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Indonesian police and vigilante groups: An implicit double standard

Fulcrum - December 16, 2021

A'an Suryana – Indonesia President Joko Widodo has called on police officers to stop visits to patrons of vigilante groups. The problem, however, is that there is a double-standard here in how different groups are treated.

At a 3 December meeting with executives of the regional and national police, President Joko Widodo demanded that police officers stop cordial visits to 'patrons of vigilante groups that often violate the country's laws.' The statement was a response to the slight decrease in the public satisfaction index toward the police between 2020 and 2021. The president argued that the visits tarnished police dignity. He also noted that the close relationship between the police and such groups could result in the police giving preferential treatment to the latter. This would mean that the police would fail to enforce the laws fairly among Indonesian citizens.

It is unclear as to which groups the president was referring to. It is also not clear which specific groups the police have been associated with. There are at least three kinds of vigilante groups in Indonesia: ethnic, nationalist and religious-based. Some of them frequently engage in street fighting, allegedly to win control over protection racket businesses. For example, members of Pemuda Pancasila (PP), the largest nationalist vigilante group, clashed at least three times this year with members of a rival group in Jakarta, the ethnic-based vigilante group, Forum Betawi Rempug (FBR). The latest clash occurred near a market in Tangerang city on 19 November 2021. This resulted in five people being injured: two from PP, two from FBR and a parking attendant.

Another group, the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), is a political thorn in the president's side. This religious-based vigilante group has been influential in mobilising people for its cases. For example, it assumed a substantial role in mobilising various elements of Islam to stage one of the largest sectarian protests in Indonesia's history. This resulted in the downfall of then Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is a Joko Widodo ally. The event showed how the FPI had successfully undermined Joko Widodo's power. FPI was eventually banned in 2020. Several of its influential executives are facing legal prosecution for various cases. But other former executives of FPI have established a new group that runs on the same platform as its predecessor.

In this context, the president's demand should be interpreted as a general warning to police officers that they should not repeat the visits which could render them ineffective in implementing legal justice. The question here is whether the statement effectively ends these 'old' practices?

It might be effective in the short term. Police officers may refrain from building social relations with community figures associated with the vigilante groups, out of fear of a backlash from the Joko Widodo regime. But in the middle or long term, the practice will persist. This close relationship between the state apparatus and vigilante groups has been embedded in the practice of the Indonesian state since its modern structure was established by the British, and subsequently Dutch colonial forces in the early 1800s.

In contrast to the relatively deep-seated democratic mindset and practice of the state apparatus in mature Western democracies, the Dutch colonial-era 'rust en order' authoritarian mindset and practice (an old term for maintaining security and order) is still held dearly by Indonesia's state officials. This mindset and practice – in which maintaining social order is the paramount yardstick for police performance – pushes police officers to maintain social order at all costs, often by disregarding justice because the failure to do so will cost them their jobs. For example, the police often intimidate members of civil society not to conduct big street protests. In the eyes of the government's top brass, these protests are often considered activities that undermine social order.

There are also other factors at play here. In addition to using such vigilante groups as part of efforts to maintain social order, the police and state apparatus also leverage on the capacity and the networks of such groups to oppress social dissent. Conversely, such groups can help the state apparatuses mobilise people to support their causes. For example, police worked jointly with the FPI in May 2019 to prevent people from participating in post-election violent protests in the capital. They are often hired to help politicians, who are assuming government posts, in mobilising voters in election season. There is also a symbiosis here: the vigilante groups also need protection from the state apparatuses for their social and economic survival. This explains why, despite the notoriety of some vigilante groups, Indonesia's security apparatus and even high-ranking state officials still maintain social and political closeness with them.

There is also a double standard here. On 18 March 2019, President Joko Widodo received some executives of FBR, the ethnic-based vigilante group, at the Bogor State Palace for a cordial visit. After the 2019 election, President Joko Widodo and Vice President Ma'ruf Amin attended the Pemuda Pancasila (PP) congress separately. At that function, they accepted their appointments as 'honorary and extraordinary members' of the prominent nationalism-based vigilante group.

This could well portend that police-vigilante group relations will remain hearty. While the president has called on the police to stop visiting patrons of vigilante groups, he continues to maintain a cordial relationship with groups of people popularly known as street hoodlums or thugs who act in defiance of local laws. Can the president command support from rank-and-file police officers if he does not practise what he preaches?

Source: https://fulcrum.sg/indonesian-police-and-vigilante-groups-an-implicit-double-standard