Indonesia and the Pacific

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7 November 2018

World’s first figurative art is of an unknown animal in Borneo

A landscape in Borneo

Borneo is home to the world’s oldest figurative art

Pindi Setiawanpainting

At first glance you might miss it. But a faint drawing of an unknown animal on a cave wall in a remote Borneo jungle is the oldest known figurative art. The painting was made at least 40,000 years ago, predating famous depictions of animals found on European caves and shaking up our understanding of the origins of art – a key innovation in human history.

The limestone caves of the remote East Kalimantan province of Borneo are adorned with thousands of images in three distinct styles: reddish-orange hand stencils and paintings of animals, purple hand stencils with intricate designs as well as human figures, and complex black depictions of humans, boats and geometric patterns. But the dates when these painting were created were a mystery.

“The art was discovered in the 1990s. We wanted to find out exactly how old it was,” says Maxime Aubert of Griffiths University in Queensland, Australia.

So he and his colleagues analysed the calcite layers covering the paintings. This crystalline material is deposited by dripping water and analysis of the uranium it contains gives a date for when the art beneath was created.

On a panel of depicting large reddish-orange wild-cattle, the researchers discovered that a faint animal had been drawn between 40,000 and 52,000 years ago. This makes it the oldest known figurative art and builds on the 2014 discovery of a hand stencil dating back at least 35,700 years on the neighbouring Indonesian island of Sulawesi. “It was quite amazing,” says Aubert.

A faint painted red animal

The world’s oldest figurative art

Luc-Henri Fage

The ability to depict real-life objects seems to have developed tens of thousands of years after humans first started to draw. The oldest drawing in the world is a 73,000 year-old crosshatch found in a South African cave. In Europe, the oldest art is also an abstract symbol of red lines and a hand stencil, made by Neanderthals around 65,000 years ago.

But these abstract designs are simpler than representational art, which makes the Borneo discovery particularly significant. “Figurative art is a more complex thing to do,” says Aubert.

The finding adds to the mounting evidence that Southeast Asia is a key site for the development of art, not just Europe as once thought. At the same time as art was developing in Europe, he says, “humans were making sophisticated paintings on the opposite side of the world.”

The researchers also found that the three different painting styles were created in three distinct phases, probably by different waves of people.

The purple-coloured painting style started around 20,000 thousand years ago. It is very different from the original reddish phase, depicting human figures with elaborate headdresses dancing and hunting, along with hand stencils decorated with geometric motifs, sometimes joined together by lines like a family tree.

The black paintings of people and boats are much more recent, and may be associated with the movement of Neolithic farmers into the region about 4,000 years ago.

The artists of all three phases are unknown. “That’s one of the big questions,” says Aubert, who plans to go back to Borneo next year to conduct archaeological investigations to find out more about these people.

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0679-9


Zulfiqar could have come home from Indonesia had the foreign ministry taken action

  • Rimmel Mohydin Dawn/ANN

Lahore, Pakistan | Mon, June 4, 2018 – published in


Zulfiqar could have come home from Indonesia had the foreign ministry taken action Zulfiqar Ali was taken into custody in Indonesia on drug-related charges back in 2004. (JPP/File)

It is an election year. You would think that the government would be all over an easy win.

Zulfiqar Ali offered that. An innocent Pak­istani citizen languishing on Indonesia’s death row on false drug charges needed saving. An Indonesian government inquiry concluded that he was innocent in 2010. After that, by any standard, he had no business being incarcerated let alone staying at risk of execution.

This was a diplomatic tour de force waiting to happen.

Bringing him home would be Pakistan showing the world the high value it places on the lives of its citizens, that no one could take away their right to a fair trial without consequences. It would have exemplified Pakistan’s diplomatic prowess. The government would have come across as assertive, responsible, sympathetic — everything you want to be seen as to get votes.

