The Indonesian freedom agenda, don't let it rest

The Indonesian freedom agenda, don't let it rest

Jakarta Post
Endy M. Bayuni

Going through the vision and mission statements of all three presidential candidates, one would be hard-pressed to find the word freedom. The nearest we read or hear in the current election campaign is the term liberal, and even then, it is used more in the pejorative context of neoliberalism to attack the economic policies of the incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his running mate Boediono.

Isn't anyone concerned about the state of our freedom anymore?

We are hearing a lot from all three candidates and their running mates about how they plan to address poverty, unemployment, governance, corruption and now even defend the country against foreign aggression. Some candidates admittedly talk about democracy and human rights, but given their largely poor track record on these issues, they come across more as lip service than reflecting a genuine concern.

But nobody is talking about how to address the freedom deficit in this country.

Just because the rights to these freedoms are now firmly enshrined in the Constitution, it doesn't mean the issues are no longer important. Freedoms of expression, of association and of religion are not mere ornaments in the Constitution. They are there to be observed and respected. The onus should be on the state, and our elected leaders, to make sure these rights are protected for all citizens.

There are plenty of examples to suggest that freedom remains illusive in this country, enough to become an election issue as important as others in deciding the outcome.

On freedom of expression, we still have people being harassed, intimidated, jailed and harmed for speaking out in the real or virtual world. On freedom of religion, the minorities are being squeezed out by policies favoring the majority religion.

There have been times when the state (police) sat back and watched while one group physically attacked another because of their faith. Religious persecution is alive and well in this country, as is racial and ethnical discrimination.

Some of us can take comfort in the fact Indonesia has come a long way from the days when the state controlled just about every facet of our lives and when many of our personal freedoms were denied. There was not even freedom to think before the state came and took us away on charges of entertaining subversive thoughts.

Freedom, or merdeka, was the rallying cry of our founding fathers during the independence struggle in the late 1940s. The reform movement that led to the collapse of the Soeharto regime in 1998 listed guarantees of freedom at the top of the agenda. And the word merdeka is mentioned many times in the 1945 Constitution.

Ironically, merdeka is the traditional greeting the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) of Megawati Soekarno-putri, but have we heard her addressing the issues of freedom of speech or freedom of religion in her campaign speeches?

The silence of all three candidates on personal freedom seems conspiratorial, but not that surprising since all are products of the political culture of the Soeharto days, which accepted the notion of trading freedom for stability and economic development.

Considering that one presidential candidate and two vice presidential candidates are former Army generals, the military mentality in our politics seems more pervasive today compared to the 2004 and 1999 elections.

Freedom, it appears, is simply not in the political lexicon of our soldiers. If we let them have their way, they may even turn freedom and liberal into dirty words.

But just because the candidates are not addressing the lack of freedom in this country, it does not mean voters should let them get away with it. Voters, rather than candidates, should drive the agenda and the election themes.

We may not find the word freedom in their elaborate vision and mission statements, but we should be able to scrutinize their track records to be able to tell how they will perform on this issue if they are elected as Indonesia's next leaders.

As the popular song during the civil rights movement in the USA in the 1950s and 1960s goes. we who believe in freedom cannot rest, until it comes.