Ahok’s Blasphemy Trial: A snapshot of the less-discussed ethnic component

Author’s note: I’ve put this together as a current reflection as part of a larger investigation into the Chinese minority in Indonesia. It is intended to compliment the narrative of religious tension that commonly dominates coverage of Ahok’s trial. It is by no means intended to be a definitive analysis of the current state of things.

The Trial

After 2 months of demonstrations organized by Conservative Muslim groups, the blasphemy trial of Jakarta’s Christian Governor Ahok finally began on Tuesday, December 12th. The trial concerns his assertion in September that opponents were “misusing a Koranic verse which suggests Muslims should not be ruled by non-Muslims for political purposes.” The question for the court is simple; while it is blasphemy for a non-Muslim to interpret the Koran in Indonesia, is it also blasphemy for one to accuse Muslims of misrepresenting the Koran? It has thus far been an emotional affair, with Ahok, himself the godson of Muslim family, delivering a tearful defense of his words on day one.

The situation is a stark contrast to Ahok’s rise in Jarkarta’s politics, which was celebrated by many as an example of Indonesia’s strong pluralism and democratic institutions as a major global player. But regardless of the trial’s outcome, the scale and tone of the demonstrations that proceeded it suggest that a positive outcome is unlikely.

The Chinese Dimension

While media has largely focused on the religious component of the trial — Ahok is a member of the country’s Christian minority — he is also one of the most visible figures in the country’s Chinese minority.

Violence against the Chinese minority is a blackmark on Indonesia’s history that has reared its head in times of economic and political crisis. Anti-Chinese sentiment rose through the early 1990s, culminating in the 1998 Tragedy, which saw widespread violence against Chinese communities in major cities across the country. Homes and businesses were destroyed and the night time saw Chinese rounded up by crowds — beating, murdering, and sexually assaulting a significant but still-unknown amount of people. Tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese fled.

The mass killings of the 1965–1966 coup also carry an anti-Chinese echo, and the Chinese community is often directly associated with the specter of Communism. Government policies from the 1960s to 1990s, focused on managing the Chinese as a problem, helped facilitate racialization and distrust of the community. While the modern government has largely embraced a more pluralistic society, a tense backdrop remains.

Anti-Chinese Sentiment at the 3 Protests thus far

The recent protests have seen anti-Chinese chants and signage in addition to the focus on Ahok’s alleged blasphemy. While the religious question still dominants, the ethnic component cannot be ignored. Amidst the violence surrounding the November 4th protest, several groups marched towards Chinese districts with the aim of looting and other violence. While looting occurred along major protest routes, the police were effective at intervening to preventing any specific community being targeted.

The protests since (on December 2nd and 9th) have been more peaceful. This is partially due to the fact that they have been planned, as opposed to the spontaneous nature of November 4th. Protesters have been civil. And the police, to their credit, have done a good job at managing the 100 to 200 thousand-strong gatherings at Indonesia’s National Monument. There has been less concern of groups marching toward Chinese business and residential centers. The question remains, however, if the police will be able to similarly manage spontaneous demonstrations in the wake of Ahok’s trial or the election.

Recent Developments Internationally and At Home

Despite many families having lived in Indonesia for several generations, the Chinese community is often at risk of being tied to Beijing and foreign influence. Growing investment from Beijing (doubling in the last year) is a Red flag for many, particularly with large scale development deals signed by President Jokowi that often bring in Chinese nationals as a principle source of labour. With the domestic Chinese traditionally dominating the business sector, these deals smack of inequitable economic growth, and fit easily into a more general anti-Chinese narrative.

Such narratives have been hinted at by those in government, as well. Indonesia’s ultra-nationalist top general has repeatedly raised conspiratorial concerns about growing Chinese influence in the country. This is compounded by concerns over growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, Chinese fishermen in Indonesian waters, and so on. All tie into a longer-held distrust of the Chinese community in Indonesia and this raises concern about where such rhetoric may lead.

Finally, it is the anniversary of the 1965–66 violence, and the conflict has again been raised in the minds of many. While growing business investment from Beijing hardly represents the international communist struggle of 50 years ago, for many it is still part of a simple distrust of the Chinese community. For those interested in drumming up nationalist sentiment, dog whistles of a Chinese conspiracy to exploit Indonesia can cater to a disjointed but longstanding narrative.

Thoughts on outcomes, for now

Ahok has also been a lightning rod for frustrations surrounding unpopular large-scale developments in Muara Baru Pelbuhan and the region surrounding Jakarta’s northern port, among other things. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a colleague close to Jakarta’s political elite felt that corruption allegations against Ahok were being prepared anyway as a result of him pushing against many of the wrong established powers in government. Like most places, there is no A to B in Indonesia.

But put simply, there are 4 possible scenarios to come from the trial:

Ahok wins the election and wins his trial 
Ahok loses the election and loses his trial 
Ahok wins the election but loses his trial
Ahok loses the election but wins his trial

Almost everyone I’ve asked this week about the likely outcome responds with a sigh, a pause, or a shrug. But regardless, each scenario will leave many frustrated parties and will likely bring more demonstrations.

Ahok represents many different things to many different people. It will take time to discern how populist or how political — how local or how international — how religious or how ethnic the current impasse may be. The dominant media narrative thus far has been religion, but we should keep wary of the ethnic component as well, particularly as the situation is unlikely to be resolved soon. But when tensions flare, it tends to happen quickly.

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