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Politics

Fear of communist revival grips Indonesia

President Widodo 'real target' of strident campaign against disbanded PKI

Muslim groups stage a rally outside the parliament in Jakarta against disbanded Indonesian Communist Party. (Photo by Bobby Nugroho)

JAKARTA -- On Friday thousands of members of hardline Muslims groups -- including the Islamic Defenders Front, the United Islamic People Forum and the Betawi Rembuk Forum -- staged a rally outside Indonesia's House of Representatives. A rally leader accused sympathizers of the PKI, the Indonesian Communist Party, of infiltrating the parliament.

"Disband the PKI. Stop making the House a PKI nest," he said. "President Jokowi should never once [try to] revive the PKI, or we will bring him down." Jokowi is the popular nickname of President Joko Widodo.The anti-PKI fervor especially resonates  with these Muslim groups.

They have accused Widodo of protecting PKI symphathizers while targeting Muslim groups, with the government's recent ban on Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia -- which is seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate.

 They ignored the calls of moderate Muslim leaders, including the Indonesian Ulema Council chairman Ma'ruf Amin, who said: "There is no need for demonstrations. PKI is already dead."With no evidence to suggest the existence of communist cells in Indonesia, observers have suspected political motives behind the instigation of the PKI controversy.

The target is likely Widodo. Since the 2014 election, smears against him have called his late father a PKI member and accused the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle of hosting dozens of PKI members and sympathizers.Indonesian Muslims attack communists particularly harshly because of the absence of a deity in the communist world view.

Moreover, after the independence of Indonesia, the PKI was accused of launching a 1965 coup attempt and trying to change the balance of power between Muslims and the Indonesian military. Under the  late President Suharto national TV stations were ordered to broadcast a film on the 1965 coup attempt every year on Sept. 30.

It tells the story of the kidnapping and gruesome murder of six  generals by the communists, and how  Suharto, then a major general, saved the day.

It was not aired after 1998, following the fall of Suharto and his autocratic New Order regime.But recently Indonesian Military Commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo ordered the film to be screened to military command posts nationwide. Soldiers were told to invite local residents to watch it together.

The screening has escalated a national debate on the supposed threats of communism and the revival of the disbanded PKI.  

Victims of the military crackdown on the PKI following the failed coup have been seeking justice for years. The National Human Rights Commission said the crackdown had led to gross human rights violations, including the extrajudicial killing of more than 500,000 people. 

But fake news reports have fed the paranoia, and now screening of the film is seen by some as confirming that Indonesia faces a communist threat. 

On Sept. 17, rumors of a secret PKI meeting led to an attack on the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation office in Jakarta by several student groups.

The hashtag #DaruratPKI, meaning "PKI emergency," trended on social media in the following days.

"There is a strong impression that the issue of a communist revival is being used to subdue the popularity of President Joko Widodo,"  Tempo magazine wrote in an editorial this week. "The eventual target of these attacks is to defeat Jokowi in the 2019 election.

Widodo, at the beginning of his presidency, promised truth and reconciliation for victims of the 1965 crackdown. But facing increasing pressure to prevent the supposed  revival of communism, the president has clearly shied away from the topic.

On the film screening, he merely said: "It will be better to have a latest version, so that it is more fitted for the millennials".

Nikkei staff writer Bobby Nugroho in Jakarta contributed to the story.

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