Muslim protesters display flags with Arabic writings that read "There's no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger", during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 26, 2018. Photo: AFP

JAKARTA – Islamic hardliners have earned the ire of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri by burning the flag of her ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) in protest over pending legislation establishing legal guidelines for the country’s pluralist Pancasila state ideology.

Megawati, a nationalist to the core whose life’s mission has been to keep alive the legacy of her charismatic father, founding president Sukarno, has directed party officials to take legal action against the so-called Anti-Communist National Alliance for the June 25 flag-burning incident.

Analysts say the lawsuit could make it an enduring issue and force President Joko Widodo, also a PDI-P member, into another unwanted confrontation with the Islamist movement at a time when he is dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and trying to revive the nation’s moribund economy.

It also may signal the opening shots of the 2024 presidential election campaign, which again looks likely to pit Indonesia’s Muslim conservatives against a nationalist coalition of PDI-P and the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) of Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.

Prabowo aligned himself with the Islamists in his failed presidential election bid last year, but Widodo’s decision to bring him into the Cabinet brought about reconciliation and gave the retired general a new lease on political life, which he is so far embracing with gusto. 

What appears to have upset Megawati the most was that the party’s flag was set ablaze alongside the banner of the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), crushed in a bloody 1965-66 purge that reportedly claimed the lives of 500,000 people, many of them innocent victims of personal vendettas.

Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) founder Megawati Sukarnoputri. Photo: Antara Foto/Andika Wahyu

Despite scant evidence of a revival, the communist bogeyman has remained a source of legitimacy by the military, which led the blood-letting, and a useful tool by religious extremists to drum up support for its quest to turn Indonesia from a secular into an Islamic state. 

Conservative diehards have long accused Widodo and his government of being closet communists, using the country’s close economic ties with Beijing as tenuous evidence that the president is doing the bidding of China’s Communist Party. 

Widodo, for his part, warned in his national day speech last August that new communication technologies were threatening Pancasila and what he called “our culture of politeness” and said they were contributing to a rise in intolerance, radicalism and terrorism.

He also issued a stern warning to civil servants and members of the military and police that he wouldn’t tolerate anyone who betrayed the five principals of Pancasila, namely the singularity of godliness (normally translated as belief in one god), a just and civilized society, national unity, democracy and social justice for all Indonesians.

A week earlier, in a pointed attack on Islamic extremists, Megawati told the PDI-P’s annual congress held in Bali that any movement which sought to replace Pancasila with a religious caliphate posed a grave danger to Indonesian society.

That set the stage for the rollout of the Pancasila Ideology Guidelines Bill last December, accompanied by a 100-page preamble which described it as a  framework for implementing and evaluating national development in the fields of politics, law, economics and social affairs.

Although it initially received the support of most of the ten political parties in parliament, a rising tide of opposition, led by the moderate mass Muslim organizations Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, forced the House leadership to call a temporary halt to deliberations.

Indonesian Islamic extremists on the warpath against a Muslim minority group the protesters deem as heretical. Photo: Facebook

PDI-P parliamentary leader Ahmad Basara later sought to cast the bill as a legal umbrella to regulate the authority, duty and functions of the newly-formed Pancasila Ideology Education Agency (BPIP), where Megawati heads the steering committee.

“It’s become a silly debate,” says former attorney-general Marzuki Darusman, who has served on several United Nations’ fact-finding missions in recent years. “It’s one of those things that you can’t really explain because it generates such a knee-jerk reaction.”

The BPIP was formed in 2018 in apparent response to the mass protests launched by the conservative 212 Movement a year earlier that led to the downfall of ethnic-Chinese Christian Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, a Widodo ally, for alleged blasphemy.

What angers Islamists is the new bill does not include the People’s Consultative Assembly’s (MPR) Decree No 25, passed in 1966, which bans communism and is routinely referenced as the ultimate benchmark in any public discourse on Pancasila.

With his power then fast eroding, Sukarno opposed the decree because it  was an open challenge to his home-grown ideology known as Nasakom, in which nationalism, Islam and communism were meant to collaborate under a so-called “Guided Democracy” system.

Although PDI-P’s framers left out the anti-communist provision because it did not fit with the bill’s thrust, they have now agreed to include it. “It was mishandled,” says Darusman. “The government was not alert and allowed it (the debate) to drift.”

The communist issue clouds what a large body of critics fear is an effort to bureaucratize Pancasila, re-litigating history and allowing the legislation to be used as a battering ram against those who don’t agree with its official interpretations.

In fact, the way it was abused during Suharto’s New Order rule was the reason why Pancasila lost any appeal it had after he was finally forced from office in 1998. It is only with the rise of hardline Islam that it began to be seen in a different light.

“Pancasila is supposed to be all-embracing and inclusive and a genuine foundation for civil discourse,” says one analyst. “But people on the radical fringes, on the right and the left, can’t accept that. For them, it is about absolutism.”

Members of Islamic Defenders Front (PFI) shout slogan during an anti-communism campaign in Jakarta, Indonesia, on June 03, 2016. Photo: NurPhoto/ Agoes Rudianto

That also worries Darusman, looking back on decades as a human rights campaigner and a progressive member of Suharto’s ruling Golkar party. “Incorporating Pancasila into a law will bring it down from a state ideology and diminish its stature,” he says.

BPIP chief Yudian Wahyudi drew criticism in February when he told on-line portal  “Minority groups want to oppose Pancasila and appear as the majority. This is dangerous. If we’re being honest, Pancasila’s biggest enemy is religion, not tribalism.”

In a survey last August, pollster Cyrus Indonesia found that 70% of Indonesians still accept Pancasila as the state ideology and a pillar of national unity. Barely 5% of respondents favored a caliphate and 13% supported Islamic law, the same number who consistently vote for sharia-based parties.

Political sources say the Pancasila bill had its origins in Megawati’s broader push for constitutional changes that would revive the Suharto-era State Policy Guidelines (GBHN) and, more importantly, provide an opening for a return to indirect presidential elections.

At last year’s PDI-P congress, Megawati argued that the move is justified by the turmoil surrounding last year’s hard-fought presidential election which she claims, with a large measure of hubris, “almost tore apart the unity and integrity of the nation.”

Political insiders say the former president wants a return to an indirect election, not so much to give her daughter House Speaker Puan Maharani a better chance at the presidency, but because of fears that Islamic radicalism will gain critical momentum at the lower levels of society.

Amendments to the 1945 Constitution at the dawn of democracy in 1999-2002 abolished the GBHN and also the previous system of electing the president in the MPR, the highest legislative body formed by the House of Representatives (DPR) and the Regional Representative Council (DPD).

Before the MPR was stripped of much of its power, the GBHN was a set of political, economic and social principles enacted every five years that had to be followed by the central and regional governments.

As unlikely as it may seem, critics say a return to the past would undermine the decentralization process, the rule of law and even democracy itself, which most academics feel is already sliding backward, in keeping with a trend noticeable in other parts of the region.