It wasn’t particularly difficult to do. The bulk of the work had been done. Were there enough eyes on the case? Yes. When Indonesia issued his execution warrants in July 2016, a relentless media campaign took root, invigorated by the outrage of Pakistan’s citizenry.

The noise was deafening and the right phone calls were made to Indonesia. Zulfiqar’s life was spared at the last moment, a feat that the governments of the other foreign nationals executed that night were unable to achieve.

He called me then, giddy. He said he had never felt more proud to be a Pakistani.

Was there a reasonable chance of success? Absolutely. President Joko Widodo had scheduled a trip to Pakistan in January 2018. We pounced and the campaign became too loud to ignore, including the voices of the then speaker of the National Assembly and the parliamentarian Shazia Marri.

On the day of President Widodo’s arrival, the then foreign minister tweeted that Zulfiqar’s case would be raised and made good on that promise. President Widodo promised to re-examine the case on humanitarian grounds. The intention had already been stated. It just had to be followed up — forcefully.

Was there any risk? No. Zulfiqar’s innocence had been confirmed by a fact-finding inquiry instituted by the former president of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. It had found conclusive signs of human rights abuses at every stage of his case, publicly confirmed by Hafid Abbas, a member of the inquiry team who authored the report.

And now he had terminal stage four liver cancer. He was a deeply unwell man — no threat to anyone.

The photo-op of Zulfiqar taking a flight back to Pakistan, with its leadership waiting at the tarmac would have played well. So well, we might have forgiven them for their indifference to his wrongful conviction for 14 years.

Fourteen years is a long time. When Zulfiqar was arrested, the president of Pakistan was Gen Musharraf, Facebook had just been created and Saddam Hussein was still on trial.

And yesterday, Zulfiqar died — innocent in truth, but still a convict by law.

Why did this happen? Was it incompetence? Or worse still, indifference? Bureau­cracy? Could it have been avoided at all?

Zulfiqar’s suffering on death row, culminating in his demise demonstrates the dangers of not having a consular protection policy. Without a clear set of protocols, that consular staff should be trained and obligated to follow, it is no surprise that Zulfiqar’s innocence was ignored for eight years, and his incarceration for 14.

When Zulfiqar was arrested, no one from the Pakis­tan embassy visited him. If they had, what they would have found would have astou­nded them. And what they saw, I have to believe, would have inspired action.

For three days after his arrest, he was kicked, pun­ched and threatened with death by the police to obtain the only piece of evidence against him: a self-incriminating torture-induced confession. The police have never found any material proof of his involvement.

He never recovered from the stomach and kidney injuries he suffered, despite emergency surgeries that, in a cruel twist, he had to pay for.

In Asma Shafi v. The Federation, Justice Mansoor Ali Shah repeatedly called on the foreign affairs ministry to present a consular policy. After years of litigation, the only thing the representatives from the ministry could produce was a set of guidelines. Guidelines that they were forced to create under orders from the Supreme Court in 2010, and that no one seems to follow.

The fact that after over 70 years of existence, the ministry is yet to devise a consular protection policy can only be a mark of cruel indifference. There are 9,360 Pakistanis in jails worldwide. Many of them are cases just like his.

Make no mistake, Zulfiqar dying the way he did is on the ministry of foreign affairs. They had the time, resources and the public support to take action. It was a win-win.

But if there’s no consular policy, the citizens of Pakistan can only lose.


The writer is head of communications for Justice Project Pakistan. Twitter: @Rimmel_Mohydin

This article appeared on the Dawn newspaper website, which is a member of Asia News Network and a media partner of The Jakarta Post



Indonesians take «concrete stand» against cement plant

5 April 2017

Farmers in Indonesia are resorting to extreme measures of protest to show the government how the construction of a cement factory will paralyse their lives.

Sticking their feet in cement and thus unable to move for days, the women behind the rallies are called the Kartinis of Kendeng – named after Indonesia’s most famous female fighter for women’s rights, Raden Adjeng Kartini.

