Is Indonesia Becoming Like Pakistan? with Andreas Harsono

Mar 6, 2018

The maximum penalty for blasphemy in Pakistan is death, and public protest is not allowed. Indonesia is nowhere near as bad as this--yet. "Indonesia is now going down the Pakistan route," says Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch. "There are more and more political manipulations using the blasphemy law, and there are more and more discriminatory regulations against minorities in Indonesia."

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Andreas Harsono. Andreas is Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, based in Jakarta.

Andreas, great to have you here at Carnegie Council.

ANDREAS HARSONO: Thank you for having me here.

DEVIN STEWART: Andreas, give us the general picture of the political environment today in Indonesia. You have been with Human Rights Watch in Jakarta for 10 years. What have you seen over that decade, and what do you see today?

ANDREAS HARSONO: The work is more complicated today than 10 years ago. Why? Because 10 years ago the government started to introduce what they call "religious harmony" regulations, vis-à-vis religious freedom. What is religious harmony? It basically says that the majority should protect minorities, and minorities should respect—the word is "respect"—the majority.

What does it mean? It means the government is setting up so-called religious harmony regulations all over Indonesia, at the provincial level and regency level proportionately. If a province is 85 percent Muslim, for instance, then 85 percent of the 21 members at a council should be Muslim. They are dealing with giving permits. If you want to set up a church, if you want to celebrate Ashura, the Islamic Shia celebration, you should get the permit from these so-called religious harmony councils.

DEVIN STEWART: These councils are set up by local—

ANDREAS HARSONO: President Yudhoyono in 2006.

DEVIN STEWART: How many are there?

ANDREAS HARSONO: Indonesia has 34 provinces. It means that they have 34 of these councils in all provinces, and 514 regencies and cities, meaning also 514 councils on the regency level. So, how many, 514 plus 34: 549.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the relationship between these councils and religious associations like Muhammadiyah?

ANDREAS HARSONO: These councils include of course members from the Muhammadiyah, the Nahdlatul Ulama, and many other religious organizations including Christian churches, Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, etc. The thing is, when they have to take a vote, then the minorities always lose because the minorities are proportionately smaller.

So when you want to set up a church, for instance, in a Muslim-dominated area without permission from this religious harmony council, you will not get it. In fact, after it was set up in 2006 until now, more than 1,100 churches have closed down on the grounds that they do not have permits, whether a building permit or a renovating permit.

If you ask me what is the difference between 10 years ago and now, now I have more than 1,100 churches closed down; I have 30-something Ahmadiyya mosques closed down; I have several Shia mosques, Shia madrasas, closed down; or Buddhist temples or Hindu temples or Confucian temples closed down, burned down, sealed by the religious harmony council.

DEVIN STEWART: Are Sunni institutions ever closed down?

ANDREAS HARSONO: Yes. There are some Sunni Islam mosques closed down in Hindu-dominated Bali or Christian-dominated Papua, West Timor, Flores, because especially Eastern Indonesia has several predominantly Christian areas.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the assessment of how this project has been going so far? Is this seen as successful?

ANDREAS HARSONO: It is bad. It is bad for religious freedom because the constitution actually says very clearly [that there should be] religious freedom. Every citizen is equal. They have freedom of religion, freedom of faith. But the religious harmony principle is denying that equality. The religious harmony principle is talking about majority versus minorities.

DEVIN STEWART: Of course, one of the guiding principles is Pancasila. Can you give a description of how you understand Pancasila, the national ideology?

ANDREAS HARSONO: Pancasila is a political compromise. It has five principles: humanity, democracy, social justice, belief in God, etc. It was a compromise between the secularists and the Islamists before World War II, before the declaration of independence. Why? Because the Islamists obviously wanted to set up an Islamic state. The secularists would like to have strict separation between state and mosque in this case. Thus, a compromise that Indonesia is a secular state but also a religious state. It is neither secular nor Islamic, so the bridge between these two principles is more or less Pancasila. In practice, that bridge is called the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

DEVIN STEWART: This is a balance that President Jokowi must navigate. It is tough. How do you think he is doing so far? Do you think he is accommodating too much to the religious sector, or do you think he is being able to keep Indonesia somewhat secular? What is the view on the ground in Indonesia?

