Monday, February 15, 2016

Indonesia Academic freedom post-Soeharto: Not much better

There have been several threats to academic freedom in the last five years. The grounds of a university campus are no longer considered as a place of academic freedom and are often accused of involvement in human rights violations.

The latest incident was the banning of a discussion on Feb. 1 on the 1965 International People’s Tribunal (IPT) at Gadjah Mada University (UGM), apparently in response to threats from hardline groups who object to the advocacy of justice for victims of the 1960s political upheaval.

Many other universities in Indonesia have also banned controversial academic meetings or discussions.

Based on my research, there are three major factors behind the recent assault on academic freedoms. First, the New Order’s authoritarian legacy of the communism stigma, perceived as an ideological conflict.

Screenings of The Look of Silence (Senyap), a film by Joshua Oppenheimer, were canceled, disrupted or banned at several universities in Yogyakarta, Malang and Surabaya among others. The former ban on John Roosa’s book Pretext for Mass Murder also reflected a similar kind of suppression attempt against the opportunity to discuss the chapters of history.

Second, the academic world here has been controlled by corporation and capital owners. This can be seen in the dissolving and banning of documentary screenings, such as the ban against screening Samin vs Semen, a film about a local rejection of the cement industry, by Brawijaya University in Malang, East Java, and Prahara Tanah Bongkoran, a film looking into a land dispute, at Universitas 17 Agustus 1945 Banyuwangi, East Java. Discussions of the Semarang administrative court ruling on a lawsuit related to Rembang residents and PT Semen Indonesia, planned for July 2015, was also banned by UGM.

Third, the use of the penal code, a colonial legacy, to silence criticism. This is most often used against human rights movements or in the face of anti-corruption criticism. Reports of defamation were filed in February last year by the South Jakarta District Court judge, Sarpin Rizaldi, against academics of Andalas University in Padang, West Sumatra, and also a professor of the Padjadjaran University, Bandung, due to their criticism of the judge’s ruling.

In Banda Aceh early last year, the lecturer Rosnida Sari was suspended by the Ar-Raniry State Islamic University following reports of her method of teaching tolerance by bringing students to a church, where a pastor explained to them gender relations in Christianity.

Unfortunately, the increasing threats have not significantly galvanized efforts to protect academic freedom — including among university management. Instead they stand by or impose bans and cancelations.

Such threats are inseparable from the political economic context of post authoritarian periods.

As described by Human Rights Watch back in 1998, academic freedom in Indonesia was suppressed, along with freedom of expression and political activity, as a result of universities’ ideological ties to anti-communism and indoctrination involving loyalty to the regime — leading to book bans, repression, criminalization and dismissal of students, university management and lecturers perceived to have leftist political leanings.

In addition, military intervention on campus included repressive measures against campus organizations. Disciplining the student movement through NKK (normalization of campus life) in the late 1970s became effective to weaken political mobilization on campus.

After the fall of Soeharto’s New Order regime, the campus atmosphere did not change dramatically into a more open and democratic space. Indoctrination still readily occurs and ranges from personal pressure to institutionalized efforts to discourage critical thinking. Indeed, the military no longer intervenes directly with campus life.

However, the attacks of paramilitary groups or thugs on academic fora have driven universities into the prohibition and banning of academic functions. Several cases have shown campuses try to establish “stability” so as to prevent provocation of such groups. As a result, campuses are no longer bastions of freedom, but have become stooges of thuggish repression.

 In November a discussion on the lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender community (LGBT) was banned at the Faculty of Law, University of Diponegoro in Semarang, and at the Brawijaya University in Malang. Meanwhile, the International Youth Forum 2015 titled “The rights of minorities in a globalized world” was also banned. In December, the rector of the University of Lampung in Bandar Lampung, Hasriadi Mat Akin said staff and students involved in LGBT activities would be dismissed. All this reflects the weak connection of the academic sphere to social problems.

 Following reports of a support center for LGBT at the University of Indonesia last month, even the Research, Technology and Higher Education Minister Muhammad Nasir stated that members of the LGBT community should be barred from campus. He said, as guardians of morality, universities should uphold the “noble values” of Indonesia. Such a statement is not only a violation of rights, but worse, it provokes ammunition against academic freedom.

The academic world is steadily distancing itself from its fundamental role in defending virtues and the pursuit of truth, not to mention its role as an agent of social change.

Further, scholars like C. Suwanwela note how liberal economies require the privatization of education as well as the commercialization of campuses in the name of autonomy, leading to a new model of pressure on academic freedom.

This was evident in the above examples involving corporate interest, including the cancelation of the aforementioned film screening and discussions on campuses in Malang and Surabaya of Samin vs Semen and Alkinemokiye about Freeport mining workers, both produced by the documentary production center Watchdoc.

As Michel Foucault famously wrote, the academia reproduces power through its creation of the “regime of the truth”.

Deficit of academic freedom has not only shown campus insensitivity over issues of human rights; academic institutions are now involved in human rights violations.

The writer
Herlambang P. Wiratraman,  is a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, the Airlangga University in Surabaya, and Chairperson of Indonesian Lecturers’ Association for Human Rights (SEPAHAM).

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