In 2015 then PM Tony Abbott sought to save the lives of two convicted heroin traffickers. He reminded Indonesians that Australians had given $1 billion in emergency aid and rehabilitation following the 2004 Aceh tsunami, so please show mercy.
He should have been better advised: Indonesians reacted angrily and made gestures of raising funds to repay. Instead of softening attitudes, Abbott’s clumsy comments hardened President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s stand against what he called ‘foreign interference’.
The firing squad squinted down their sights at the pinioned Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran to the cheers of Indonesians who saw the executions as asserting the nation’s sovereignty. The Republic would be no pushover by Western liberals going soft on drugs.
Three years on that tragic episode has been a factor in Jokowi’s early reluctance to admit that the devastation following the Central Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami is so vast that the government needs external aid.
That’s now changed, though the legal situation regarding a ‘national disaster’ remains ambiguous. For some any outside help will be too late.
The tsunami hit Palu city on Friday 28 September; within hours it was clear this was a far bigger tragedy than the early August quakes in North Lombok, which killed almost 600.
Indonesia’s services were still reeling from the first calamity so Australia and other nations promptly put up their hands. The offers were unwanted, according to Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Panjaitan.
He was quoted as saying: ‘I don’t think it’s necessary to declare it a national disaster. What we are doing now is already more than enough.’
That was on the morning of Monday 1 October; by nightfall, following harrowing accounts of the size of the emergency, conflicting reports surfaced about the government allowing strangers to land their Hercules.
Even then gratitude was eclipsed by caution and conditions. Officials reminded that 117 countries had pledged aid after the Aceh tsunami but their activities were uncoordinated and often overlapped. There had been tales of agencies trampling on local customs to build shelters and orphans being taken out of the country for adoption.
In 2007 a law was passed to control foreign aid during disasters. This requires workers to be accompanied by local ‘security personnel’.
It’s difficult for many Australians to understand the strength of Indonesian nationalism and its twin, inferiority complex. To ask for aid is seen as a slander on the state’s ability to care for its own.
In emergencies like big bushfires Kiwis, Canadians, Americans and others frequently rush to handle hoses Down Under, and few locals feel embarrassed.
It’s different next door. The 260 million citizens have all been raised on the story of the 17 August 1945 Declaration of Independence when the Japanese who’d occupied the Dutch East Indies surrendered.
The former colonialists ignored Soekarno’s proclamation and returned. A four-year guerilla war followed which killed an estimated 100,000 Indonesians before the Dutch gave up.
Meanwhile the adjacent British colonies of Singapore and Malaya waited almost two decades for their negotiated freedom.
Yet these countries have rocketed ahead while Indonesia still struggles. The contrast between orderly, modern and clean Singapore with polluted and chaotic Jakarta is stark.
Indonesia won self-rule through bloodshed, then suffered further through Soekarno’s economic mismanagement and cosying up to communism. Further pain came with his authoritarian successor Soeharto’s kleptocracy, and the 1998 financial and political crisis, which brought back democracy.
Indonesians know that many in nearby nations sneer privately, and it hurts. News that the tsunami early-warning technology using ocean buoys had failed through vandalism and poor maintenance has roused shame and anger.
Abrasion points with Australia include memories of our involvement in the 1999 East Timor Referendum, NGOs continuing support for West Papuan autonomy, and public hostility towards Muslims, particularly by politicians.
Tim Lindsey, Director of Melbourne University’s Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society, has written about Indonesia’s ‘brittle relationships’ with its neighbours and a rising ‘prickly defensive nationalism’.
In dealing with Indonesia, even on issues like providing humanitarian aid, it’s important to tread carefully.
According to Lindsey ‘rightly or wrongly (and often it is not our fault), it will be up to us to take the initiative to repair relations when things go wrong. Many Australians will, understandably, greatly resent this, but it is not a matter of fairness or reasonableness, just realpolitik.
‘The hard truth is that in the years ahead, keeping the bilateral relationship with Indonesia stable—for our own benefit—will, unfortunately, require Australia to work much harder to keep things nice, and perhaps more than it should.’
Duncan Graham is a freelance Australian journalist living in Indonesia.
(This article was first published in "Pearls & Irritations" Blog)
The professor, who is also a member of Jokowi’s Presidential Advisory Board (Wantimpres), advised against selecting a religious leader as a vice presidential candidate. Religious leaders might have mastery of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), he said, but such skills are irrelevant for the post of vice president, where they will be expected to assist the president in advancing Indonesian economic and social development.
