Protests by Islamic hardliners against Indonesian governor awaken fears for ethnic Chinese

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2016, 2:25pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2016, 11:04pm

The capital of Muslim-majority Indonesia is on edge ahead of what is expected to be a second massive protest by conservative Muslims against its Christian governor and no group more so than its Chinese minority.

Certainly as Chinese descendants, we are still traumatised by the riots in 1998
Clement Alexander, a grocery store owner

They have reason to be concerned. The movement against the governor, who is being prosecuted for allegedly insulting the Koran, has overflowed with racial slurs against his Chinese ancestry, an unnerving sign in a country with a history of lashing out violently against the ethnic minority that makes up 1 per cent of its 250 million people.

The first major protest against Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama on November 4 drew more than 100,000 people to Jakarta’s streets. Some held up banners calling for Ahok to be killed or decrying Chinese influence. It ended in violence, with one death and dozens injured after hardliners attacked police. A separate mob tried to invade the apartment complex where Ahok lives in the north of the city and vandalised property in the area, which is home to many Chinese.

Hardline organisers of the protest, who were unsatisfied by a police decision earlier this month to formally name Ahok as a suspect in the blasphemy case instead of arresting him, are promising another giant rally on Friday. After police pressure, they have agreed to concentrate the rally around a national monument in central Jakarta and insist it will be peaceful.

The furor over Ahok, sparked by his criticism of detractors who argued the Koran prohibits Muslims from having a non-Muslim leader, has highlighted religious and racial fault lines in Indonesia, the world’s most populous nation, and the growing challenge from proponents of sharia law to its secular system of government.

For Chinese Indonesians, the controversy has awakened painful memories of the mass protests that ousted late dictator Suharto during the 1998 Asian financial crisis. Boiling resentment against immigrant Chinese tycoons who profited from ties to Suharto and his famously corrupt family spilled over into mob attacks on Chinese property and people, killing many. Nearly two decades later, Jakarta’s Chinatown is still scarred by the burned out shells of buildings torched in the chaos.

“Certainly as Chinese descendants, we are still traumatised by the riots in 1998,” said Clement Alexander, a grocery store owner in a narrow lane of the bustling Petak Sembilan market in Chinatown.

“We heard that horrible event may happen again if the government fails to control the protests. It’s scared us, but we cannot do anything except pray,” he said.

“For rich ethnic Chinese, they could flee to Singapore or to other countries, but for lower-class people like me it is rather difficult, we just survive and depend on the government for protection.”

When Ahok in 2012 became the first Chinese to be elected deputy governor of Jakarta, and the first Christian in half a century, it was seen as a sign of the pluralistic tolerance fostered by the moderate form of Islam practised in Indonesia.

But his rise to governor in 2014 to replace political ally Joko “Jokowi” Widodo after his election as president was unpalatable to hard-liners. With the support of moderates that hope to gain from Ahok’s fall, they have elevated their agenda to the national stage, and revealed that intolerant interpretations of Islam adapted from the Middle East have made greater inroads than believed.

Ahok is running for a second term as governor in elections due in February but since the blasphemy accusations erupted in September, his sky-high popularity in opinion polls has melted away. A pro-tolerance rally in Jakarta on November 19 attracted less than 10,000 people. A military-organized event in the city on Wednesday meant to showcase respect for all of Indonesia’s six officially recognised religions was mainly populated by soldiers, schoolchildren and police, who had no choice about attending.

For the November 4 protest, the normally clogged streets of Jakarta were nearly emptied of cars, embassies closed, countries such as Australia issued advisories against travel to the city and many businesses shuttered for the day, particularly in Chinatown.

“We are afraid the riots in 1998 would be repeated. But I don’t want to talk about that horrible event,” said Jhony Tan, owner of a store selling Buddhist worship paraphernalia.

“I hope the government can handle this issue, so there’s no negative impact to any other community, especially to ethnic Chinese here. If they fail, Indonesia will be ruined,” he said. “I’m sure the majority of Indonesian people are willing to see that this problem has nothing to do with us.”

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Christianto Wibisono, an ethnic Chinese businessman and former government adviser whose home was burned in the 1998 riots, said that despite communal tensions, he is hopeful the government will maintain calm during Friday’s protest and beyond.

The government’s approach needs to sap the momentum of a vocal and highly motivated minority but faces challenges: the moderate, silent majority is intimidated by the hard-liners’ tactics and months of campaigning for the Jakarta gubernatorial election as well as Ahok’s blasphemy trial will keep divisive issues in the spotlight.

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“Now is really the crucial test for Indonesia to maintain the country’s secular philosophy rather than be run over by sharia groups. That would affect the whole world, if Indonesia became like the Middle East,” he said. “We should not import Middle East extremism. We should export our moderate Islamic philosophy and pluralism.”