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Scams in the City

Official Ignorance Is Not Bliss

If Indonesia’s greatest crime of the past century remains swept under the carpet – and cannot even be discussed at a book festival – then what hope is there of enforcing laws to protect citizens from the deadly smoke haze engulfing parts of the country?

Scams, by definition, involve depriving a person or people by means of deceit. Common scams in Indonesia involve online fraud, pyramid schemes and all sorts of charlatans. But a monumental scam taking place is depriving Indonesians of their history and their right to justice. Scammers thrive when people are kept ignorant and law enforcement is weak.

A businessman with a stake in an oil palm plantation in a Sumatran province claims his company and others were recently asked by a very senior official to each pay Rp.250 million (US$18,500) to “help combat the haze” – in return for which they would not be prosecuted over illegal land clearing.

Officials would be better off prosecuting, to the full extent of the law, those who start or order forest and peat-land fires, if the government wants to stop devastating pollution and curb potentially fatal respiratory illnesses.

The leaders of Riau province in Sumatra do not have a good track record in protecting the environment. The most recent governor, Annas Maamun, was in June sentenced to six years in jail for accepting US$166,100 in bribes from the local chairman of the Indonesian Oil Palm Farmers Association. His predecessor, Rusli Zainal, was last year sentenced to 14 years in jail for bribery and abuse of power involving illegal forestry permits.

Such sentences are encouraging, but the Corruption Eradication Commission and Indonesia Corruption Watch say bribery remains common when permits are granted to convert forests into plantations.

Linking the current smoke haze disaster to a ban on discussions about the 1965-66 massacres of up to 1 million Indonesians may seem tenuous. But the link is crystal clear. If you can’t deal with problems of the past, you’re not well equipped to deal with problems of the present. When individuals and institutions get away with mass murder and the government refuses to even apologize, there is little hope for establishing a culture of good governance and law enforcement.

The Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, which took place over October 28 to November 1, is Indonesia’s leading international literary event. Organizers were forced to cancel sessions discussing the massacres on the grounds that the issue is too sensitive. Next, the festival had to cancel a session involving discussion of the contentious Benoa Bay reclamation project.

It was cowardly of officials to demand the sessions be axed, and it was equally cowardly of the organizers to cave into them. Cancelling the entire festival would have drawn greater attention to the return of repression and censorship.

Ironically, Indonesia was Guest of Honour at last month’s Frankfurt Book Fair. Several Indonesian authors and Education Minister Anies Baswedan spoke proudly at the event of Indonesia’s progress and its literary accomplishments. Where are their voices now? Writing articles and posting online are not enough. They have to go to someone at the top of the government and make a strong case for freedom of expression.

Debate can foster education, awareness and reconciliation. Repression leads to intellectual stagnation. I recently asked some high school students in Jakarta if they could define communism. “A communist is an evil person,” one student told me.

“Why is communism evil?” I pressed. Another student answered: “Because communists killed people and rejected God. The military had to kill communists to save Indonesia from the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party). The PKI had killed seven generals on September 30, 1965.”

And there you have it. The fact that six, not seven, Army generals were murdered by their fellow soldiers in the early hours of October 1, 1965, is perhaps a minor error. It’s an error that is repeated in some of the citizenship textbooks used by high school students.

A retired Air Force pilot, now in his 80s, tells me the events of October 1, 1965, were not about the PKI trying to seize power, but were a rift within the military, which the chief of the Army’s Strategic Reserve Command, Suharto, used as a pretext to undermine founding president Sukarno and to vanquish all communists and other enemies of the Army’s right-wing faction.

In the ensuing communal bloodbaths, many innocent people were killed by the Army, by Muslim groups and by paramilitary gangs. Thousands were jailed without trial, including some of the country’s leading intellectuals. Millions of people, including some born after 1965, were stigmatized as communists. President Joko Widodo has refused to issue a state apology for the carnage and stigmatization.

School children should be taught the facts of 1965 and the fact that communism is a failed ideology. Blanket demonization of all leftists and liberals serves only fascists.

After the fall of Suharto in 1998, Indonesia began to discuss the events of 1965-66. Authors started to write works of fiction and non-fiction about the killings. Older academic books about the so-called “attempted coup” have been available in Indonesian bookstores for the past eight years. Many of these titles have been republished, in Indonesia, since 2007 by Equinox Publishing with the blessing of then-attorney general Abdul Rahman Saleh.

Equinox founder Mark Hanusz is upset by the cancellations of discussions at the book festival in Ubud. “Without strong and clear instructions from high-level officials, censorship and intimidation will run out of control. It’s already starting. And it is up to my Indonesian friends to put all the pressure possible on the people they elected to ensure the genie of freedom of expression isn’t jammed back into the bottle,” he commented.

Repression reared its ugly head in the Central Java city of Salatiga last month when Satya Wacana Christian University had to destroy copies of its Lentera magazine for publishing stories about the 1965 killings.

Too often, ordinary Indonesians are forced to take a back seat to arrogant officials, whether it be provincial politicians allowing deadly haze or just those top government officials who have police close entire lanes of traffic on Jakarta’s main streets to ensure their cars can proceed unimpeded.

Vice President Jusuf Kalla in September responded to criticism from neighbouring countries about the haze by saying, “For 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us. They have suffered because of the haze for one month and they get upset.” Going by his logic, we should be thanking terrorist groups for every day they don’t detonate a bomb. Repression of free speech only hampers a country from solving its problems.

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