The women say that cement factories built in the Karst Mountains in central Java will ruin their land and pollute their water-supply and irrigation systems.

«I will fight to my last drop of blood because our ancestors fought for this land for hundreds of years, and that’s why we now can enjoy the water and the fruits from this land,» Sukinah, a protest leader, said.

«We won’t allow it to disappear like that.»

Women say cement factories built in Karst Mountains will ruin their land [Bagus Indahono/EPA]

Kendeng Mountain is a part of the Karst Mountains that contains not only springs and underground rivers but also chalk that is used in the production of cement.

While smaller companies have been mining here for years, now larger ones are coming.

But the legal battle is ongoing.

READ MORE: Indonesian tribes rally for land rights

One factory was due to start production last November, until the Supreme Court revoked its permit, saying the company’s environmental programme was unclear.

The state governor re-issued the permit after PT Semen Indonesia nearly halved the area it planned to mine.

Environmental groups say the permit goes against the Supreme Court decision.

Then Indonesian President Joko Widodo intervened in the dispute and ordered a new environmental assessment.

Cement companies say factories will help develop impoverished region [Beawiharta/Reuters]

While the women fight to protect their land, the cement companies insist factories will help develop the impoverished region.

«At the national level, the mine and factory will help maintain Indonesia’s development and the demand for cement can be fulfilled,» said Heru Indra Wijayanto, project manager.

But while the company promises the factory will provide work for nearly 2,000 people, the farmers say their land can provide an income to many more.

«What we want to show is that Indonesia is being shackled by cement and by the industry,» said Gunretno, an activist.

«Indonesia is an agrarian nation, what needs to be done is to develop farm land.»

Java’s Kendeng Mountain contains springs, underground rivers and chalk [Beawiharta/Reuters]



The girl who was «stolen» by a soldier

  • 26 March 2017
  • From the section Asia
Image copyright Isabelina Pinto family archives
Image caption Isabelina Pinto (second from right) is seen here as a child a few days before she was taken away

When she was only five years old, Isabelina Pinto was taken from her family by an Indonesian soldier. She was one of thousands of children taken to Indonesia during its brutal 30-year occupation of East Timor. Decades later she found her family and now works to reunite others. The BBC’s Rebecca Henschke tells her story.

She remembers clearly the day an Indonesian soldier visited her family in their village in Viqueque.

It was a Sunday after church, the time of day when Christian soldiers tried to get close to the ordinary residents of Catholic-majority East Timor.

«The soldier said «if we don’t take this child, we can kill you all». He wanted a daughter, he didn’t have one,» Isabelina recalls.

It didn’t take long for her to realise she was being taken away from home.

«I was crying and crying. When we got to the port he lost his patience and he plunged me into the sea.

«He pushed me under the water two times. The other soldiers said «Why did you do that, you have made her faint?'»

«So she will forget East Timor,» came his reply.

Isabelina Pinto (Nina)

Image caption Isabelina now works with AJAR to track lost children

She didn’t forget.

Isabelina now makes it her life’s work to find the «lost children» who have now grown up and to find the families they were taken from.

It is estimated that around 4,000 children from East Timor were separated from their families between 1975 and 1999 by the Indonesian military, state, or religious organisations.

Why take the children?

«They were removed without the genuine consent of their parents; some of them were well cared for, educated and loved. But many were abused or abandoned,» says Galuh Wandita, director of Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR).

«The military wanted to «adopt» the children of the resistance as a way to punish, weaken and humiliate the enemy,» she says.

It’s not clear exactly why such a practice was encouraged but the psychology of occupation may well play a role. Bringing home a child became almost a trophy, proof of the military’s success in subjugating rebellious East Timor. In other cases, religious groups promised parents that they would be educated, but converted them to Islam.

Nina with the soldier who took her sitting through mass at the chapel.

