DUNCAN GRAHAM. Mobocracy rules in Indonesia.

The videos are ghastly. Young men stripped to the waist, roped together in a line, shuffling forward on their knees. Their bodies are bruised and bloodied, their smashed faces creased with fear. They’re not just the victims of kampong rough justice – they’re also casualties of the Indonesian government’s mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis.

President Joko Widodo and his Cabinet should have known the consequences of freeing 50,000 prisoners. The idea was to ease congestion during the Covid-19 crisis and reduce chances of disease clusters forming. The result has been the release of community fear.

It’s widely WhatsApped that ex-cons have used their unexpected freedom to reprise careers of crime, though years hence sociologists will be testing the veracity of that belief.

The counterpoint is that even if the idlers with dyed hair and tattooed torsos stayed clean once out of jail, their past misdeeds are widely known in a country where privacy is nil. Like Canaan, they are cursed forever.

Citizens are told to follow the government’s up-down, off-on rules to crimp the pandemic, but don’t trust authorities. With a few exceptions, the mainstream media is slapdash leaving unsourced social messages as gospel for the gullible.

Many won’t believe there’s a killer disease running amuck. For those who do it’s a plot to thin out the elderly, devalue the rupiah and set the scene for a coup.

Sickness is obvious – viruses are invisible. Like the US President, Indonesians need scapegoats. Orang Tionghoa (ethnic Chinese, about 1.2 per cent of the national population of 270 million) have been targeted by xenophobes since the first traders arrived in the 13th century.

The rich have bolt holes overseas or fortress mansions in gated suburbs. More than 1,000 died and 168 rapes were reported during Jakarta riots following the downfall of President Soeharto in 1998. Since then Chinese shops in unstable zones have installed steel door and window shutters.

Foreigners are occasionally targeted on the basis that strangers bring dangers, but there aren’t many left. Fewer than 3,000 Australians remain. They’re mostly ‘short term travellers’ in Bali according to the Embassy, now minus Ambassador Gary Quinlan, safe in Canberra.

The reformed or recidivists are not hard to spot as the unfortunates are often rootless. They can be caught and bashed to show how ne’er-do-wells should be handled.

In a well-ordered society, the police would be called when alleged wrongdoers are snared by vigilantes. That seldom happens. An old proverb warns: Report the theft of a goat and lose a cow.

Transparency International Indonesia surveys show the police rank fifth on the corruption index. Top are politicians followed by public servants, regional councillors and tax officials.

Before some prison gates were partly opened the roll call was 270,000 felons and beds for around half. The latest jail uproar was this month in Manado (North Sulawesi) as fear of Covid-19 triggered an attempted breakout.

About 100 in every hundred thousand Indonesians are behind bars. That’s low compared with the neighbours – Australia 170, Malaysia 230 and Singapore 200. That doesn’t mean Indonesians are law-abiding; it’s more a measure of slack policing and criminals’ ability to buy their way out of trouble.

It’s easy to criticize the world’s fourth most populous nation for appalling administration and what Westerners consider irrational behaviours, so time to give thanks for large mercies.

There are no gun shops or booze barns. Firearms are seldom used in robberies and drunks are rare outside Bali (mainly ugly Okkers) and the small Christian-majority provinces. If Indonesia was like weapon-mad America or grog-crazed Australia (where the sale of alcohol is deemed an ‘essential service’) then this country would be a frightful place.

Another blessing: Science education is poorly taught and school labs primitive. Bomb makers openly buying exotic chemicals show their hands – then lose them through premature explosions.

There’s no way of knowing whether the crook-bashing videos are current or even factual. That would be important in a rational discussion but the dark ages are returning coupled with the feral theories that swamp reason.

Think of Salem and worthies pursuing witches. That gives some understanding of the Indonesian practice of ‘sweeping’, frequently choreographed by agents provocateurs.

Gangs of sanctimonious hoons clad in religious garb – usually white to pretend they’re divinely driven – storm hotels, dormitories and meetings where infidels may be lurking.

Foremost among the stirrers is the hardline Front Pembela (Defenders) Islam formed in 1998 by religious leaders and military men to turn Indonesia into a sharia (Islamic law) state. It claims seven million members though that figure is suspect.

In 2016 the FPI mustered a 500,000-strong mob howling for the elected Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama to be charged with blasphemy. The ethnic Chinese Christian spent two years in jail.

Although sweepings are irregular, fanatics favour the holy fasting month of Ramadan, starting 23 April and climaxing with Idul Fitri on 24 May. There have already been threats to sweep Indians following reports of discrimination against Muslims on the subcontinent.

Although not sanctioned by police the bullies are often ignored. Past targets have included Communism, drugs, alcohol, ‘free sex’ (unmarried couples living together) and bestiality – meaning homosexuality. The fear now is that Covid-19 will be an excuse for new eruptions of hate.

Beyond a locked gate where this column is winding down, the Rukun Tetangga (elected community leader) has stamped his foot. Street security cameras are being repaired, the satpam (security guard) has been told to step up patrols and all non-residents’ vehicles banned.

These measures won’t do more than divert beggars for a few weeks till the satpam returns to dozing before his TV. Crims on the loose are unlikely to be deterred.

Meanwhile in his palace, the decisively indecisive President has reversed an order to keep citizens in the dark about Covid-19 stats and told bureaucrats to be honest and open.

That’s something they haven’t done since the Republic was proclaimed, 75 years ago this coming 17 August. Had it been otherwise the nation wouldn’t be ranked 85th on TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Duncan Graham www.indonesianow.blogspot.com is an Australian journalist writing from Indonesia.

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Duncan Graham has been a journalist for more than 40 years in print, radio and TV. He is the author of People Next Door (UWA Press) and winner of the Walkley Award and Human Rights awards. He is now writing for the English language media in Indonesia from within Indonesia.

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