Wednesday, November 30, 2016

should indonesians worry? tomorrow, friday’s rally

should indonesians worry? tomorrow, friday’s rally

For Jokowi, it is not a coup attempt that worries him most; it is the racial and religious issues, referred to locally as SARA (ethnicity, religion, race and class), that perhaps send shivers down his spine.

It is without doubt that the race to secure the top job in the Jakarta administration has drained much of the public’s energy, as well as engulfed many with the unabated fear of political and security instability.

Although the violence stemming from the Nov. 4 rally was swiftly contained, the protest apparently served as a springboard for disgruntled elements to turn up the pressure.

Their demand at the time was for incumbent Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent, to be declared a blasphemy suspect. Probably out of fear of escalating tension, the police acquiesced to their demand on Nov. 16

But still the National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesia Ulema Council’s Fatwa (GNPF-MUI), which initiated the Nov. 4 rally attended by more than 100,000 Muslim organization members, has not backed down.

It has instead promised a bigger protest on Dec. 2, demanding Ahok’s imprisonment at a time when Ahok should be on the campaign trail.

Judging by the group’s aim, as amplified by one of its leaders, Rizieq Shihab of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), it is hard not to conclude that a sinister motive is at play.

It is not implausible that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and National Police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian may be correct in suspecting that the upcoming rally is politically motivated, similar to the Nov. 4 rally when Jokowi blamed “political actors” for inciting violence and Tito indicated that certain elements used the rally as a precursor to topple the legitimate government.

Perhaps the substantial efforts by the President, as well as by the chiefs of the Indonesia Military (TNI) and the police, to contain the impact of the previous rally and to limit the significance of the upcoming one have raised questions over the possibility of a coup attempt and whether the President is actually in full control to keep any harm at bay.

Speculation over a coup attempt are not only baseless but also a far-fetched assumption. First, since Indonesia’s independence in 1945, plotting a coup has not been a tradition, having occurred only once in 1965 when then president Sukarno handed over the presidency to Soeharto.

Second, there are no strong figures within the TNI capable of uniting the highly fragmented armed forces to lead a coup. Third, negative sentiment against military rule runs deep within the police force, an institution that probably now has the most personnel and the best intelligence infrastructure.

Fourth, there is not the slightest indication that Jokowi has committed severe violations, such as corruption, murder or adultery. And fifth, not only does Jokowi’s popularity remain high, he also enjoys overwhelming legislative support as his coalition controls more than 65 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives.

The Nov. 4 rally and the upcoming one merely serve as pressure by several politicians (including from political parties in Jokowi’s ruling coalition), state officials, public figures, religious luminaries and activists who have been starved of resources since Jokowi took office in late 2014.

These people have acted with precise timing and may have forged a union with political elites who are facing difficulties in trying to defeat Ahok merely through programs in the upcoming gubernatorial election.

The escalating racial and religious slurs in the past couple of weeks have apparently undermined Ahok, as indicated by recent surveys suggesting a sharp decline in his electability.

It is the blending of the “hungry” elements and the regional election elites, who may have resorted to any means necessary to win, that have created fear of political instability over the past couple of weeks.

Since the 1998 Reform Era that saw the resignation of president Soeharto, political and security interference to undermine a legitimate government is not without precedent.

In his biography published before his term expired in 2014, then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono mentioned the many attempts to topple his government.

But what differentiates the past with events of today is the infusion of racial and religious provocation. Even Yudhoyono has been accused of toying with such sentiments by using issues related to Ahok to his advantage.

Yudhoyono’s son, Agus Harimurti, is competing with Ahok in the Jakarta gubernatorial election, and Yudhoyono has publicly insisted the prosecution against Ahok in a tone that contained more than a hint of provocation.

For Jokowi, it is not a coup attempt that worries him most; it is the racial and religious issues, referred to locally as SARA (ethnicity, religion, race and class), that perhaps send shivers down his spine.

The Dec. 2 rally is feared by many to be a precursor to violence that may spiral into widespread conflict. The violent Nov. 4 rally in front of the Presidential Palace triggered a minor riot in a Chinese residential area in North Jakarta and opened old wounds from the traumatic 1998 riots that saw heavy casualties among the Chinese-Indonesian community.

Home to more 1,300 tribes that practice six different religions and speak 740 different languages but are unified under one language, Indonesia is demographically prone to SARA conflicts.

However, the authorities have swiftly moved to reduce the potential for conflict by diminishing the significance of the rally from the very top.

Not only will the authorities prohibit protesters from out of town to enter Jakarta to participate in the upcoming rally, officers have also visited leaders of many boarding schools and discouraged them from allowing their students to participate in the rally.

Campaigns to promote unity have resonated not only in Jakarta but also across the archipelago as local military and police chiefs have held numerous interfaith functions attended by prominent religious leaders from several different religions.

A number of people who were at the forefront in demanding that Ahok be prosecuted are now also facing legal charges for SARA-related incitement.

Police chief Tito has issued a stern warning to clerics grouped in the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), demanding that they not mix religion with politics as it could cause sectarian conflict. The MUI, whose leader Ma’aruf Amin is an ally of Yudhoyono, has soften its stance on participating in the rally.

The MUI and FPI struck a deal with Tito on Monday that the Friday protest would be conducted wholly within the confines of the National Monument (Monas) Park. Stern action will be taken if the MUI, the FPI and the GNPF-MUI violate the agreement.

With the authorities now better prepared and having learned a lesson from the previous rally, any negative impact of the upcoming rally is likely to be minimal.

Indonesia’s politics will remain heated, as Jokowi recently said, up until the simultaneous regional elections on Feb. 15. Indonesia has seen its worst, and if history is any indication, the upcoming rally may well be just another hiccup in the country’s democracy

Rendi A. Witular The Jakarta Post


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