Image copyright Isabelina Pinto family archives
Image caption Nina attending mass at a chapel with the soldier who took her

Some of the army figures who «adopted» Timorese children are still powerful figures in Indonesia. The BBC approached them for comment, but they declined.

«Those who took children acted out of varied motivations,» says Helene Van Klinken, author of Making them Indonesian.

«Some wanted to educate and promote Indonesian culture and showcase its superiority,» she points out.

It did create an extraordinary generation and many of East Timor’s «lost children» have grown up to make names for themselves in their own right.

The fugitive rebel leader, Major Alfredo Reinado, poses for photographers, wearing Australian military fatigues and holding a weapon, in the forest in Same, 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of the capital Dili, 12 March 2007.

Image copyright CANDIDO ALVES/Getty Images
Image caption Alfredo Reinado is one of the more famous «lost boys» of Timor

Alfredo Reinado was recruited by the military when he was 11 and taken back to Java in a wooden box that was nailed shut so he couldn’t escape. He went on to stage an attempted coup in East Timor in 2008.

Thomas Americo, who was the first boxer in Indonesia to compete against an international title holder, was also taken as a child.

«They picked out people who were good at sport,» says Dr Klinken.

«I think they were hoping that they would become the military for East Timor, but they had problems with them because they trained them up and then they joined the resistance.»

The former head of the Indonesian military, Prabowo Subianto Djojohadikusumo, adopted a number of children from East Timor and Papua.

One of them was Hercules Rozario Marcal, who has become a notorious gang leader in Jakarta and is currently serving a jail sentence.

A hard life

The officer who took Isabelina had always wanted a daughter, but her memories are of sexual abuse.

Indonesian soldiers invading East Timor

Image copyright AJAR Archives
Image caption Indonesia invaded East Timor in December 1975

«He did things from the very beginning on the boat that were not the things you do to a daughter,» she said.

«The only thing he didn’t do was rape me.»

Isabelina’s family never stopped looking for her and a few years ago when her nephew went to study in Indonesia, he tracked her down.

«My oldest child ran in saying your relative is here, he looks so much like you!

«I went back into the bedroom to pray and I started crying. My son came in and said, «why are you crying. You can stop now…your family is here!'»

Her work has seen her reunite nearly 40 lost children with their families. She travels across the Indonesian archipelago trying to track them down using photos and bits of information she gleans from teams in East Timor.

Children, as young as six, were recruited and tasked with transporting supplies, carrying ammunition, and serving as guides in the jungles of East Timor

Image copyright AJAR Archives
Image caption Children, as young as six, were recruited and tasked with transporting supplies, carrying ammunition, and serving as guides in the jungles of East Timor

«I know what it feels like to not see your family for 30 years. Missing your family for that long is incredibly painful. It’s like you’re living a lie.»

Long journey home

In 2008 a bilateral Commission of Truth and Friendship (CTF) recommended the establishment of a commission for the disappeared that would include looking for children who were separated due to the conflict.

«It’s a delicate issue,» says Jacinto Alves, one of the Timorese Commissioners. «It’s been eight years and not much has been achieved.»

The person now in charge of following up Indonesia’s response to the recommendations is Wiranto, a former military general indicted by a United Nations panel for atrocities in East Timor.

As army chief, he was implicated by the panel in the bloodshed in which nearly 1,000 people died. His office did not respond to the BBC’s request for an interview.

But the Indonesian government supports the reunions organised through AJAR. They help participants get passports and travel documents and paid for some flights home.

The Timorese government welcomes the returning lost children with open arms and offers them dual citizenship, but Indonesia does not.

Indonesia says they help facilitate reunions in the spirit of «reconciliation», but insists on calling them «separated children» and does not accept that they were taken by force.

Hard to come home

Many of the lost children no longer speak the local language, Tetem, and many have converted to Islam.

«All of them have lived a very hard life…they have been tough all their lives and now they need to work hard again to build up trust and fit back into a family life. I feel sorry for them,» says Isabelina.

