Indonesian govt criticised for letting wedding proceed

Health experts say mass event in city under Covid-19 curbs should not have been allowed

The Indonesian government has come under fire for allowing a massive wedding party to take place over the weekend amid tight social distancing rules in the capital - a coronavirus red zone.

The wedding involved the daughter of Mr Rizieq Shihab, the controversial leader of a vigilante group called the Islamic Defenders Front or FPI.

The Jakarta government's decision after the event to impose a 50 million rupiah (S$4,800) fine on the family has met with harsh criticism from epidemiologists.

"Monetary fines are not enough. Next time, the government should prevent such congregations… Officials should disperse them before a crowd is formed," said Dr Iwan Ariawan, an epidemiologist at the University of Indonesia.

Another epidemiologist, Dr Pandu Riono, said Mr Rizieq's public gathering boiled down to the national government being negligent in not anticipating mass rallies that the controversial leader had often been associated with in the past.

"He should have been told (before his return to Indonesia) to refrain from organising any crowd because we are in a pandemic. He may do so if the pandemic is over," Dr Pandu told The Straits Times.

Last Saturday night, thousands of guests and supporters of Mr Rizieq descended on his home in Central Jakarta. He had returned home last Tuesday from a nearly three-year self-exile in Saudi Arabia to avoid a legal problem in Indonesia. The case has since been dropped by the government.

His daughter's wedding was held jointly with a celebration to commemorate Prophet Muhammad's birthday, according to FPI.

Mr Rizieq, who three years ago was accused of sending pornographic chat messages and insulting Indonesia's state ideology Pancasila, boasts thousands of supporters in Jakarta and other Indonesian cities. The FPI supporters are very vocal and are easily mobilised to protest on the streets.

FPI leader Rizieq Shihab speaking to supporters at Jakarta's international airport last Tuesday, on his return from self-exile in Saudi Arabia.
FPI leader Rizieq Shihab speaking to supporters at Jakarta's international airport last Tuesday, on his return from self-exile in Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

And Mr Rizeiq himself, 55, has been a vocal critic of President Joko Widodo.

But Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan has enjoyed Mr Rizieq's support and benefited from the FPI-organised mass rallies against the city's then governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was defeated by Mr Anies in the 2017 election. Mr Basuki is an ethnic Chinese and a Christian. Mr Anies has been widely reported to have played the religion card to win the gubernatorial election three years ago.

Jakarta is under strict social curbs called PSBB, the equivalent of a semi-lockdown, in which gatherings are limited to five people, and restaurant occupancy capped at 50 per cent of capacity.

Indonesia's coronavirus tally hit 470,648 yesterday, the highest in South-east Asia. There have been 15,296 deaths, also the highest in the region. Jakarta is among the worst affected.

Dr Pandu has expressed his concern that the police and the national government failed to preempt the thousands of people marching to the country's main international airport to welcome Mr Rizieq home. The crowds created severe traffic jams that in turn caused flights to be delayed.

Dr Iwan said the authorities must stay focused on containing the coronavirus outbreak and that any gathering, regardless of who is behind it, must be prevented.

During the pandemic, the authorities have stopped parties and large gatherings in cities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 17, 2020, with the headline 'Indonesian govt criticised for letting wedding proceed'. Print Edition | Subscribe