University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Peter van Tuijl

As general elections in Indonesia approach in April 2019, Indonesian civil society is facing significant challenges in promoting peace and human rights. The social and political space to promote a principled politics based on universal values is narrowing, as recent events and debates make painfully clear.

Representative government presupposes a dynamic interaction between the political system and civil society. But what if a significant part of the associational dimension of citizenry is taking on undemocratic and non-inclusive views? This creates difficult dilemmas for those who care for minorities and aim to play a positive role in strengthening social cohesion and accountability across different communities and establishing the public domain as a subject of democratic process.

Indonesian civil society is extensive and consists of a great variety of organizations—local, professional, intermediary and mass-based. It has a history of fighting for human rights in conjunction with fighting for democracy during the extended regime of President Suharto (1966-1998). After the fall of Suharto, civil society established itself in the “reformasi” era as an ongoing factor in Indonesian political life. Key normative notions that emerged from civil society found their way in new institutions. The growth and impact of the Indonesian Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) is unthinkable without its underpinnings and the active ongoing support of Indonesian civil society. Social engagement and grassroots activism also made significant contributions to settling several violent conflicts in different regions of Indonesia, including Aceh and Ambon.

While the contribution of Indonesian civil society to democratic change, justice, and peace is widely acknowledged, less progress has occurred in human rights and the pursuit of truth and reconciliation, as evidenced by a number of unresolved cases, foremost the massive killings that took place from 1965 to 1966. Moreover, identity politics has entered Indonesia, with a surge in promoting Muslim identity for political mobilization at the expense of religious and sexual minorities. Violent extremism is an equally serious problem, with an intermittent but ongoing stream of small and large terrorist attacks since 2002.

When the elections for Governor of Jakarta in 2017 demonstrated the potential of Muslim mobilizing to unseat the Chinese-Christian governor Ahok, the Indonesian Government adopted a higher-profile response strategy. The cornerstone of its identity-oriented response is a revival of Indonesia’s state philosophy of Pancasila: five principles formulated by Indonesia’s founding fathers, embedded in the preamble of the 1945 Constitution, including the belief in one God. At the same time, a combination of soft and hard approaches is being used in response to violent extremism, as part of a vaguely systemic approach to reduce the risk of Indonesia being overthrown by those who support an Islamic state.

In July 2017, two months after the Jakarta election, the Indonesian government decided to prohibit the Indonesian Chapter of Hizbut Tahrir (HTI). The reason given was that HTI’s aspiration to establish an Islamic State runs counter to Pancasila. The government used the Law on Mass-Based Organizations (ORMAS) as a legal basis and pronounced its decision by means of a presidential regulation that enables the Ministry of Justice to disband civil organizations.

The government’s decision on HTI has split Indonesian civil society. On the one hand, some groups, including Amnesty International Indonesia, criticized the government as contradicting principles of human rights. On the other hand, groups working on issues of tolerance and extremism were inclined to show greater understanding and acceptance of the government’s decision, provided it is implemented in accordance with the law.

The different views in Indonesian civil society on the HTI case reveal dilemmas related to larger questions on the function of human rights versus democracy and the rule of law. To what extent can or should civil groups be allowed to propagate norms that may endanger peaceful relations in society? Is it proper to constrain freedom and rights if their application threatens to contradict other freedoms and rights and may lead to violence, or at least create an environment that may accommodate violence?

Rather than advocating principled politics and better public policies in a time of elections, Indonesian civil society ends up in a defensive position, criticizing intolerant or “uncivil society,” and fending off accusations of being anti-religious or even anti-Indonesian. The result of identity politics in Indonesia has been to limit the role of civil society as a constituent element of democracy.

Peter van Tuijl is Director of Nuffic Neso Indonesia and an occasional Visiting Scholar at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. The opinions expressed in this essay are personal and do not represent the views of Nuffic Neso Indonesia.