Indonesia's 'red scare' stokes unease over military's growing influence

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia’s military elite are openly stoking public anxiety about communism, gays and other ‘foreign influences’, a drive critics say is aimed at seizing a greater role in civilian affairs of the world’s third-largest democracy.

An Indonesian military officer displays books about communism in Indonesia, seized along with nearly 90 other books, from shelves inside a mall in Tegal, Central Java May 11, 2016, in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Oky Lukmansyah/via REUTERS

However, the military’s crackdown on suspected communist activity and ambitions to create a massive civilian defense force are beginning to create unease within President Joko Widodo’s administration.

Widodo last week publicly rebuked the military after it detained a handful of Indonesians suspected of spreading communist ideology, the first public resistance by the president to the military’s growing influence in everyday life.

“The president has firmly and clearly told the military and police chiefs to bring their forces to order,” Cabinet Secretary and presidential aide Pramono Anung told reporters.

Under Widodo, the military has joined the nation’s fight against drugs, terrorism and corruption, areas previously reserved for the police.

But a line was crossed this month when soldiers briefly detained two student activists in eastern Indonesia for wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with a picture of a hammer and sickle inside a coffee cup. It was the latest in a string of military and police raids against suspected left-wing radicals.

“The reason the local military command gave (for the detentions) was that the men were spreading communism through T-shirts,” said Abdon Nababan, head of the organization to which the two activists in North Maluku province belong. “We protested because military soldiers cannot arrest, interrogate and confiscate property of civilians.”

A local military spokesman declined to comment on the detentions.

Security forces have also recently begun seizing leftist books from citizens in an apparent attempt to prevent a feared revival of communism.

Armed Forces spokesman Tatang Sulaiman said the military is working within the law.

“If we find groups spreading communist ideology...or materials that can influence the thinking of the public, then we will act according to the law. Our role is to help the police,” he told Reuters.

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The crackdown has coincided with Widodo’s order for an investigation into an anti-communist purge of 1965, a move that irked some within the military elite.

Historians say at least a half-million people were killed in violence that began in October 1965, after suspected communists killed six generals in an attempted coup against then president Sukarno. Successive governments have refused to apologize or accept that death toll.

Indonesia back then had the largest non-ruling communist party in the world, and it was supported by China.

Under the authoritarian Suharto who took over from Sukarno, the party was dissolved and all leftist materials and symbols -- even Chinese characters on signs and in the media -- were banned.

Critics heard echoes of that era in the central Javanese city of Yogyakarta, where an anti-communist group that included children of military and police officials recently prevented the screening of a workers’ rights movie deemed too left-leaning.

“The event was not at all about communism. It was a film about workers,” said Suarjono, an organizer of the screening.

For the military, memories of 1965 are still raw.

“Who was it that rioted and killed military generals at the time? It was the PKI (the communist party),” Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told Reuters in an interview. “Don’t look for justification. I don’t like that.”

“We tried to eradicate them (communists) in the past so it’s possible they want to get revenge,” Ryacudu said.

“Definitely, there is a connection with 1965,” he said when asked about the recent increase in suspected communist activity.


Ryacudu said the military hoped to establish nearly 900 training centers this year for a civilian defense corps known as “Bela Negara” (defend the country).

Its mission is to defend against “proxy wars” waged by communists, gays, religious militants and other “foreign influences”, who want to divide the country and degrade its moral and nationalist values, the military says.

The training centers will teach millions of students, doctors, civil servants and others survival skills, first aid, and Indonesian history - but no weapons training.

“Bela Negara is a direct response to the threats we face from proxy wars,” said Hartin Asri, a military officer in charge of the program.

The Indonesian military has a history of being involved in civilian affairs dating back to independence from the Dutch in 1947. Under a doctrine known as dwifungsi (dual function), the military was granted power over civil and political affairs to promote nationalism and development.

The doctrine was largely jettisoned after Suharto fell from power in 1998, but it still has adherents in the military.

“There are efforts within the senior ranks of the military to create this sense of paranoia that suggest that Indonesian nationalism needs to be re-ignited,” said Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based security expert.

“The military genuinely believes it has the solution to getting Indonesia back on track.”

Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa and Yuddy Cahya. Editing by Bill Tarrant