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Indonesia’s new criminal code: An attack on human rights and marxism

Originally published: Spring Magazine on January 10, 2023 by Pattimura Muda (more by Spring Magazine)  | (Posted Jan 20, 2023)

In early December, last year, the Indonesian government legislated a new criminal code to replace the old code that the country inherited from its past colonial oppressor, the Dutch. The government has claimed that the legislation of the new criminal code was an effort to “decolonize” Indonesia’s criminal justice system from the legacy of the Dutch East Indies colonial era. Ironically, the new criminal code contains many authoritarian provisions that are similar to the old colonial law, including criminalization against anyone who insulted the head of state or state’s institutions, which back in the colonial days was used to punish indigenous people who were deemed to have insulted the crown.

The international media have rightly responded with condemnation, particularly against the criminalization of premarital sex and cohabitation, and sexual activities between members of the same sex. As Human Rights Watch summarizes,

Articles in the new code violate the rights of women, religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and undermine rights to freedom of speech and association.

But there is one article in the code that did not get as much attention from the media, which is an article that outlaws communism, Marxism and Leninism ideology. Article 188 of the new Criminal code states that anyone who spreads or develops the teachings of communism, Marxism, and Leninism or other ideologies that are contrary to Pancasila—state ideology—in public orally or in writing, including spreading it through any media, shall be imprisoned for four years. Further, it states, that if the act of spreading the teachings is carried out to replace the state’s ideology, Pancasila, the perpetrator will face seven years of imprisonment. And, up to 15 years of imprisonment if the spreading of the ideology causes riots and death.

The suppression of Marxism in Indonesia in the name of decolonization is a betrayal of history. It completely erases the influence of Marxism in the history of the anti-colonial struggle in Indonesia. It also attempts to suppress the re-emergence of Marxism and social justice struggles, but these are growing.

History of communism and anti-communism in Indonesia

Indonesia has a long history of Marxism, which was central to decolonization. One of the founding fathers of Indonesia, Tan Malaka, was a Communist. He joined the 1922 meeting of the Communist International to speak on behalf of the Communist Party of Java and its 13,000 members, who were part of building working class struggles and united fronts with revolutionary nationalist and pan-Islamist groups against capitalism and colonialism. In 1945 these movements won independence from the Dutch.

By the 1960s the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) boasted 3 million members. It was a dominant force in Indonesian politics, and was widely supported by the Indonesian masses because of its reputation as a clean party and its effective organizing efforts. But like other Communist Parties around the world, the rise of Stalinism changed its focus from working class struggles to alliances with its national bourgeoisie. Sukarno, who was the nation’s president at that time, relied on PKI to support his policies, particularly in his struggle against British capitalist policies in South East Asian countries. In 1965 reports, the CIA claimed that the growing influence of PKI in Indonesia was a threat to the global capitalist system. They warned that if Sukarno remained president of Indonesia for the next 2 to 3 years, Indonesia would become a communist state.

Within the same year as the CIA report mentioned above, Suharto, a right-wing major general in the Indonesian army, seized presidential power and proceeded to commit an anti-communist purge, which killed millions of members, sympathizers and anyone remotely associated with PKI. Following the purge, Suharto, with the power of the Indonesian military, ruled over the nation for over three decades, enriching his family and friends and persecuting anyone who dared to resist.

Throughout the Suharto dictatorship, Marxism was branded as an evil ideology. Marxist theories were outlawed, trade unions were suppressed, and leftists were abducted and murdered. Even the widows and descendants of the murdered communists were subjected to various forms of systemic discrimination. Despite the atrocities, Suharto was applauded by the West for successfully wiping out communism from Indonesia.

On December 7, 1975, Suharto, with the support of the West, invaded and occupied a newly independent neighbouring nation of East Timor under the pretext of anti-communism. At the time, the West were concerned that East Timor would turn out to be the next “Cuba of Asia”. The Indonesian government occupied East Timor for 24 years and subjected its Indigenous population to ethnic cleansing through extrajudicial murders, massacres and deliberate starvation.

