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April 19, 2010
Social Order Will Never Exist Until We Establish the Supremacy of the Law
Horrific scenes during last week’s riots in Tanjung Priok, North Jakarta, have led to a welter of accusations of human rights breaches and oppressive conduct by public order officers. The riots also made it patently clear to the world that the supremacy of the law is a long way from realization in Indonesia. Furthermore, the violence was a clear indication that many of our citizens hold the judicial system in contempt, preferring the concept of “might is right” over rational orderly protest.
The fact is that the riots started as an attempt by the Jakarta government to clear illegal settlements surrounding the historic tomb of a revered religious leader. It was, by any definition, a large operation, involving around 2,000 officers, and it resulted in an orgy of violence. It was both a public relations disaster and a blunder for the government, and it was an incident that will cast a long shadow.
That the operation was poorly planned and managed is a foregone conclusion, apparent by the fact that the majority of local residents were under the impression that the officers were there to tear down the hallowed mausoleum. It is galling that the government failed to explain the objective of the operation before sending in thousands of officers in full riot gear. What is more astounding is that the large show of force proved to be such a huge flop.
Knowing that the site had religious significance and that militant groups such as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) were involved, the government should have used both diplomacy and intelligence before conducting the operation. It was also evident from the presence of Molotov cocktails and the gathering of thousands of rioters in such a short space of time that the residents were well-prepared to counter the operation.
The Tanjung Priok debacle will set back efforts to ensure the supremacy of the law in Indonesia. It will also send the signal that government agencies, accustomed to intimidating ordinary citizens, only cower when people turn the tables on them through violent resistance. Either way, it is bad news for law enforcement, and a blow to moves to establish a civil and democratic society.
Evidence of a new sense of caution is already at hand. The day after the riots, the Surabaya municipal government postponed a scheduled operation to clear illegal buildings. Last week in Sampang, Madura, public order officers confessed to being nervous when carrying out a court order to seize a disputed property, fearing copycat resistance by local residents.
N or is this the first failure to uphold property laws in the country. A court order to seize almost 10 hectares of land in Tandes, Surabaya, has so far come to nothing despite repeated attempts in 1999, 2000 and 2001 because local residents occupying the property threatened the government with a bloodbath.
On a larger scale, the failure of the government to protect followers of Ahmadiyah, a minority Islamic sect, from assault by religious fanatics is also testimony to the way Indonesian law enforcers cower helplessly before mob rule. That the police officers allowed organizers of a recently proposed gay and lesbian rights international conference to be physically assaulted by protesters is further proof of this selective treatment by the state of its citizens.
The fact remains that the attackers of minority groups are indeed criminals, but so far they have escaped justice, either due to the cowardice of our law enforcers or because, on a more sinister level, our police officers are biased when it comes to interpreting the law.
This is perhaps a recurrent theme in the history of law enforcement in the country. The law is still seen by many not as a tool to guarantee the rights of the people, but rather as a tool of the state to oppress, and a useless paper tiger in the face of mob rule.
This may explain why the Tanjung Priok residents chose armed resistance to impose their will on the government, in spite of the fact that they were illegally occupying the disputed land. This alone may explain why the battered gay rights activists in Surabaya recently chose not to file charges against their attackers. Why bother? Police officers were indeed present during the assault but no arrests were made.
One major hurdle to unbiased law enforcement in Indonesia is the pervasive tendency by state officials to opt for political expediency. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono himself rebuked the provincial government of Jakarta for the riots, saying that any government action, although legally correct, must not go ahead if the circumstances appear unfavorable.
Although there is much pragmatic wisdom in this approach, the president is also signaling that the law discriminates in its treatment of citizens. Justice is no longer blind, but a prudent opportunist that strikes most efficiently when the majority are clapping, but looks on indifferently when an unpopular underdog is trampled upon.
Another equally insurmountable hurdle is the integrity of government officials in the eyes of the people. With the recent sensational exposure of the workings of the judicial mafia, and corruption within the ranks of the National Police, Indonesians as a whole have very little faith in the law.
This distrust only leads to conspiracy theories against government officials, with the public suspecting that the government is only enriching itself and at the same time making fools of ordinary Indonesians. And when this happens, the people are easily provoked into going on the rampage against what they perceive as deliberate injustice against them by a corrupt government.
Perhaps the government did try to explain to the people of Tanjung Priok why it wanted to clear the area of illegal settlements. After all, a revitalized international port at Tanjung Priok could only be good for the country. But where did the message get lost along the way? The answer may well be a matter of trust. Whatever the government says, the people simply no longer trust it, and it will remain that way until they see evidence to the contrary.
Johannes Nugroho is a writer based in Surabaya.