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Understanding violence against the left in Indonesia

Why do vigilante groups in Indonesia get away with harassing and threatening leftists? Courtesy of Belok Kiri Festival

Understanding violence against the left in Indonesia

Over the past year, public discussions and gatherings in Indonesia on left-wing ideas and the 1965 anti-communist purge, and even female punk groups have been forced to cancel or move to other venues due to pressure from radical religious groups.

In many cases, venue managers refuse to allow organisers to use their spaces, citing organisers not having permission from the local police. On the pretext of threats from religious vigilantes, police refuse to give permission or guarantee the safety of these events.

Indonesian law does not require organisers to acquire a police permit to hold a public event, but organisers need to inform the police of their plans. However, hardliners often use a 1966 regulation that bans communist and Marxist ideas to shut down public discussions.

These cases show that Indonesia still suffers from the legacy of former president Suharto’s black propaganda against Indonesia’s left. Suharto rose to power following the pogroms against Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members and sympathisers in 1965.

It also shows that even under Joko Widodo’s presidency, nearly 18 years after Suharto’s authoritarian rule ended, the use of violence and intimidation prevails in Indonesia.

Human rights activists and lawyers have pointed out that the attacks violate rights to freedom of expression guaranteed under Indonesia’s Constitution.

But tackling this issue purely through legal analysis and human rights discourse does not explain why the government has failed to fulfil its obligation to protect its citizens and ensure their freedom.

We should see the problem in context. Indonesia is a capitalist state that uses violence and intimidation exerted by non-state actors against a critical civil society as a means for political and business elites to maintain wealth and power.

Limitations of legal analyses and human rights disource

Legal perspective analyses identify weak law enforcement as the culprit in these attacks.

Human rights discourse, meanwhile, argues the attacks happen due to the state failing to guarantee and protect groups from social persecution. Rights activists also consider this failure to protect to be a human rights violation by omission.

Both argue that strengthening laws and the capacity of law enforcers will solve the problem of non-state violence.

But Indonesia still officially promotes the idea of communism as a threat. In addition to the regulation banning communist and Marxist ideas, the government has yet to acknowledge atrocities in the 1965 massacres.

This emboldens religious and nationalist groups, which were historically involved with the army in the anti-communist purge. Arguing that the state is not responsive in preventing the rise of “neo-communism”, they take the law into their own hands.

Legacy of historical violence

We should not assume vigilante groups are autonomous actors, separated from the state.

Violence against the left was part of the consolidation of state power by Suharto’s New Order regime. The 1965 purge marked the beginning of such consolidation. The army used religious and nationalist groups to carry out a witch-hunt against communists and their sympathisers.

The Indonesian state continues to target the left even in the current democratic period because an organised left concerned with economic redistribution may challenge the interests of political and business elites. Hence violence against the left is a means to maintain power and wealth for Indonesia’s politico-business alliance.

Reproducing the idea of the communist spectre, including through non-state violence, is a means to maintain such situations.

So far, there has been no significant punishment for the attacks by religious hardliners.

State officials share the same belief as hardline groups on the threat of a communist resurrection. Commenting on the International People’s Tribunal on Indonesia’s 1965 violence, Indonesian officials warned the public about the danger of the rise of a new form of communism. Widodo also rejected demands for an apology to the 1965 victims.

Left as a political challenge

Nevertheless, violence against the left in Indonesia should not be perceived as merely a problem of reconciling with the past. It is also not simply about discrimination against leftist groups and their rights to freedom of expression.

The social and political exclusion of the left means Indonesians experience an absence of radical challenge to the capitalist state and corrupt powerful elites.

Suharto was able to sustain his power for more than three decades due to this absence of political opposition. He eliminated the left, depoliticised Islamic organisations and created generations of apolitical citizens.

Even though Suharto is no longer in power, Indonesia has not yet managed to overturn his legacy.

Social activism in Indonesia still tends to be fragmented in term of issues and organisations. Many NGOs are detached from communities because their advocacy is often project-based. The masses in Indonesia largely remain apolitical.

Political parties have a weak social basis too. Money politics and “gangsterism” have become shortcuts to gain votes during election season.

In this kind of situation, people are easily mobilised for short-term and pragmatic purposes, including to attack public gatherings.

As a result, although Indonesians live with the facade of a democratic order, the same social and political circumstances rooted in the old authoritarian order still exist. Civil society is disorganised. Violence prevails. And corruption by political elites proliferates.