Indonesian govt under fire for allowing massive wedding party amid pandemic

The wedding involves the daughter of Mr Rizieq Shihab (centre), controversial leader of a vigilante group called the Islamic Defenders Front. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA - The Indonesian government has come under fire for allowing a massive wedding party to take place over the weekend amid tight social distancing rules, where such gatherings in the capital - a coronavirus red zone - should have been prevented in the first place.

The wedding involves the daughter of Mr Rizieq Shihab, 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 was met with harsh criticism from epidemiologists, who said such an incident must not recur during a pandemic.

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

Another epidemiologist, Dr Pandu Riono, said Mr Rizieq's public gathering boils down to the national government being negligent in not anticipating such mass rallies that the controversial leader has 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," epidemiologist Dr Pandu told The Straits Times.

On Saturday night (Nov 14), thousands of guests and supporters of Mr Rizieq descended on his home in the Petamburan area in Central Jakarta.

Mr Rizieq 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 cities. The FPI supporters are very vocal and are easily mobilised to protest on the streets.

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

On the other hand, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan has enjoyed Mr Rizieq's support and benefited from the FPI-organised mass rallies against then Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, whom Mr Anies beat 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 currently adopts strict social restrictions locally called PSBB, equivalent to a semi-lockdown, where gatherings are limited to five people, and occupancy in a restaurants capped at 50 per cent of its capacity.

Indonesia's coronavirus tally hit 470,648 on Monday (Nov 16), 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 pre-empt the thousands of people marching to the country's main international airport Soekarno-Hatta to welcome Mr Rizieq on the day of his return. 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 any gathering, regardless of who is behind it, must be prevented.

During the pandemic, the authorities have quelled parties, large gatherings in cities across the country.

Indonesian celebrity Nikita Mirzani complained publicly about last Tuesday's severe congestion caused by Mr Rizieq's supporters at the airport. She called such welcoming rallies excessive and said Mr Rizieq had always created trouble.

In response, a staunch follower of Mr Rizieq, Mr Maaher At-Thuwailibi, issued a public threat that he would deploy hundreds of people to besiege the celebrity's house unless she apologises.

Ms Nikita didn't budge and said she would play a good host and provide bowls of meat to everyone who goes to her house.

Police have since provided extra security around Ms Nikita's house.

Meanwhile, the celebrity has quickly received flows of support from netizens praising her for her remarks and courage. A noted lawyer called her "the queen of guts".

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.