Civic structures and uncivil demands in Indonesia

Looking at Indonesia's grassroots neighbourhood associations helps us understand the perils of aligning civil society with elite interests.

Last month, twenty years after student activists stormed Indonesia’s parliament and forced its authoritarian elites to make way for democratic reforms, a group of elected representatives passed the new “MD3” law that rescinds one of democracy’s most prized freedoms: the right to criticise public officials.

It is difficult to argue that the MD3 law came as a surprise. After all, it follows a series of setbacks for democratic rights that include stricter regulation of mass organisations, the curtailment of freedom of online speech, and restrictions on groups that are not aligned with the Pancasila, Indonesia’s official state ideology. What is astonishing, however, is the complete lack of effective resistance to this elite-driven onslaught from civil society groups that have widely been regarded as guardians of Indonesia’s liberal reforms.

This lacklustre performance can hardly be attributed to a decline in the vibrancy of civil society in the country. Indonesians remain highly engaged in the electoral process, and continue to volunteer their time for making collective decisions about development priorities between elections. Yet instead of advancing progressive reforms that guarantee civic equality, these energies are being deployed to articulate illiberal demands that emphasise communitarian differences.

We can see this change in civil society’s orientation by contrasting the handful of activists who showed up to protest the MD3 law with the hundreds of thousands of protestors who flooded the streets of Jakarta to defend Islam against the allegedly blasphemous remarks of an otherwise popular Christian-Chinese governor.

This discrepancy is even more pronounced at the local level. Collective action on cross-cutting issues such as labour rights, slum eviction, and gender-based violence is seldom as effective in influencing state policy as is mass mobilisation against minority houses of worship and “deviant” sexual behaviour.

Explaining civil society’s illiberal drift

Recent discourse locates the causes of civil society’s illiberal drift in growing religious conservatism among Indonesians, reflected in their everyday interactions with communal and social minorities. This suggests that civil society in Indonesia is making uncivil demands because the citizens that constitute it espouse increasingly intolerant views.

Attitudinal changes can tell us why intolerant individuals are occupying Indonesia’s civic spaces. However, understanding how their views are being articulated and amplified in the form of divisive demands requires revisiting the historical legacies of civil society in the country.

Unlike totalitarian regimes that quash all forms of civic engagement, the New Order regime allowed public participation in civic life, but directed these energies towards state goals through a combination of cooptation and repressive measures. While this legacy has endowed democratic Indonesia with a vibrant civil society, it has also limited the ability of social actors to advance a progressive political agenda against the interests of powerful elites.

Some studies have shown how inherited oligarchic interests, embedded within the state, are responsible for the relatively muted activism by labour unions and peasant groups. Others have highlighted the role of state patronage in privileging conservative demands from within prominent mass organisations, in particular Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, and the co-optation of public intellectuals by economic and political elites.

I illustrate the effects of continuing state intervention in civil society by examining the evolution of a ubiquitous but relatively understudied component of civic life in Indonesia, the neighbourhood association, or rukun tetangga/rukun warga (RT/RW) system. I review the once promising role of these ultra-local structures for promoting grassroots community engagement and show how their civic potential is gradually being redirected by political and state elites to achieve illiberal ends.

Coercive origins of Indonesia’s neighbourhood associations

For most Indonesian citizens, introduction to associational life begins in the neighbourhood, around which everyday civic interactions are organised. Several studies have noted the centrality of the RT/RW, in coordinating collective action for social work (kerja bakti), mutual-help projects (gotong royong), rotating small loans programs for women (PKK), along with Quranic recitation sessions (pengajian). Today, the neighbourhood associations enjoy the highest rates of citizen participation compared to any other organisation in Indonesia.

Historically, the role of these bodies in structuring civic engagement has not been quite so benign. Initially set up by the occupying Japanese forces to mobilise resources for their war effort, leadership of the neighbourhood associations became the site of fierce competition between the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and its opponents during the Guided Democracy period.

Under the New Order these associations were refurbished for dissent control and security management. Even though the local chiefs of these associations were elected by residents, potential candidates were screened by regime officials for political loyalty and non-cooperative chiefs were dismissed.

While these civic bodies did promote cooperation among citizens, their primary purpose was to bring society’s energies into the service of the state and its governing elites. The RT/RW performed two critical functions during the New Order. One was social control that involved detecting and reporting suspected communists and other “subversive” elements to regime officials along with mobilising civil defence units when needed. The other was political control, which required RT/RW chiefs to mobilise votes and ensure the victory of the Golkar party.

