Jakarta, November 2016

There’s a strange loom in the air that night. Fifty thousand people were marching for their beliefs; 249 million were wondering why.

It was a sight us Indonesians have not seen in almost 20 years. Though significantly smaller in scale, the mass demonstration that took place on November 4th, 2016 bore a similar distaste to the racial riot that broke in 1998. Offices closed, school children were sent home, and those who were still forced to go about their business as usual, were wary. Onlookers may say we were overreacting, but no one could blame us for being cautious, half-expecting the march would break into chaos and blood would spill before the day ends. It may have been the scar the 1998 Tragedy smeared upon our nation, but I must say we were smart by thinking this time, there was no such thing as over-preparing for the worst.

The issue was simple. A video went viral, showing Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or better known as Ahok, suggesting the falsehood of a particular Quran verse in one of his campaign speeches. It triggered a massive rage among Moslem communities and organizations, who then demanded that Ahok be jailed — or worse, hung — for his account. It wasn’t the first time the governor went under scrutiny for being a Chinese descent and a Christian—two traits that are deemed far from ideal for a leader in a country with the biggest Moslem population in the world, but apparently this time someone has finally found a way to turn his own words against him. However, later we found out that the video may have been tempered with; some elements were omitted from the speech that would otherwise have meant an entirely different thing. But this was not before a fight between protesters and the police forces broke in front of the Presidential Palace as the night approached, and a group of protesters trashed a convenience store near Ahok’s private residence in North Jakarta.

The sheer volume of the misguided demand made us realize, how easy it was, still, for us as a nation to be manipulated and divided by blind obedience towards a particular religious belief or race. How easy it was for political parties to use this as a weapon in their own fight for power and in the process, induce fear in us by reminding us of past tragedy we have yet to forgive.

This week, investigations revealed that the protesters who were captured in North Jakarta were not part of the organized demonstration happening several miles away, but mere looters trying to take advantage of the situation. The police have also managed to capture and release 10 people who were involved in the fight outside the Presidential Palace. Evidence from the video investigation is showing that Ahok may not have said what people thought he did. But even with all these recent developments, there is still whispers of a follow-up demonstration that is supposed to happen on the 25th.

Seeing the gravity and the similar pattern that emerged among recent events, at home or nine thousand miles away in the land of the free, I can’t help but wonder: is our society moving backwards, erasing decades of fight for equality among all races, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds; or have we not progressed yet to begin with?

Update: Moments after I posted this article, news broke that Ahok has been named suspect in the blasphemy case. Supports are swarming the social media from across Indonesia. One funny article recited him comparing himself to Nelson Mandela. Cheeky.

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