Around the globe media reported about the controversial decision of the Jakarta Court to hand a two-year prison sentence to former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as Ahok), a much tougher sentence than had been demanded by prosecutors. Ahok, a Christian from Chinese descent, was imprisoned on grounds of blasphemy. However, most analysts assume Ahok is victim of a flawed and corrupt political and judicial system.
Late last year, in a speech on an island off the coast of Jakarta, Ahok criticized those people - namely his political opponents - who use a specific Koranic verse (Al-Maidah, verse 51) as a "tool to deceive the public" (this verse states that Muslims should not accept non-Muslim leaders). However, for his political enemies Ahok's statement opened up opportunities to attack Ahok as they claim the Jakarta governor criticized the content of that specific Koranic verse, and not the people who use the content of this verse for their political gain.
The ball started rolling when an edited video of the speech (including a misleading introductory text) was uploaded on social media shortly after Ahok's speech. In the next couple of months a series of massive demonstrations were organized on the streets of Jakarta by hardline Muslim organizations (presumably sponsored by the oligarchic political/business elite - in Indonesia politics and business go hand in hand - that oppose Indonesian President Joko Widodo who is regarded an ally of Ahok). In these demonstrations protesters urged the government to arrest Ahok.
Amid these big pressures it led to a blasphemy trial in the Jakarta Court. However, at the last moment prosecutors decided to demand two years of probation only (and one year imprisonment if Ahok would violate his probation) because they could not find enough evidence of blasphemy in the speech that Ahok had given months ago off the coast of Jakarta. Therefore, prosecution only charged Ahok with Article 156 because he, allegedly, had publicly expressed feelings of hostility, hatred or contempt against one or more groups in Indonesia (in this case certain Islamic groups were offended by Ahok's statement, which is indeed true).
It was a brave decision of prosecution because they knew it would be met by fierce criticism from hardline Muslims backed by their political patrons. And indeed, protests continued.
Meanwhile, Ahok had already been defeated in the 2017 gubernatorial election. Although he had won the first round in February 2017, he lost in the second, and final round, to Anies Baswedan. The whole blasphemy case was a decisive factor in this election. Ahead of the scandal, Ahok was leading opinion polls. However, as chaos continued in Jakarta (due to the massive demonstrations) Ahok's ratings declined rapidly in these polls.
Because of his loss in the Jakarta election we initially assumed the Jakarta Court could now easily acquit Ahok without much resistance. However, it would be nothing like that. Instead, the judges sentenced Ahok to two years in prison, a much harsher sentence than had been demanded by prosecution.
What can we conclude from this case?
Although Ahok may not have been a popular character (due to his direct and blunt style of communicating) - and obviously his Chinese and Christian roots - Ahok proved he was a clean politician (meaning: non-corrupt) and a reform-minded one who was not afraid of implementing unpopular policies that would benefit society as a whole. For example the forced rehousing of families living (mostly illegally) at the banks of the Ciliwung river in Jakarta. The forced removal enabled him to improve infrastructure around the river, hence combating the massive floods that plague Jakarta each year in the rainy season. Ahok's political opponents - who sided with the families that were forced to move - could use this example to damage Ahok's good name, and even accuse him of human rights violations.
But the truth is that this is the kind of leader Indonesia needs to become an advanced and socially just nation. Indonesia has plenty of leaders who support the status quo, are unwilling to implement reforms, and simply enjoy a great salary as well as additional income from the bribes they obtain to influence business or investment deals. These are the leaders who are serving themselves, they are not serving the people. This status quo is also a major reason why income distribution inequality remains alarmingly high in Indonesia (some say it is actually widening).
Ahok's defeat in the 2017 gubernatorial election tells us that the majority of citizens do not prioritize a non-corrupt and reform-minded leader. Rather they select a Muslim. And whether he is capable of guiding Jakarta to a higher level of economic and social development is a matter of secondary nature. Interestingly enough, Anies Baswedan (who won the Jakarta election) is a former Education and Culture minister in Joko Widodo's cabinet. He was replaced by Widodo in a cabinet reshuffle although the real reason of Baswedan's removal was never mentioned. But surely Widodo, who is - similar to Ahok - a reform-minded, non-corrupt, and pro-people leader, did not replace Baswedan because of the latter's great work at the ministry.
