Indonesian general acquitted of Tanjung Priok massacre

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Since the fall of Suharto Indonesia’s journey to ‘democracy’ has been marked by court trials involving its past rulers. Curiously, any trial in Indonesia attracts western attention to their disputed ‘credibility’. Within the last two months alone, there have been three important court trials in Indonesia, two of them involving its notorious military, which ruled from behind the Suharto facade.

On July 23 the US’s allies in the region were fuming about a ruling by the constitutional court to the effect that an anti-terror law used to convict suspects in the Bali bombing (October 2002) was illegally applied. The law was passed after the Bali attacks, and therefore could not be used because that would be retroactive application, the court decided.

On August 13, western officials again played the role of human-rights champions when a human-rights court in Jakarta acquitted 15 Indonesian security officers of killings that took place in the aftermath of the referendum in East Timor (1999), that led to its secession from Indonesia. The US state department was "profoundly disappointed" by the verdicts; Australia, the chief architect and financier of the East Timor secessionist movement, was not happy either. But when the head of Indonesia’s special forces was declared innocent on August 12 over the massacre of Muslims in Tanjung Priok in 1984, there was not a whimper of disapproval from the US and its allies, despite the fact that Jakarta did not prosecute the top military commanders who were most closely tied to Suharto’s pancasila regime.

Major General Sriyanto Muntrasan, who was then under the command of Indonesian armed forces chief Benny Murdani –” a Roman Catholic whose presence during the shootings was noted by TAPOL in its report of the incident (1987) –” was accused of telling soldiers to shoot into a crowd of demonstrators near Tanjung Priok port, Jakarta, on September 12, 1984. However, the court ruled that the incident was a "spontaneous clash", and therefore not a human rights violation. Because of the spinelessness of the judiciary in Indonesia with regard to even quite vicious violations of human rights in Aceh, Papua, East Timor and other flashpoints in the archipelago, the ruling comes as no surprise. Only a week earlier, the same court saw nothing surprising about freeing the former head of Jakarta’s military police, who had been accused of the torture of activists during the same incident in 1984, despite well-documented reports by human-rights groups at that time, the most outspoken being the UK-based TAPOL.

This acquittal comes 20 years after the Tanjung Priok killings, now known as ‘Black September’. That incident is considered a turning-point in Suharto’s de-Islamization policy, in a period marked by killings and imprisonment of Muslim activists, rampant construction of churches, a violent drive towards the Christian-pagan pancasila ideology, and repression of alternative and independent Islamic movements in Indonesia. (‘Alternative’ because Indonesia’s ‘Islamic’ movements are divided between the ‘mainstream’, i.e. officially tolerated ‘moderate’ Islam, and those popular among the masses, such as teachers in pesantrens: the religious boarding schools.)

In the early 1980s the Suharto military regime, backed by Christian advisors who occupy senior cabinet and military posts, enforced new laws, based on pancasila ("five points") ideology, to cover every aspect of Indonesian society. It was during this period that Islam re-emerged to play a central role in opposition to that. All organisations in Indonesia were required to adopt pancasila. The pancasila interpretation of ‘monotheism’ meant putting Islam, in the world’s most populous Muslim country, on an equal footing with Christianity, Buddhism and Hindu-Balinese beliefs. Among other things, the law restricted Islam to family, mosque and prayer. In 1985 Suharto brought into effect a law requiring all organizations to adopt pancasila as their sole ideology, and providing for government supervision, or dissolution of organizations if they did not comply. Many Muslim organizations were successfully infiltrated by pancasila elements and began to subscribe to these laws, leaving Muslims to try to find alternative Islamic movements to fight for Islam. Indonesia’s answer to Kemalism also resulted in expulsions of hijab-wearing schoolgirls and even plans for common ‘houses of worship’ and graveyards.

The introduction of this pagan ideology was bloody. Mosques began to disseminate information against the pancasila nonsense. At one mosque soldiers entered the mosque in their boots and tore posters off walls, while pointing pistols at people. This led to calls for an apology from the military. Later four people were arrested, three of them mosque officials.

On September 12, after Amir Biki, an influential local Muslim leader, delivered an open-air ‘pengajian’ (lecture), several thousand marched to the police station nearby to demand that the four be released. The army, who had by then surrounded the crowd, responded with machine-gun fire. Benny Murdani, Suharto’s Roman Catholic army chief, was the chief architect of the massacre and had been directing the operations on sight. A month later, Murdani warned mosque officials to drive out anti-pancasila speakers if they did not want the army to bring truckloads of troops. After the killings, army trucks arrived to remove bodies and some of the injured were taken to the Jakarta Army Hospital, while other hospitals were warned not to accept casualties. Quick preparation was made to wash away blood using fire engines. Because all of the dead and wounded were taken away by the military, the exact death toll is unknown.

While prosecutors in last month’s trial chose to use a casualty figure of 14 –” just five more than what the Suharto regime claimed –” the National Commission on Human Rights (KOMNAS-Ham) put the death toll at 33. This is not surprising, as KOMNAS-Ham had earlier absolved the military of blame, declaring that the army had only “responded” to attacks by the “mob”. The truth is that almost 600 people were killed. This figure was confirmed in several independent reports that cite secret mass graves –” a practice which the Indonesian army is known to favour.

Hundreds of Muslim teachers and ulama were arrested after the killings. The massacre served to show who is really against the pesantrens, who had been at the forefront of opposition to Suharto’s dictatorship, his trigger-happy generals and pancasila. The west will be the last to celebrate any withdrawal of the Indonesian army from politics. If it had still been reigning, its "war on terror" in the archipelago would have made use of the generals to dismantle the pesantren education system, and “take care” of’radical’ ulama such as Abu Bakar Basyir, whose acquittal on charges of terrorism was greeted with disappointment by western allies in the region. This also perhaps explains why the US and its allies do not express concern about the successful entry of Susilo Bambang, a pro-Suharto military strongman, into the second phase of the presidential elections later this month.

Although justified, the outrage in western government circles over the East Timor acquittals is just another example of the West’s double standards. None of the massacres perpetrated against tens of thousands of Muslims during the Suharto era (which were far worse in range and scale) generated any outrage. Nevertheless, western NGOs and human-rights groups concerned with Indonesian affairs (most of whom are funded by Australia and by Church groups), are at least relatively honest in their anger over the East Timor acquittals, mainly because the new ‘independent’ Christian East Timor was their brainchild. American and European protests, however, are just an exercise to avoid being criticised by these human-rights group for remaining silent. After all, it was a Suharto who had been armed to the teeth by the West who perpetrated all or most of the massacres that took place during his rule.

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