ANDREAS HARSONO: I had dinner with him, and he asked me: "Andreas, you do research about religious freedom. Tell me, what is the problem?" This is a very Jokowi tone.

I told him, "We have religious discrimination: the blasphemy law, 1965; the religious harmony regulation, 2006; and we have at least four state institutions which facilitate discrimination: the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Religious Harmony Forum, the Blasphemy Law Office, and the Indonesia Ulema Council." I told him, "Like it or not, you have to undo them because these are the sources of discrimination against minorities in Indonesia."

The blasphemy law says that nobody can blaspheme against six religions in Indonesia: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. Six. The fact is there are more than 450 religions in Indonesia. Those four institutions since World War II are helping to facilitate discrimination.

It took me about 10 minutes to describe the whole situation about the number of churches being closed down, about prosecutions against minorities, and I told him that after 1965, the blasphemy law was used only eight times in the first 40 years by five presidents, but since the sixth president, President Yudhoyono, in a decade it was used 89 times, meaning from two cases per decade in the first 40 years, whoop, 89.

And he asked me, "What shall I do?"

I told him, "At least do not enforce the law."

And he said, "It is difficult."

I said: "It is difficult. But you are the president, not me. Do your job." Unfortunately, he does not do it, and then it took more and more victims. The biggest victim was one of his closest allies, Jakarta Governor Ahok, who was charged with blasphemy and is now staying in prison.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you think he is going to react to the Ahok trial? The current situation is that he is asking for a review of the case, is that correct?

ANDREAS HARSONO: Now Ahok is asking for a review. But the problem is, it is not only Ahok. The problem is bigger than Ahok. The problem is the blasphemy law. Indonesia is now going down the Pakistan route. There are more and more political manipulations using the blasphemy law, and there are more and more discriminatory regulations against minorities in Indonesia.

According to the National Commission on Violence Against Women, as of 2016 there are 422 discriminatory regulations against minorities in Indonesia, and none of them has been reviewed, canceled, undone, or not enforced. They are all there to stay.

DEVIN STEWART: If you say that Indonesia is going down the "Pakistan route" to the average Indonesian, would they agree with that assessment? Is this the direction of the country right now, is there popular support or not?

ANDREAS HARSONO: Average Indonesians do not know what happened in Pakistan, but of course if they read more, if they want to Google more, Human Rights Watch provides perhaps our Indonesia website, they will know that Pakistan is much worse than Indonesia. If someone is accused of committing blasphemy, the maximum penalty in Pakistan is death, and there is almost no way someone can be acquitted.

In Pakistan there is no way people can protest openly against those blasphemy charges. In Jakarta we can still do that. If we say that Indonesia is going into what we call the "Pakistanization" process, it is going to be worse and worse.

We have to really think seriously about that because nowadays if we take a look at the map of Indonesia and put all of those discriminatory regulations, mostly made in the name of Islamist Sharia, we are seeing more and more "white" provinces, white regencies, vis-à-vis more or less secular areas. These white areas are getting bigger and bigger. Mandatory hijab is getting bigger and bigger all over Indonesia.

DEVIN STEWART: So it is becoming more religious.

ANDREAS HARSONO: It is becoming I am not saying "more religious," it is becoming more discriminatory.

DEVIN STEWART: Against minority religions.

ANDREAS HARSONO: Against gender minorities—women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), against religious minorities.

DEVIN STEWART: There was a lot of worry about a possible ban against gay sex, and also the LGBT community has been quite fearful recently. What do you make of that situation? Do you have any sense of what the outcome of that ban would be?

ANDREAS HARSONO: Legally it started in 2014 in Aceh, one of 34 Indonesian provinces. In 2014 the Acehnese local parliament passed a new criminal code. They call it Qanun Juniyat or Islamic criminal code, in which extramarital sex—heterosexual, homosexual, or whatever—is banned. If you do that, there are punishments in various degrees, lashing or jail term. That was the beginning.