Secondly, the recovering influence of specific forces within Indonesia's oligarchic elite. Indonesia is indeed a democracy. However, its democracy is usually characterized as a flawed democracy. Indeed, or at least that is what we assume, there are fair and free elections. However, the final choices that are given to the people are (usually) not part of a democratic process but rather are the result of the status quo. The big political parties in Indonesia are the political vehicles of the oligarchic elite, most of whom are affiliated to Suharto's authoritarian New Order regime (1965-1998) or were his opponent (for example Megawati Soekarnoputri). Money and a network that includes members of the oligarchic elite remain decisive matters for aspiring politicians in Indonesia. This elite also includes the top of the army, business empires, religious institutions, and the Sukarno family. Contemporary politics in Indonesia are basically this elite's game where various forces within the elite compete one another for political power.
Joko Widodo is the first Indonesian president who does not originate from this oligarchic elite (although he did require support from the elite, in his case Megawati Soekarnoputri) and that is why he met great resistance when he decided to run for president in 2014.
Ahok's defeat in the Jakarta election (and his imprisonment) is regarded a victory for Prabowo Subianto, the defeated presidential candidate in the 2014 election but who is assumed to give it another go at the 2019 election. Subianto is a former army general from the Suharto era (he was also Suharto's son in law). Not only was he part of a massive corrupt and authoritarian system, but he even had to flee from Indonesia due to human rights violation allegations after the collapse of the Suharto empire. This is a bitter pill to swallow now: Ahok is imprisoned for a very light offense, while Subianto who is linked to much worse matters can walk freely and continue his political career in Indonesia.
Even more alarmingly, Subianto uses hardline Muslim organizations as a tool to pressure his political opponents (Ahok and Widodo). This became clear during the victory speech after the Jakarta election when he thanked leaders of hardline Muslim organization for their support in Baswedan's victory.
Ahok is now out of the way. Therefore, we assume Subianto is now going after Widodo. However, this will be more tricky because Widodo is a Javanese Muslim with a clean reputation and who enjoys widespread popularity across the country. Toppling Widodo by creating a scandal seems difficult but it is not unimaginable. For example, there could suddenly appear "evidence" that Widodo or his family are actually communists (in Indonesia the communist-card can be used to damage a person's reputation) or he - or his ministers - can be tricked into a corruption scandal. Without a scandal, Subianto will have to wait until 2019 and most likely he will need to spend a lot of money to gain enough votes to beat Widodo in the presidential election.
Regarding the harsh verdict of the judges in the Ahok, it is peculiar that judges sat on the chair of prosecution. Whereas prosecution could not find enough evidence to accuse Ahok of blasphemy (and therefore dropped the blasphemy allegations), judges agreed it is proven that Ahok expressed blasphemous speech. It does fall within the scope of the power of judges, but it does not occur often. This therefore gives rise to plenty of suspicions. We do not dare to assume anything, but when reading the comment sections below articles about the verdict in Indonesian media (as well as on social media) there are plenty of people who assume judges were either bribed (or angry because Ahok was reluctant to pay a bribe to the judges for a light sentence) or their verdict was influenced by the heavy pressure from hardline Muslims.
Blasphemy trials in Indonesia basically never lead to the acquittal of defendants. Hence, there is concern that the blasphemy law can now be increasingly used to limit room for religious minorities' freedom of speech in Indonesia. If Ahok - the Jakarta governor who is an ally of President Widodo and supported by the nation's biggest political party (PDI-P) - can be imprisoned for a "slip of the tongue" or a very light offense, what about defendants who have no political power, money or network? They can surely be jailed without any evidence. This reminds us about the chaotic years 1965-1967 when communists were slaughtered on Java, Bali and Sumatra for the alleged involvement of the communist party in a coup. In those chaotic days people who had a problem with their neighbors (for example they knew or suspected a neighbor had stolen a chicken) would (falsely) report their neighbors to the police claiming they were communists. Although the neighbors had nothing to do with communism it was a simple, yet brutal strategy to get rid of the neighbors. With this new verdict it now becomes very easy to simply accuse someone of blasphemy and report him to police (no need for any evidence).
The verdict in Ahok's blasphemy case does not come without political and social consequences. Therefore, all Indonesians should now start to think clearly about the future of Indonesia. Do you want to see Indonesia evolving into an advanced nation equipped with social justice, or, do you prefer being stuck as a perennial developing nation (the status quo) equipped with a flawed democracy and a highly unequal society ruled by (part of) the traditional oligarchic elite who use hardline Muslims to undermine the power of the existing pro-reform government and who are there - not to serve the people - but only to serve themselves and their billionaire business friends' interests?
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