Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

History lessons

This op-ed is also available in: Burmese

Indonesia, with its free media, rambunctious democracy and frequent elections could well be the most democratic country in Southeast Asia. Its robust economic growth is something others want to emulate. It is not surprising that it is regarded as something of a global success story and has  been studied by those leading Myanmar’s transformation as they also try to create a stable, prosperous and democratic post-authoritarian nation.

But Indonesia is neither a perfect nor model democracy. Its transition 15 years ago was incredibly violent. The sudden end of 32 years of authoritarian rule brought about dramatic political change, but it also unleashed a series of deadly ethnic and religious violent conflicts across the archipelago. It is easy to forget the first dark years of “reformasi” and how many feared that this diverse country would break up into its component ethnic parts. The lessons from this period provide Myanmar with the opportunity to learn from Indonesia’s mistakes.

According to one study, between 1998 and 2002, six Indonesian provinces, including East Timor, experienced large-scale extended violence that killed almost 16,000 people. This is a conservative estimate, and the death toll was almost certainly higher. But the good news is that in the last decade, four out of the remaining five of Indonesia’s extended violent conflicts have ended. How  did this happen?

For answers, it is useful to look at how the government halted communal fighting in Poso in the province of Central Sulawesi. Between 1998-2001, this conflict was one of several outbreaks of Muslim-Christian fighting in eastern Indonesia that had its origin in something else – political struggles, land disputes, elite competition for jobs – but ended up with parties identified by religious affiliation.

The imperfect 10-point Malino Declaration brokered by the government in 2001 did not end the killing but it was the turning point. It led this community away from deadly conflict to a wary but durable peace. Each community sent representatives to talks in a resort area outside the conflict zone. The government did its best to get those in command of militias committing violence or otherwise directly involved in the conflict to the negotiating table. After three days, an agreement was signed.

When trying to distil lessons from the Malino agreement for Myanmar’s recent inter-communal violence, it is important to look not at the negotiations but the agreement’s pragmatic substance. Conflict-weary community leaders pledged to cease all disputes, abide by the law and punish wrongdoers. The signatories requested the state take firm and impartial measures against those who broke the law.

Leaders made a public commitment to respect one another in an attempt to foster an atmosphere of religious tolerance – a pledge that has for the most part held. They recognised that any citizen had the right to come and live peacefully in Poso as long as they respected local habits and customs. It was important in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious country that the agreement reinforced respect for followers of all faiths to practice their respective religions as stipulated by the constitution.
The agreement said property would be reinstated to their rightful owners and those displaced by the violence returned to their place of origin. Government support was given to rehabilitate the economy and damaged infrastructure.

Analysts studying Indonesia’s conflicts believe that one reason widespread inter-communal fighting persisted for so long was poor law enforcement. The police and government lacked experience and did not act quickly enough to contain violence before it escalated out of control. The reluctance of law enforcement agencies to act meant either that violence went unpunished to the point that people lost faith in police and courts, or that people took the law into their own hands. In the end, the central government had to reassert itself in provincial conflicts, rather than leave it to local leaders to resolve.

The Indonesian experience should be instructive for Myanmar as it lays some practical, if difficult steps, that are in line with President U Thein Sein’s speech on March 28. In the long term, the country needs to imagine itself as a modern state rather than dwell on the glory of ancient kingdoms. Looking to Indonesia, another multi-ethnic nation with ethnic and religious tensions unleashed by the easing of tight central control, may help. The mosaic of cultures and religions that is modern-day Myanmar must be the foundation upon which its democracy is built and the state must be unequivocal about protecting all the people inside its borders.

But to succeed in achieving a national vision of unity and prosperity, resolving local conflicts is essential. There cannot be development if violence spreads. To succumb to mob rule at this point in the transition will only encourage the spread of violence and the postpone any future democratic dividend.

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