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Indonesia’s Five Commandments Under Threat

25 Jun 2021
By Duncan Graham
Monumen Garuda Pancasila. Source: baka_neko_baka

As with all grand attempts to boil noble abstracts down to tangibles, the nation’s moral code has been misinterpreted, dissected, abused, and ignored. Now it’s being refreshed under the urgings of President Joko Widodo in a bid to sideline extremism.

Senior presidential advisor Professor Hariyono is a worried man: “We’re in a battle for the soul of Indonesia.  This is serious. Although the main political parties, the military and religious organisations support Pancasila (the five principles underpinning the national ethos), millions want the Republic to be a Caliphate controlled from the Middle East.”

Hariyono is deputy chief of the Badan Pembinaan Ideologi Pancasila (BPIP- Pancasila Ideology Development Agency), a recently created government bureau.  It’s charged with promoting and protecting the principles embedded in the Constitution of the country with the world’s largest Muslim population. These principles are belief in one God, a just and civilised humanity, national unity, democracy, and social justice. They sound uncontentious – though not to those who want the nation of 273 million run by unelected clerics, and who are getting their views widely heard in the media.

Historian Hariyono was hand-picked for his present job. He’s been seconded to Jakarta from lecturing at Malang’s State University in East Java, where he wrote a 233-page book – Ideologi Pancasila. Hariyono doesn’t shy from awkward questions, including whether he’s politically independent – a position he asserts. Head of the BPIP governing board is former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of first president Soekarno.  She also chairs the nation’s leading political party, the nationalistic Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle). Along with almost 300 staff, Hariyono’s job is to “assist the President in formulating policy directions … carrying out coordination, synchronization, and controlling the development of Pancasila.”

In Sanskrit, panca is “five” and sila means “foundation.”  The word elbowed its way into public consciousness on 1 June 1945 when used in a speech by Soekarno. The war in Europe had just ended, and the Pacific conflict was heading to a close when the Indonesian revolutionaries planned the recovery of their homeland. The country was then the Japanese-ruled Dutch East Indies, to be proclaimed as an independent Republic a few weeks later on 17 August. To try and unify the 6,000 occupied islands and 300 different ethnicities, Soekarno said a future nation free of colonialists and invaders should start with a philosophy.  Drafts were written by the Revolutionary Council of founding fathers (no Mums), a “fusion of Javanese thinking with Eastern and Western values.”

But how to handle the spiritual search, the diggings which criss-cross the godly archipelago? With mainly Muslim Java as the most populous island, there were fears of a theocracy dominating Hindu Bali, Christian North Sulawesi, and Christian islands in the East and shattering integration. So the non-specific deity clause headed the list, and the government prescribed six religions – Sunni Islam, Christian (meaning Protestant, a Dutch-era division), Catholicism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Confucianism was included, removed in 1979, and reinstated in 2000. Every citizen must embrace one approved faith, which is then stamped on her or his ID card.

Making all religions monotheisms with a holy book, a prophet, and an ethical code required some theological gymnastics. The zealots wanted seven words included in the Jakarta Charter, the preamble to the Constitution: Dengan kewajiban menjalankan syariat Islam bagi pemeluknya, meaning Muslims are obligated to follow Islamic law.  The sentence was dropped to maintain national unity. The push to get it re-inserted comes and goes, but has never vanished. Now the gas is being turned up, according to Hariyono.

Pushed to say specifically who is behind the move apart from “dark forces,” Hariyono would only reference the Islamic Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Prosperous Justice Party). With just 50 seats in the 575-member Legislative Assembly, it’s no match numerically for the mainstream parties which have coalesced behind Widodo and effectively leaving the country without a firm opposition voice in the parliament. Instead, it’s the mutterings of dissatisfaction articulated among the nation’s most religious, particularly in West Java.

