Electioneering in Indonesia

Wednesday 31 March 2004, by Alex HILL

On April 5, Indonesia will hold the first of three votes to elect its parliamentary representatives and president. These elections will be Indonesians’ first chance to elect their president directly. But political stability is far from being assured in this the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Despite frequent references in the western press to Indonesia’s problems with terrorism, it is the military and foreign companies that appear to play a more important role in this year’s election.

©Jakarta Post

Suarthna Made, a member of the Indonesian institute for social transformation (INSIST), notes that rather than barring military officials from holding civil-political posts and supporting media freedom, human rights and social programs, Indonesia’s political reforms have mostly encouraged privatisation and dismantled controls over natural resources. "However we vote, we will be left with a democracy without rights."

The new elections format represents the latest in a series of political reforms implemented since the fall of General Suharto’s oppressive regime in 1998. Don Marut, executive director of INSIST points out that "the election process and political reforms have largely been dictated by international forces." He believes that the recent liberalisation of Indonesia’s economy and the military’s role in promoting conflicts over resource-rich areas is evidence that the military is working in tandem with foreign resource extraction companies to influence Indonesia’s political process.

The province of Central Sulawesi exemplifies this potentially explosive combination. A conflict between Christian and Muslim militias erupted there between 1999 and 2002, eventually spilling over into district-wide rioting which left over 2000 people dead, and displaced 100,000 more. Mohammad Ridwan Lapasere spokesperson in Central Sulawesi for the Indonesian Association of Journalists points out that, "After the fall of Suharto, the military covertly stirred up the conflict here by supporting militias on both sides. Investigations have shown that militias were using military issue weapons, and in some cases military personnel were joining and training the militias. The common perception was that this was a local religious conflict, but with so much evidence pointing to the involvement of the military, it is clear that it was being aggravated by external forces."

During the conflict a large number of military units were called in to re-establish security, setting up checkpoints and sealing-off land abandoned by those who fled.

Lapasere explains that the military’s goals in stirring up the conflict were to increase its political profile as the only force capable of maintaining security and to reap the financial benefits from the controlling the land and handling the government reconstruction programs. This would give them both the political mandate and resources to engineer a return to the political offices they held under the Suharto regime.

The effects of this strategy at the grassroots are clear when talking to people like Kornelius Ranai a small-scale cocoa farmer in a village where thirty people lost their lives during the conflict. "This community wants a military government, only they can ensure security. We haven’t felt the effects of political reforms, all we have seen is conflict, refugees and hard times." Despite admitting that a military government could bring back a Suharto-style dictator, he feels that the immediate risk to his community is greater from internal conflict.

Marut points to another motivation for the conflict in Sulawesi, "Government supported migration programs in the 1970s and 80s gave migrants in Sulawesi unusually strong land rights. But since then, a great wealth of oil and minerals has been found under these lands. Because the government cannot just move the migrants off the land to make way for mining and drilling, as they do in other regions, they have stirred up conflict to displace people."

According to Anto Sangaji, head of the Free Land Movement in Central Sulawesi, INCO, the Canadian mining giant, is one of the companies implicated in this. INCO operates a number of nickel and copper mines in the mountains of Sulawesi. INCO, like all natural resources companies in Indonesia, pays large contracts to the military and special police units to maintain security at their operations.

Sangaji cites a case where a local community fled a conflict area, but when they returned years later INCO had been given their land as part of a mining concession. Now INCO and the special-forces are preventing these people from claiming their land back. He notes the same pattern is repeated in all of Indonesia’s conflict areas, wherein the military prevent people who have fled conflict areas from returning to lands that have been claimed by resource extraction companies.

Commenting on the potential outcomes of the political partnership between the military and international capital, Suarthna comments that, "This election is like old wine in a new bottle. If the military can regain key posts in this election, a new phase will begin, they will use force to impose the rule of global capital across Indonesia, similar to what we have witnessed in conflict areas such as Sulawesi, Aceh and Papua." He cites the failure of politicians to implement reforms that actually improve the general population’s well-being as the key factor behind the military’s comeback into the political arena.

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