Jokowi did not heed this warning. On 9 August, Jokowi and his opponent, Prabowo Subianto, announced their vice presidential picks. Both candidates’ selections were unexpected and had hardly been mentioned in the days leading up to the nomination deadline. It appears that conflicts of interest and practical political considerations won out, and Jokowi selected Ma’ruf Amin, while Prabowo selected Jakarta Vice Governor Sandiaga Uno.
Ma’ruf Amin is an ulama who serves as the spiritual leader (Rais ‘Aam) of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), one of two leadership positions in the nation’s largest Islamic organisation. He is the head of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), and previously served as the head of its fatwa division. Ma’ruf is also the great-grandson of Sheik Nawawi Al Bantani, an ulama from Banten who was once the imam of the Great Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia and an influential teacher of the founders of the two largest Islamic organisations in Indonesia, Hasyim Asy’ari (NU) and Ahmad Dahlan (Muhammadiyah).
Jokowi’s selection of Ma’ruf was particularly surprising because so far it has been his opponent, Prabowo, who has typically been more willing to play the religion card. On 27 July, for example, Prabowo delivered a speech at a meeting of ulama(link is external) from the National Movement to Safeguard the Fatwa of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (GNPF), which led the protests against former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in late 2016 and early 2017.
The meeting of ulama declared its support for Prabowo’s candidacy and suggested he select Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) politician Salim Segaf Al Jufri or religious leader Abdul Somad as his deputy. But Prabowo in the end went with wealthy businessman and Jakarta Vice Governor Sandiaga. GNPF figurehead Rizieq Shihab has since called for a second meeting(link is external) of ulama. This is presumably to endorse Prabowo’s choice and maintain an anti-Jokowi stance, despite Jokowi selecting a religious leader as his running mate.
Jokowi’s selection of Ma’ruf also came as a surprise because respected former Constitutional Court Chief Justice Mahfud MD had been all but confirmed as his running mate, even speaking to the media in this capacity.
Ma’ruf Amin and the role of MUI in promoting intolerance
The selection of Ma’ruf Amin as vice presidential candidate has been warmly welcomed by members of NU, which claims to represent 43 per cent of the Muslim community in Indonesia, as well as by the MUI and NU-affiliated National Awakening Party (PKB). But there are also deep concerns about what Ma’ruf’s selection as vice presidential running mate might mean for the protection of the rights of religious minorities.
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s 10-year presidency was marked by a major deterioration in religious tolerance(link is external) and weak protection of religious minorities. This growth in intolerance and exclusivism in the practice of Islam was legitimised by the MUI under Ma’ruf Amin, and in many ways, instigated by it. During the Yudhoyono years, Ma’ruf was a member of Yudhoyono’s Wantimpres and was one of the most senior and influential figures in MUI.
Yudhoyono did not have a comprehensive vision of religious freedom or strategies for fostering an inclusive religious community in Indonesia. He relied on MUI for advice, and often deferred to MUI – and Ma’ruf specifically – when pressed to make decisions on matters of religious belief. Consequently, in the decade under Yudhoyono, MUI saw its power and influence over religious affairs grow considerably.
MUI had significant influence in promoting the dominance of Islam as the majority religion in Indonesia. A core tenet of democracy is “majority rules, minority rights” – an understanding that although the majority holds power in a democracy, minority rights must still be protected. MUI, on the other hand, has encouraged the government to ignore the rights of minorities, and actively promoted discrimination against them.
This approach is seen most clearly in the MUI’s response to minority Islamic sects such as Ahmadiyah and Shi’a, blasphemy, and construction of houses of worship, in particular, churches. Ma’ruf has shaped MUI’s perspective in these matters and has encouraged intolerant positions in all three cases.
In 2005, for example, when Ma’ruf led MUI’s fatwa division, MUI re-issued a 1980 fatwa against the Ahmadiyah community, declaring it to be a deviant sect, and triggering an increase in violent attacks against the minority group. Ma’ruf reportedly used his proximity to Yudhoyono to argue for further restrictions on Ahmadiyah rights, leading to the passage of the 2008 Joint Ministerial Decree banning the Ahmadiyah community from publicly expressing their beliefs.
Also in 2005, MUI passed a fatwa declaring that secularism, liberalism and pluralism were haram, or against Islam. These are commonly debated concepts in the relationship between religion and democracy. But by passing this fatwa, MUI effectively silenced debate in the Indonesian Muslim community on the positive contributions of religion to democracy.
As a result, it has become more difficult to promote Pancasila as the “meeting point” between religion and the state, tolerance is now understood in an illiberal manner, that is, without respect, protection or fulfilment of the rights of minorities, and efforts to understand other faiths and effectively manage religious plurality have fallen by the wayside.
