Over 70,000 vehicles in Indonesia turned back amid ban on Hari Raya exodus

A joint force of some 155,000 police, military, public order and transport ministry personnel are manning the checkpoints. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JAKARTA - More than 70,000 vehicles with their occupants on their way home for Hari Raya Aidilfitri have been turned back since a ban on the annual exodus, known here as mudik, was imposed on May 6.

Some, though, have managed to sneak past the 381 checkpoints set up across the three major Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali.

A joint force of some 166,000 police, military, public order and transport ministry personnel are manning the checkpoints, inspecting the necessary permits and travel requirements.

In West Java alone, around 36,000 cars and motorbikes passing through main streets as well as alternative roads, or locally known as jalan tikus (literally "rat routes") were told to make U-turns on Saturday (May 8).

Every year, near the the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, millions living in the capital, Jakarta, and in other parts of the sprawling archipelago make their way home by air, sea and land to celebrate Hari Raya.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, with over 90 per cent of its 270 million people practising the faith, imposed the ban on mudik for the second year in a row to curb the transmission of Covid-19, which has left more than 47,000 people dead and over 1.7 million infected as at Monday.

Only those on official duty or travelling on urgent purposes are exempt from the ban, which will be in force till May 17. A Transportation Ministry survey has shown that 18 million will still return home despite the ban.

Factory worker Fajar Fahmi was among those who managed to get around the restriction, returning home to Brebes, in Central Java.

"I was ordered to turn back in Bekasi (West Java). But, then I found a shortcut via Jakarta," he told Kompas TV, adding that like many others, he could pass after waiting for the guards to leave the checkpoints.

Heavy rain in Cikarang and Karawang, West Java, allowed others to sneak through "rat routes" to Cirebon early on Sunday.

Still, police managed to foil many others on the move in fishing boats, ambulances, vegetable trucks and buses.

West Java police spokesman Erdi Adrimulan Chaniago said on Sunday that the police had uncovered 138 illegal shuttle buses carrying travellers heading to West Java regions from Greater Jakarta.

"Sanctions are being imposed and all the vehicles have been detained," he was quoted as saying by Antara.

Officials fear mudik could trigger an explosion in Covid-19 cases after the Hari Raya holidays, particularly with the detection of a more transmissible B1617 coronavirus variant from India, as well as B1351 from South Africa and B1117 first found in Britain.

Two bus passengers from Tangerang, Banten, who managed to arrive in Solo, Central Java, on Friday tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival.

Epidemiologist Dicky Budiman warned that the massive movement of people was "dangerous" for Indonesia, where the positivity rate, at above 10 per cent, still remained high, signalling that the pandemic was still not under control.

"A rise of uncontrollable people's movement undeniably serves as a contributor of the worsening pandemic," he told The Straits Times.

The health ministry has said that as many as 10 people in Jakarta, Central Kalimantan and South Sumatra had been infected by the B1617 variant, while 14 infections with the other two other variants had been detected in some provinces.

The health ministry's director for direct infectious disease control and prevention, Dr Siti Nadia Tarmizi, has also acknowledged the potential for a surge in cases after Hari Raya, saying that the movement of people would add to existing risk factors, such as the rise in infections in 24 of the country's 34 provinces and the dwindling in compliance with health protocols.

"The mobility occurring during the exodus involves millions of people," she told The Straits Times.

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