What’s Behind the New Communist Scares in Indonesia and the Philippines?

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What’s Behind the New Communist Scares in Indonesia and the Philippines?

Anti-communist sentiment in both countries has grabbed headlines over the past few months.

There has been a noticeable rise of anti-communist sentiment in Indonesia and the Philippines in the past several months. What gives?

In Indonesia, the police arrested two activists for wearing a T-shirt that bears the image of “Partai Kopi Indonesia” (Indonesian Coffee Party or PKI). For the police, it resembles the acronym of the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The police also arrested a store owner for selling a T-shirt that features a hammer and sickle communist symbol even if it’s the album cover of German metal band Kreator. Earlier this year, a literary festival was canceled by the police because the event aims to explore Leftist ideas.

To be fair to the police, this is merely an enforcement of an Indonesian law which criminalizes the promotion of Marxism, Communism, and Leninism. These Leftist concepts are deemed subversive and a threat to Indonesia’s national security.

The law was passed during the early years of former President Suharto who banned the PKI after the 1965 anti-communist hysteria. The official military narrative blames the PKI for instigating a series of abductions and killings that forced the army to retaliate. The anti-communist purge that resulted led to the deaths and arrests of hundreds of thousands of suspected communists and their sympathizers across Indonesia.

During the three-decade rule of Suharto, no formal probe was made to determine the truth behind the mass killings. It was only after the downfall of Suharto when witnesses and survivors came forward to share their ordeal.

When Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo won in 2014, human rights groups urged him to pursue truth and justice by investigating the 1965 mass killings. At first, Jokowi seemed supportive of the idea, even though the military establishment has expressed its vehement objection.

Reacting to the recent arrests made by the police, Jokowi affirmed the intention of the law to stop the spread or revival of communism in the country. But he also reminded law enforcers to respect human rights and freedom of expression.

For the military, urgent action is needed to thwart the communist plot of PKI remnants. Military officials warn that the communist movement is spreading which could threaten Indonesia’s democracy.

But the military could be simply trying to undermine efforts to probe alleged military atrocities committed during the rise to power of Suharto, particularly in 1965. Many are doubtful about the communist threat because it is being revived at a time when there are various initiatives to review one of the darkest episodes in Indonesia’s modern history.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, some influential politicians are suspicious about the peace offer made by President-elect Rodrigo Duterte to communist rebels. During the campaign period, even the ruling Liberal Party used Duterte’s close links with communists to discourage voters from supporting him. After Duterte won convincingly as president, one of his early pronouncements was to invite communists to join his Cabinet. He also vowed to resume the stalled peace talks with Maoist rebels.

Duterte’s willingness to sign a comprehensive peace deal with the communist movement, which has been waging a guerrilla war since 1969, is unprecedented in Philippine history. Naturally, some former army officials are not happy with this decision. There’s a lingering anti-communist bias in the Philippines, which explains why Duterte’s out of the box proposals are encountering some opposition from powerful institutions. And if Duterte is serious in welcoming communists in the new government, his enemies are expected to be more aggressive in boosting anti-communism in society to erode his popularity.

Communists are far from dominating the governments of Indonesia and the Philippines. But there are political forces which are ready to adopt red scare tactics in order to either hide the truth (Indonesia) or bring down an elected leader (Philippines).