Although MUI fatwa are not binding on the Muslim community, many Indonesian Muslims follow MUI’s lead – especially when its fatwa relate to matters of inter and intra-religious relations. Through fatwa and statements to the media, Ma’ruf and MUI have been responsible for growing exclusivism in the way Indonesians practice Islam.
What hope for religious freedom under a Jokowi-Ma’ruf presidency?
When Jokowi was elected, many hoped for a reversal of the intolerance that had been allowed to develop under his predecessor. There have been some limited improvements over the last four years, but the core concerns remain – religious minorities are still not able to fully enjoy the religious freedom they are guaranteed under the Constitution.
Shi’a and Ahmadiyah Muslims still face discrimination. Accusations of blasphemy are still used against minorities who demonstrate religious understandings or practices that differ from the majority. Minorities still face extreme difficulty building houses of worship.
If Jokowi is re-elected, the chances of this trend reversing are slim. Under Ma’ruf, MUI has been unwilling to accept arguments in support of minorities based on their constitutional right to religious freedom, instead relying on conservative religious interpretations that benefit the majority Muslim community. With Ma’ruf as vice president, things could well become a lot worse for minorities than they already are.
This article was reproduced from a piece in the blog of Indonesia at Melbourne.
Late last month, Indonesia’s controversial Blasphemy Law (Law 1/PNPS/1956) claimed another victim. Meiliana, a 44-year-old ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman from Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra, was sentenced to 18 months in prison by the Medan District Court for complaining about the volume of the call to prayer at her neighbourhood mosque.
The case first came to national attention in mid-2016,(link is external) when rioters attacked several Buddhist temples in Tanjung Balai, a small city south of the provincial capital of Medan. The incident was initially reported as an ethno-religious conflict, sparked by a Chinese Indonesian woman’s comments, which were viewed as insults directed at a religious symbol. The case then evolved into a blasphemy case after rioters were sentenced in early 2017.
The Paramadina Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy (PUSAD Paramadina) sent a team of researchers to the field to interview key stakeholders, including members of the local community, police, religious leaders, and politicians. Here we recount the series of events that led to conflict and look at how a neighbourhood dispute turned into a riot, and finally resulted in a blasphemy conviction.
The complaint that led to disaster
Meiliana never suspected that her few words of complaint could spark a riot. On 22 July 2016, at 7am, she complained to the owner of a food stall, Kasini (also known as Uo), about the volume of the speaker at the Al Maksum Mosque, across the road from the house she had rented for eight years in Tanjung Balai.
Meiliana told local organisation the United North Sumatra Alliance (Aliansi Sumut Bersatu) that her complaint was simple: “Uo,” she said, “the speaker from the mosque never used to be so loud, now it seems quite noisy”. According to Meiliana, Uo simply agreed with her.
During Meiliana’s trial, Uo said that he responded by saying that he would relay her concerns to his father, Kasidi, the mosque caretaker. A few days later, on 29 July, Kasidi told three members of the mosque’s board (Dewan Kemakmuran Masjid, DKM) about Meiliana’s complaint. The men then went to her house to confront her about it.
According to Aliansi Sumut Bersatu, the men accused Meiliana of trying to ban the mosque from sounding the call to prayer. Following a tense conversation, Meiliana’s husband, Lian Tui, went across the road to the mosque to apologise to Kasidi and other members of the mosque board. Meiliana remained inside, as a crowd had already begun to gather.
News of the incident soon reached the local neighbourhood chief. At about 8.30pm, the neighbourhood chief contacted the local community policing unit (Bhabinkamtibmas) and asked Meiliana and the mosque board to come to the Tanjung Balai Kota I neighbourhood office, where they would try to mediate a solution.
How were the masses mobilised?
By 9.15pm, before any agreement could be reached, a crowd had gathered outside the neighbourhood chief’s office. A member of the mob tried to enter the office to attack Meiliana, so police decided to transport Meiliana and her husband to the Tanjung Balai Selatan Subdistrict Police Station for their own safety.
Our interviews with rioters revealed that messages had circulated suggesting that a Chinese person was “going berserk” at the neighbourhood chief’s office and that she had tried to prohibit the mosque from sounding the call to prayer. Rumours and speculation continued to spread. One local gathered outside the neighbourhood office told one of the rioters that, “A Chinese person wearing shorts came to the mosque, and when the call to prayer sounded she was furious and demanded that the volume be turned down because it was disturbing her. This wasn’t the first time either, it has happened a lot.”