They often return too late to see their mother or father again.

Alberto Muhammad reunited with his family

Image caption Families are being reunited, but activists warn that time is running out

«Other than time travel we cannot reach back to the past and fill the abducted children’s long lonely nights…but there is an opportunity to right a wrong. But the remaining time is short,» says Galuh Wandita.

What kept Isabelina going all those years was something her father told her before she left.

«When you look at the sky and feel the warmth of the sun and at night, see the moonlight, your family will be seeing the same thing and you will know that they are missing you.»

Related Topics


Indonesia to declare war on marine plastic debris: Environment minister

This file photo taken on Dec 19, 2016, shows a tourist walking past debris washed up on Kuta beach near Denpasar on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali. PHOTO: AFP

BANJARMASIN (JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Indonesia will declare its commitment to combat plastic debris in marines on Feb 23 when it hosts the fourth World’s Ocean Summit in Bali, the country’s environment minister said.

Studies indicate that the country may be the second-biggest contributor to marine plastic debris worldwide, with an estimated 1.3 million tonnes originating from the archipelago annually.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said on Saturday (Feb 18) Indonesia is among 10 countries committed to combating the problem.

«Indonesia has received special attention because we are one of 10 countries, including Brazil, committed to cleaning up waste in the ocean,» she said during the commemoration of National Waste Awareness Day in Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan.

Siti added that the government would officially declare the commitment on Feb 23.

Indonesia is also scheduled to present a national action plan during the fourth World’s Ocean Summit in Bali from Feb 22 to 24.

In January 2016, a World Economic Forum report concluded that with the current trajectory, there would be more plastic than fish measured by weight in the world’s oceans by 2050.

A previous study by APEC estimated that marine pollution cost member economies US$1.3 billion.

Moreover, 95 per cent of the value of plastic packaging material, worth US$80-120 billion annually, is lost to the global economy.

Indonesia takes aim at radicals behind governor protests


Candidate in the running to lead the Indonesian capital Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama talks as his deputy Djarot Saiful Hidayat stands during a televised debate in Jakarta. Photo: Reuters

Reuters Sunday, Feb 5, 2017: Indonesia is moving to rein in a notorious Islamic hardline group which spearheaded protests against Jakarta’s Christian governor, but experts warn it will be tough to bring to heel a network with close ties to the establishment. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has in recent years become the face of hardline Islam in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, growing in influence despite being a fringe organisation whose extreme views are rejected by most.

The group has raided bars selling alcohol during the holy month of Ramadan, forced the cancellation of a concert by Lady Gaga – whom they dubbed «the devil’s messenger» – with noisy protests, and led demonstrations against the Miss World beauty pageant when it came to Indonesia. googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(«dfp-ad-midarticlespecial»); }); Led by firebrand cleric Rizieq Shihab, the FPI helped organise recent mass rallies – which attracted conservative and moderate Muslims – against Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, who is on trial for allegedly insulting Islam. The protest movement against Purnama – accused of insulting the Quran while campaigning for re-election in polls later this month – propelled the hardliners from being a marginal group to the centre of national politics, alarming observers and some in the government. Now authorities are seeking to put the muzzle back on the radicals, with police stepping up an investigation into Shihab in a move seen as supported by President Joko Widodo and his administration. «This is unprecedented, it is the first time that the president and the government is openly challenging this Islamist group,» Tobias Basuki, an analyst from Jakarta think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told AFP. Last week police named the cleric a suspect for allegedly defaming Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, and the state ideology in a speech several years ago, meaning authorities believe there is enough evidence for him to stand trial. Basuki said successive governments had shied away from cracking down for fear of being accused of attacking Islam but the current administration decided to «make a stand» as concerns mounted about the hardliners» influence. The radicals have reacted angrily. Hundreds have rallied in support of Shihab – who has served two short jail terms in the past – whenever he is hauled in for police questioning. Authorities «want to stifle an Islamic people’s movement, which is demanding justice against a blasphemer», FPI spokesman Slamet Maarif told AFP. While they often hit the headlines with their colourful, noisy protests, the FPI does not have a huge following in the country of 255 million people. The group claims to have four million members but Ian Wilson, an expert on the FPI from Australia’s Murdoch University, estimated the figure at a maximum of 200,000. That is a fraction of the tens of millions who are members of Indonesia’s two major, moderate Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah. But efforts to tackle the FPI are complicated by its long history of links to some members of the establishment, who have in the past used the group to carry out their dirty work, said Guntur Romli, a progressive Muslim activist. «Some in the bureaucracy and opportunistic politicians like the group as they can be used as a weapon, while claiming to act in the name of Islam,» said the activist, who is also a member of Purnama’s election campaign team. The FPI was founded in 1998 as Indonesia transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, and experts believe the military and police had a hand in its formation, hoping they could use the group against their enemies during the tumultuous period. The police have on many occasions been seen working with the FPI when it conducts raids, or standing by and taking no action, while members of the elite sometimes allegedly hire the group to help in their murky business dealings. While the current crackdown is viewed as long overdue, it may not do away with the FPI forever, with analysts doubting the government will disband the group as the process is complicated. They believe the moves against Shihab are aimed at preventing trouble in the coming months during the Jakarta election and Purnama’s court case. But once the current controversies blow over, «it is likely that it’s going to be back to business as usual,» Basuki of CSIS warned.

