Tue, 31 Oct 2000

End this lawlessness

First it was organized bands of people ransacking and setting fire to gaming establishments and other places of public entertainment in the name of religion. It mattered little whether or not the charges of illegal activities were proven in a court of law. The important thing to the gangs was a perception of guilt, so punishment was merited.

Next, groups of angry neighbors began meeting out harsh street justice on the mere suspicion of crimes having been committed. Heaven knows how many people, possibly innocent, have been burned to death on the mere suspicion of theft or rape or whatever other unforgivable offense.

In the latest version of this kind of mob mentality, bands of people searched upscale hotels in the city of Surakarta (Solo) on Sunday, looking specifically for American citizens and warning them to leave the country in 48 hours or else ...

In the context of the present Indonesian social and political psyche, this latest incident is easy to understand. Most Indonesians have been taught from childhood to hate Israel for its being Jewish and therefore a natural enemy of Muslims. It is a good bet that the U.S. would have come out of the current Middle East debate a lot better had it been quick to condemn Israel's brutal handling of the Palestinian protesters in the current intifada.

In all these instances, it is much harder to understand the inaction by the police. It seems safe to say that the tolerance of the police in those cases has encouraged ordinary citizens to seek 'justice' by taking the law into their own hands.

The police argue that it doesn't have enough men to uphold the law each and every time it is violated. This may be true in many cases, but not in all. In the most recent case of vigilantes sweeping through Surakarta's hotels in search of Americans and ordering them to leave the country within 48 hours -- that argument is difficult to justify.

Moreover, it needs no saying that such inaction in relation to foreigners can have serious consequences for the country. With the lack of security guarantees keeping investors away in other sectors of industry, the government has been relying on tourism to earn the foreign exchange that the country so desperately needs.

The authorities, though, are not the only ones who are responsible for the current chaotic situation. It is true that the police desperately need more officers in the field. To recruit and train them takes time and money. In such a situation all Indonesians who are in a position to provide leadership and education to the people are called on to keep the country calm.

The greatest service that any Indonesian can do for the nation under present circumstances is to help the masses see that only by restoring order and lawfulness can a solid foundation be established on which economic rehabilitation and development is possible.

This insanity must end so that work can begin in earnest to restore this country to its former state of peace and prosperity. Heaven knows how much longer Indonesians can bear to live in such chaos.