicide by bombing the Soviet Union, thus preventing the Americans from attacking.

Yet, the planner did not envision there would be an American insane enough to actually bomb the Soviet Union, by exploiting a loophole in the chain of command, leaving the US government scrambling to stop the destruction of the Soviet Union — and the world.

The same logic is at play in Indonesia today. But rather than the government being caught unaware of a critical loophole, our march toward doomsday seems a natural outcome of the ineffective, tone-deaf government itself. Instead of listening to the people’s complaints about organizations like the FPI and taking appropriate action, the government does nothing. Officials do, however, find time to compose feel-good music albums (e.g. the president’s “Harmony”) and create ineffective band-aid programs such as the Pancasila education initiative, which do not address the root of the problem.

At the same time, the House of Representatives, instead of listening to the needs of the people, indulges itself in an orgy of spending, wasting the state budget on luxurious furniture and useless study trips. The notoriously corrupt law enforcement system fiddles while the country burns. The courts dole out questionable verdicts, such as a six-month jail sentence to of the Ahmadiyah victims of last year’s attack in Cikeusik, Banten.

Seeing that the government, the law enforcement apparatus and the legislature are not responsive to any complaints — unless the complainants are powerful, well-connected rich people, public figures or a mob — people simply create mass organizations, violent or not. Regardless of whether they have legitimate grievances, people have started to realize that in order to be heard by the government, one needs a mob.

In Indonesia, arguments that in countries with functioning democracies would be settled in court and enforced by the government are left to spiral out of control. The dispute over the regional minimum wage in the Cikarang industrial estate led to the blocking of the toll road between Jakarta and Bandung, crippling the major transportation artery and costing businesses billions of rupiah in lost revenues. Said Iqbal, president of the National Wage Council, was quoted by Tempo as bluntly telling Coordinating Minister for the Economy Hatta Rajasa the logic behind the blockade. “Because we shut down the toll gates, you summoned us, right?” Said said.

In Bandung, in order to prevent being evicted by a building owner, the mass organization known as Gibas recently led a blockade of a main thoroughfare. In Bogor, radical Muslim groups such the Indonesian Muslim Communication Forum (Forkami) and Islamic Reform Movement (Garis) have barred the GKI Yasmin congregation from worshipping in their own church building, even though the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the church.

With the wheel of Indonesian bureaucracy always grinding slowly thanks to massive amounts of red tape, indecision, finger-pointing and even plain indifference, the people’s trust in the state and the rule of law is steadily declining.

While the government beats its chest for achieving 6.6 percent economic growth in 2011, this is still far below Indonesia’s real potential. Many domestic and international investors remain wary of long-term investment in Indonesia due to the potential instability that is solely to blame on the proliferation of violent organizations and uncontrolled mobs. By Yohanes Sulaiman |Jakarta Globe Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University (Unhan).

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