Thursday, December 27, 2012

The evolution of perceived threats: Communism, terrorism and intolerance

I’m not sure whether the commander of Military District IV/Diponegoro, Maj. Gen. Hardiono Saroso, was joking when earlier this month he warned the long defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) not to revive or he would “steadfastly annihilate” them. Gen. Saroso observed that recently there had been public statements trying to reframe the history of the PKI uprising in 1965.

From his sources, Gen. Saroso indicated that former PKI members were trying to revitalize the ideology despite it not having the strength to exist as a public movement (Solo Pos, Dec. 17, 2012).

Gen. Saroso’s antipathy was justified 30 years ago when there was a bipolar world system: the western, United States-led, democratic capitalist bloc against the communist bloc under the Soviet Union.

However, by now his hostility should be in a museum of the Cold War. An irrational fear of communism after the collapse of the Soviet Union is a hangover from another world.

However, as official policy and perhaps to control the public, Indonesia’s phobia of communism is still very much alive, more than 20 years after the Berlin Wall crumbled.

Here, communism is depicted as brutal and atheistic, rather than what it purports to be: An ideology that claims to stand for common ownership and a classless society.

If the Indonesian people agree with the Constitution’s Article 3 (2) “Sectors of production which are important for the country and affect the life of the people shall be under the powers of the State” and Article 3 (3) “The land, water and natural resources within shall be under the powers of the State and shall be used to the greatest benefit of the people” they could be regarded as to some extent agreeing with communists.

 If they support the fuel subsidy and minimum wage then they share inherently communist views, or at least a rejection of unbridled free-market, competitive capitalism.

Yet they do not believe they agree in any way with communists because communism is something to be feared.

We have never been more suspicious and threatened by a bag left unattended as we are today.

There is a reason why public fear exists. Public fear is used to control a society to get it to behave in a certain way. Edward Ross in his book, Social Control: A Survey of the Foundation of Order (1901, reprinted 2009) illustrated that there were three elements that worked together in shaping social control: the doer, the sufferer and the
spectator (p. 61-3).

In the rhetoric of defending against the latent threat of communism the doer is one who warns of the threat; the sufferer is the person flagged as a communist while their family is immediately tainted and even if they denounce the ideology they are still stigmatized; and the spectator is the general public who might swing for or against the ideology.

In the contemporary post 9/11 era, public fear is projected against terrorism. The tightening of security at airports and public buildings, special police and military units to counterterrorism, and public announcements warning of the threat of terrorism.

We have never been more suspicious and threatened by a bag left unattended as we are today. The bag’s contents might vary from old unwanted clothes, a stash of bribe money or a ticking bomb, but how real does the fear feel?

Fear feels so real that people agree to pay to avoid it.

To contain communism, the United States spent US$13 billion (1948-1951) and to counter terrorism it spent another $1.3 trillion (2001-2011, US Congressional Research Service data). Whether higher costs are correlated with higher safety is still debatable, one thing is for sure, spending money on a cause erases the guilty feeling of not doing anything.

Yet, it is also necessary to understand that not every country or entity has such disposable funds. What are readily available are disposable counterthreats to repel the source of the threat before it manifests itself. Gen. Saroso showed this by his act of threatening those who plan to revive the PKI.

What he did is similar to the warning on cigarette packaging; this is called the “deterrence effort”. Again the effectiveness of deploying threats is impossible to measure but at least there is the feel-good effect of doing something.

The feel-good effect of doing something might also be the background of intolerance. Groups such as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) and several other conservative groups are now more vocal in presenting their antipathy to those having different beliefs or to those acting in a manner of which they disapprove.

These groups use the perceived threat that those who are different from them will have a bad influence on society. Their disapproval is manifested both in verbal threats and acts of violence.

According to a Setara Institute report released on Dec. 17, 2012, the number of incidents of religious intolerance is increasing, from 135 cases in 2007 to 264 cases this year.

This doubling shows us that the Indonesian population is learning from the cowboy acts of security actors and the impunity they possess, to escape punishment or even an obligatory apology for discriminatory remarks or actions they made in the past.

If this situation is not handled, other parts of society will feel threatened by the ultra-conservative groups and create their own ultras.

Of course it is natural to demand that the President do something about this situation as he is regarded as looking on impassively. Although, to the contrary, according to the Setara report, government officials have made statements that encourage violence and have issued discriminatory policies.

The cycle of violent threats should end somewhere. Maybe this is the time that we should be brave enough to follow the example of former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid who acknowledged that the mass killings of 1966 victimized PKI members, their families and innocent people.

Gus Dur also offered his controversial public apology via state television TVRI in March 2000. As a country why is it that, after a decade, Indonesia can so easily fall back to anger and away from forgiveness?
Fitri Bintang Timur, Singapore associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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