“It comes down to how much people know about Pancasila, how they see God and what they are told,” Hariyono said. “Is the deity a dictator or a benevolent being? Apart from those hostile to democracy, there’s much ignorance and distortion in the community. That’s partly because Pancasila is no longer taught in schools.  It needs to be part of the curriculum. And we hope to make it there this year. But the politics are difficult.” He rejected suggestions Pancasila has become a “secular state religion.”

The Ministry of Religious Affairs ensures freedoms are constrained. There’s no space for atheism – considered a synonym for banned Communism – or the traditional beliefs (kebatinan) which pre-date Islam and now labelled “cultural practices.”  Shia Islam, the majority religion in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, is banned, and followers are sometimes the victims of vigilantes.

Pancasila once had the status of tablets of stone. However, it was written by politicians so lacked the mysticism needed to appeal to the masses steeped in the spirit world. Like many aspects of Indonesian culture, the origins of Pancasila are the stuff of myth and magic. The story spread that the document was unearthed by Soekarno in a field behind the Pegangsaan district in Jakarta where he proclaimed his nation’s independence. He denied the tale but gave it lasting power through metaphors: “I’m just a Pancasila digger from Indonesian homelands, and I dedicated five pearls that I took back to the Indonesian people.” Pancasila’s prestige slumped when used by the authoritarian second president, Soeharto. What started as statements to stabilise became sentences to fracture.

Last century, Pancasila was taught at all education levels, with an exam pass necessary to stay studying.  Pedoman Penghayatan dan Pengamalan Pancasila (Guidelines for the Appreciation and Practice of Pancasila) is widely known as P4.  Enthusiasm waned with the movement for reformation and democracy early this century following Soeharto’s fall in 1998, and the compulsion was scrapped in 2003.

Australian political philosopher Dr David Bourchier has written that Soeharto’s government represented itself “as the saviour and guardian of Pancasila [which] enabled the regime, with the assistance of its substantial security and intelligence apparatus, to accuse its leftist and liberal opponents of being anti-Pancasila and thereby un-Indonesian.”  The same tune is now being played by the Widodo government banging drums to ensure all know Pancasila is an instrument of the state and needs to be understood in its original form, words to bond and represent the people’s aspirations.

There has been some heavy-handedness. If you’re not for the credo, you must be opposed and therefore suspect, maybe a sectarian or kafir (unbeliever).  It hasn’t got to a Southeast Asian version of 1950s McCarthyism but carries a whiff of the simplistic “with us or against us” doctrine favoured by dictators. An international incident flared in 2017 when Indonesians at a military training course in Perth allegedly found the term Pancagila on a noticeboard. Gila means “mad.”

Disparaging Pancasila is illegal with offenders facing up to five years in jail or half a billion rupiah (AUD 45,000) fine. In 2018, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, head of the now-banned radical Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front), was accused of insulting the tenets, though charges were later dropped after he fled to Saudi Arabia. This year, 51 long-standing employees of the Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK – Corruption Eradication Commission) have been sacked for failing to pass a civics exam which included questions about Pancasila.  Critics claim the test has been used to purge the Commission of efficient investigators pursuing the politically powerful.

In his Pancasila Day speech on 1 June (an event Widodo initiated in 2016), the president said Pancasila was a blessing from God “achieved through contemplation, struggle of thought, and inner clarity of the founding fathers of Indonesia … the foundation of a united, sovereign, just, and prosperous Indonesia. It is our duty and responsibility to ensure that Pancasila is always present in every corner of life, heart and mind.”  He also suggested it could combat COVID-19, though failed to explain how.

Widodo is a man of contradictions, as his Australian biographer Ben Bland has written, more a lukewarm democrat than a despot.  The mild-mannered seventh president and former furniture trader tends to be a can-do guy in contrast to his can-talk predecessors, more interested in infrastructure than concepts. Fine for building ports, roads, and railways, but little help when dealing with real or perceived threats to an incorporeal ideology.

Said Hariyono: “Pancasila has been allowed to drift to a point where it’s not related to daily life. The values must be in tune with our culture.  Now it’s time to be rejuvenated. We need P4 back in the classrooms for the future of our nation.”

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist in Indonesia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.