Suharto’s authoritarian rule weakened following the severe financial crisis that swept through South East Asian countries in 1997-1998. The outrageous inflation at that time sparked a series of protests across Indonesia. The protests were spearheaded by students, demanding systematic reform and Suharto’s resignation from the presidency. On May 21, 1998, Suharto, caved into the demand of the people, and stepped down from the presidency.

  A revolution betrayed

It seems ironic that the new criminal code was legislated under the leadership of the current president, Jokowi, who is supposedly a liberal president, who many Indonesians have hoped would move the country out of its authoritarian past into a progressive and liberal future. Jokowi was the first Indonesian president who came from neither military nor political elite background. Instead, Jokowi came from a low-income family.

Before his political career, Jokowi was a business owner. Since before his presidency, Jokowi, with the support of local and international media, has done a fantastic job in projecting his image as a tolerant and progressive leader. In 2014, Time magazine put Jokowi on the cover of their international edition and called him an anti-establishment president and the face of Indonesian democracy.

But Jokowi has consistently positioned himself as a pro-capital president. This is evident by the rising inequalities between the rich and poor Indonesians, despite the continuous economic growth.  At the beginning of his first term as the president, Jokowi, despite nationwide protests, reduced the nation’s fuel subsidies, subjecting the working class and poor people to financial hardships.

At the beginning of his second term of presidency in 2019, Jokowi’s government legislated an omnibus law, titled the “Job Creation Law”. It is stated that the goal of the law is to boost economic development by attracting foreign investments. But in capitalist terms, this means increasing the exploitation of people and the land. The law obliterated workers’ rights, stripped away environmental protections, and robbed Indigenous communities of the rights to their traditional land. Since the law passed, there have been multiple violent land grab projects targeting peasants and Indigenous communities throughout the archipelago. The law has also been used to criminalize and jail environmental activists. Under Jokowi, Indonesia has continued to commit atrocities against its marginalized peoples for the sake of economic growth. Most severe is the violent colonization and genocide against West Papuans for their resource-rich land.

The spectre is back

In 2018, Jacobin magazine published an article about Indonesian politics with the title “The Country with no Left”.  The article essentially argued that Suharto’s anti-communist violence and terror effectively erased all left-wing politics in Indonesia from existence. Decades after his fall, Indonesian leftist still has not been able to recoup. The article further mentioned that there were no ideological left political movements in Indonesia. And, although Indonesia is practising electoral democracy, none of the political parties (14 parties participated in the last election, in 2019) represents left-wing politics.

But if Marxism were dead in Indonesia, the state would not feel the need to criminalize it. The legislation of the new criminal code is the ruling class’s latest response against the continuous resurgence of the left-wing movements in Indonesia. Since the old tactics of using bigotry and anti-communist sentiment fanned by right-wing zealots and the threats of violence by conservative religious mobs cannot contain the spread of left-wing ideology, the ruling class has now moved to utilize the power of the state to criminalize it.

Rather than to defend Pancasila as the state’s ideology, the actual purpose of the new anti-communist law is to safeguard the ruling class’ interest and exploitation from the potential fightback from the working class and oppressed people.

Early this year, I had the chance to spend 4 months back in Indonesia. During my time there, I noticed a growing sentiment among the people, especially the youth, for left-wing politics. I noticed many left-wing online publications and social media pages, I saw various anarchist groups organizing mutual aid efforts, and university students organizing Marxist reading groups. I also came across a lot of grassroots organizations with left-wing ideologies, including a socialist organization fighting for the liberation of West Papua. Even more, Indonesian trade unions are now more active than ever since the days of Suharto.

In 2021, as a response to the threat posed by  “Job Creation Law”, several trade unions banded together to re-established the labour party (Partai Buruh), which is set to participate in the 2024 general election. The leadership of the party has stated social democracy is its party’s ideology. This is a fresh development in Indonesian electoral politics, because, for the first time in a long while, there is a political party in Indonesia that brings ideology other than nationalism or religion. Since its re-establishment, the party has played a significant role in mobilizing resistance against the government’s onslaught on labour rights. Most recently, the party organized a march against the new criminal code, which was attended by thousands of trade unionists, party members and sympathisers.

As the flaws in the neoliberal economic system are becoming increasingly clear to Indonesian people, Marxism is growing.

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