Opinion: Rent-a-Mobs & Religious Red Herrings

(Note: The views, anecdotes and opinions in this article belong to the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Indonesia Expat.) 

Paying people to stage political demonstrations is playing with fire, especially when such actions fan the flames of racism, terrorism and religious intolerance.

Paid demonstrations have been part of the Indonesian political landscape since the 1998 fall of former president Suharto. The going rate for attending a protest ranges from Rp.50,000 for “short-time” (one to two hours) to Rp.300,000 for longer efforts. Participants usually also receive free transport, a boxed meal and water, and sometimes a t-shirt.

Sponsored rallies don’t always proceed according to script. Back in 2012, a youth wing of then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party organized a demonstration in the West Java capital of Bandung in support of the government’s move to increase fuel prices. Among the participants were pedicab drivers and scavengers, who had been paid Rp.50,000 for showing up. An orator began shouting: “Do we agree with the increase in fuel prices?” The demonstrators responded with a resounding “No!” – only to be reminded they were supposed to shout “Agree!”

More recently, on September 1, 2016, on Bacan Island in North Maluku province, more than 100 motorcycle taxi (ojek) drivers protested outside the house of a politician whom they claimed had reneged on a promise to pay them Rp.75,000 each for a demonstration held earlier in the day.

Paid demonstrations tend to be peaceful, as the organizers have police permits and the participants don’t want to risk any trouble as they aren’t passionate about the cause. Problems occur when the rent-a-mobs grow into thuggish institutions that seem to operate above the law – allowing them to get away with spreading religious hatred and inciting murder.

Death Threats

A coalition of conservative Muslim groups took to Jakarta’s streets on November 4 to demand the city’s governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, be jailed or killed for alleged blasphemy. There were claims the demonstration, attended by at least 100,000 people, was being funded at a cost of Rp.10 billion (US$764,000), administered via the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

Speculation focused on former president Yudhoyono, according to The Straits Times and Tempo, whose son Agus Harimurti will be running against Ahok in the Jakarta gubernatorial election on February 15, 2017. Yudhoyono, who is head of the Democratic Party, on November 2 warned the country could “burn with the anger of justice seekers” if Ahok is not prosecuted. But he denied intelligence reports that a political party was funding the anti-Ahok movement, describing the allegations as “slander” and “an insult to the people because they are not paid”.

Several people claim to have been paid to join the huge rally. At a market east of Jakarta, three men on November 6 told me they had each received Rp.200,000 for their participation. They said a local mosque had been provided with five buses, which were filled with paid protesters and driven to the event. Motorcyclists said they were offered Rp.300,000 to join. In Jakarta, people were offered Rp.150,000 and upward for joining.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said violence that erupted toward the end of the rally was “instigated by political actors taking advantage of the situation”. He did not mention any names.

Local media reports noted that some factions of the anti-Ahok alliance complained the money for the rally was not evenly distributed. One group was reportedly upset at receiving “only” Rp.500 million.

FPI executive Habib Novel Bamukmin said any funding was purely “self-help” donations from members and supporters. “I’ve heard that we accepted billions for the Ahok demo. Our demo is purely for the defence of religion. If there’s any support, it’s only drinking water,” he insisted. He claimed that during its 18 years of existence, FPI has never accepted money to hold a rally.

After photos emerged of FPI spokesman Munarman handing out money to some of the demonstrators, he said it was just transport money for those who had missed buses to go home.

Another group, the National Movement to Defend the Fatwas of the Indonesian Ulemas Council (GNPF MUI), made the unlikely assertion that funding for the rally was closer to Rp.100 billion (US$7.6 million). Bachtiar Nasir, chairman of GNPF MUI, said “we are subsidized more than Rp.100 billion”. He said the funds came “from all Indonesian people” who wanted to support the demonstration.

Many of the rally’s participants were not paid. Some attended because of their racial beliefs, others because of their religious convictions. Two brothers, both entrepreneurs in their 40s, exhorted members of their extended family’s WhatsApp group to attend the rally. They said Ahok is not fit to be governor “because he is Chinese and a Christian”. Ahok is not Chinese. He is an Indonesian of ethnic Chinese ancestry, as are many people throughout the archipelago.

Integrity

The venomous hatred towards Ahok is not just because of racism and religious intolerance. Many will argue that it’s because he is honest and outspoken – rare qualities in a country notorious for political corruption. It’s also because the position of Jakarta governor is now viewed as a springboard to the presidency.

Indonesia’s political elite can tolerate Christians and ethnic Chinese, but is less keen on forthright honesty and integrity. Ahok has made plenty of enemies since he quit from former general Prabowo Subianto’s Gerindra Party in September 2014 over its alleged attempt to scrap direct regional elections. When he became governor in November 2014, he upset local politicians because of his efforts to stop corruption and eliminate bureaucratic red-tape. He won strong support among Jakartans for cleaning up trash-clogged rivers, widening sidewalks, building hospitals and low-cost apartments, improving waste collection and overseeing the development of public transport infrastructure.

In a mature democracy, if you don’t like your leaders, you can vote them out of office. You don’t have to demand they be imprisoned or encourage people to kill them. If Ahok is prevented from running for re-election, Jakartans will have been cheated of their right to democracy and good leadership.

 

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Kenneth Yeung is a Jakarta-based editor.


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