By Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata and Ahmad Syamsudin
As Indonesians prepare to participate next week in one of the world’s largest democratic elections, members of minority groups in the sprawling nation are not optimistic that they will be better protected by the next government, no matter who wins.
In a fiery speech at a huge campaign rally on Sunday, presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto vowed that all citizens would be treated equally if he was elected president on April 17.
“Our teachers, our Islamic clerics have always taught us that Indonesia’s Islam is one that brings good to all things in the universe,” Prabowo told more than 110,000 supporters who packed Jakarta’s cavernous Bung Karno National Stadium.
“Our Islam is one of peace and one that respects all religions, races, and ethnicities,” he said, to the chants of “Prabowo! Prabowo! Prabowo!”
It was Prabowo’s last big rally in Jakarta before campaigning officially ends on April 13, days before voters once again choose between him and the man who narrowly defeated him five years ago, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, as their next president.
Prabowo’s support base includes conservative Islamic groups that have persecuted Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, and oppose lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.
“Marginalized groups like us can’t pin our hopes on either candidate. We have to fend for ourselves,” said a spokesman for the Ahmadiyah Indonesia Congregation, Yendra Budiana.
“Let alone the Prabowo camp, which is supported by hardline groups,” he told BenarNews.
Yendra said 114 Ahmadis who were expelled from their homes on Lombok island in 2006 still lived in a temporary shelter.
An Ahmadi mosque in Depok near Jakarta has not reopened after it was forcibly closed by local officials in 2017, he said.
Prabowo: ‘Rights are undermined’
Prabowo’s rally on Sunday was marked by conspicuous religious displays.
Supporters, mostly dressed in white, had begun arriving on Saturday night and performed morning prayers together in the stadium.
Prabowo’s running mate, wealthy businessman Sandiago Uno, led chants in Arabic praising the Prophet Mohammad from a raised platform erected on the pitch.
The rally ended with a video message played on a giant screen by the leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, who is in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia.
Rizieq said Muslims should vote for Prabowo because he would “not protect deviant sects and vice,” liberalism, or the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).
Rizieq shot to political prominence after he led a campaign in 2016 and 2017 to oust then-Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent, over allegations that he had insulted the Koran in off-the-cuff remarks.
The FPI leader has not been back to Indonesia since police attempted to question him in 2017 over allegations he had engaged in a lewd online chat with a female supporter and a separate charge of insulting the Indonesian state ideology of Pancasila.
In his speech, Prabowo, a retired army special forces general, painted a bleak picture of Indonesia under Jokowi.
“Our national wealth is continuously being taken away. The people’s rights are undermined,” he said, citing criminal charges ranging from defamation to campaign violations against his supporters.
Prabowo himself has been accused of human rights violations during his time in the army in the 1990s. He was accused of kidnapping several pro-democracy activists in the dying days of the Suharto regime in 1998. He has denied the allegations.
‘Racing to the right’
Jokowi has also been criticized for failing to curb anti-gay rhetoric and actions by officials in recent years.
Police have raided places frequented by gay people and briefly detained hundreds suspected of being homosexual.
Several local governments are mulling anti-LGBT bylaws.
The Pariaman city government, in West Sumatra province, recently issued a bylaw that imposes a fine of up to 1 million rupiah (U.S. $71) on LGBT people “who conduct activity that disturbs public order” or commit “immoral acts with the same-sex,” according to a media report.
“The plight of the LGBT community under the Jokowi government has been worse than it was during the 10 years of the SBY government,” said Dede Oetomo, a sociology lecturer and campaigner for gay rights. He was referring to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Jokowi’s predecessor.
“[T]he change of leadership will have little effect on the lot of minority groups such as LGBT,” he predicted.
Jokowi’s choice as his running mate of conservative Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin, who is known for his anti-LGBT views, has raised concerns that he is pandering to religious puritans at the expense of minorities.
Ma’ruf, the head the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), the country’s semi-official clerical body, has expressed support for the criminalization of homosexuality and overseen the issuance of controversial fatwas including one that says Ahmadi beliefs are heretical and not part of Islam.
Jokowi, whose 2014 campaign pledges included solving past human rights cases and promoting pluralism, has vowed to protect religious and ethnic minorities as well as marginalized groups.
But his promises have not produced meaningful policy initiatives, according to rights groups.
“Jokowi has not taken firm action against violations of economic and social rights of religious minorities,” said Maidina Rahmawati, a researcher at the Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR).
“It’s as if the government is condoning them,” she told BenarNews.
“The two candidates are racing to the right and minorities are just pawns,” she said.
On Monday, meanwhile, Indonesia’s Supreme Court upheld an 18-month prison sentence for a Buddhist woman convicted of blasphemy because she had allegedly complained about noise from the loudspeakers of a neighborhood mosque in her home province of North Sumatra in 2016.
Indonesia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government recognizes only six religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. More than 87 percent of Indonesians are Sunni Muslims.
Indonesia’s criminal code outlaws deviations from the central tenets of these religions, as do numerous local laws and regulations, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.