Jakarta clamps down on mass events

Two police chiefs removed after huge crowds gather to see cleric; governor called for questioning

Cleric Rizieq Shihab greeting supporters in Jakarta on Nov 10 after returning to Indonesia from Saudi Arabia. Thousands turned out to greet him despite health protocols limiting gatherings to five people.
Cleric Rizieq Shihab greeting supporters in Jakarta on Nov 10 after returning to Indonesia from Saudi Arabia. Thousands turned out to greet him despite health protocols limiting gatherings to five people.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Indonesian government has come down hard on those who have broken health protocols, in the aftermath of massive crowds turning up to cheer the return of controversial cleric Rizieq Shihab in two events earlier this month.

Two provincial police chiefs were removed from their posts for failing to enforce safe distancing rules as thousands mobbed the country's main airport on Nov 10 as well as turned up at a separate event in central Jakarta on 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 Jakarta's Tanah Abang district, where thousands of mostly maskless supporters of the Islamist cleric gathered - ostensibly to attend the wedding of Mr Rizieq's daughter and at the same time commemorate the Prophet Muhammad's birthday.

Jakarta - a coronavirus red zone - currently has in place strict social restrictions that are locally called PSBB, which limit gatherings to five people and require a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering Indonesia from overseas.

The police last week moved to ban a so-called "reunion rally" - planned for 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 Awi Setiyono told a news conference last Tuesday.

These unprecedented measures are being taken by President Joko Widodo's administration as Indonesia logged 493,308 cases of Covid-19 and 15,774 deaths as at Friday. Both figures are the highest in South-east Asia.

Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian issued an unusual circular last Wednesday 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 responses showed the government's seriousness in clamping down on mass gatherings amid the pandemic. They also indirectly pointed to Mr Rizieq's ability to bring crowds of conservative Muslims into the streets.

The meeting between Mr Anies and Mr Rizieq has led to whispers that the governor is courting the preacher in preparation for a run in the 2024 presidential election.

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

"Mr Anies expects to get endorsement so he has legitimacy, acknowledgement that he is a formidable politician," Professor Asep Warlan of Parahyangan Catholic University told The Sunday Times, when asked about Mr Anies going as far as flouting health protocols to meet the cleric.

Mr Anies, 51, is not the only politician who has 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, is now Defence Minister in Mr Joko's Cabinet and is thought to be keen to run again in the 2024 presidential polls.

Analysts say Indonesia can expect more street rallies in the coming months - Covid-19 or not - with Mr Rizieq's fiery speeches as the main draw.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 22, 2020, with the headline 'Jakarta clamps down on mass events'. Print Edition | Subscribe