Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to use her visit to Jakarta this week as a platform to speak to Muslims in many countries. But she should be careful not to say that Muslims in Indonesia are “moderate,” as most diplomatic visitors like to say. For members of persecuted religious groups in Indonesia, it is a useless and inaccurate cliche.
It is true that Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any single country in the world, but this large population lives mostly on the island of Java. Other islands in the archipelago have a mixed religious character — Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucianist, among others. Some are even predominantly Christian, such as the sparsely populated islands like Flores, Rote, Timor, Papua, the Malukus, and smaller islands like Tanimbar, Kei and Dobo. “The Christians,” said Frans Anggal of the Flores Pos daily, “live and dominate in the eastern islands.”
In recent years, the Indonesian state, dominated mostly by Javanese Muslims, has become less tolerant toward minority religions.
Last June, the Yudhoyono government passed a decree ordering the Ahmadiyah community to “stop spreading interpretations and activities that deviate from the principal teachings of Islam.”
Ahmadiyah followers identify themselves as Muslims, but differ from other Muslims as to whether Muhammad was the “final” monotheist prophet; consequently, many Muslims perceive Ahmadiyah followers as “heretics.” Violations of the decree are punishable by up to five years in prison.
In 1969, the Indonesian government issued a decree that requires anyone building “a house of worship” to receive prior approval from other religious leaders. In practice, it means Christian leaders must get a permit from Muslim clerics when they want to build a new church. The rule is still in effect, and makes it extremely difficult to build churches in Java and Sumatra.
Attacks against churches in Java and Sumatra increased after the regulation. Christian groups say that mobs forcibly closed or burned down more than 480 churches between 1969 and 2007. In January 2008, a mob burned down the Sangkareang Hindu temple in West Lombok, and in July, Muslim hardliners attacked students at a Christian school in East Jakarta, wounding 18 and forcing the school to shut its 20-year-old campus.
Concern over rising religious intolerance is not the only human rights issue Clinton should raise with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Freedom of expression is also a huge problem on islands where ethnic minorities show their resistance toward the Indonesian state. But in Indonesia, even peaceful acts like a flag raising can land you in jail for a long time. In April 2008, in Ambon, Maluku Province, a court sentenced Johan Teterisa, a schoolteacher, to life in prison for the crime of rebellion for raising the South Maluku Republic flag. In Papua, more than two dozen political activists are in prison for raising the Morning Star flag.
Indonesia has made little progress in reining in the military since former president Suharto stepped down from power in May 1998. There is still no accountability for serious rights violations. A key litmus test has been the case of Munir, a highly regarded human rights advocate who was fatally poisoned on a Garuda flight four years ago. On Dec. 31, 2008, a Jakarta court acquitted Maj. Gen. Muchdi Purwopranjono, a former deputy in the State Intelligence Agency, of Munir’s murder in a trial marred by witness coercion and intimidation.
Indonesian military officers have yet to be brought to justice for the massacres they helped command in East Timor, Papua, Aceh, the Malukus, Borneo, and elsewhere. Without any expectation of punishment, human rights abuses continue on these islands.
Clinton should also remind Jakarta to respect the Helsinki agreement signed between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement. The 2005 agreement stipulates Jakarta must set up a tribunal for Indonesian soldiers and Aceh guerrillas involved in extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses during the conflict from 1976 to 2005. The tribunal was supposed to be in operation by Aug. 31, 2007, but Jakarta has made no serious efforts toward its establishment.
Clinton may be tempted to gloss over issues like religious freedom, impunity, and military reform, in favor of closer Indonesian-US ties. But if she does, she’ll miss a golden opportunity to transform the lives of many people in Indonesia who need pressure on the government to recognize their rights.
Andreas Harsono is the Indonesia and East Timor consultant for Human Rights Watch.