Mon, 15 May 2000

More harm than good

One major lesson that we have learned from the occupation of the Jawa Pos newspaper in Surabaya, East Java, by members of the Banser group last week, is the realization by society that there is a pervasive military culture among many of our political leaders. Few people have heretofore questioned the usefulness of Banser and other similar youth organizations, such as Satgas PDI Perjuangan and Pemuda Pancasila. The presence of these military- style groups appeared to have been widely accepted by society. But then, this nation was virtually governed in a military fashion for more than 30 years.

Banser is essentially the military wing of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the Muslim mass organization which President Abdurrahman Wahid chaired until October. Members of the group, some wearing their military uniforms, visited the Jawa Pos office to protest the newspaper's articles accusing Abdurrahman and NU leaders of corruption. Whatever Banser and its sponsors may have said about the visit, the presence of young men and women in military uniforms was intimidating enough to force the newspaper's executives and journalists into submission.

While that incident has sparked a lively discussion about the press, its freedom and responsibility, it has also spawned an equally crucial debate about the activities of Banser and other similar military-style groups, and whether their presence is still necessary as Indonesia moves towards democracy.

Banser is only one of many youth groups that have taken on the character of private armies to serve particular organizations in this country. Members of these groups receive military training and wear military uniforms, boots and other accouterments. They may not carry firearms, God forbid, but they certainly carry other weapons. Their existence has been encouraged, and in some cases even nurtured, by the military.

It is not that they haven't served a purpose. Banser, Pemuda Pancasila of Golkar, and Satgas PDI Perjuangan have helped in providing security arrangements for their parent organizations during their congresses and -- in the case of Pemuda Pancasila and PDI Perjuangan -- during election campaign rallies. They have assisted the police in controlling the crowds at major gatherings.

But at the same time, we have also witnessed how these groups have been turned by their parent organizations into their own private armies.

Banser's occupation of Jawa Pos office was only the latest example of how these youth groups have used their influence to the point of endangering democracy.

Pemuda Pancasila has probably had the largest share of criticism over its various activities, including its alleged involvement in the attack of the Indonesian Democratic Party office in Jakarta in July 1997.

We also recall the establishment of the Pamswakarsa militia by the Indonesian Military in 1998, whose spear-wielding members were deployed to confront student demonstrators.

Those who are still not convinced that these militias have outlived their usefulness should turn to the events in East Timor last September.

The campaign of violence and destruction that followed the UN- sponsored referendum was conducted by pro-Indonesia East Timor militias which were set up and trained by our military. The military leadership now cannot simply wash their hands by saying that they had no control over the behavior of the militias which they had sponsored and trained.

The main lesson of East Timor, the 1997 attack on PDI Perjuangan headquarters and the occupation of the Jawa Pos office, is that these military-style youth organizations have brought far more harm than good to society.

They are a threat to democracy.

Shedding their uniforms alone, as suggested by Minister of Defense Juwono Sudarsono last week, would not be enough. The country's political leaders, who sponsor these groups, must also shed their pervasive military culture, and ask themselves: Do we really still need them?