Indonesian police brace for big anti-communist rally

Police use a water cannon to disperse a crowd gathered outside the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation during an anti-communist protest in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Sept 18, 2017.
Police use a water cannon to disperse a crowd gathered outside the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation during an anti-communist protest in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Sept 18, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Indonesian police will deploy as many as 30,000 personnel to guard an anti-communist rally on Friday (Sept 29), as the country's military chief and Islamist groups stoke fears of a hard left revival in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Protesters will gather outside Indonesia's parliament on the eve of the 52nd anniversary of the murder of six army generals and a young lieutenant by rebel armed forces personnel, an incident that led to a retaliatory pogrom that killed at least 500,000 alleged communists.

The massacres ushered in more than 30 years of authoritarian rule under Suharto, the former general who led the communist purge.

Earlier this month, Armed Forces Commander General Gatot Nurmantyo instructed military officers to screen a Suharto-era propaganda film depicting the deaths of the generals and the crushing of an alleged Communist coup to "prevent what happened in 1965 from recurring".

The three-and-a-half-hour film, criticised by historians for inaccuracies and failing to depict the massacre of leftists, has been widely shown in villages and mosques in the past week. During Suharto's rule, it was broadcast annually on the night of Sept 30th, the date of the alleged abortive coup. It was also compulsory viewing for students.

Indonesia's Communist Party, once one of the world's largest, remains outlawed, and there appears to be little evidence of a Marxist ideology taking hold in Indonesia.

Instead, analysts and government advisers said, the fomenting of a "red scare" was aimed at Indonesia's reformist president Joko Widodo, widely known as Jokowi, and long falsely accused of being the descendant of communists.

Indonesia's growing economic ties with China are also frequently cited by those concerned about rising communist influence in Indonesia.

"I see Jokowi being the factor behind the rise of communism in Indonesia because of the cooperative relationship with China," said Yudi Syamhudi Suyuti, one of the protest organisers and a failed political candidate for the opposition Gerindra Party, in comments posted online.

ISLAMIC DEFENDERS FRONT

Friday's rally has been organised by hardline Islamist groups led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

"We reject and fight against the awakening of the Indonesian Communist Party," Slamet Maarif, the chairman of the rally's organising committee and spokesman for the FPI, told Reuters.

The FPI-led huge rallies last year that successfully demanded the jailing for blasphemy of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta's then governor and an ethnic Chinese Christian.

Maarif predicted 50,000 protesters would join Friday's rally, which will also urge parliament to overturn a presidential regulation allowing the government to ban mass organisations deemed a threat to national unity. Hizbut Tahrir, an Islamist group that wants Indonesia to become a caliphate, was disbanded under the regulation in July.

A Jakarta police spokesman, Argo Yuwono, expected only 15,000 people to turn up.

"We will deploy 30,000 police personnel," he said on Tuesday, noting the risk that more could arrive.

During an anti-Purnama rally in December last year, police arrested eight people for treason in an alleged plot for protesters to occupy the parliament building.

"We have anticipated all," Yuwono said.

On Wednesday, national police spokesman Setyo Wasisto said police would adapt their deployment depending on the number of protesters. "We have prepared for defending parliament," he said.

Tobias Basuki, an Indonesian political analyst, said Nurmantyo had clear political ambitions. The armed forces chief, due to retire in March, courted further controversy this month when he falsely claimed 5,000 weapons had been illegally imported "on behalf" of Widodo.

"There's not much evidence at all of a communist revival but as we head to the 2019 election the communist fear-mongering is being used by various groups," said Basuki. "We are seeing a coalescing conspiracy theory from military groups and Islamist groups for political purposes."

Nurmantyo has declined to publicly comment after the chief security minister and defence minister corrected his claim about the imported weapons. A military spokesman, Major General Wuryanto, said Nurmantyo did not "carry out political moves".

SMEAR CAMPAIGN

Widodo was the subject of a smear campaign during the 2014 presidential election claiming he was a descendant of Communists and had Chinese ancestry. The campaign, mostly prosecuted on social media, coincided with a fall in Widodo's high approval ratings at the time.

In a sign of the potency and persistence of the rumours, both Widodo and his mother Sujiatmi Notomiharjo have this year publicly denied any communist links.

The military has resisted attempts by rights groups and academics to discuss the 1965 slaughter, one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century. It is not popular with segments of the public either. Earlier this month, protesters clashed with police as they tried to break up a seminar in Jakarta on the 1965 killings.

Bonnie Triyana, an Indonesian historian, said the country has never fully acknowledged or become reconciled over the anti-communist killings even after Indonesia became a democracy in 1998. Most Indonesians had little idea of the scale of the pogrom, he said.

"Politicians today exploit the collective amnesia of the people," he said.