Snow Days in Jakarta

Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像
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The 200,000 Muslim conservative protesters who took to the streets of Jakarta on Friday walked a tightrope between success and alienation, writes Jeffrey Hutton.

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A friend of mine took to Facebook to share an advisory from her company’s security officer. The notification warned staff of not one but four separate protests scattered throughout the capital. A three day weekend was at hand.

“Jakarta’s version of a snow day,” the status update read. “So many to choose from!”

For the second time in as many months, Jakarta came to a halt on Friday. On top of the regular protests from the Falun Gong outside the Chinese embassy and labor unions agitating outside parliament for hikes to the minimum wage, an estimated 200,000 Muslim conservatives converged on the downtown ahead of February’s election to choose the capital’s governor.

It’s this rally that set nerves on edge at embassies and businesses. Protests here can unravel into a riot quickly. In March rampaging taxi drivers, in opposition to the ride-hailing apps like Uber, shut down the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Memories of riots over the price of fuel and rice that ousted Suharto and sparked violence against ethnic Chinese are still fresh for some. Even the rally in November – the precursor to Friday’s protest – saw pockets of ugliness. But Friday’s rally was different. On Friday nothing happened.

“This is a peaceful action,” says Ahmed, 40, from East Java. Ahmed was part of a human tide of white-clad Muslim faithful flowing down Jalan Thamrin: Jakarta’s main north-south boulevard. I pose with Ahmed and others for the photos that Indonesians like to take with foreigners when Ahmed asks: “What do you think?”

This is because the rally is a battle of perceptions. Protestors want to unseat Jakarta’s reformist governor Basuki Purnama, an ethnic Chinese and a Christian, who is known better as Ahok. Rally organizers don’t want to seem intolerant as they do it. The catalyst for the rallies in November and on Friday was a remark Ahok is thought to have made in October about the Quran which some say was blasphemous – a crime in Indonesia.

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Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像
Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as "Ahok," center, gestures to the media as he leaves after being questioned by investigators at the National Police Headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, Nov. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

Protest organizers walked a tightrope. They forced police to charge Ahok and are keen to maintain pressure on him to secure a conviction when his case goes to trial next year. Revert to violence, though, and Islamic conservatives risk alienating the wider public, who until now, have rather liked Ahok. He and his former boss, Joko Widodo, from whom he inherited the governorship when Widodo won election as president in 2014, have splashed out on health and education for the poor, public transport, and – well – drainage. The city used to flood every year during the rainy season. Now it doesn’t.

“This is about justice. This is not racism,” one young fellow from South Sumatra tells me in English within seconds of meeting him on Friday.

“Some of my friends are Chinese,” says another young man from the west of the city before adding endearingly: “I am learning kung-fu.”

Another man, an Indonesian, who is nevertheless holding a Palestinian flag proclaims grandiloquently: “This is for our freedom.”

To be sure, electing Ahok would be a big step forward for Indonesia and its dysfunctional capital. Ahok’s election would be a first for a non-Muslim in Jakarta. Ahok may be helped by a bias toward secular candidates. Islamists only tend to win a fifth of the vote.

But on Friday Ahok’s got mission got harder because of the orderly tone protestors struck. Widodo even appeared before the throngs and thanked them for their conduct. Those trudging down the boulevard that day, their clothes drenched from earlier tropical downpours, seemed like guardians of their faith. It was hard not to empathize. However much I might hope otherwise, Ahok may be in trouble.

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Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像
Indonesian Muslims gather during a rally against Jakarta's minority Christian Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama who is being prosecuted for blasphemy, at the National Monument in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, Dec. 2, 2016. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

Editor: Edward White

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