Indonesian President Joko Widodo on the campaign trail in a file photo: Photo: Facebook

Ever since the bloody purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in the mid-1960’s, the military has warned of the danger of a communist revival to retain legitimacy and reclaim some of its previous overarching role over internal security.

But two retired four-star generals have recently expressed concern about Islamic radicalism in the ranks of the 476,000-strong force – and across wider society – with one saying he is more worried about the spread of Islamic fundamentalist caliphate doctrine than a communist resurgence.

Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, 69, a former army chief of staff, and Agum Gumelar, 73, an ex-special forces chief and member of President Joko Widodo’s advisory council, spent most of their army careers under the Suharto regime before pursuing political careers.

“The biggest threat today is the attempt to replace the unitary state of Indonesia with a caliphate,” Gumelar told a university audience earlier this month. “This must be our joint concern, including those in the education world.”

With the elections over and the conservative Muslim lobby seemingly on the back foot, Widodo is finally addressing the issue of creeping Islamization and the way radical thinking has penetrated the bureaucracy, schools, universities and, perhaps most crucially, the armed forces.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo prays at the Presidential Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, June 5, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum

Technology and Higher Education Minister Mohamad Nasir has already introduced a program in which university rectors and lecturers are compelled to impress on their students the importance of nationhood and national defense.

At the recent five-yearly congress of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), party leader and former president Megawati Sukarnoputri issued a call to arms to protect Indonesia’s inclusive secular state ideology, known as Pancasila.

The leaders of the two largest Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, have also joined the chorus of concern about the threat to secularism, but they too have problems from hardliners in their midst.

While Indonesian governments have reacted strongly to Islamic terrorism and other challenges to the state, they have been slow to recognize the insidious way organizations like the non-violent Hizbut Tahrir have more softly prepared the ground for extremists.

Boasting a million-strong following in West Java alone, Hizbut Tahrir was banned last year for promoting the establishment of a caliphate. Widodo is now pondering whether to outlaw the radical and sometimes violent Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), whose leader lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.

Serving officers are discouraged from making political statements in Indonesia’s democratic context. But Ryacudu and Gumelar appear to be spearheading military thinking on an issue civil society activists are convinced has been allowed to slide out of control.

Islamic Defenders Front (PFI) members shout slogans during a an anti-communism campaign in Jakarta, June 03, 2016. Photo: NurPhoto/ Agoes Rudianto

A former vice-presidential candidate, Gumelar believes there is little chance of the PKI regaining power because of a law passed in 1966 by the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), the country’s highest legislative body, which outlawed communism.

Radical Islam, Gumelar pointed out, was under no such constraints, with caliphate teachings becoming “structured and systematic” and penetrating all levels of society. “It is imperative that we support the state and guide the people on how to defend and protect Pancasila,” he said.

As puzzling as it is to outsiders, the specter of the communist bogeyman continues to haunt a country still reluctant to discuss the bloody 1965-6 purge which killed an estimated 500,000 people accused, often wrongly, of belonging to the world’s then-largest non-ruling communist party.

Whenever political activists seek to redress the excesses of that Cold War period, the military and conservative Muslim diehards have been quick to stoke the lingering phobia felt across many parts of rural Indonesia.

Earlier this year, the military threw its support behind another nationwide campaign by the Attorney General’s Office and the police to confiscate books and academic papers dealing with communism and the crushing of the PKI.

Even Widodo, a native of Central Java, has had to fend off unproven allegations from political rivals that he is a closet communist whose parents were PKI supporters during an era when the poor were attracted to the utopian idea of a classless society.

A government worker removes ISIS flags painted on walls near Veteran Street in Surakarta City, Indonesia. Photo: AFP Forum/Agoes Rudianto

In many ways, the anti-communist campaign, despite the lack of any compelling evidence an underground revival movement is afoot, has diverted official attention and provided certain cover for fundamentalists to advance their Islamist and anti-secular agendas.

Ryacudu says there will be no tolerance for soldiers who showed signs of Islamic radicalism. “Background checks on new recruits should be tightened,” he said. “They must be investigated, particularly those who do not follow Pancasila. To think in the Pancasila way is the way of the soldier.”

The minister revealed that a number of students have already been dismissed from the Defense University for expressing radical thoughts. He said the same standard should be applied to military academy cadets before they begin their careers in the services.

Pointing to a recent Defense Ministry survey that showed 3% of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) supported the creation of an Islamic state, Ryacudu blamed a lack of leadership and supervision for a decline in the understanding of Pancasila. “This cannot be ignored,” he said.

The same study also found that 19% of civil servants, 18% of employees of private companies, 9% of state enterprise workers and 23% of high school and university students don’t agree that Pancasila should be the country’s guiding philosophy.

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