Indonesian govt clamps down after mass events linked to cleric amid pandemic

Indonesian cleric Rizieq Shihab is greeted by supporters at the Tanah Abang in Jakarta on Nov 10, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA - The Indonesian government has come down hard on those who have broken health protocols in the aftermath of massive crowds turning up to welcome the return of controversial cleric Rizieq Shihab in two events last week.

Two provincial police chiefs were removed from their post for failing to enforce safe distancing rules as thousands of people mobbed the country's main airport last Tuesday (Nov 10), and also at a separate event in central Jakarta on Saturday (Nov 14).

The authorities have also summoned Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan for questioning after he breached quarantine rules by visiting Mr Rizieq a few hours after the firebrand cleric returned home from self-exile in Saudi Arabia.

Mr Anies had also failed to stop the mass event in Tanah Abang, Jakarta, when thousands of mostly maskless supporters of the Islamist cleric gathered to ostensibly attend the wedding of Mr Rizieq's daughter and at the same time commemorate Prophet Muhammad's birthday.

Jakarta - a coronavirus red zone - currently adopts strict social restrictions locally called PSBB, where gatherings are limited to five people and occupancy in restaurants capped at 50 per cent of their capacity.

A 14-day quarantine is required for anyone entering Indonesia from overseas. Persons in a self-isolation must avoid contact with others beyond the people living in the same household.

And the police this week moved to ban a planned so-called "reunion rally" next month of conservative Muslims, a base for Mr Rizieq and his hardline group Islamic Defenders Front or FPI.

"We will not allow (the rally). We will not issue the permit and we have been clear on the matter," national police spokesman Brigadier General Awi Setiyono told a news conference on Tuesday (Nov 17).

These unprecedented measures are being taken by the Joko Widodo administration as Indonesia has logged 483,518 cases of Covid-19 and 15,600 deaths by Thursday (Nov 19), both figures the highest in South-east Asia.

Indonesia's national police chief General Idham Azis this week demoted the Jakarta police chief and the West Java police chief for failing to uphold health protocols in the two mass events linked to Mr Rizieq. The West Java chief was in charge of Tangerang where the main Soekarno-Hatta airport is located.

Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavia issued an unusual circular on Wednesday (Nov 18) to remind all directly-elected governors and mayors in Indonesia that his office, under the law, has the right to sack any of them if they fail to uphold health protocols.

The strong series of responses showed the government's seriousness in tamping down mass gatherings amid the pandemic. They also indirectly pointed to the easy ability of Mr Rizieq to bring crowds of conservative Muslims, complete with their white caps and white robes, into the streets.

2024 presidential election

The meeting between Jakarta governor Mr Anies, 51, and Mr Rizieq has led to whispers that the governor is courting the preacher for a run in the 2024 presidential election. President Joko, once he has completed his maximum two terms, must step down in 2024.

After all, Mr Anies three years ago in 2017, due to support from Mr Rizieq, managed to oust incumbent Jakarta governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama.

A year earlier in 2016, Mr Rizieq and tens of thousands of Islamists held rallies in the streets of Jakarta to pressure the government on a blasphemy case against Mr Basuki. The ex-governor was found guilty and later served a two-year jail sentence.

Prof Asep Warlan of the Parahiyangan University said an endorsement from the leader of FPI, who has proven he has a large number of followers, would come in handy for Mr Anies' next political endeavour.

"Mr Anies expects to get endorsement so he has legitimacy, acknowledgement that he is a formidable politician," Prof Asep told The Straits Times, when asked about Mr Anies going as far as flouting health protocols to meet Mr Rizieq.

Senior politician Mardani Ali Sera from Islam-leaning Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) was cited by as saying the message from the meeting between Mr Anies and Mr Rizieq was that there are good relations between a cleric and a civic leader.

Mr Anies wasn't the only politician who had used Mr Rizieq's crowd-wooing prowess to whip up mass support in the streets.

Former presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto also used Mr Rizieq in his electoral fight against Mr Joko in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections. Mr Prabowo, 69, now Defence Minister in the Cabinet of Mr Joko, is thought to remain keen at a third run in the 2024 presidential polls.

The next election to pick the president of the region's biggest economy and its most populous is still four years away.

There will be on Dec 9 regional election to elect governors, regents and mayors all over the vast archipelago.

Expect more street rallies in coming weeks and months - Covid-19 or not - with Mr Rizieq's fiery speeches as the main draw.

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