Jakarta (The Jakarta Post/ANN) - Contrary to everybody's hopes to see the fruits of reform within the National Police, last Friday's dispersal of a discussion at Salihara Cultural Centre in South Jakarta suggests that the police have instead turned back the clock to the authoritarianism of the New Order.
Rather than taking action against vigilantes who intimidated those attending the free-speech forum, the police scrambled for legitimacy to force an end to the event, which they alleged lacked a permit to feature a foreign speaker.
The police were cracking down on Canadian activist Irshad Manji, whose latest book, "Allah, Liberty and Love", was the highlight of the day.
That the police considered the discussion illegal due to the absence of their prior approval amounts to an infringement of the Constitution, which protects individual freedom of speech. Nowhere in the country's existing laws can we find a state institution or individual that has been granted the authority to silence others merely because of dissenting views.
The Reform movement, whose anniversary we will celebrate later this month, has given birth to a series of laws that confirm the nation's commitment to individual freedom, including the freedom of speech and expression. Enforcement of those laws has been a different story, however.
The police's contempt of freedom of speech on Friday came just after members of the hard-line Muslim group the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), picketed outside Salihara Cultural Centre in a show of protest against reform-minded Manji, citing her liberal views, including the conformity between Islam and homosexuality, which they feared could undermine Islam.
In her book, Manji calls for separation between Islam and culture and a reinterpretation of Islam itself - progressive thoughts that conservative groups such as the FPI apparently cannot tolerate.
It goes without saying that the Salihara incident sends the wrong message that the police would listen to the cause of a group that has no hesitation to resort to violence - in the name of God, no less - to settle differences, more than they do to people who fall prey to acts of thuggery and are therefore are in need of protection.
This has long raised suspicion of a link between the police and the group, which critics say is no different from thugs who seek income from protection rackets. Police have frequently denied allegations that the force was behind the rise of radicalism that ironically supported the flourishing democratisation in the country.
The police might argue they stepped out to prevent the FPI members from going on a rampage, but, as often happened in the past, the failure to act against radicals will further encourage them to repeat the same display of brutality. Not to mention the lenient punishment handed down on members of the hard-line groups even for violence that resulted in deaths.
At the end of the day the police, despite their constitutional responsibilities for protecting people in exercising their freedoms, are perceived as representatives of the state that are stifling the freedoms themselves for the sake of "stability", which is exactly the mantra of the New Order.
If last week's hard-liners, with the police condoning their action, can intimidate and silence a small group of people, tomorrow or next time they will feel free to deprive more citizens of their freedom of speech, thought, expression and perhaps their right to live.
We fear that someday people will break their silence and take whatever action they deem as fair reprisal.
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