ARMED with a loudspeaker, the elderly protester offered to pay one billion Rupiah (US$76,900) to anybody who murdered Jakarta’s Chinese-Indonesian governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama during one of the politician’s spontaneous blusukan election campaign visits in West Jakarta.
The crowd becoming hostile, Ahok was moved onto a public bus by police and moved to safety. This incident, days prior to the Friday, Nov 4 protest deemed #AksiDamai411 (Peaceful Action 411), would set the tone for a mass demonstration by hardline Islamic groups that was anything but harmonious.
Jakarta’s gubernatorial election, to be held February next year, has become the flashpoint of Indonesia’s underlying ethnic and religious tensions. Since the world’s largest Muslim nation began its transition to democracy 18 years ago, more than 10,000 people have died in inter-ethnic and religious violence – including the notorious 1998 riots in Jakarta when Chinese businesses and homes were targeted for looting, arson, rape and murder.
With highly incendiary rhetoric surrounding the Nov 4 protest reminiscent of historical anti-minority sentiment, U.S. and Australian embassies warned their citizens against travelling to Jakarta, while Christian schools and international organisations’ offices shut as a precaution. A climate of fear in the city was palpable. That Friday, and over subsequent days, the city’s usually-congested streets were quiet.
An estimated 100,000 people turned out for the rally, which began at Indonesia’s independence mosque or Masjid Istiqlal – the largest in Southeast Asia.
By nightfall it had descended into violence and police then moved in with tear gas and a water cannon. One rioter subsequently died of asthma.
Mobs looted a convenience store and set fire to vehicles, while frightened residents were barred in their homes. Eight people have been accused of attacking police officers. Protesters later moved to Chinese-majority areas of the city and to Ahok’s house in North Jakarta, calling for the governor’s arrest.
“Come to Luar Batang if you dare,” yelled one man from a motorcycle.
A massive demonstration in Jakarta against the governor turned violent Friday when protesters burned police cars and officers responded with tear gas and water cannons.
Posted by Voice of America – VOA on Friday, November 4, 2016
Right-wing Islamic groups led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have rallied against the governor for months, galvanised by controversial slum eviction policies across the city. Former pro-democracy activist and National Mandate Party politician Amien Rais, for example, has rallied hard against Ahok, labelling him a psychopath and dajjal – the anti-Christ.
Ahok’s quotation and alleged insult of the Quran provided impetus to their action against him, culminating in the Nov 4 riots and the subsequent naming of the governor as a suspect in a blasphemy case.
The protesters issued a nine-point accord, including that Muslims should “abide by their religious [teachings] by only voting for a Muslim candidate. It is haram (forbidden) to vote for a non-Muslim candidate or abstain from voting.”
Prominent musician Ahmad Dhani called president Joko Widodo a “pig” and “dog” – deeply offensive insults in Indonesia – for refusing to meet with the protesters, drawing resounding applause from the crowd. Journalists covering the event were attacked both verbally and physically by demonstrators, with one TV crew even getting expelled from the Istiqlal Mosque complex for supposedly biased reporting.
In September, The Economist predicted that Ahok’s highly effective piloting of Jakarta’s government and corresponding popularity would be enough to overcome the fact he is of two historically besieged minority groups, being Chinese-Indonesian and a Christian. As right-wing Islamic groups gain momentum and (literally) call for blood, this looks increasingly unlikely.
Despite ugly scenes at the previous rally, the FPI remains obstinate.
It has declared it will host another “peaceful” demonstration on Dec 2 – one to which musician Ahmad Dhani has urged protestors to bring one million bamboo spears.
Indonesia’s National Police has since announced that it will not allow the protest to go ahead, claiming that “freedom of speech is never absolute” if it poses a risk to public order and safety.
It remains unclear what will eventuate.
Perhaps emboldened by hardline anti-Ahok activists, several targeted attacks and threats of violence against minorities were carried out in the wake of Nov 4.
In Singkawang – a largely Chinese city in West Kalimantan, Borneo – a Buddhist temple was firebombed, whilst in East Java a Catholic church was issued a bomb threat.
An assailant threw a Molotov cocktail at a church in Samarinda, East Kalimantan, injuring four children including two-year-old Intan Olivia Marbun who later died.
— Max Walden (@maxwalden_) November 19, 2016
The Nov 4 rally and the death of baby Intan have spurred calls from across Indonesia for peace, tolerance and unity.
One viral image on social media asserted, “I am a Muslim, I am Indonesian, I will not be on the streets … I love a united Indonesia more than a separate Indonesia. Islam taught me that it brings good to humanity, not the other way around.”
Last Saturday, a comparatively modest group of demonstrators turned out to join the Bhinekka Tunggal Ika or Unity in Diversity parade.
The next day, an estimated 17,500 people attended “Karnaval Cinta NKRI” (“Love the Republic Carnival”) during Jakarta’s car-free day, again to assert their tolerance and rejection of extremist ideas.
— Max Walden (@maxwalden_) November 19, 2016
Given higher-than-average levels of education and more liberal attitudes among Jakartans, Ikar Nusa Bakti of the Indonesia Institute of Sciences has argued that the likely impact of the protests will have been to further bolster support for Ahok.
In recent months Ahok’s public approval rating has remained high at almost 69 percent, although his electability rating is significantly lower. Moreover, his naming as a blasphemy suspect will have seriously damaged his credibility in the eyes of many voters.
The closely-fought and divisive electoral race still has months to go. It remains to be seen if xenophobia prevails.