Indonesia more violent now than under Suharto, say rights groups

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2007, 12:00am

Indonesia is more violent now than it was during the iron-fisted rule of former president Suharto, three of the country's leading rights groups have charged.

Ifdhal Kasim, director of Komnas Ham, the government-supported human rights watchdog, estimated that violent crime had increased 60 per cent since 1998.

'We have been keeping track and have drawn estimates,' Mr Kasim said.

He also underlined that the perpetrators had changed, with more civilian groups involved now, compared to during the New Order, as the 28-year Suharto regime was called. Suharto was ousted in 1998 after massive protests.

Agung Yudhawiranata, from the Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy, said a reduction in the power of the state had had knock-on effects.

'During Suharto, basically, the military was the only perpetrator,' he said. 'But today, agents of violence range from state officials, such as the army, the police and the municipal police units, to civilian groups, such as armed militias, hardline religious groups and criminal gangs.'

The rights' groups highlighted how the police and the military use violence to enforce the law, especially against vulnerable offenders such as beggars, squatters and sex workers.

Police and military personnel have also been involved in shoot-outs among themselves because of conflicting business interests.

Religious-tainted violence has seen self-appointed Islamist vigilante groups attacking so-called deviant sects or religious minorities.

Islamic terrorism has also played a major role in the rise of violence, with Indonesia being targeted several times since 2000.

Petty and violent crimes have also skyrocketed, especially in the main cities.

Experts agree that while petty criminals are often severely punished, state officials and the religiously zealous are rarely held accountable for their misdeeds.

'This is a very big problem,' said Usman Hamid, executive co-ordinator of Kontras, the Commission for Disappearances and Victims of Violence.

'The government is never transparent when it comes to state officials' violations. There is no clear law to punish those who abuse their power and offenders often get away with administrative penalties.'

On the bright side, the experts acknowledged progress in the central government's upholding of human rights and democratic principles, although Mr Hamid said 'this is not always the case at provincial level'.

Indonesia is devolving more power to its 33 provinces. Several local authorities have issued by-laws inspired by the sharia Islamic legal code seen as discriminating against women and minorities.

Mr Kasim also said that since Reformasi, the student-led movement that toppled Suharto, civil society had stepped up its monitoring role and the government was far more willing to listen.

'There are many organisations monitoring what is going on and, at the same time, there are many groups helping the government draft new laws,' he said.