Democratic reform and the promise of civic engagement

Comparative evidence from Japan and Taiwan, which have a similar history of neighbourhood associations built under authoritarian settings, suggests that democratisation has the potential to transform these repressive bodies into sites for genuine civic engagement.

When centralised control over these associations was dismantled and their repressive functions were abandoned, neighbourhood associations in these two countries strengthened democratic participation by providing a shorter link between ordinary citizens and government bureaucrats. Through democratically elected neighbourhood chiefs—who no longer have coercive authority over them—citizens became better able to demand municipal services from local government officials.

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In Indonesia, long-term observers of these associations initially found such encouraging signs. During the first decade of Reformasi, researchers concluded that that the repressive functions of the RT/RW had faded. While the chiefs under the New Order were almost always Golkar loyalists, those elected after the transition belonged to a wide array of social and political backgrounds, who functioned relatively autonomously of the state.

As a result of these positive changes, neighbourhood associations have been ranked by citizens as most trusted and open compared to other local bodies. Moreover, association activities in middle and low-income areas have played a critical role in imparting values of volunteerism and leadership skills, and providing opportunities for political recruitment that promote civic engagement.

Re-activation of repressive functions

Despite the early optimism surrounding the civic potential of RT/RW, reinsertion of state priorities and influence in these bodies over the last decade has gradually reverted their functions to instruments of political and social control.

In view of the rising threat of terrorism and religious radicalisation in Indonesia, the government has reactivated the role of the RT/RW in detecting and reporting suspicious behaviour on the part of their residents. Minister for Home Affairs, Tjahjo Kumolo, acknowledged the role of the RT chiefs as the front guard in the country’s fight against Islamic radicalism. Recently, he instructed the chiefs to act as “policemen” in their neighbourhoods to monitor any unusual religious activities, and explicitly asked the RT chiefs to perform their tasks with the same diligence that was expected of them in the old days:

“Just as in the New Order, even if a glass fell in someone’s house, everyone knew about it. Starting from the RT/RW, village police, local military command and the police station as well as the district head. In the same way, [today] we must know: Who brought the glass? Was he a resident? Who broke the glass? [Find out and] report it to us.”

Following the government’s lead, local executives in Jakarta, Bandung, Solo, Pasuruan, and Surabaya, among others, have also issued similar instructions in their areas.

Evidence from my doctoral fieldwork, conducted across 10 Indonesian districts and cities in 2017, suggests that RT/RW chiefs have taken these monitoring tasks seriously. I came across a number of instances where local chiefs intervened to stop religious or social activities in their areas, upon the urging of residents. In others, they took the initiative to proactively prohibit gatherings involving outsiders because they found it difficult to ascertain their legality and did not want to take a risk.

Unlike the New Order, however, there is considerable slippage in the way that local leaders interpreted and executed their reinstated social control functions, far beyond just reporting suspected terrorist activity. They have, in fact, expanded to regulate a host of activities that allegedly “agitate” residents.

Most frequently, these efforts target individuals belonging to religious and social minorities. These include rejection of “deviant” sects, prohibition of worship by minority religions, punishment of alleged fornication and even the forced eviction of homosexuals, transgender people, and families of suspected terrorists. Troublingly, most of these interventions are made in consultation with local law enforcement officials, who acknowledge RT/RW chiefs as representatives of their residents’ demands and facilitate their requests as part of community policing.

This is not to suggest that the RT/RW system as a whole is enforcing a repressive order. In many cases, the chiefs wisely resolve local disputes through community consensus or work with the police to protect their most vulnerable residents. However, the re-activation of their repressive functions by the state has given broad licence to those chiefs who are personally intolerant of minorities or whose residents harbour such views.

Reactivation of civil society’s role in security management is also not limited to the RT/RW, but represents a broader trend of deploying civic organisations to implement the state’s policy goals. Nadhlatul Ulama, which played a key role during the anti-communist mobilisation in 1965, has signed a number of agreements with the national police to support the management of social conflict and monitoring Indonesia’s cyber space for radical views. NU’s chairman Said Aqil Siradj shared his thoughts on his organisation’s role in these efforts by noting that:

“If the NU kyai begin to move [against violent extremism], I am sure there will be no more need for the Densus 88 [the police’s anti-terror unit].”

