Democracy in peril
The raid by the police at an international conference in Sawangan near Jakarta on Friday, and the arrest of 40 of the participants, including 32 foreigners, was bizarre, if not disturbing, to the conscience. You could be forgiven thinking that news reports of this incident, which also appeared in this paper on Sunday, were mistakenly taken from a leaf of the history book of a recent bygone era, when undemocratic practices such as dissolving a gathering were normal. Some of us would probably have wished that Sawangan was not in Indonesia, but in a country where people's democratic rights, including the right to freedom of opinion and of assembly, are not respected.
Alas, there was no mistake. The story was real. The raid, and the arrests, did take place at the weekend here in Indonesia and not too far away from the capital. And the raid was conducted by officers from our very own National Police.
What is worse was that hours after the police raid of the Asia-Pacific Labor Solidarity Conference on Neoliberalism, a group of thugs, using holy Islamic symbols, arrived and physically attacked the remaining participants. These thugs did not only seem to have the tacit approval of the police, but they finished off the police's job in dissolving the gathering. Like the raid itself, the use of thugs by the police and military to do its dirty job was normal practice during the Soeharto era.
The Sawangan incident drew a disturbing picture of Indonesia one year into the new millennium. Was it not three years ago that this country renounced all forms of tyranny and repression? Was it not in 1998 that many young Indonesians paid with their blood, sweat and tears to put an end to the rule of one of the world's longest-ruling tyrants? Since then, even as the country was struggling out of the political and economic crises, the nation was nevertheless fully resolved never to let itself return to that dark era as far as democracy was concerned.
There seemed to be a strong commitment among the nation's new leaders since then that the only way to ensure this country never fell back under another tyrannical rule was to protect people's basic democratic rights, which include their right to freedom of expression, of speech, and of assembly. There was a national consensus that the military and the police, both of which were turned into Soeharto's personal tools of repression for over three decades, would be reformed with the nation's new commitments to building a democracy. And there was a consensus that the rule of law must always prevail in this country.
The nation held a democratic general election and elected a president in 1999, fully believing that the only way forward towards long-lasting prosperity for all the people was first to build the democratic foundations of the state.
All of these commitments now sound more like lip service after Friday's police raid in Sawangan. The police and its thug friends have made a complete mockery of every value and principle that this nation has been struggling to establish in the last three years, along with the sacrifices that have gone with this struggle. With a single stroke, the raid in Sawangan has simply turned back the clock on the nation.
The police's excuse, that the raid was part of its operation to strengthen security ahead of the special session of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), is simply unacceptable. The MPR session, scheduled to start on Aug. 1, is a very important constitutional process to determine the future of embattled President Abdurrahman Wahid. The police's explanation sounded all too familiar to those who lived through the Soeharto era. Then, as now, security was always the overriding reason why basic democratic rights could be waived, or repressed.
The police's claim that the participating foreigners were violating their tourist visas by taking part in the conference, is highly debatable. At any rate, the police must have had prior knowledge of the conference, and the involvement of foreigners, and it could have warned the organizers beforehand about the visa regulations. But you do not bust a conference, an international one at that, once it has started.
If the police and its thug friends are allowed to get away with such unconstitutional acts unpunished, we can be sure that this will not be the last of such incidents. The day the nation turns a blind eye to its own law enforcement institutions breaking the law and the constitution is the day this nation kisses goodbye to democracy.