By John McBeth
November 13, 2012
During President Suharto's 32-year rule, Indonesians were constantly fed a seemingly indigestible diet of Pancasila, the five principles conceived during the struggle for independence which served as the philosophical bedrock of the future Indonesian state.
Foreign students, in particular, were taken aback at the way it occupied such a huge chunk of the curriculum at the country's command and Staff College and other military institutions. Being able to "receive Pancasila in your heart," as the saying went, became something of a joke.
Not anymore. In what may be a bid to win back social and political relevance, the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama has called for the re-consolidation of Pancasila to halt Indonesia's troubling slide into religious intolerance.
Last July, former vice-president Try Sutrisno, his fellow generals ranging from Wismoyo Arismunandar to Wiranto, former Supreme Court chief justice Bagir Manan and other retired senior officials, signed a declaration urging all elements of society to return to the ways of Pancasila.
And earlier this month, armed forces chief Admiral Agus Suhartono, his service chiefs and majors from the 1999 and 2000 military academy classes held a panel discussion on "The Regeneration of Pancasila and its Relevance to the Future of the Defence Force."
The renewed focus on Pancasila is also shared among educationalists, worried that the loosening of its tenets has emboldened hard line Islamic groups to resort to extreme violence against minorities and even civil society itself.
The education ministry will reintroduce a basic Pancasila class that was struck from the curriculum five years ago.
Much of the current discourse about Pancasila means different things to different people. In many cases, it doesn't touch on Islamic radicalism at all, but on the simple imperative of maintaining national unity and related concerns over the impact of globalization and inequalities.
The military's panel discussion, for example, dwelt almost solely on Pancasila's "victory" over communism in 1965-66, a reaction to recent efforts to re-examine the bloody purge which claimed at least 500,000 lives.
After all, the keynote speaker was army chief of staff General Pramono Edhie Wibowo, the son of Lieutenant-General Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, considered the architect of the Indonesian Communist Party's destruction.
Juwono Sudarsono, a minister of both defence and education in post-Suharto administrations, says the rejection of Pancasila as New Order dogma is not the issue when Islamic radicals perceive it to be overly serving the interests of Christians and minority business professionals.
"If you want to instil tolerance in society, you have to be able to address it in socio-economic terms," he points out.
"Pancasila is seen to be too secular and too tolerant of market capitalism. Social and economic marginalisation among Muslims has been much more pronounced in the last eight to 10 years, especially among middle-class and lower middle-class workers."
Analysts like the International Crisis Group's Sidney Jones are in two minds about how it can be applied in any meaningful sense.
"Pancasila 'worked' during Suharto's rule, not because of the power of the idea but because of the coercive apparatus that went with it," she argues.
"When Pancasila comes up in the context of being an ideological basis to counter religious intolerance, then it will only succeed if there's a much more concerted effort to teach and promote pluralism, and define the first and second 'sila' as such."
Promulgated by founding President Sukarno, those sila, or principles, call for a belief in one God and a "just and civilized humanity." The three others prescribe an adherence to national unity, democracy by consensus and social justice.
But over the last decade, and particularly since the influential Indonesian Council of Ulema fatwa against pluralism in 2005, the opposition from the conservative Muslim community seems to ensure that resurrecting Pancasila will have little impact.
For that reason alone, there has to be a willingness to use the authority of the state again to push back against the idea of Islam as the only truth. Not in a coercive manner as in the past, but resolutely all the same.
It won't be easy, given the disturbing level of intolerance that has taken root among even mainstream Muslims. Democracy has allowed for a full flowering of Muslim beliefs and the re-emergence of a hard-line minority campaigning for an Islamic state.
But few if any Islamic or political leaders will speak out against that, or are willing to question why institutions like Bank Indonesia and the Supreme Court have their own elegant government-funded mosques which inexorably link Islam and the state.
Similarly, where is Pancasila applicable when Shi'ite Muslims are forced to convert to mainstream Sunnism, and Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi insists that human rights conform to local values? And when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appears before the United Nations to defend draconian blasphemy laws?