Buddhist temple attacks point to deeper fault lines in Indonesia

Buddhist temple attacks point to deeper fault lines in Indonesia
In December 1996, thousands took to the streets burning shops, trucks and a church in a string of attacks sparked by religious tensions in western Java. Indonesia has long denied the existence of tension between ethnic-religious communities in the country. Photo: AFP
Published: 4:00 AM, August 5, 2016
Updated: 7:22 AM, August 5, 2016

As Indonesia reels from the aftershock of the racially-motivated riot last week in Tanjungbalai, near Medan, North Sumatra, there are already signs that the incident will be one among many to be swept under the carpet to preserve the facade of ethnic-religious harmony in Indonesia.

The rampage, which saw the destruction and torching of 11 Buddhist and Chinese temples, alongside a building belonging to a Chinese-community foundation, is probably among the worst perpetrated against the minority Chinese Indonesians since 1998.

The riot started as a personal dispute, when a Chinese-Indonesian woman, known only as Meliana, complained to a Muslim cleric about the unusually loud volume of the loudspeakers used at a mosque near her house. The cleric and many in his flock were reportedly incensed by what they deemed as an insult to Islam by a Chinese Indonesian and demanded an apology from Ms Meliana, which she refused to give.

Large crowds then gathered in front of her house, threatening to burn it down. When they were prevented from doing so by the locals, the masses went around the town attacking and burning buildings that they associated with the Chinese community.

This quick and absurd escalation of a personal dispute into a blanket targeting of visible Chinese symbols in Tanjungbalai points to a history of long and deep-seated unease between the Malay and Chinese population there.

Since 2010, some Islamic groups have been campaigning for the removal of a six-metre statue of the Buddha as part of the facade of the Tri Ratna Buddhist Temple for reputedly offending Muslim sensibilities. Some people have suggested last week’s incident was the culmination of the dispute.

Yet, as is often the case with hate crimes in Indonesia, the government’s instinct is to deny the existence of tension between ethnic-religious communities in the country. In his response to the riot, newly appointed Police Chief Tito Karnavian told the media that “irresponsible and inflammatory” posts on social media were to blame.

While there is little doubt that social media is a powerful instrument in Indonesia — about 72 million Indonesians use it — to pinpoint it as being responsible for what happened in Tanjungbalai borders on fantasy. While it may be true that there were agents provocateurs who incited the masses to riot, most of them would have been on site rather than in cyberspace.

More critically, what Mr Karnavian failed to explain was why the police had failed to prevent the tragedy and contain the masses. Consistent with other attacks on minority groups in recent memory, such as the 2014 violence against a group of Catholics in Sleman on Java Island and the recurring attacks on Ahmadiyya Muslims in various localities, the absence of police protection during the riot was staggeringly obvious, and yet conveniently overlooked by Indonesian media.

Comments by Indonesia netizens on the riots — most of whom blamed Ms Meliana for daring to protest against the volume of the mosque’s loudspeaker — provide a clue as to how most Indonesians believe minority groups should conduct themselves in relation with the majority: With a lot of deferential kowtowing.

Common sense, however, still prevails among some Indonesians. Parliamentarian Eva Kusuma Sundari swam against the populist tide when she said that Ms Meliana had committed no crime by complaining about the noise from the mosque’s loudspeakers. Ms Sundari added that, last year, Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, in his capacity as chairman of the Council of Indonesian Mosques, had urged discretion about the “noise pollution” that sound systems from mosques posed.

“So are we to say that Pak Jusuf Kalla committed a crime (when he encouraged mosques to limit their use of loudspeakers)? Of course not. (So for Ms Meliana) to protest was understandable. Definitely not a crime,” she explained.

Ms Sundari also correctly pointed out that a 1978 Minister of Religious Affairs decree had stated that the use of loudspeakers by mosques was permissible as long as it did not disturb others, especially in urban areas.

But the fact remains that most mosques in the country violate the directive, with impunity. The uncertainly of the rule of law is one major reason Indonesia has failed to harness its diversity as a source of strength. Despite denials by the government, co-existence between various ethnic and religious groups often hangs by a thread, ready to burst into disarray by the slightest act of provocation.

Another important impediment in the management of pluralism lies with its education system. Unlike in Singapore, Indonesia’s national curriculum mandates religious studies as an integral part of education. Sadly, rather than promote inter-religious tolerance, religious classes more often than not result in the opposite.

In 2014, for example, the Ministry of Religious Affairs was forced to recall an officially approved textbook for madrasah schools for containing texts that label popular practices such as grave visits as heretical and the “worship of idols” by other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism as sinful. The incident was not the first instance of its kind and more worryingly, there was no investigation into how the text had been approved in the first place.

Although Indonesia’s Constitution professes the republic to be secular, in practice, the separation between state and religion is notoriously blurred. The populist nature of Indonesian politics today also makes many Jakarta politicians, officials and state agencies keen to avoid doing anything that could be seen as “anti-Islam”.

In the aftermath of the Tanjungbalai riot, President Joko Widodo ordered that the responsible parties be brought to justice. It remains to be seen how his order will be interpreted by his underlings. For now, “harmony” between the diverse groups in the country looks set to continue its charade at the expense of the rights of minority groups.



Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman from Surabaya.