Then Aceh started to arrest LGBT individuals—lesbian, gay, transgender mostly. Last year there were a couple of gay men arrested and caned 83 times in public, traumatized. Last month 12 transgender hair salon workers were arrested, raided. They cut their hair and stripped them naked, bare-chested, humiliated, and now they are all of them—the gay men, the transgender—running away from Aceh.

Now this Islamist effort is elevated to the national level. The Islamist parties want to criminalize extramarital sex. They call it in Arabic zina. So anyone who commits zina—adultery—whether you are single, you are married, goes to jail.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the likelihood that that will actually happen?

ANDREAS HARSONO: I hope not, but I am not that sure if I can hope for that, because the Parliament is dominated by narrow-minded politicians because the Islamists are working very hard to push for this agenda.

DEVIN STEWART: It strikes me as a little unusual that a cultural trend would emanate from the provinces into the center. Usually you think of things going outward, spiraling out, but this is coming from Aceh and coming in. Does that give it a sense of its chances of happening at all?

ANDREAS HARSONO: It is a strategy that has more or less grown since 1999, one year after the fall of President Suharto. What happened then? There was a challenge at the national Parliament at the time to vote whether we want to continue with this Pancasila state or Islamic state. Most of the Parliament members had fewer votes. The Islamists then realized that if they voted at that time they might lose, and if they lose, they cannot revive this Islamic state agenda. Thus, they refused to vote.

But they changed their strategy by saying, "Let's start from the provinces, let's start from the local level," because the autonomy law allows local parliaments to pass these Sharia-inspired regulations.

DEVIN STEWART: Also in the news was another freedom that could be under attack, which is the freedom of the press. It seems like—at least the Western press has been saying—the government snuck this bill through to curtail criticism of the government. Can you give us a sense of what that is about and what are the implications?

ANDREAS HARSONO: In general, according to the Indonesian Press Council, Indonesia has the largest number of "news organizations" in the world, 43,000 organizations. Many of them are small, maybe one-man, one-woman operations with a blog or a website. Many of them, of course, cross the ethical boundaries of journalism. Many people are angry about them, which is understandable, and the Members of Parliament (MPs) are often the target of this media criticism.

I think it is quite fair because if we take a look at public surveys the Parliament is the least trusted public institution in Indonesia, worse than the police. The judiciary is actually number two, so the parliamentarians and the judges are the least trusted institutions in Indonesia.


ANDREAS HARSONO: Yes, corrupt. You can buy justice, you can buy a ruling in Indonesia, basically.

When people were talking about the bill, a lot of debate about it publicly, then the Parliament passed what we call MD3 regulation. It is basically a law on ethics among Parliament members, but that law says that anyone who criticizes or who commits defamation against any Parliament member, he or she can be submitted to the Ethical Council at the Parliament. If he or she refuses, the police should act and bring them to the Council. And if the Council declares that he or she is wrong, then the police should press charges against that person. That is the thing that scares media people.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think it will have a dampening effect on free speech?

ANDREAS HARSONO: Oh, it will. There is going to be a one-year period of so-called "socialization," and there are going to be—

DEVIN STEWART: What is that?

ANDREAS HARSONO: The law is not effective until one year. Meanwhile, in that one-year period, and even after one year, people can still file petitions against that law, and President Jokowi himself encouraged civil society to file a petition against that law, which is quite strange because he is the president. He should know it. He should tell his ruling coalition not to pass that kind of law. But it slipped out of his hands, I guess.

DEVIN STEWART: One other case I want to ask you about is in Yogyakarta. There was a ruling basically upholding the ban against ethnic Chinese Indonesians from owning land. Does this reflect something broader in Indonesia, or is this just an anomaly?

ANDREAS HARSONO: Both. It says a lot about racism in Yogyakarta, but also the greediness among the ruling elite in Yogyakarta. This ruling, of course, is problematic because basically they say that the land cannot be sold to any foreign-descent Indonesian citizen. So what is the meaning of "foreign descent"? We have Indian, Arab-descent Indonesians, European-descent Indonesians. And then it says "only ethnic-descent Indonesians." Pribumi is the "son of the soil," vis-à-vis Peranakan. Peranakan is overseas, ethnic Chinese generation living in Indonesia.

DEVIN STEWART: So only the Pribumi can own the land?