– See more at:


Indonesia suspends cartel membership to avoid cuts

JAKARTA: Indonesia has suspended its membership of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, less than a year after rejoining the cartel, as the net oil importer said it could not agree to the group’s production cuts.

The decision came as the cartel agreed its first oil output cut since 2008 in a bid to tackle overcapacity and prop up prices.

The suspension could be a setback for Indonesia, Opec’s only East Asian member, which had hoped to benefit from being closer to Opec countries when it reactivated its membership at the start of the year.

Opec had proposed Indonesia cut oil production by about 37,000 barrels per day (bpd), or about 5% of its output, which would dent the already slipping oil rent in Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

Indonesia’s Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Ignasius Jonan, who attended the Vienna meeting, said the only reduction Indonesia could accept was a cut of 5,000 bpd, which had been approved in the country’s 2017 budget.

«There are still big government revenue needs in the 2017 budget,» he said, adding that as a net oil importer a cut to production would not benefit Indonesia, particularly at a time when oil prices were expected to go up.

The temporary suspension was in the best interest of all Opec members, the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry said in a statement.

It was not clear whether Indonesia was asked to suspend its membership or if it left voluntarily. Qatar, the current Opec president, said on Wednesday that Indonesia had been suspended.

For Saudi Arabia — which took the lion’s share of cuts — a key criteria for the deal was collective action by Opec beyond those countries, Iran, Libya and Nigeria, which were given an exemption, said Jason Gammel of US investment bank Jefferies.

«Indonesia was the only member to not participate and their Opec membership was «frozen»; otherwise the group demonstrated more cohesiveness than at any point since at least the 1.5 million barrels per day cut in 2008,» he said.

Indonesia is seen as a somewhat odd member of Opec and has had a patchy membership history.

After first joining in 1962, it left in 2009 as dwindling production meant it had become a net importer of crude oil, which is against Opec’s statute for full membership.

Since rejoining, Indonesia has made several deals on crude imports, overseas upstream investments and refining partnerships, including with Opec bigwigs Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Indonesia’s crude oil output peaked at around 1.7 million barrels per day in the mid-1990s. But with few significant oil discoveries in Western Indonesia in the past 10 years, production has fallen to roughly half that as old fields have matured and died.

The industry is a vital part of the Indonesian economy, but its contribution to state revenue has dropped from around 25% in 2006 to an expected 3.4% this year, according to data compiled by consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers(PwC).


