Tue, 09 Mar 1999

Soldiers' unholy war

After a two month pause, students returned to the streets of Jakarta last week, while security personnel also reappeared to demonstrate their inclination for unnecessary violence.

Although we are not referring to a boxing bout, it is a common outcome that one party ends up black and blue. There are no prizes for guessing which group is on the receiving end.

In an attempt to quash a street protest last Thursday, soldiers and police not only apprehended demonstrators on the street, they also chased students onto the campus of a private educational institution on Jl. Matraman Raya, Central Jakarta.

On the campus young people were beaten arbitrarily: in the canteen or the musholla (small mosque). Blood was seen on the floor of the musholla.

Some of the students were hospitalized. Others were placed in police custody and later fined in a summary court session.

Members of the press were allegedly repeatedly beaten by security personnel despite displaying press cards. An officer involved in one of the incidents, allegedly told a journalist that negative press was pushing the military into a corner.

Journalist associations and human rights groups registered strongly worded protests to authorities, while a student delegation filed a complaint on Monday with the National Commission on Human Rights.

The incident -- particularly the beating of press members -- provoked a swift response from Armed Forces (ABRI) Commander Gen. Wiranto. He said stern action would be taken against the security personnel involved.

Demands issued by military police at the scene did not deter some of the soldiers and riot police from their beatings. The clash is doubly shocking because it occurred only four months after an incident in which students and members of the press were struck savagely.

The latest episode is a reminder of pervasive disciplinary defects within the military. Rogue elements of the military have been involved in bloody incidents elsewhere in the country. However, the continual mishandling of street demonstrators in Jakarta, the seat of central government and the site of ABRI Headquarters, is ominous.

The violent clash indicates that some soldiers' mentality is not in tune with democratic reforms sweeping the country. They remain a product of the New Order regime, during which power was wielded in a neocolonial style and people were treated as objects of little worth.

ABRI leaders have a tendency to defend the untoward activities of their personnel. They often describe their soldiers as ordinary human beings, who are as easily provoked at the end of their exhausting hours of duty.

This exercise in comparison neglects a crucial requirement: that in all circumstances ABRI personnel have a duty to protect citizens. Individuals who refuse to respect their fellow human beings do not deserve to be described as ones.

The lack of discipline within the military has become intolerable. However, there is much foot dragging concerning bringing officers involved in human rights abuse cases to justice.

In November, Wiranto vowed to take action against soldiers responsible for the beating of a journalist covering a student demonstration. We are still waiting for those results. As of last week, Wiranto has promised only to bring to justice security personnel involved in untoward acts toward members of the press. Students have little recourse.

As the legitimacy of the government will continue to be questioned, student protest rallies will most likely continue. To end the continuous cycle of student-troop clashes, the military leadership should take concrete measures to boost discipline among its soldiers.

Examples should be made of those guilty of military brutality, such as by introducing long jail terms, as a deterrent to any soldier who even considers harming an unarmed civilian.

Military academies should introduce human rights subjects in their curriculum. Soldiers should be trained to respect dissent and be resilient in the face of public humiliation and criticism. If these issues are not addressed, everyone will be pessimistic about the security arrangements for the general election in June.