An AR Exclusive: INDONESIA ARRESTS LEFT-LEANING SCHOLARS
by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
JAKARTA, June 12, 2001 1:25am (PDT) -- On a hot and humid afternoon last Friday, June 8, Giles Ji Ungpakorn sat inside a conference room and listened to a Japanese scholar speaking about the economic crisis and macroeconomic policies in Japan. A big, green rectangular table with some 80 people around it dominated the meeting room at a well-known resort in suburban Jakarta.
Suddenly, about 20 police officers burst into the room. They shouted in Indonesian and pulled out tear gas launchers and automatic rifles, blocking some exit doors in the room, trapping nearly all of the stunned conference delegates.
Ungpakorn, a Thai political scientist teaching at the Bangkok-based Chulalongkorn University, did not understand the language but he thought there must be a serious problem. Some of the Indonesians who had organized the conference immediately talked with the officers.
The police charged that the foreigners were involved in a "secret meeting," misusing their tourist visas, and conspiring with a left-leaning Indonesian organization to create unrest. The police did not bring warrants but insisted on detaining foreigners and organizers as well as Budiman Sujatmiko and Dita Indah Sari -- both of whom are leading members of the leftist People's Democratic Party.
After that encounter, the delegates, who included citizens of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Britain, the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Pakistan and Germany, were reasonably calm until paramilitary militia members clad in jungle camouflage entered the room armed with knives, batons and swords. The militia wanted the meeting disbanded and asked the police to bring the foreigners out to an open truck.
Ungpakorn tried to stay calm, knowing that the foreigners had entered In donesia with the proper papers, but worried about a four-year-old Australia n girl, Zoe Hinman, who was innocently painting pictures on the floor. Her parents brought her along to Jakarta to have a good time amid this quiet academic conference on neo-liberalism.
"I'm sure if there was a meeting of the IMF and there were foreign delegates, the police wouldn't burst into the meeting to demand the passports of the delegates," said Ungpakorn, referring to the Washington-based International Monetary Fund, a champion of neoliberalism, which has become the main target of criticism over the Asian economic crisis in 1997-1998.
"It was a bad day for Indonesia's democracy but we are more concerned about the local people who organized the seminar," said Australian Jim McKerroy.
The police brought the 32 foreigners to Jakarta's police headquarters that Friday and only released them conditionally in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Indonesian immigration officials, to the embarrassment of the police, however, found the foreigners had done nowrong and let them go wherever they wanted on Monday.
The arrests were widely criticized by labor and rights activists at home and abroad. They raised concerns of a return to the repression of former Indonesian dictator Suharto.
But What Ungpakorn did not know was that a few hours prior to the nasty encounter, a local leader of the Angkatan Muda Ka'abah or the Young Generation of Ka' abah, a militia group linked to the opposition United Development Party, had called his boss, Sofyan Usman, to report that he had seen Budiman in the resort area.
Budiman is a longtime nemesis of many right wing groups in Indonesia. President Suharto jailed Budiman for several years as a political prisoner. The fall of Suharto in May 1998 prompted his early release.
But the competition, as some western scholars described it, between "Islamism and communism" began in Indonesia in the 1920's, when a major Muslim organization was split up into two major factions, and has continued ever since.
The leftist faction became the embryo of the Indonesian Communist Party, which launched a failed rebellion in 1948 and was involved in the killing of several Indonesian army generals in 1965. It was outlawed in 1966, but many Muslim figures consider Budiman's PRD to be the reincarnation of the banned Communist Party.
The local militias reported to Sofyan, president of the Angkatan Muda Ka'abah and a member of parliament, that the confereee's neo-liberalism theme was only camouflage for the real theme, a construct in which Budiman suppo sedly seeks support from the foreigners to help in an international campaign if Indonesia should again fall into chaos.
"It is related to the extraordinary meeting of the People's Consultative Assembly," said Sofyan.
It is a public knowledge here that Budiman and his party have consistently supported ailing and embattled blind President Abdurrahman Wahid, and rejected proposals to have the national assembly impeach Wahid in August on corruption charges that have been dismissed by prosecutors, and for erratic leadership that is sometimes harder to explain.
The warm relationship between this young, charismatic activist and Wahid, the most influential cleric-cum-politician of the 30-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama Muslim group, has raised suspicion in many corners.
"Go for it! Coordinate with the authorities!" retorted Sofyan that Friday.
The militia reported the meeting to the local police, asking the police to force the conference attendees to disperse.
"We had received instructions from Jakarta police chief Insp. Gen. Sofjan Yacob to keep an eye on Budiman. My men caught these foreigners and Budiman, holding a meeting on labor issues at the Sawangan Golf inn at Sawangan," local police chief Comr. Amhar Azeth later told the dailyJakarta Post. On Monday, Sofyan Usman, a big man clad in a tailored business suit, told me in his office in Indonesia's parliament that his militias meant no harm, stressing that he had checked on the resort himself, talked with his men and got assurances that no one was injured.
But Sofyan admitted that some people were bleeding after crashing through the glass windows as they rushed out of the conference room. A militia leader also grabbed a foreigner who kept videotaping the encounter. The man wanted to seize the film.
Why bring knives, batons and swords?
"They equipped themselves," said Sofyan, adding that only Angkatan Muda Ka'abah militias in the area carry sharp weapons.
"Even in a normal conditions they also bring weapons," said Sofyan, adding that the militias, however, "are trained not to harm people. It's just a part of readiness."
Sofyan said he has no problem with any discussion, "They can discuss anything. The foreigners are actually only the background. We aim at Budiman," he said.
Ungpakorn, McKerroy and most of the foreign delegates left Jakarta either on Monday or Tuesday. But Budiman is still living in Jakarta, and so is Sofyan. The saga has not ended.
Andreas Harsono has reported from Indonesia for the American Reporter since 1995. He was selected as a Nieman International Fellow in 1999-2000. He resides in Jakarta.