As We Reflect on Independence Day, Can We Honesty Say We Are Free?

Jakarta Globe, Indonesia
Tasa Nugraza Barley | August 18, 2011

Celebrating this 66th independence day, there’s one question every Indonesian needs to ask themselves: Do they have the independence they deserve?

Although this nation gained its independence a long time ago, through long, bloody wars against the Dutch occupation, it wasn’t until 1998 that we really could say whatever we wanted to say. Although many think Suharto was able to improve our economy greatly, the fact that his 32-year dictatorship oppressed us politically and culturally was not debatable. It was simply another kind of occupation.

But is it right to claim that conditions are so much better now? Is everyone finally enjoying the independence in this country?

Sadly, I don’t think so.

As we’ve been practicing democracy for more than a decade, it may be a valid claim that we finally have the political right that we never had in the past. If there are things that go wrong, people can easily criticize the government or lawmakers, an act that would send someone to jail during Suharto’s regime.

Even though this nation may be a role model of democracy in the region, by providing its people the independence to speak freely and criticize, Indonesians still don’t have their independence in many other areas.

Countless times, the president and his ministers have announced how our economy has been improving very significantly. It’s true that Indonesia’s economic growth looks very confident — it is now predicted to reach 6.6 percent, surpassing the government official target of 6.5 percent — and is stubbornly unaffected by the downfall of American and European economies.

Looking from this perspective, it’s easy to say that the government has successfully improved the prosperity of the people. But as shown by the Central Statistics Agency (BPS) in early July, there are still 30 million poor people in Indonesia, a slight improvement from last year’s number, 31 million. Is it just me, or are the rich getting richer and the poor, well, staying very poor?

As has been revealed through a number of corruption cases — the most high-profile involving the likes of Gayus Tambunan, Susno Duadji and now Muhammad Nazaruddin — the justice system is controlled by little other than power and money.

People were clearly hurt to find out that former tax man Gayus could miraculously travel to Bali, Singapore, Macau and Hong Kong while supposedly in police detention during his graft trial.

The Gayus case clearly made us understand even better than before how justice can still be bought in this country. As long as you have money, the chances are you can fix things here and there, whether you’re right or wrong.

The public is watching another political circus show, with Democratic lawmaker Nazaruddin as its main star. Not only is he alleged to have a key role in the Southeast Asian Games graft scandal, but the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has also stated that the disgraced politician is also involved in other corruption cases, worth more than a staggering Rp 6 trillion ($700 million) in total.

Looking at the amount of money involved, if true, Nazaruddin could not have done this by himself; many other politicians and government officials must have played a role in the scandal.

But based on previous corruption cases, my hunch tells me that only a few will be sacrificed, while many others will walk free as if nothing has happened.

And this is all happening when a poor man can easily spend months, or even years, in jail just for stealing a pair of slippers from the mosque or a chicken from his neighbor’s house.

Try to talk about independence to those in the Ahmadiyah sect, a religious minority group whose 500,000 members are receiving threats all over the country. Among many of these incidents, one stands out. In February, Ahmadiyah members in Cikeusik, West Java, were attacked by a 1,500-strong mob who wanted to kick them out from the village. Three Ahmadis died.

A court has now jailed 12 members of the Sunni Muslim mob for, at most, just six months each, although they were caught on film violently attacking Ahmadiyah members in clear sight of police officers. As if this was not weird enough, the same court this week jailed one of the Ahmadiyah survivors for six months. Deden Sudjana, the Ahmadiyah member, afterwards bitterly questioned why he had been treated the same as — or even worse than — the people who had murdered his three friends.

When he asked “Where is the justice?” what he was essentially saying was that he and many other minority counterparts did not have the privilege to enjoy this country’s independence. Believing in whatever god and religion you wish to is supposed to be a basic right here, yet Deden and his friends cannot do this.

If our founding fathers and national heroes could come back and see all this, I’m sure they would cry. They would be shocked to see how their noble values have been stamped on by today’s leaders in the interests of people’s egos.

When our heroes bravely fought for independence, all they wanted to do was ensure that their grandchildren could live freely, happily and prosperously. To achieve that goal, they did not mind having a humble life.

But look at us now, we’ve become a shameless nation whose “independence” seems to be nothing but a rhetorical term in the history books.

Copyright 2010 The Jakarta Globe

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