Who's behind ethnic violence in Indonesia?

Who's behind ethnic violence in Indonesia? "Provocateurs," most likely within the military, are trying to bury the country's hopes for a secular civilian democracy.

Published December 1, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

As violence between Muslim mobs and members of Christian minorities in Indonesia grabs headlines, it is clear the country's future hinges on a single political question: Can Indonesia peacefully become a secular civilian democracy?

The alternative may be endless cycles of religious violence.

Most U.S. press coverage of Indonesia's current troubles has focused on mob violence. But pro-democracy leaders in Indonesia and many journalists see these incidents as a result of organized provocation directed from above.

Such provocations were used by former President Suharto to deflect public resentment from those in power, and to provide a justification for strongman military rule. They are being used today in order to foment tensions between different ethnic groups, to break up the coalition seeking democracy and to discredit the students who until now have been nonviolent.

A commission of inquiry reported to a recent special session of the Indonesian parliament that army elements under Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto had instigated the bloody incidents of last May, in which 1,200 died.

When the special session failed to address the question of the army's "dual function" -- its control over civilian life -- student protests began again. And again, as in May, students were shot with live ammunition against official instructions. A second commission is looking for the authors of this new violence, for which several soldiers and officers have already been punished or reprimanded.

These most recent incidents have apparently stretched the elite consensus on reform to a breaking point.

President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie and Defense Minister Gen. Wiranto, in particular, must decide whether the students and their allies present a greater threat to order than those who organize provocations. Their initial reaction has been to arrest and interrogate senior supporters of the students, including two retired generals.

Exposing the provocateurs would be difficult politically -- and would speed the end of the army's political and economic privileges. Observers disagree as to whether Wiranto is unwilling to follow this course or simply unable to mobilize the army behind it.

Some see Wiranto and the army leadership as the source of the provocations, pointing to the army's decision to import thousands of vigilantes into Jakarta to "defend" the parliament against the students. Most were unarmed Muslim supporters of Habibie, but a sizable minority were mercenary thugs equipped with sharpened bamboo spears.

Others trace the provocations to former Lt. Gen. Prabowo and his followers, pointing to the fact that Wiranto ultimately decided to rely primarily on marines -- who have shown they can cooperate with students in keeping demonstrations peaceful -- to maintain order during the special session.

A third hypothesis is that the provocations come from those inside and outside the army who want to move Indonesia away from open secular democracy and toward a more Islamic state. Many of the provocations have clearly mobilized Muslim resentment against the Chinese, who make up most of the Christian minority.

This is a real threat to the prevailing view, shared once by Suharto and now by the pro-democracy students, that only a non-denominational state can preserve Indonesian unity.

Habibie, a technocrat with little popular base, has been leaning more and more toward Muslim activists who think the state with the world's most populous Muslim majority (over 80 percent) should be defined as Islamic and governed by Islamic laws.

Until now the four leading political representatives of the pro-democracy movement have been as one in calling for unity, reconciliation and resisting provocations.

These include Abdurrahman Wahid ("Gus Dur"), leader of one of the nation's two largest Muslim organizations, and Megawati Sokarnoputri (who represents the nondenominational nationalism of her father, former President Sukarno). These two have been particularly close. Indeed it could be said that the hopes for a democratic Indonesia rest on preserving this alliance between Muslim and nationalist. There is no other foreseeable base for a peaceful democratic majority in Indonesia.

Unfortunately, Gus Dur's movement, the Nahdlatul Ulama or N.U., has been the target of sustained provocations in recent weeks. About 100 of the Muslim clerics in his movement have been murdered. N.U. officials have given the army a deadline: If it cannot protect them, they will turn to their own paramilitary organization.

This offers an immediate test of the army's ability to prevent a decay of public order into private retribution. This question may face its most severe challenge in the coming weeks, before the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, begins on Dec. 20.

On Nov. 21, President Clinton urged Indonesia to stay on course toward democratic elections and avoid reliance on military power. This timely encouragement should be followed up by another: to handle those whose atrocities threaten a different and more bloody outcome.

By Peter Dale Scott

Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat and professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, is a poet, writer and researcher. His recent political books include "Deep Politics and the Death of JFK" (1993), "The Road to 9/11" (2007), "The War Conspiracy" (2008), "American War Machine" (2010) and "The American Deep State" (2017).

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