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Indonesia’s founding ideology is back with a vengeance. After barely mentioning it his first two years in office, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s now often references Pancasila, the five principles forming the basis of Indonesia’s national identity as stated by founding President Sukarno in 1945. The main reason for this newfound enthusiasm: Jokowi’s need to reign in the Islamic right and other threats to his presidency ahead of his re-election next year.

It started in 2017, after the shocking defeat and subsequent jailing of former Jakarta governor and Jokowi ally, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. The campaign against Ahok had been full of racist and anti-Christian rhetoric. In a speech on 1 June 2017, Jokowi stated bluntly that Pancasila was under threat by right-wing Islamist religious organisations, and called for the entire country to come together to safeguard the principles alongside Indonesia’s national motto, “unity in diversity”.

“The Jakarta Governor election made us realise that we really missed Pancasila,” says Novan Dwi Andhika with the Global Peace Foundation, an organisation running a Pancasila Vision in Action project across Indonesia.

“We don’t want the tragedy of 1998 or Ambon to happen again in this country,” he adds, referring to the 1998 anti-Chinese riots and the Muslim-Christian violence that rocked the Moluccas in the early 2000s.

In the coming months, Jokowi followed up his words with action: he disbanded one of the country’s most notorious Islamist organisations, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and went after the head of the Front Pemuda Islam (also known as the Islamic Defenders Front), Muhammad Rizieq Shihab. Rizieq fled the country; although the police called off their investigation in May 2018, he is still in Saudi Arabia and has not returned to Indonesia.

“Banning any organisation strictly on ideological grounds, including Pancasila, is a draconian action that undermines rights of freedom of association and expression”

Jokowi has also directed government agencies to go after allegedly “anti-Pancasila” organisations, and created a Pancasila Promotion Group. On top of that, there have been suggestions that Pancasila be made into its own subject of study in schools. While some welcome these moves, others fear the tactics could backfire as they give the government too much power to define who or what is counter to the founding principles.

“Banning any organisation strictly on ideological grounds, including Pancasila, is a draconian action that undermines rights of freedom of association and expression that Indonesians have fought hard to establish since the end of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998,” says Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Jokowi’s use of Pancasila shows the surprising power and tenacity of this uniquely Indonesian ideology, which, in the past, has been used to empower the authoritarian tendencies of both Sukarno and, far more violently, General Suharto’s New Order Regime. Despite it’s mixed history, Pancasila remains relevant today in a transitioning, democratic Indonesia.

“Indonesia, in an important sense, was one of the first truly modern nation-states, based on the notion of civic nationalism underpinned by the motherhood sentiments of the five principles,” says Robert Elson, a scholar and author of several books on Indonesian history.

Understanding Pancasila

Indonesia is arguably one of the world’s most complex post-colonial nation states. Geographically disperse—consisting of more than 10,000 islands, hundreds of languages and dozens of different faiths—it’s a country that, before being melded together by the Dutch, had little pre-colonial history as a unified entity. That is why Jakarta has and still does fear disintegration and regionalism.

“Since its inception in 1945, Indonesia’s leaders have been terrified about internal division of whatever kind, and have found Pancasila a useful stratagem to dull the sense of incipient local or religious identity and emphasise the wholeness of Indonesia,” says Elson.

In fact, Indonesia was initially imagined as a federal republic, sometimes called the “United States of Indonesia”, with each province able to wield significant power. Shortly after the end of the Indonesian War of Independence, and just months before the country gained official United Nations recognition, Sukarno consolidated power and turned the country into a unitary state.

“Indonesia’s leaders have been terrified about internal division of whatever kind, and have found Pancasila a useful stratagem to dull the sense of incipient local or religious identity and emphasise the wholeness of Indonesia”

Unity has thus long been at the center of Indonesia, and the concept of Pancasila—Old Javanese for Five Principles—has been at this core. It’s symbolised in Indonesia’s national emblem, Garuda Pancasila.  

“Formally, Pancasila is not thought of [as] an ideology,” says Elson. “Indeed, it is supposed to be non-ideological, in contrast to things like communism, Islam and so on. It is, more properly, a national philosophy or conceptual basis for the state.”

Sukarno’s rule was defined by chaos and instability. That all changed when the Suharto regime came into power in after a coup in 1965. The New Order was brutal in many ways, responsible for vast human rights abuses across the archipelago and even more centralisation of power and state resources than before. Despite its connection to Sukarno, however, Suharto embraced Pancasila, even while mostly ignoring the last two principles of democracy and social justice.

“Suharto very much strengthened the idea of Pancasila, because he was even more taken than was Sukarno with the idea of national unity, and was especially concerned about the divisive tendencies of ‘ideologies’ like communism and Islam and what damage they might do to the multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation of Indonesia,” says Elson.

Under Suharto, Pancasila Day ceremonies were part of nationwide courses on the state ideology, and government workers, university students and other groups were forced to attend classes. Pancasila was also used as a tool to punish dissidents who opposed Suharto, his cronies, or the corrupt system that underpinned New Order Indonesia. Just being accused of being anti-Pancasila was enough to get removed from a position or power, or, even, thrown in jail.

The future of Pancasila

After the fall of Suharto, many aspects of New Order Indonesia were discarded, from the yearly viewing of a heavily fictionalised film on the 1965 Communist coup attempt, the holiday known as Supersemar (Surat Perintah Sebelas Maret) that celebrated the transfer of power from Sukarno to Suharto, to the bans on Chinese language and culture. So too fell into distaste the focus on Pancasila and the Indonesian nationalism that underpinned it.

“Before reformation in 1998… people felt Pancasila was only a political tool for [the] government. As a result, after reformation almost all of society became traumatised with Pancasila and no longer wanted to use it,” says Novan.

That’s now changing. While Jokowi’s moves could be criticised as politically expedient, Novan and others believe that Pancasila has much to offer the modern world, where religious and ethnic tensions are growing not only in Indonesia, but also in neighbouring nations such as Myanmar, Malaysia, and India.

Indonesian president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at a festival in Sulawesi in 2015. Credit: fiki j bhayangkara /

“We believe that Pancasila is the answer for any nation facing challenges such as rising intolerance, extremism, inequality or discrimination,” says Novan. One role model is former President Abdurrahman Wahid, more commonly known as Gus Dur, who during his short term between 1999 and 2001 made moves to expand multiculturalism, most notably lifting bans on Chinese characters and New Year celebrations. He was also a longtime advocacy for moderate Islam, a legacy that is now being carried on by his daughter Yenny Wahid.

“We believe that Pancasila is the answer for any nation facing challenges such as rising intolerance, extremism, inequality or discrimination”

Indonesia has evolved quite a bit since achieving independence, but the same tensions of maintaining harmony across the diverse nation are still there. That is why, 63 years after it was first uttered by Sukarno on 1 June 1945—a day that Jokowi has made a national holiday—Pancasila remains the glue that keeps Indonesia together. For Jokowi, tying himself to Pancasila allows him to combat the rising Islamic forces while still maintaining a strong, nationalistic image.

But Pancasila itself is not always inclusive. Its mention of God excludes atheists or non-believers, and it has been used by some to target LGBTQ activists, or even journalists reporting on such issues.

The question is: will the future of Pancasila resemble the genuine idealism of the original five principles, perhaps even expanded to include other Indonesian communities? Or will it be merely a political tool to maintain power as it was under Suharto? Pancasila, like Indonesia, is ever evolving, fitting for a country that is still figuring itself out.

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Nithin Coca

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on social and economic issues in developing countries, and has specific expertise in Southeast Asia.