Several local police chiefs have also signed similar agreements with Muhammadiyah.

Re-mobilisation for political dominance

Apart from regulating the social realm in their areas, recent events indicate that the RT/RWs may also be resuming their political control functions amid contests over the allocation of state funds by rival candidates. The most prominent example of this phenomenon was observed during the 2017 gubernatorial election in Jakarta, were a collection of RT/RW chiefs joined the charge against the incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok).

In democratic Indonesia, political operatives have routinely relied on RT/RW chiefs to open access for their candidates in exchange for small fees and gifts. Usually, the chiefs provide this cooperation by arranging a meeting between the candidate and residents, persuading the residents to vote a certain way, or by ensuring the distribution of vote-buying funds to potential voters. In most cases, RT/RW chiefs maintain the appearance of neutrality, so as not to upset residents who support other candidates and avoid being reported to election monitoring bodies.

In the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, however, any pretence of neutrality was abandoned. For the first time, RT/RW chiefs collectively and publically campaigned against a candidate by participating in rallies and collecting residents’ ID cards to drum up opposition against Ahok. There were multiple reports of RT/RW chiefs blocking him and his running mate Djarot from campaigning in their neighbourhoods. There were also instances where residents were asked by their RT/RW chiefs to sign declarations promising that they would not vote for Ahok.

At the heart of RT/RW chiefs’ contention with Ahok was the allocation of operational funds from the state budget, and accompanying reporting requirements. Promises of state funds to RT/RW chiefs in Jakarta to marshal votes is a strategy that has been pursued by candidates before—including the current president, when he ran for governor in 2012. Between 2005 and 2018, the amount of operational funds allocated to the RT chiefs in Jakarta has increased from Rp150,000 (A$15) to Rp2,000,000 (A$200) per month; for RW chiefs it has gone from Rp200,000 (A$20) to Rp2,500,000 (A$250) per month.

In 2016, however, Ahok demanded that in exchange for receiving state funds, the RT/RW report had to report their activities to the government through an online application. This instruction was flatly refused by the Forum of RT/RW chiefs in Jakarta and hundreds of its members protested outside the city hall, ten days before Ahok made his allegedly blasphemous remarks. The issue was subsequently exploited by Ahok’s opponents, who promised the RT/RW chiefs a further increase in funds without any burdensome reporting requirements. Following their victory, both promises have been duly fulfilled.

There is no evidence to suggest that the coercive role of the RT/RW chiefs observed in the Jakarta election made a decisive difference in the outcome of the race. It nevertheless sets a dangerous precedent for upcoming regional races this year and national elections in April 2019. Legally, RT/RW chiefs are not classified as government officials; therefore, their intervention in electoral activities is not well regulated by existing laws. In this setting, explicit promises of state funds in return for political support by candidates can lead to the misuse of their influence and authority and compromise the quality of electoral participation.

Perils of aligning civil society with elite interests

The evolving role of neighbourhood associations in post-transition politics serves to illustrate two aspects of Indonesia’s current predicament. First, the illiberal drift of Indonesia’s civil society is not solely rooted in the propagation of intolerant views among its constituents but is being propelled by the reinsertion of state interests and resources in the civic space. Despite the initial optimism surrounding civil society actors’ role in democratic consolidation, these interventions have made them more likely to fight over parochial benefits from the state, rather than mobilise against the excesses of elites that run it.

The state’s forays into civic spaces can also be observed vis a vis the more prominent components of civil society, such as ideologically affiliated mass organisations, workers’ unions and issue-based NGOs. However, they are perhaps most damaging to grassroots structures like the RT/RW, which exhibit high levels of mobilisation but do not have a cohesive leadership to push back against state intervention.

Second, mobilisation of civil society for enforcing security priorities and securing electoral interests is an old strategy that has been deployed time and time again by dominant but insecure elites in Indonesia. In particular, asserting control over neighbourhood associations was a key tactic for establishing dominance used by the Japanese, Soekarno and Suharto. As such, reactivation of the RT/RW’s repressive and political functions may be indicative of the intensity of the competition that is simmering under broad-coalition politics.

History also tells us, however, that such efforts can only achieve their despotic goals when attempted in highly centralised and repressive settings, such as the one built under the New Order. In the current system, where a multitude of interests compete within and outside the state, attempts to mobilise civil society for repressive ends carries the risk of igniting dangerous counter-mobilisation.

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