Megawati urges silent majority to defend pluralism

Ms Megawati (centre) serving President Joko rice from the top of a tumpeng - a traditional Javanese celebratory meal of yellow rice and other dishes. She is assisted by Ms Indonesia Kezia Warouw.
Ms Megawati (centre) serving President Joko rice from the top of a tumpeng - a traditional Javanese celebratory meal of yellow rice and other dishes. She is assisted by Ms Indonesia Kezia Warouw.PHOTO: ISTANA

Ex-president's comments come amid rise in racial and religious tensions in Indonesia

Former president Megawati Sukarnoputri came out strongly against anti-pluralist voices yesterday, saying they have no place in a democratic Indonesia.

The chairman of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle (PDI-P), who is the eldest daughter of the country's founding president Sukarno, called on the "silent majority to wake up and speak up" to defend Pancasila, the national doctrine which promotes diversity and democracy.

"Towards the end of (2016), we were reminded of the importance of Pancasila, the instrument which protects us from being dragged into a closed ideology that endangers our unity," she said in an impassioned speech at an event to mark the party's 44th anniversary.

"A closed ideology arises only from a certain group that forces it on society, pressuring people to do their bidding, with no dialogue, let alone democracy. For them, terror and propaganda are their way of seizing power."

She did not refer to any group by name. But observers see her comments as a veiled accusation against hardline Muslim organisations, whose inflammatory actions in recent months have threatened to tear apart the social fabric of Indonesia.

These include the National Fatwa Guardians of the Indonesian Ulema Council, and Islamic Defenders Front - the two main proponents of mass protests against Jakarta's Chinese-Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, whom they have accused of insulting Islam. Basuki is running for another term in February's gubernatorial election under the PDI-P's ticket, after Ms Megawati agreed to endorse his bid for re-election last year. But he is on trial for blasphemy and may be jailed for up to five years, if found guilty.

The court hearing, and protests that saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets to rally against Basuki late last year, have turned the election into a test of racial and religious tolerance in the world's most populous Muslim country.

Last December's arrests of activists, including Ms Megawati's younger sister Rachmawati Sukarnoputri, over a conspiracy to use the protest as a cover to oust President Joko Widodo, have added to a sense of foreboding.

The Human Rights Commission yesterday said it recorded 97 violations of religious freedom last year, up from 74 cases reported in 2014 and 87 in 2015.

In a bid to fire up patriotic fervour, Mr Joko has been urging citizens to re-embrace Pancasila. His government also plans to set up a national body to promote diversity and multiculturalism.

Ms Megawati, who has had a tenuous relationship with the President, yesterday put in a strong show of support for him. In a gesture that is usually reserved for one's dearest, or the most important figure in a family, she served Mr Joko rice from the top of a tumpeng - a traditional Javanese celebratory meal of yellow rice and other dishes. She also promised that the PDI-P will continue to back Mr Joko, who ran for presidency in 2014 with her blessings and her party's support.

Political analyst Boni Hargens said a harmonious relationship between the two reinforces Mr Joko's standing with the party. "It puts an end to speculations and rumours that there are strained relations between the PDI-P and the Istana, and proves that ties are solid and Jokowi is, in fact, 100 per cent a PDI-P cadre."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'Megawati urges silent majority to defend pluralism'. Print Edition | Subscribe