A Wrong Turn in Indonesia? Asia is Watching


In May, the governor of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – known more commonly as Ahok – was sentenced to two years’ jail for blaspheming against the Qur’an. Indonesian governors don’t often feature in global news, but Ahok’s case is exceptional, seen as a barometer for the state of Indonesia’s tolerance for religious and ethnic diversity. The world’s largest Muslim state has often prided itself on its pluralism, enshrined in the national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (“unity in diversity”). But now, that unity is being challenged. Ahok’s fate has raised concerns beyond Indonesia’s shores about the use of religious tactics in future elections and the cohesiveness of Indonesia’s pluralism more broadly.

In late 2016, Islamic hardliners capitalized on Ahok’s double minority status as a Christian and ethnic Chinese to paint him as “anti-Muslim.” In October, Ahok had said his opponents were misusing the Qur’an to trick people into voting against a non-Muslim. His statements, edited to appear more provocative, went viral on social media. Hardliners fanned condemnation of his statements and mobilized mass protests in the capital (up to 200,000 at their peak in December) to call for his arrest. Not all of Ahok’s policies were popular but these tactics were seen as successful in transforming his double-digit lead into defeat during April’s gubernatorial elections. His prison sentence is also considered a political move, given prosecutors had asked only for probation.

In Australia, the government did not lodge any formal protest on the verdict, but the blasphemy case certainly caught the attention of Indonesia watchers. Indonesia is a key partner for Australia in Southeast Asia given its strategic location between the Indian and Pacific Oceans as well its role as a key ally in fighting terrorism. To Indonesia, Australia is an important trade partner as well as a destination for many university students.

Described by one analyst as a “witch hunt,” the Ahok case is seen down under as a disappointing turn in Indonesia’s relationship with pluralism and tolerance. A prominent professor of Indonesian politics has described the December protest as “a significant setback for political diversity” while a former Australian Army attaché to Jakarta has stated that Ahok’s fate “will not be the end of the conservative challenge.” In the broader Australian public, the negative fallout from the Ahok case was compounded by the public caning of two men convicted of homosexuality under sharia law in Aceh (the only province with Islamic law known as sharia). These kinds of negative cases have dominated recent reporting in the Australian media on Indonesia.

These perceptions are an oversimplification of Indonesia’s domestic affairs, but such concerns about Australia’s bilateral policies periodically flare up One politician from a minor political party has called for Australian aid to be cut to Indonesia. While his views are far from being broadly representative, Australians have been wary of signs that Indonesia might devolve towards becoming a more intolerant society. Questions are being raised in Canberra’s strategic policy circles about the future of engagement with Indonesia. For one, how will Australia respond to a more divisive and possibly even sectarian neighbor? Last month, Australia’s outgoing Department of Defense chief remarked in his final public address that extremism in Indonesian politics is “at the sharp end of what we should be watching.”

A decade of unprecedented willingness on behalf of the previous Indonesian administration to build cooperation and promote democratic and moderate credentials had put these kinds of concerns in Australia mostly at ease. While the Ahok case is a domestic matter for Indonesia, it is nevertheless troubling to parts of Australian society. That said, Indonesia’s importance to Australia in diplomatic and strategic terms dictate policymakers soldier on in such times.

Beyond Australia, the reaction to the Ahok case takes on a different tone. It’s unlikely that rising intolerance to religious and ethnic pluralism in Indonesia will have a significant impact on the perceptions of its Southeast Asian neighbors. In Southeast Asia, mass protests over identity politics and the criminalization of blasphemy are nothing new. Most countries in the region are pluralist societies that regularly grapple with tensions between religious, ethnic, and linguistic groups. States like Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore have tight laws on public speech seen to encourage internal unrest, so will, to some extent, be sympathetic to such a conviction. In some cases, Southeast Asian states are clamping down on freedom of speech. Thailand’s lèse majesté laws, that prevent criticism of the royal family, were extended last month to cover even viewing content considered insulting to the monarchy. Apart from Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and Myanmar also actively enforce their blasphemy laws. Further, the ASEAN principle of non-interference in domestic affairs rules out any public criticism of the case.

Still, Southeast Asian states are likely to harbor some private concerns. Singapore has traditionally viewed growing hardline Islamist sentiments in Indonesia as worrying and may quietly be concerned about anti-Chinese sentiments, which have waxed and waned in its southern neighbor. The Philippines, a Catholic majority country, might also cast a worrying eye towards the anti-Christian rhetoric. Far more important to these countries than domestic politics is the fear of terrorism-related violence and the growing impact of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, such as Marawi. Pragmatism dictates that Southeast Asian states must continue to build cooperation among themselves, especially with Indonesia. Although ASEAN has been seen as weak on China’s destabilizing behavior in the South China Sea, it can ill afford to splinter further over domestic political issues in Jakarta.

Indonesia might not yet have taken a completely illiberal turn but the Ahok case’s hallmarks of mob politics and intolerance mean its neighbors, Australia and Southeast Asia, will be watching further developments closely.


Natalie Sambhi is a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre where she focuses on Indonesian foreign and defense policy. She is also a PhD student at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in Canberra, focussing on Indonesian military history. She tweets at @SecurityScholar.

Image: Cahaya Maulidian, CC