Meiliana and her husband were moved to the Tanjung Balai District Police Station, where police attempted to negotiate a solution with the head of the local branch of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), the police criminal investigations unit, the head of the local branch of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), local officials, and the mosque board.
But members of the mob travelled to the station. They attempted to push their way in but were prevented by police. One of the main agitators, Rudi, reportedly attracted the attention of the local community, shouting: “We can’t allow this to happen, it’s not right for someone to try to ban the call to prayer.”
After being knocked back by police, Rudi and his friends grabbed a megaphone and set up camp on the so-called “PLN Roundabout” on Jalan Sudirman. They made continued attempts to whip up anger, shouting to the crowd: “Today we will not be stepped on by the Chinese, they have tried to prevent a mosque from sounding the call to prayer.” They also recruited friends over the phone, and the regional secretary of the Al Washliyah organisation, who they knew could mobilise a significant crowd.
At about 10pm, the mob moved to Meiliana’s house, where several police were already at the ready. One of the members of the crowd threw a Molotov cocktail at the front of the house. Local residents quickly extinguished the flames but the crowd was not satisfied. They began pelting the house with rocks.
Rudi and another agitator, Aldo, then encouraged the crowd to head to the Huat Cu Keng Temple, about 500 metres away. They arrived at about 11pm, damaging several ethnic Chinese residences along the way, and began hurling rocks at the temple. The Tanjung Balai deputy police chief and several personnel from the Tanjung Balai Selatan Subdistrict Police station arrived soon after and were able to prevent further damage.
But Aldo continued to fire up the crowd, repeating the claim that a Chinese woman had tried to prevent the call to prayer, and calling on the Buddhist temple to take responsibility for the actions of one of its followers. The crowd also called on the police to process the woman for blasphemy.
The Tanjung Balai deputy police chief confirmed that Meiliana had already been taken to the police station for questioning, and if there was evidence of blasphemy she would be processed. He continued to try to calm the crowd and Aldo and others agreed to leave.
But not all returned home. The Al Washliyah regional secretary called on his followers to head to the Tri Ratna Temple, about a kilometre away. The crowd arrived in two waves, at about 11.30pm and again at 1.00am, causing damage and setting the temple alight. The crowd also split up and headed to several other temples around the city.
The police gathered local government officials, and representatives from the local MUI and Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB). They patrolled the city, with the head of the MUI calling from the police car for Muslims to return to their homes. The Police’s Mobile Brigade (Brimob) was dispatched at 2.30am, and the situation was finally brought under control by 4.30am.
Several temples, Chinese pharmacies, and social organisations in Tanjung Balai were destroyed as a result of the mob’s actions. The damage bill was estimated to be hundreds of millions of rupiah. The presence and preparedness of security forces was a major factor in the damage caused. The mob’s attempts to damage the Bhakti Meitreya and Ariya Satyani temples failed because of their proximity to navy and water police bases, respectively, where officers were on hand to hold off the crowd.
At the time of the incident, few police were stationed at the Tanjung Balai District Police Station. The district police chief was attending an official function in Parapat, more than 150 kilometres away. The Tanjung Balai Brimob force had been deployed to Kabanjahe (about 200 km away) to deal with a land conflict earlier in the day, as had the nearby Tebing Tinggi District Brimob.
The Tanjung Balai deputy police chief was left to deal with the rioters with little support. His priorities were split between attempting to mediate a solution between Meiliana and the mosque board and directing his personnel to control the crowd. Police clearly failed to anticipate and prevent the mobilisation of the crowd, especially at the roundabout.
Whether it was a matter of discounting the seriousness of the growing mob or whether they were intimidated by the size of the group, police took no action to prevent the riot instigators from gathering a crowd at the roundabout. The “conflict entrepreneurs”, Aldo and Rudi, are, in fact, well-known activists in the region and have connections to local politicians. They have experience in mobilising the community in mass demonstrations for a variety of causes.
There was, however, one crucial action taken by the head of the Subdistrict Criminal Investigation Unit on the night of the incident. He pursued the rioters and quietly arrested nine of those responsible for damaging property. This allowed police to quickly investigate and arrest 20 more suspects. If not for the actions of the criminal investigation head, the process could have dragged on for months, and many of the perpetrators could have escaped punishment.
Within two days of the incident, efforts were made to restore peace in the community. National Police Chief Tito Karnavian travelled from Jakarta to Medan, and met a broad range of community members. He directed the provincial police chief to lead investigation and community rehabilitation efforts.
The North Sumatra Provincial Police led the investigation process and even formed a cybercrime unit to trace the spread of hate speech on social media. Provincial police were stationed in the Tanjung Balai District Police Station on rotation to assist with developing the case against the conflict instigators.
