American friends, human rights activists and government critics will be upset upon reading this commentary and suspect the motive behind my giving credit to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and the constantly scrutinized National Police. But seeing what has been happening in the United States, at least we can say we are not as bad as them this time around.
In general, the Indonesian police are somewhat smarter and more patient than the police in New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC, when it comes to handling demonstrations. Protests and riots spread across the US following the death of African-American George Floyd at the hands of police in the city of Minnesota.
In dealing with mass protests, following the 2019 student protests that left nine people dead, the National Police now devote time and energy to persuasion. The police know who to talk with for negotiation, as they recently did to prevent labor unions from taking to the streets to protest at the job creation bill on April 30, when physical-distancing restrictions were in place to contain coronavirus transmission.
However, here in Indonesia T-shirts and hats, both original and fake, of the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) are popular. Popular admiration for the American cops is probably influenced by Hollywood movies or TV series. For many of them, their own police are almost nothing compared with the American superhero officers.
On its official website, the NYPD pledges to: “Protect the lives and property of our fellow citizens and impartially enforce the law […] maintain a higher standard of integrity […] value human life, respect the dignity of each individual and render our services with courtesy and civility.”
Meanwhile, according to the official website of the LAPD, “People in our communities are our most important customers […] is not just a slogan – it is our way of life. We value the great diversity of people in both our residential and business communities and serve all with equal dedication.”
How about the Indonesian police? At the front door of the police offices and stations, you will find their motto: “To protect, safeguard and serve society, quickly, responsively and without prejudice”. Many people, however, intentionally show off police corps stickers or put police hats on the dashboard of their cars, simply to avoid street “extortion” committed by bad cops.
For the Indonesian generation that experienced life under Soeharto, who ruled for 32 years until May 1998, and his successor BJ Habibie, who briefly served until October 1999, US President Donald Trump’s response to, and the US police’s tough action against, the most recent demonstrations seem like déjà vu.
Unlike Trump, however, Soeharto could hide his dirty hands. Soeharto’s military generals and all the president’s men took the responsibility, as if the dictator knew nothing about the violent crackdown on government critics and his detractors. Trump, instead, openly faces the protesters and threatens to use military force to quell what he sees as an uprising.
Post-Soeharto Indonesian leaders have rarely confronted government protesters or attacked critical media, which Trump has done. In particular, Jokowi has never personally ordered the police to crush protesters or incited his loyal supporters to fight his critics. Neither has Jokowi denounced the media, at least in public.
It is true that the Jokowi administration resorts to legal mechanisms to fight hoax news, slander and misinformation that is publicly disseminated, especially on social media, under the guise of freedom of expression. The police have arrested dozens of people, including government critics, for such criminal acts.
Jokowi and all leaders should accept criticism, but of course not slander. Allegations that Jokowi is of Chinese descent, a communist, even a Christian, are groundless and therefore unacceptable. The police’s enforcement of the law is a way to deter people from producing and spreading lies.
The media and human rights groups, here and from overseas, have found flaws in the way the National Police have dealt with street protests, as happened in May last year, when the General Elections Commission announced Jokowi’s reelection. I agree with the criticism and Indonesia certainly needs to hear their critical views. By the same token, they should condemn the acts of violence happening in the US, deemed the icon and model of democracy.
Despite their imperfections, the National Police have made efforts to improve the institution since the Reform Era began in 1998. The Reform-mandated separation of the police force from the Indonesian Military (TNI) laid out a clear division of labor between them. The police are responsible for public order and domestic security, while the TNI concentrates on external threats.
In its Sept. 26, 2019 edition, The Jakarta Post’s editorial titled “End brutality” criticized the police for beating non-resistant protesters. The excessive use of batons sent many demonstrators to hospitals, some of them with severe injuries. “Following the latest incidents we need assurances that citizens can live in freedom from fear with the protection of the National Police,” the editorial concluded.
The state’s violent responses to demonstrations in the US should give us cause for concern as they endanger democracy, which is marching to consolidation in Indonesia. The brutality must not set a new standard of democracy and provide the National Police with justification to get tough with government protests and criticism.
The police onslaught on demonstrations in the US, as well as Trump’s leadership style, is alarming given that country’s global influence and might. Hopefully, the American people can solve their test of democracy, which has hindered their fight against COVID-19.
For the National Police, the US tragedy offers a valuable lesson to keep improving and to be faithful to the Reform agenda.