Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has postponed his visit to Australia. According to a statement released by the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: ‘Current development has required the President to stay in Indonesia…The President has also tasked the Indonesian Foreign Minister to discuss with her Australian counterpart to discuss new dates for the visit in the near future’. The postponement follows mass protests in Jakarta on 4 November, with approximately 150,000 Muslims calling for the arrest of Jakarta’s Chinese-Christian Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, for blasphemy. Despite Jokowi’s absence, Indonesian trade ministers have already begun negotiations for the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA) in Sydney. According to Australian Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, both countries are on track to conclude IA-CEPA negotiations by the end of 2017.
While mostly peaceful, pockets of violence did erupt during the protests, with at least 70 police officers and 160 protesters injured. The protests also took on anti-Chinese overtones, with some marchers calling for Ahok to be hanged and others holding banners reading “ganyang Cina” (“crush the Chinese”). Similar slogans were used during the May 1998 riots that saw mass violence against ethnic Chinese. During the 1998 riots, crowds were spurred on with the slogans “ganyang Cina” and “Cina babi” (“Chinese pigs”). Ethnicity has been a recurring theme throughout the election campaign for the next governor of Jakarta and has seen controversial comments regarding Ahok’s ethnicity and a recent assault on a Chinese youth. Ahok, however, is not only a divisive figure because of his ethnicity. During his governance, Ahok has led a tough eviction policy forcing out families living in makeshift neighbourhoods and demolishing their homes. Ahok has defended this policy, pointing towards the relocation of these families to safer areas, while helping to prevent flooding caused by development along river banks. Regardless, the policy has fuelled a level of resentment among those affected, who may have then turned to the hardline Islamic groups behind the protest to vent their dissatisfaction towards Ahok.
At face value, the initial spark for last week’s riot is a statement made by Ahok during a speech made in the Thousand Islands on 27 September, where it was alleged that he stated:
In your hearts, Bapak/Ibu (men and women) may not vote for me because [you have been] lied to by [using] Surah al-Maidah, verse 51, etc. It is your right. So, if you cannot vote for me because you are afraid of being condemned to hell you do not need to feel uneasy as you are being fooled. It is alright.
The uploader of the video, Buni Yani, admitted to making errors in transcribing the speech, omitting the word “using”, implying that Ahok said ‘you have been lied to by Surah al-Maidah, verse 51…’.The video, containing the speech and Buni Yani’s transcription, went viral on Facebook and was shared by numerous Muslim groups. One of those calling for the arrest of Ahok is the spokesperson for hardline Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), Ismail Yusanto, who claimed that ‘Ahok consciously said that people who do not vote for him because of Surah Al-Maidah 51 had been lied to. This means that he consciously called the Quran a source of lies’. Verse 51 of Surah al-Maidah is interpreted by some to mean that Muslims are not to take Christians or Jews as their allies, while others believe this applies only in the context when written – a time of tribal war.
Following the protests, Ahok submitted himself to police interrogation for nine hours on 8 November. It seems unlikely that Ahok will be charged with blasphemy, as General Tito, Chief of the Indonesian National Police, has acknowledged Yani’s testimony that he misquoted Ahok. The police have already questioned a number of witnesses, religious experts and linguists, with Yani expected to be questioned on 10 November, along with three more religious experts. A forensic analysis of the viral video will also be conducted.
According to Greg Fealy from the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the Australian National University, an attempt to deal a political blow to Jokowi may have been behind the protests. The president is known to be close to Ahok, having personally advised the incumbent governor to stand at the 2017 Jakarta elections. The protest, therefore, could also be seen as a way for the opponents of Jokowi to weaken him. As Evan Laksmana from Indonesia’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies argues, however, attempts to paint Ahok and Jokowi in the same light and thereby reduce the popularity of the president are unlikely to succeed, given that the next presidential election will not take place until 2019.