Indonesia’s Gotta Catch All the Communists

Indonesia’s Gotta Catch All the Communists

JAKARTA, Indonesia — What do Pokémon Go and half a million dead communists have in common? They’re both things that, within the space of a few days, Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu described as tools of shadowy forces bent on doing the country harm.

On July 18, Ryamizard, a conservative former general, warned the public that the hit game was likely being used by foreign intelligence services to harvest information on vital sites in Southeast Asia’s largest country.

Three days later, it was the dead reds. Following the conclusion of an activist-initiated “people’s tribunal” in The Hague that found the Indonesian government “responsible for genocide” in the 1965-1966 killing of at least 400,000 people suspected of being associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), Ryamizard again fronted the press.

The tribunal’s findings were “lies,” he said. “If we listen to them, we will break apart,” he warned. “This is the work of the PKI.”

In reality, neither of these things is true. Pokémon Go might be annoying to some — and it did suffer from a gaping initial privacy hole — but it’s still just a game. And the PKI, for its part, was wiped from the Earth; those killings half a century ago effectively eradicated the left from Indonesia’s political map, along with many ethnic Chinese. The slaughter, in turn, paved the way for the rise of the late dictator Suharto, whose kleptocracy lasted until 1998 on a base of steady anti-communist propaganda. Even today, both Marxist teachings and the PKI are banned under Indonesian law.

But Ryamizard’s comments are part of a worrying wave of often xenophobic paranoia under the presidency of Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, who was elected in 2014. Despite campaigning on promises of deepening democratic reforms — and pledging to resolve past rights abuses like the 1965-1966 killings — the former Jakarta governor’s rule has been marked by a series of panics over threats that are either grossly exaggerated or straight-up fictional.

Some have come from Jokowi himself. The president has been a strong advocate of the idea (based on questionable evidence) that the country faces a “drug emergency.” Under Jokowi’s direction, the country has executed 18 drug convicts since last year, including four last month. The vast majority of those killed have been foreigners.

Of more concern have been two intertwined scare campaigns being run by reactionaries both inside and outside Jokowi’s administration — often in ways that embarrass and undermine the president.

One is the red scare. Since mid-2015, police, soldiers, and vigilantes have broken up dozens of events, from film screenings to meetings of massacre survivors, which have been labeled “communist.” Meanwhile, Islamists and nationalist groups have held rallies of thousands of people vowing to “crush” communism in cities and towns, and the media have carried grave warnings by prominent Indonesians of a looming red takeover.

At the same time, there has been a rising panic about so-called proxy wars being waged by unnamed foreign enemies against Indonesia. Armed forces chief Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, appointed by Jokowi last year, has frequently raised the specter of these enemies spreading immorality and drugs in order to create chaos and steal Indonesia’s wealth. In February, amid a nationwide campaign of hate speech against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Indonesians, which was sparked by a backlash against a support group at the University of Indonesia, Ryamizard labeled the fight for LGBT rights as a threat with the potential to do more harm than nuclear weapons.

The defense minister was a driving force in the creation last year of Bela Negara (meaning “Defend the Nation”), an organization that claims 1.8 million members and aims to instill nationalism through paramilitary-style training, including reportedly teaching civilians how to use weapons. Paramilitary groups have been popular in Indonesia since before the Suharto era and played a key role in both the 1965-1966 massacres and violence across the country in the years surrounding Suharto’s fall.

The nationalist tide has left Jokowi’s administration in a policy muddle. Jokowi has pledged to address the troubled legacy of the 50-year-old massacres and in April organized the country’s first symposium featuring both survivors and the military. But no matter what happens, a state apology for the killings is off the cards, presidential spokesman Johan Budi told Foreign Policy.

Budi pointed out that Jokowi has already instructed overzealous authorities to rein in raids against events deemed “communist.” This has indeed happened. But the president has done nothing to muzzle senior figures invoking the red menace or talking of proxy wars.