A member of the Tanjung Balai District Police said that they gathered so much evidence that they “could have arrested hundreds of suspects”. In the end they chose to focus on 22 suspects but police acknowledged there was no special consideration in selecting these 22 suspects, beyond the fact that they were the easiest to identify.
The Tanjung Balai District Court on 31 January 2017 convicted eight of these defendants, finding them guilty of offences including property damage, theft and provoking violence. They received sentences ranging from just one to four months in prison.
Following the sentences, many of the community and religious leaders we spoke to said that they hoped that this would be the end of the case. But several figures, especially representatives from the United Independent Community and Students Alliance (AMMIB), a body that was set up mainly to assist those accused of damaging property, continued to agitate for Meiliana to be charged with blasphemy.
Mass pressure leads to charges
Meiliana’s case is particularly interesting because not one community member was willing to report her to police for her supposedly insulting comments. In fact, police eventually asked one of their own, Kuntoro, a member of the local community police, to file the blasphemy report. Kuntoro reportedly felt very uncomfortable about doing so.
The Tanjung Balai branch of MUI also initially refused to issue a fatwa on Meiliana’s case. But organisations like the Islamic Community Forum (Forum Umat Islam, FUI), Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), Al Wasliyah and AMMIB continued to push. In December 2016, AMMIB even protested outside and blockaded the Tanjung Balai MUI office. Eventually, in January 2017, the North Sumatra provincial MUI published Fatwa 001/KF/MUI-SU/I/2017, which stated that Meiliana had defamed Islam by equating a mosque with a place capable of causing a disturbance.
One member of the North Sumatra MUI explained its decision to publish the fatwa this way: “Fourteen Muslim campaigners have been sentenced and we have accepted it, but why hasn’t the source of the problem faced the law?”
This was all unfolding at about the same time as the massive protests against former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in Jakarta. On 28 December 2016, just weeks after the largest protest against Ahok, FPI leader Rizieq Shihab visited Medan to speak at an event supported by the National Movement to Safeguard the MUI Fatwa (GNPF-MUI) and the North Sumatra Anti-Blasphemy Movement (GAPAI).
There is a strong chance that his presence encouraged local police to continue to process Meiliana’s case. Police revealed that they did so despite the fact that they had difficulty building a case against her because the statements of three key witnesses, Lobe, Dai and Rif, differed considerably.
Eventually, in March 2017, North Sumatra Provincial Police named Meiliana a suspect. She was accused of violating Articles 156 and 156a of the Criminal Code (KUHP) on blasphemy.
Our research revealed several important points not covered by most reports on this case. Although the violence was not planned long in advance, it was certainly not spontaneous. Conflict provocateurs drew on established networks to mobilise a crowd, amplifying a neighbourhood complaint to provoke the rage of a large portion of the city.
They were effective because of the lack of communication between different religious and ethnic groups, unresolved past tensions, economic anxiety, and political disappointments. The political drama in Jakarta also perpetuated tensions in Tanjung Balai, and conversely, the tension in Tanjung Balai was used to increase pressure in Jakarta.
The conflict escalated rapidly between 29-30 July. Significantly, beyond the property damage caused, it also generated new players, like AMMIB, whose specific aim was to free those accused of perpetrating the riots and send Meiliana to prison.
In our review of coverage of the incident, most media outlets depicted Meiliana as triggering a spontaneous outbreak of violence through her comments. The media should be more careful in reporting on this type of event, and describe the role of all actors agitating for violence or whipping up hate.
The case also shows how the Blasphemy Law has clearly become a tool in religious conflict. It does nothing to prevent conflict as some government and religious figures claim. If it is too politically difficult to get rid of the Blasphemy Law, which appears to be the case given the failure of past attempts, the government must come up with a way to to prevent it being constantly manipulated as a tool to target religious minorities.
The police must also face scrutiny. The Tanjung Balai Police had sufficient resources to anticipate violence. But they failed to implement any preventative measures. In fact, they actively contributed to the problem. Rather than standing up to the organisations and individuals pushing for blasphemy charges, they forced a Bhabinkamtibmas official to file the blasphemy complaint. These community police, which are closest to the public, need to be provided with more resources and training so that they are better equipped to prevent these kinds of tensions escalating into larger scale conflict.
Finally, the government needs to promote communication and opportunities for regular meetings between groups of different religious and ethnic backgrounds. This is time-consuming work, but is crucial for helping communities to better manage tensions – like a simple noise complaint – without it leading to violence.