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The re-emergence of old power in Indonesia

July 31, 2017

The re-emergence of old power in Indonesia

Indonesian Muslims shout slogans during a rally in Jakarta on Friday. Anti Jokowi forces are prepared to mobilise political Islam to set the stage for a return to power in 2019. Achmad Ibraham

by Gustav Brown

Many have cast the recent Jakarta gubernatorial election as a defeat for religious pluralism at the hands of political Islam, a movement which appears more potent and visible than at any time since Indonesia’s transition to democracy.

The "rising radicalism" frame, others suggest, obscures the real contest going on behind the scenes in Indonesian politics.

This contest pits President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) against the coalition of political insiders, tycoons and New Order figures that backed his 2014 presidential rival Prabowo Subianto. While not advocates of political Islam, these forces are prepared to mobilise political Islam in order to weaken Jokowi and set the stage for a return to power in 2019. What appears to be the emergence of a new religious politics in Indonesia is in reality the re-emergence of an old power apparatus – that of the New Order deep state.

This was not the only echo of the New Order that reverberated through the election. Earlier in 2017, the National Police arrested Gatot Saptono – otherwise known as Muhammad Al-Khaththath – and four others on suspicion of makar, which is a term that denotes "treason" or "subversion" against the state. The arrests came in advance of a planned series of rallies in five Indonesian cities.

Joko "Jokowi" Widodo still faces a coalition of political insiders, tycoons and New Order figures that backed his 2014 presidential rival Prabowo Subianto. Bullit Marquez

Many interpreted the move as a message to Islamic hardliners. But the police also claimed to have found a "revolutionary document" outlining plans to ram the gates of the Presidential Palace and occupy the building, as well as evidence that the conspirators had discussed how to bankroll their coup d’etat.

This was the second accusation of makar made during this election cycle. In late 2016, authorities arrested another group on suspicion of makar. That group that included Rachmawati Soekarnoputri (the daughter of one former president and sister of another) and rock star Ahmad Dhani. Soekarnoputri denied the charges and called them politically motivated.

The charge of makar has a long and complex history in Indonesia. Articles 104 to 117 of the Indonesian penal code, which outline the crime, are remnants from the laws of the Netherlands Indies. The colonial state designed these statutes to repress nationalist, Islamic and regional opposition to its rule over the archipelago.

Under former president Sukarno, makar was used primarily in response to the separatists and revolutionaries who threatened the territorial integrity and political legitimacy of the new state.

His successor, Suharto, came to power after dislodging an apparent coup d’etat by a group of leftist military officers likely tied to the leadership of the Indonesian Communist Party. The anti-communist purges that ensued were justified by allegations of makar, as were forced relocations and other repressive measures taken during the military occupation of East Timor.

Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama after his sentencing in May. There is a conceptual link between makar and the charges of blasphemy that were levelled at him. AP

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Suharto regime also deployed allegations of makar to justify repressive measures taken against conservative Muslim and pro-democracy activists.

Since democracy was put in place in 1998, arrests for makar have largely been contained to the separatist conflicts in Aceh and Papua, as well as to national counter-terrorism efforts.

The recent allegations were notable precisely because they were so unusual. This may simply reflect the charged political moment, or a newfound willingness among opponents of the regime to circumvent the electoral process. Al-Khaththath and Soekarnoputri are certainly on record opposing ex-Governor Basuki "Ahok" Purnama and his patron, Jokowi. Whether they intended to do so using legal or extra-legal means is a matter for Indonesian courts to decide.

Putting questions of guilt or innocence aside, there is a conceptual link between makar and the charges of blasphemy that were levelled at Ahok. In the Indonesian legal context, blasphemy is framed as a violation of the authority of religious leaders, the integrity of the religious community and the sanctity of religious teachings. So in a sense, makar is tantamount to blasphemy against the nation-state, a challenge to the authority, integrity and sanctity of Indonesia and its national ideology, Pancasila.

The Pancasila state is by no means secular, but neither is it Islamic. Rather, it is a religiously pluralistic state animated by "godly nationalism", a mutual assistance pact between the state and the orthodox representatives of the religious communities it recognises, which includes both Islam and Christianity.

If the charges of blasphemy against Ahok were like a sword thrust at that pact, then the charges of makar served to parry that sword. With political tensions set to rise on the approach to the presidential elections in 2019, it may not be the last we see of either.

Gustav Brown is Research Fellow at the Asia Research Centre, the National University of Singapore. This article is part of a series from East Asia Forum ( in the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.

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