“The Tanjungbalai Riot and Sectarian Violence in Contemporary Indonesia”, a Commentary by Deasy Simandjuntak

Commentary 2016/44, 12 August 2016

The city of Tanjungbalai, 200 km from Medan, North Sumatra, suffered another episode of sectarian violence on the evening of Friday, 29 July 2016, when a group of people burned and ransacked several Buddhist temples.

The events seemed to be triggered by a Chinese-Indonesian woman’s protest against the excessive use of loudspeakers at a mosque in front of her house in Tanjungbalai. To discuss the matter, the police brought the woman and her husband to the local police headquarters. Present were local notables, the head of the local branch of Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) and the local chief of Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a vigilante group behind many attacks against ethno-religious minorities in Indonesia. Meanwhile, crowds began gathering, leading to the damaging of twelve places of worship, Buddhist organization buildings and several vehicles.

Consequently twenty people were arrested for looting, two for circulating hate messages on social-media and the deployment of hundreds of police and military personnel have brought some stability. The national police-chief Tito Karnavian underlined that the incident derived from “an individual issue”.  The Chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s largest Muslim organization, believed it was caused by socio-economic disparities among communities, while Muhammadiyah’s Chairman asked everyone to respect all religious activities, including mosque activities, as religious rights protected by the constitution.

This incident highlights the following:

First, religious and sectarian violence remain prevalent in Indonesia. Last year, the authorities at Aceh-Singkil, tore down several churches after Muslim hardliners like FPI demanded their closure, citing a lack of building permits, leading to violence and thousands of Christians fleeing to North Sumatra. Muslim minority groups like Ahmadiyya and Shiite groups are also targeted particularly in an openly intolerant province such as West Java. The Chinese minority has also been targeted. In 1998, following riots in Jakarta, Medan and Tanjungbalai also experienced anti-Chinese (who are mostly either Christian or Buddhist) violence, the latter allegedly involving struggles between authorities and local organized crime groups.

Second, it underlines the importance of government intervention to encourage religious tolerance – possibly down to what seems to be a miniscule issue. The recent spate of religious clash brought up the discourse on the regulation of mosques’ loudspeakers. In recent years, Vice President Jusuf Kalla has asked mosques to refrain from relying upon cassette-taped Quran readings, as he found them too loud and disruptive for the surroundings. In addition to the existing regulation on mosques’ loudspeakers, clearer instructions may also be needed on other details.

Overall, the flourishing of religious vigilantism and the damaging of places of worship in Indonesia shows an ambiguity in local state-society relations.  While freedom of religion is ensured in the constitution, hardliners often pressurize local governments to act against minorities. It is clear that the central government needs to step up their efforts in differentiating itself from the previous government and enact measures to compel local governments to ensure religious tolerance.

Deasy Simandjuntak is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.