ANDREAS HARSONO: Also ethnic Arab, also ethnic Indian descent, and other European-descent Indonesians, for instance. They can buy land.

DEVIN STEWART: But just not Chinese?

ANDREAS HARSONO: But not ethnic Chinese.

DEVIN STEWART: What is the logic behind that besides racism?

ANDREAS HARSONO: There is an assumption, which is not totally incorrect, that ethnic Chinese are a dominant economic force ethnically in Indonesia, and they control big businesses. Thus, if they are banned from owning lands in Yogyakarta—they can buy land but only for a certain period of time, 25 years for instance, but they should not own it.

If they buy land from, let's say, ethnic Japanese in Jogja, the land ownership will be reverted to the local sultanate, the local government. But that person, ethnic Chinese person, can use the land for let's say 25 years. After 25 years, he can renew the land use, but not ownership. It is of course problematic because they are also Indonesian citizens.

DEVIN STEWART: I would like to get a big-picture last question from you, Andreas. Ten, 20 years ago, the thinking around the world was, "Democracy is on the rise, liberal democracies are going to take over, the end of populist authoritarian regimes is here, we've come to a new era." Where does Indonesia's future fit in this picture? Is Indonesia headed toward a pluralistic harmonious democratic place where various ethnicities can get along, or do you see it as becoming more possibly authoritarian and even more populist?

ANDREAS HARSONO: There is no clear answer to that because the battles are still going on. Many progressive Muslim organizations, many Christian groups, many civil society organizations, many prominent public intellectuals, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), journalists, thinkers, scholars do fight against this discrimination.

Meanwhile, the Islamists are also flexing their muscles and often gaining ground. They can mobilize rallies as big as 500,000, in December of 2016, the largest public rally ever organized in Indonesia.

DEVIN STEWART: Against the governor of Jakarta.

ANDREAS HARSONO: Yes, against the governor of Jakarta's blasphemy charges at that time.

So where is it going? I do not know. But what worries me is that minorities are being targeted more and more, and discriminatory regulations made in the name of Islamic Sharia are also rising, in the hundreds now.

The legal system in Indonesia is becoming more and more polarized: On one side we have the constitutional legal system based on the constitution—everyone is equal—and then on the other side, we have more Sharia-inspired regulations in the so-called "white" provinces like Aceh, southwest Sumatra, Jambi, South Sulawesi, West Nusa Tenggara, Gorontalo, and more and more of these Sharia-inspired regulations taking place in Indonesia, meaning that the polarization is getting bigger and bigger.

This is one country, one state, with dual legal systems. I think this is going to be problematic if it is not solved.

DEVIN STEWART: If this polarization keeps going, what is the danger there? Is it separation of various provinces? Is it more violence? Is it something else?

ANDREAS HARSONO: Yes, there is going to be more discrimination. They are going to be taking Islamic laws into their own hands.

DEVIN STEWART: What does that look like?

ANDREAS HARSONO: Oh, it is very likely. If it is violence against—

DEVIN STEWART: Can you describe what that looks like?

ANDREAS HARSONO: It is closing down churches, it is asking women to wear longer, darker, bigger hijabs, to be less and less revealing. Now we are seeing about 5 percent of Muslim women wearing veils that cover the face. In the past hijab was only down to the neck and later to the chest and later down to the hip, and now even longer, covering the whole leg basically.

Of course, it affects women's movement, riding motorcycles, going to work, going to school, going to public spaces. So I am afraid that these kinds of things are going to be increasing in Indonesia.

What will be the end? Very complicated. There are many international factors, of course. If there is an economic crisis, if there is a serious election dispute, if there is a split within the armed forces, the army especially, army, air force, navy, or there is a violent fight between Nahdlatul Ulama versus the other Muslim organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir or whatever, Muslim Brotherhood, then it is going to be ugly. And if Indonesia is having a conflict—remember 1965, 1 million people were killed—this is going to be much bigger than Cambodia, this is going to be much uglier than Myanmar.

DEVIN STEWART: Andreas Harsono, thank you very much for coming to Carnegie Council. I wish we could end on a happier note, but I really appreciate your insights, and please come again.


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