Jakarta – Anyone wondering what a police state in Indonesia would look like must watch the video clips of last week's ugly scenes in Wadas, a village near the Central Java town of Purworejo.
Hundreds of police officers in full riot gear descended on the small village on Wednesday. Scuffles broke out with the defenseless villagers, who were outnumbered. Arrests were made, police say 23 but activists say more than 70. Whatever the number, all have since been released because the police were drawing so much heat.
Police may have their version of how and why it happened, and the villagers and activists helping them have their story accompanying these video clips. Whichever narrative we hear, there is no denying what we see in the videos: a police operation that just seemed excessive, and very intimidating for the helpless villagers.
This footage hardly fits the image of a democratic Indonesia. It violates the state ideology Pancasila's fourth principle, which calls for deliberations, and not the use of force, as a way of resolving disputes. The massive police deployment to quell tensions in the land dispute in Wadas makes Indonesia look like a police state.
Besides leaving the villagers with deep trauma, the episode raises a big question about where democracy is heading. Wadas is not the only land dispute brewing or escalating in the country as the government acquires land in the name of development, including for the construction of economic infrastructure. Does this mean that the use of the police is becoming the default in settling land disputes?
Wadas has been designated as part of the massive Bener Reservoir currently under construction. Some villagers have accepted compensation, but a handful still resists, not only refusing to move, but also objecting to the ongoing quarrying of andesite volcanic rocks nearby, which is destroying the environment and their farms.
When completed, Bener will be the tallest dam in Indonesia, with a depth of 159 meters. It will irrigate rice fields, will supply water for industries and households, and a hydropower plant will generate electricity for Purworejo and its surrounding areas. When the dam project was designated a strategic national interest in 2018, its construction was accelerated, and the pressure increased, as did the tension with the villagers refusing to move.
The internet helped the nation learn of the repressive police operation as it happened last week, with villagers and activists posting videos and pictures on their social media platforms, making Wadas one of the trending topics of the day.
The Wadas incident is a throwback to the controversial land conflict of the 1980s when president Soeharto used the full force of the military to terrorize and evict thousands of villagers to make way for the Kedungombo reservoir, also in Central Java.
Indonesia has come a long way since then, as have the police. After Soeharto's downfall in 1998, police were reformed thoroughly and transformed into a civilian force independent from the Indonesian Military.
The nation has invested time and money reforming the police who should really protect and serve the people. Have we wasted all those reform efforts, and are we really reverting to a police state? Let's hope not.