“The president can’t ignore reports from the community … that there are some people trying to bring the communist party back in Indonesia,” Budi said. “The president has to respond.”

Jokowi’s attempt at the middle road is pleasing no one.

Jokowi’s attempt at the middle road is pleasing no one. Despite the fact that he has given Cold Warriors open slather in his administration, opponents frequently seek to label him as a red in disguise. In June, a collection of former Suharto-era generals organized their own symposium to counter the government’s reconciliation effort. The crowd included members of Islamist street thug groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), an organization formed by generals in 1998 to fight pro-democracy protesters in the streets. Also in attendance were uniformed members of Bela Negara.

Jokowi’s support for even limited reconciliation over the mass killings means “he’s pretty much part of efforts to bring communism back,” Ahmad Shobri Lubis, the head of the FPI, told FP. “It’s a twisted, crazy step. It goes against common sense that the government would ask for forgiveness from criminals. It’s madness.”

But not everyone in Indonesia has bought into the hype. Social media has frequently pilloried the more hysterical announcements, and reactions from some of the establishment — including military types — have ranged from eye rolling to alarm.

In Indonesia’s muddled party system, opinions similarly vary, including within Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who championed Ryamizard’s appointment and has a reputation for brittle nationalism, heads the party.

Others take a different view. The paranoid upsurge is “all bullshit,” T.B. Hasanuddin, a former general and a senior PDI-P politician, told FP.

Behind it all is a collection of former generals who are being driven by two factors, Hasanuddin said. One is fear that a reckoning over the bloody legacy of the 1965-1966 killings — in which the military and traditional elite are deeply implicated — could unleash chaos. The other is a more concerted attempt to use vague bogeymen to fight the country’s democratization, he said. For some, these fever dreams are simply a cynical ploy. For others, they are indisputable fact, born of indoctrination during Suharto’s 31-year New Order regime.

“There are those from the military who, in the way they analyze things, always need there to be threats. If there are no threats, then they need to make them up,” Hasanuddin said. “Now it’s communism.”

Why is all this happening under Jokowi? Less than two years ago, the former furniture salesman was hailed as a new hope in a political system dominated by old faces with ties to the New Order. Liberals flocked to Jokowi’s campaign, seeing him as a democratic bulwark against his main rival, Prabowo Subianto, a former general (and former son-in-law of Suharto) implicated in serious human rights abuses.

But Jokowi has long sought to accommodate the old guard. Even during the transitional period between his election and taking office, Jokowi began an embrace of hard-liners close to Megawati, who retains undisputed control of the PDI-P.

“He’s just weak,” said Ian Wilson, an Indonesia expert at Australia’s Murdoch University. “He’s been outmaneuvered by seasoned players, seasoned brokers, and the kind of warlords of elite politics, including someone like Megawati, [who is] an ultranationalist and a militarist.”

Observers of Indonesia have hoped of late that Jokowi might finally be finding his feet. But even if he is increasingly calling the shots, the result is still a doubling down on his embrace of the old dinosaurs. In a late July reshuffle, the president sidelined Luhut Panjaitan, a relatively liberal former soldier, as the chief security minister and replaced him with Wiranto — who, like many Indonesians, only goes by one name — a former general indicted by a United Nations-backed tribunal for crimes against humanity in East Timor.

Wiranto, a man accused of having command responsibility for militia violence in 1999 that is believed to have killed well over 1,000 civilians, is now in charge of handling the government’s response to past abuses. This includes the 1965-1966 killings and his own alleged crimes.

Few rights advocates now expect much from Jokowi’s administration.

Photo credit: AGOES RUDIANTO/NurPhoto via Getty Images



Good-bye, Indonesia

West Papua is fighting for independence from Indonesia — but will it win regional solidarity for its efforts?

Papuan students wearing the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence, in 2006. Sumaryanto Bronto / Flickr

Papuan students wearing the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence, in 2006. Sumaryanto Bronto / Flickr

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