Expelled From Indonesia
Expelled From Indonesia
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Expelled From Indonesia

On Sunday morning, my colleague from the International Crisis Group and I left Jakarta, expelled, apparently for being a threat to Indonesia's security and damaging its image abroad.

One Indonesian friend said that it was a testament to how far Indonesia has moved from its authoritarian past that we lasted as long as we did. She may be right. When I joined ICG's Jakarta office in 2002, after decades of working on human rights in Indonesia, I thought it was a miracle that I got a residence permit at all.

Over time, I got so used to the post-Suharto political space that I felt no inhibitions about writing and speaking on topics that would have been taboo six years ago, including the dynamics of the conflicts in Aceh and Papua, communal tensions, and radical Islamic movements. ICG reports were picked up by the local print and broadcast media and fed into a lively public debate, unthinkable a short while ago.

Our expulsion doesn't presage a return to dictatorial controls. The fact that a leading Jakarta daily could publish a cartoon on its front page of me with my mouth taped shut is only one indication that sardonic commentary on government actions is here to stay. If we didn't get a fair hearing from the National Intelligence Agency known as BIN, which set this whole train of events in motion, we certainly got one in the Indonesian press. Another newspaper even published a comic strip showing the head of that agency as the evil villain, going back into his cave after ordering us out.

But our expulsion does expose some troubling aspects of today's Indonesia. We clearly crossed an invisible limit in terms of what was acceptable to say or investigate. If we can be branded a security threat as a result, so can many other organizations, domestic and international, which challenge or inadvertently stumble against powerful political and economic interests.

Some officials in the Indonesian government obviously feel more comfortable with the old system than with the new; what they don't realize is that the old system is gone for good. BIN officials, for example, gave different explanations of our sins to different audiences behind closed doors. We were variously said to have spread slander about Aceh and Papua, sold information abroad, and pitted the army against Islam. They conveyed nothing to us directly.

But word leaked out, and when it did, we sought -- and got -- a hearing with a key parliamentary committee and were able to challenge the accusations through the press. It didn't stop our deportation, but it does suggest that there are beginning to be checks on the use of power.

Our expulsion is also symptomatic of what seems to be a growing suspicion of foreigners, linked to a strong sense of Indonesian nationalism. When BIN presented its case against ICG to an Indonesian parliamentary committee, the discussion reportedly turned to how deporting us was an appropriate response to the indignities suffered by Indonesian citizens at the hands of American and Australian immigration authorities.

Shortly after ICG's difficulties exploded in the local press, I was invited to a discussion by the international relations division of the Indonesian Muslim Students organization. Almost all the questions during the course of that lively session focused on the malicious intent of Westerners, either to do to Papua what they did to East Timor, to weaken Indonesia through support for separatist movements more generally, or to undermine Islam through the war on terror.

One young man asked why so many foreigners were doing research on Indonesia, as though they must have some evil purpose in doing so. I asked him in return how many Indonesians were studying in Australia, the U.S. and Europe, and drew applause as if I'd scored a point. No question that conspiracy theories in Indonesia run rampant, but they seem to be reflective less of some innate hostility than of a lack of information to challenge widespread rumor mongering.

A third source of concern is what our expulsion reveals about the sensitivity of the Aceh and Papua issues. Both areas have armed guerrilla movements and strong pro-independence sentiment. ICG has been studiously neutral in reporting on the conflicts there, not supporting independence. If anything, we have suggested that a properly conceived and implemented autonomy package could be the way forward. That stance alone has brought protests from the Acehnese rebel movement GAM, as has our repeated reference to GAM's own abuses.

But we have also said that failure to implement autonomy in any meaningful way has contributed to the ongoing conflict and that, in both places, Jakarta was losing the battle for hearts and minds. We have also suggested, based on detailed investigation, that there are people within the political elite who have strong economic interests in both places. Does this then make us a threat to Indonesian security? The larger threat comes from closing down a debate on the sources of these conflicts. A debate which, if allowed to continue, could throw up creative ideas for how to resolve them.

Finally, Indonesia is in election mode, with the first round of presidential elections scheduled for July 5. The moves against ICG began in late 2003, but everything has come to a head just as the presidential campaign gets underway. On the one hand, we are accused of being potentially disruptive of the democratic process. On the other hand, our expulsion has become so politicized that it's difficult to know whether it would have happened anyway, given the cumulative impact of our reports, or whether a decision was made somewhere that deporting us could be used politically to play into a nationalist agenda.

When the issue of ICG's imminent expulsion first broke, an official accused me of seeking martyrdom through publicity. The BIN director said I was the kind of person the Indonesian people don't like. But I was deluged with messages of support from across the country from people who wanted the issues we raised to be out in the open. We may now be in temporary exile. But ironically, it's the reaction to our expulsion that has made us optimistic about the prospects for Indonesian democracy.

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