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The challenges of civil militarism for pluralism

The challenges of civil militarism for pluralism

Lee Wilson  and Lubendik   Lee Wilson is a research fellow in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland; 
Lubendik is a Masters student in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland
JAKATA POST, 05 Desember 2014


With their violent protests against the appointment of Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama as governor of Jakarta, the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) has once again made news headlines.

The swearing in of Ahok, an ethnically Chinese Christian, to the governorship by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo sends a clear message of pluralism to the Indonesian public.

It is a message that was lacking under the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and one that is to be warmly welcomed in the light of the recent history of religious and sectarian violence in Indonesia.

However, while the continued presence of militant organizations presents a significant challenge for pluralism in Indonesia, somewhat ironically it also suggests the possibility for a less violent future.

The FPI is the most infamous of the many ethnic and religious militias that now proliferate across Indonesia.

Yet surprisingly, in spite of the burgeoning numbers of these groups, analysis of data from the National Violence Monitoring System suggests an overall decline in levels of violence in Indonesia.

This declining trend in levels of violence may seem counterintuitive in the face of increased civil militarism, but it might also offer insight into aspects of Indonesian pluralism that many commentators have failed to appreciate.

The presence of militia groups has a long history in Indonesia. They were involved in the struggle for independence and non-state actors have long played a role in security provision.

Under the New Order, paramilitary organizations were used as a vehicle for engaging with and controlling the youth. 

With reformasi the role of these groups has changed.  It is no secret that these groups are often involved in extortion and linked to criminal networks.

However, Fauzi Bowo, the former governor of Jakarta, encouraged the participation of groups such as
Forkabi and Forum Betawi Rempug in security arrangements in Jakarta and the police regularly quell conflict in the capital with the aid of these groups.

In Bali members of militia groups have helped to maintain security during high profile events such as the Asia-Pacific Conference.

While a potential source of conflict, these groups also provide a means to contain and reduce violent clashes involving their members and in many cases work for the public good of their local communities.

The majority of the members of these groups are marginalized young men with limited education and little access to the benefits of living in one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

Membership offers them a sense of belonging, a support network and even a means of political representation. In many parts of Indonesia these militias are actively consolidating their democratic footprint in local elections.

These groups are becoming more civilized, and their continued presence raises the question of just what constitutes civil society, and indeed, acceptable modes of political engagement in the public sphere in Indonesia.

The government response has been to focus upon the violent threat these groups pose, and strengthen repressive legislation, the so-called mass organization bill, Law
No. 17/ 2013.

Yet in the absence of policy informed by analysis of the causes and extent of identity based violence, this appears to be little more than reactive government in response to high profile incidents of violence by groups such as the FPI.

Moreover, it ignores the “unofficial” processes through state and non-state actors often work to manage conflict in Indonesia.

Ahok has called for the FPI to be banned by the Home Ministry. The actions of the FPI should not be tolerated, and their civic right to exist as an organization should be withdrawn should they persist in their particular brand of violent exclusionary politics.

The Home Ministry has the authority to ban any organization seen to be hostile to others on the basis of ethnicity or religion. However, no action has yet been taken against the FPI despite their alleged involvement in sectarian and religious violence over the last few years. The FPI continues to harangue and publically threaten those that they deem to be anti-Islamic and Ahok is the first public figure to declare his intent to see the organization outlawed.

The FPI’s latest actions may finally spur the Home Ministry to act against them, especially if Ahok continues to push for the ministry to enforce its authority to disband the organization.

Nevertheless, if pluralism is to prevail it will not do so on the basis of rule of law alone. Even if better attempts were made to legislate mass organizations, this in many ways goes against the very values that Jokowi, by demonstrating his support for Ahok, is attempting to promote.

The basis of the mass organization legislation is to treat all societal groups as a threat to be overseen and regulated and the law thus threatens to erode relationships based upon trust between the state and its citizens.

The starting point for the possibility of Indonesia is diversity. It is religious, ethnic and cultural diversity that binds the country together. While identity-based politics are potentially divisive, at least on the face of things in Indonesia, there seems to be some basis for negotiating across difference and maintaining social order.

That this should be the case, in spite of the increased presence of militant organizations and the devolution of government authority, is a question that should be carefully considered by policy makers and proponents of Indonesian pluralism alike.
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