JAKARTA - A largely peaceful rally by tens of thousands of Muslims in Jakarta on Friday (Nov 4) to demand the arrest of Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama for alleged blasphemy descended into chaos in the evening as hardline Islamists in the crowd refused to heed police orders to disperse from near the presidential palace in the capital.
The situation degenerated after negotiations between representatives of the protesters and the government broke down. The protesters were demanding that Mr Basuki should be arrested immediately, whereas the government asked them to wait for two weeks, leading to angry scenes as protesters began to push against police barricades in front of the presidential palace.
Protesters threw plastic bottles at police officers who had formed a barricade outside the building, according to TV images, prompting police to fire tear-gas to control the crowd.
TV footage showed large fires burning as vehicles were set on fire and the police fired water cannons to try to control the massive crowd.
Some security officers were reportedly hurt in the confrontation.
The crowd was later pacified, reportedly by opposition Members of Parliament, who assured them that Parliament gate would be opened and they would be allowed in to air their grievances, leading to another mass movement of people through the heart of the capital. The bulk of the protesters were taking the Thamrin-Sudirman main road en route to Parliament.
"Replace Jokowi, Jokowi is a Communist," some of them chanted as they made their way toward Parliament.
Earlier in the day, protesters had gathered at the Istiqlal mosque around noon to perform their Friday prayers before beginning their rally.
Led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the demonstrators aimed to pressure the authorities into charging Mr Basuki, better known as Ahok, for allegedly insulting Islam.
According to a government source, more than 20 supporters of ISIS, including a senior figure Syamsudin Uba and more than 10 Al-Qaeda affiliated, Jemaah Islamiyah militants took part in the rallies today.
Mosque grand imam Nasaruddin Umar had tried to soothe tensions in his religious sermon, urging the Muslim congregation not to go overboard. "It is understandable for Muslims to feel offended if someone insults the Quran. But in expressing the anger, the Quran has clearly stated that it should not be done by crossing the line or in excessive ways," he said.
After the prayers, the protesters who included moderate Muslims, set off on their 3.8-km walk to the state palace. Carrying Indonesian flags and waving posters with the words, "Arrest or Expel Ahok" and "Don't Protect Blasphemy", men in white Islamic robes and women in headscarves sang the Indonesian anthem and Islamic hymns and chanted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greater).
Along the way, FPI leaders took turns to give speeches. Standing on a truck, one of them shouted into a loud-hailer: "We have long been tolerant. But now the Quran is being insulted, by an infidel. Our pride has been stepped on. We cannot stay idle. Prosecute Ahok."
While the rally in Jakarta was largely peaceful, small pockets of protesters were calling for Ahok's death. Student protesters in South Sulawesi capital of Makassar had reportedly burnt tyres on the streets.
At one stage during the march, the crowd chanted, "Arrest Ahok now... Kill Ahok now."
At around 6pm local time, protesters were still milling at a roundabout near the access road to the presidential palace that had been blocked by police.
Indonesian law stipulates street rallies must end at 6pm. After this deadline, police have the authority to evict protesters from public areas.
However, FPI clerics appealed to protesters to stay overnight if Mr Basuki was not arrested.
Droves of protesters, including women in headscarves, arrived in buses, motorcycles and even on foot from as far as Bali and Kalimantan for the rally, choking major roads in the capital city.
Footage from local TV stations showed demonstrators standing on trucks and shouting through loudspeakers, calling for a peaceful rally. Police formed human barricades outside key buildings such as ministries, the National Monument and the presidential palace. Armoured vehicles were also on guard to prepare for any violence.
"It's not a choice, but a duty to be here. We are not anti-ethnic. We just want legal action because blasphemy has been committed. This is Indonesia, we want to protect our diversity, not to hurt it," a female protester called Becky told TVOne station.
As of 10.30pm local time, two FPI leaders Habib Mahdi Assegaf and Arifin Ilham were among those evacuated by ambulance from outside the presidential palace.
According to FPI officials, Habib Mahdi had breathing difficulty from the tear gas, while Arifin Ilham was injured. This has not been officially confirmed by police.
Just past midnight local time, FPI chief Habib Rizieq said outside parliament building: "We have come here peacefully. We don't want violence. We know house speaker Ade Komarudin is still inside. We ask you to open the gate. Let us in and we have talks."
At a press conference at the State Palace, which ended at 12.30am Saturday (Nov 5), President Joko Widodo said he had instructed vice-president Jusuf Kalla to meet with representatives of the protesters. During the meeting, it had been conveyed that the legal process over Ahok's blasphemy accusation will be carried out in a fast, firm and transparent manner, he added.
Mr Joko also said he regretted the incident earlier on Friday had ended in clashes. "I see that political actors had ride on (the incident) to take advantage of the situation," he said.
In a stern voice, he said: "I ask protesters to go home in Jakarta and in their respective regions in Indonesia in an orderly manner. Let the security authorities complete the law enforcement as fairly as possible."
Despite several road closures and diversions in the city centre, traffic was smooth elsewhere in Jakarta. Some businesses had told employees to work from home and a number of foreign embassies had also warned their citizens to stay away from the protests, citing fears that violence might erupt during the rally on Friday afternoon.
Protesters had gathered in the area since Thursday night, said Mr Eko, a security guard who works near the Gambir train station. "More arrived at about 2am to 3am, sitting around taking naps or just sharing food, they were peaceful. I hope they don't start any trouble," he said.
Organisers said 200,000 people, including many from outside Jakarta, will participate in the rally. They will march to the state palace to press for the authorities to charge Mr Basuki, better known as Ahok, for allegedly insulting Islam.
Despite the major rally, the governor who is seeking re-election, remains unfazed, saying he will continue to campaign on Friday.
"We believe the authorities can handle the rally and bear in mind that the participants have been told not to be violent when expressing their aspirations," his campaign team spokesman Bestari Barus was quoted as saying by The Jakarta Post.
More than half of 100 eligible voters in the Jakarta gubernatorial election polled by The Straits Times this week said they plan to vote for Ahok.
The protest was sparked after Ahok, an ethnic Chinese and minority Christian, criticised opponents who cited a Quranic verse to attack him ahead of the gubernatorial election in February. He had told Muslim constituents last month not to be deceived by his opponents who used the reference to discourage them from voting for non-Muslim leaders. He had since apologised and clarified that he had no intention to insult Islam or the Quran.
Police believe the demonstrators on Friday will include local sympathisers of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from domestic militant groups, such as Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid and Jemaah Ansharut Daulah, but do not expect them to commit violence.
The rally, the second against the governor, has put the Indonesian capital on high alert, with about 20,000 police officers and at least 500 soldiers deployed in the city to prevent possible outbreak of violence.
Besides key landmarks and buildings in the city, authorities have also stepped up security at the domestic terminal at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport.
President Joko Widodo has called for a peaceful rally and urged religious leaders and scholars in the country to unite against violence.
Known for his no-nonsense leadership style, Ahok has been the target of racism by Muslim hardliners, but he has also enjoyed strong support from Jakarta residents who widely see him as a clean and capable leader. He has effectively tidied up the city, relocated squatters, and rooted out incompetent civil servants.
Police have said they would continue to investigate the allegation of blasphemy, which is a criminal offence in Indonesia and carries a penalty of up to five years in jail.
Additional reporting by Tisiana Triwina.