Does Indonesia need a tougher anti-terrorism law?

An Indonesian police officer secures the area following the May 14 bomb blast at police headquarters in Surabaya, East Java. Fully Handoko/EPA

Indonesia is hastening deliberations of an anti-terrorism bill, following a series of suicide bombings carried out by supporters of Islamic State in Surabaya, East Java, this month. The parliament is expected to pass the bill on Friday.

The new legislation will replace the current anti-terrorism law amid a strong public push in the world’s third-largest democracy to “strengthen the state” in countering terrorism. The largest national daily newspaper, Kompas, recently published a black front page displaying a headline “Time for the state to be firm”.

Police chief Tito Karnavian blamed the delay in passing a tougher anti-terrorism law for the force’s inability to prevent terrorist acts. He had asked the government to issue an anti-terrorism regulation in lieu of law (perppu) . President Joko Widodo had said that if the parliament failed to pass the anti-terrorism bill this month, the government would issue this new perppu.

But these are reactionary responses, which can be dangerous for Indonesian democracy. Such responses justify the strengthening of state power based on an alarmist understanding of the Islamist political movement. This may lead to stronger religious extremism, while increasing the potential for abuse of state power.

The emergence of Islamic extremism

Violent groups that attempt to establish an Islamic state indeed exist. But, so far, their presence is predominantly understood as simply a result of the rising influence of radical and intolerant ideas or due to weak state capacity. Many employ such alarmist understandings, including rights activists, but they neglect aspects of power and political conflict.

We argue that some individuals may turn to radical Islamic ideas in a setting where Islamic populist alliances have failed to seriously challenge the secular authority. An absence of alternative political movements, such as the organised left, that could further channel public dissent can also contribute to a setting ripe for religious radicalism.

Hence, as stated by political scientist John Sidel, religious extremism is a symptom of the weakness and fragmentation of Islamist political movements. It is also a reaction to political marginalisation and state repression.

In the case of Indonesia, Islamic extremism is a legacy of the repressive Soeharto era. Most of the current terrorists link up to the old members of the underground extremist group Darul Islam, which aims to establish an Indonesian Islamic state.

Responding to Islamic extremism with a stronger security approach may increase the degree of repression. Instead of stamping out terrorism, this could cause religious extremism to proliferate.

Contentious clauses

In our discussions with a number of rights activists, they said the draft legislation (April 17 2018 version) has accommodated most of the human rights principles of concern.

According to the parliament and the government, there is only one article left to be debated, which is about what constitutes terrorism.

The government proposed that terrorism be defined as “any deed that uses violence or threats of violence on a massive scale, and/or causes damage to strategic vital objects, the environment, public facilities or international facilities”. The House wants to limit the definition to acts that are based on “political and ideological motives and/or threats to state security”.

As with any expansion of state power, any definition could actually still be interpreted flexibly by the authorities.

In addition to the debate on the definition of terrorism, the bill contains provisions that could lead to abuses of power.

For example, Article 13A regulates hates speech, a type of offence that can be misused to target critics. The Law on Information and Electronic Transactions (ITE Law) has a provision banning this kind of offence, which has been used to jail people for expressing their thoughts on religious matters.

Further, the bill will allow police to keep someone accused of terrorism in custody for 14 days before being officially charged. This period of detention can be extended for an extra seven days. The current law allows only seven days of pre-charge custody.

The bill also allow police to keep a terror suspect in custody for a maximum 290 days after being officially charged. This is almost twice the period in the existing law, which is 180 days.

Extending the detention periods will increase the risks of torture in custody.

Lastly, the bill added a clause on bringing in the military to assist in anti-terrorism efforts. This will potentially create problems since the military’s nature is to paralyse and exterminate the state’s opponents.

Given its repressive nature, increasing the military’s role creates a greater chance of human rights violations. Consequently, civilian supremacy will be threatened, meaning Indonesia risks sliding back to military dictatorship.

Besides, with the existing law, the police have shown they can work effectively in domestic operations. Since 2002, when the first anti-terrorism law was enacted, until 2016, the annual number of terrorism incidents has decreased significantly from 43 to 19.

Do we need the tougher law?

While many rights activists are somewhat satisfied with the latest draft, the remaining problematic provisions show that the interests that wish to extend state authority have not been successfully challenged. It confirms the activists’ compromise with those complications as a consequence of their problematic assumptions in understanding terrorism.

As the bill represents a security approach to terrorism, it inherently equips the state with greater authority that could be misused to silence oppositions.

Indonesia’s history shows that abuses of power potentially come out of regulations that strengthen the state’s power over its citizens. The anti-subversion law is one example. Soeharto used this draconian law to silent political opposition.

A stronger security approach will likely be counterproductive in eradicating terrorism.

It exerts greater pressure and control not only over the acts but also the ideas that are believed as a source of religious extremism. Such an approach will create a deeper feeling of being politically marginalised, which is one of the main aspects that makes possible the emergence of religious terrorism.

It also leads to abuses of power that tend to repress critics and obstruct the emergence of alternative organised political movements. Indeed, the absence of such alternatives is another aspect that makes religious extremism more likely.

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