Indonesia’s Bill on Mass Organizations Raises Concerns

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Indonesia’s Bill on Mass Organizations Raises Concerns

Indonesia is putting the final touches on a bill that could repress mass organizations. Dissenters speak up.

The Indonesian parliament is set to approve a bill that would amend the law governing mass organizations. Human rights groups and experts have warned against the repressive provisions of the new legislation.

The latest draft requires mass organizations to adhere to the country’s 1945 Constitution and the principles of Pancasila, a state philosophy about the belief in one God.

Specifically, Article 21 of the bill stipulates that mass organizations are “obliged to maintain the unity of the state, uphold morality and ethics and nurture the country’s religious and cultural norms.” Further, Article 61 prohibits “receiving or giving illegal support from and to foreign agencies”, and “promoting teachings that are against Pancasila”.

Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, reminded Indonesia that state regulations should not harm the principles of “pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness.”

Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, added that “freedom of religion or belief has a broad application, covering also non-theistic and atheistic convictions.”

Media groups have also voiced opposition to the proposed regulation. “How can journalists not mention ideologies, which are against Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution, in their publications?” asks Amir Effendi Siregar of the Independent Coalition for the Democratization of Broadcasting.

Meanwhile, local groups worry that the bill will give broad powers to the government, which corrupt authorities may use to undermine the independence of mass organizations, especially those critical of government policies. They also raised concerns about some of the restrictive administrative requirements governing foreign organizations. 

For example, the bill empowers the government to review the activities of local mass organizations every three years, and every year for foreign organizations. Authorities can also use financial audits of organizations to grant or deny permits to existing groups. There is also a proposal that would allow the government to suspend associations without a court order.

Under the proposed bill, foreigners who want to establish a mass organization must be residents of Indonesia for at least seven consecutive years and deposit more than $1 million of their personal wealth in the association. Once accredited, foreign associations are forbidden to carry out “practical political activities” or fundraising or activities “which disrupt diplomatic ties”.

To put all of this in perspective, it is important to note that mass organizations flourished in the country after the downfall of President Suharto in 1998. Today, there are at least 19,000 registered mass organizations under the Ministry of Social Affairs while the Ministry of Religious Affairs oversees more than 9,000 groups.

The initiative to replace the 1985 Mass Organizations law was initially supported by many people who wanted the government to regulate local groups such as the often violent Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

Indeed, the new law would ban activities that promote “racial conflict, blasphemy and violence”, which are covered by the country’s penal code, as legal analysts have pointed out. 

Indonesian legislators have dismissed the opinions of UN experts and hinted that they might approve the controversial measure next month. But local opposition to the bill is growing.

The National Commission on Human Rights, Indonesia’s national human rights institution, has voiced its apprehension over some of the bill’s provisions. Meanwhile, the Coalition on Freedom of Assembly, which is made up of 22 mass organizations, is urging the government to withdraw the draft legislation. 

They argue that the new law could subvert the rights to freedom of association, expression and religion, which are essential in a democratic society.

To prevent an unnecessary confrontation with civil society groups, the Indonesian government would be wise to delay approval of the bill. Then, after taking other views into account, parliament would be able to adopt broader human rights standards in a revised draft of the law.