Wed, 24 May 2000

Paramilitaries: Civil society gets ugly

By Vedi R. Hadiz

SINGAPORE (JP): There has been a long-standing popular assumption that the strengthening of "civil society" (usually quite loosely meant to be anything relatively independent of the state apparatus) will necessarily strengthen democracy.

In other words, the assumption is that all civil society groups are democratic in nature, and that it is only unchecked state power that stifles democracy.

Unfortunately, this is far from the truth: some elements of civil society are quite undemocratic in nature, and in some contexts, can be quite a threat to democratization efforts.

This is quite apart from the theoretical problem of radically distinguishing state from civil society, as the two are not only interlinked, but also essentially inseparable.

Take the controversial paramilitaries that have recently made news headlines. Undoubtedly these groups have emerged out of "civil society" in that they are linked to salient social forces and groups that are not outright extensions of the state.

Many are intricately related to political parties and mass organizations that are supposed to represent the interests and aspirations of an increasingly complex civil society.

In fact, these interests and aspirations have become more salient because of the erosion of central state authority signified by the unraveling of the authoritarian structures of the New Order.

But are the paramilitaries a democratizing force? As many have pointed out, the means by which they pursue their aims are authoritarian in nature, relying on brute force and disregarding completely the notion of rights.

What, then, are we to make of the political parties and mass organizations which not only condone and tolerate, but actually sponsor these paramilitaries in their pursuit of greater influence and state power?

There will be those who suggest that the increasingly ubiquitous paramilitaries do not form a part of civil society, in that they do not represent the idealized values and virtues of the latter.

But this is missing the point: in any specific context, there will likely be undemocratically oriented forces, and these do not necessarily emanate from the state apparatus-proper.

Some have spoken alternately of the "militarization" of civil society, pointing to the irony of this development in a situation characterized by an armed force under intense pressure to withdraw from politics.

This is probably a more accurate description of the problem.

But what is the root of the problem? The problem is essentially rooted in the fact that the major contending social forces at the moment -- represented by coalitions of interests that currently take the form of political parties -- were nurtured, though varying degrees, by the New Order which they profess to revile.

Almost all major political party elites consist of individuals who participated in one way or another in the structures of power and systems of patronage that were erected in the New Order, although they may not have necessarily been a part of the state apparatus.

This is the case almost all the way down to provincial and local elites. These new elites may have emerged from the second or third layers of this system of patronage -- contractors, political fixers and entrepreneurs, even gangsters -- but still they do not represent a radical break with the past. Virtually all were politically matured in a system that was inherently undemocratic.

It therefore becomes less surprising that the various self- proclaimed reformist political parties and mass organizations can sponsor forms of behavior -- essentially by thugs in semi- military gear -- that does not conform to most people's notions of "democratic".

But this is the kind of civil society that has emerged after 30 years of the New Order -- characterized by some salient elements whose commitment to a truly democratic project remains dubious at best, in spite of the reformist rhetoric now uniformly espoused across the political spectrum.

Not surprisingly, gangs of thugs once linked more or less directly to New Order institutions may have simply crossed over to new political forces for political expediency.

Such a change of patronage does not necessarily mean a change of behavior, however, if indeed some of these thugs now form the nucleus of the paramilitary forces that political parties sport when flexing their muscles.

Of course, at least one of the paramilitary units has had a history of being involved in violent behavior going back several decades, whether or not former New Order toughs are counted among its ranks.

Indonesia is not unique in this regard. Private armies -- which party paramilitaries essentially are -- are a well-known phenomenon in Latin America, as well as the Philippines, where local oligarchic families rule towns and villages relatively autonomously from central state power.

Gangsters and thugs are also a prominent feature of national and local politics in Thailand, where underworld connections seem to be as pervasive among the elites as is the practice of money politics.

Of course, the Nazis and Fascists of Germany and Italy also famously had very feared paramilitary forces that did much to intimidate their political opponents in the process of winning power in the 1920s and 1930s.

Thuggery was their key to political success. And who manned these paramilitaries? Most commonly, though not necessarily exclusively, paramilitary units recruited from among the lumpenproletariat -- the masses of unemployed and long dejected. No doubt Indonesia provides a huge pool from which to recruit and form paramilitary units.

The danger in Indonesia is that paramilitaries will develop into a more important feature of Indonesian politics and society. After all, they are the main instruments of those who will use brute force to stifle opponents or those just perceived to be foes. Clearly, paramilitary forces have little or no place at all in any serious democratization project, whether in Indonesia or anywhere else.

The writer teaches at the department of sociology, National University of Singapore.