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10.5.17

Tales Of Intrigue

Photo courtesy Vice.com
Events here in Jakarta have stirred up quite a bit of interest, with a ton-and-a-half of email and well over 500 readers all trying to get a handle on what happened yesterday.  The questions and hits have come from every continent but Antarctica asking what happened and what next?

Well, let's see if I can boil this down to the marrow.

Jakarta's Governor Ahok, a man of Chinese descent and Christian - only the second in history to hold the office - was found guilty of blasphemy against al-Qur'an and sentenced to two years in jail, to start immediately despite his intention to appeal.  He was taken into custody and sent to Cipinang prison in East Jakarta, but later last night was moved to the custody of TNI - the Indonesian army - for "safety" reasons.

Vice Governor Djarot was advanced to acting governor until the end of the term in October, when the governor-elect, Anies, will be sworn in.

The blasphemy charge was based on a speech Ahok gave back in September to a group of supporters.  The speech was recorded on video, then edited out of context and mistranscribed to mangle the Governor's words and meaning.

The actual verse in question is from the book Al Maidan 51, and is translated into English (only Arabic is considered the true Word of Allah) as:
"O you who have faith!  Do not take the Jews and the Christians as masters; they are master of each other/  Any of you who submit to them is indeed one of them.  Indeed, Allah does not guide the wrongdoing lot.
Setting aside the long historic antagonism between Christians and Jews, this has frequently, especially by hardliners, been interpreted to mean that Muslims may not have any non-Muslim over them, whether it be political, social or religious in nature.

Thus, it has been interpreted to mean that even in a secular republic, such as Indonesia, where the Constitution recognizes five religions on equal footing (Judaism not among them), Muslims may not allow a non-Muslim to be elected to a government office.  Never mind the concept of a public servant being below the common citizen, not above.

In any event, Ahok was reported to have said to the crowd that they shouldn't be "deceived" into thinking that this verse refers to office holders in a republican form of government.  It only means that a Muslim should not serve a master who is non-Muslim, nor should he accept religious instruction from a non-Muslim.

Well, the choice of the word "deceived" set off a shit storm.  Ahok was accused of insulting al-Quran by misinterpreting the words and using scripture for political purposes.  I don't know.  I wasn't there.  All I can say it what was reported in a video that I know is not an actual representation of the moment (it was edited) and a transcript that even the man who did it admitted was not accurate.

At any rate, one of the most honest and hard-working politicians, certainly in my memory, who did an amazing amount of good for the city of Jakarta in the four years he served, is now in jail for two years under highly questionable circumstances.

First of all, the documentation is suspect.  That much has already been stated.  Second is the question of whether a non-Muslim can be said to blaspheme a book that is not sacred to his own religion?  Blasphemy is typically limited to believers.  Third, what are the motivations behind the conviction?

It is this last question that has caused so much consternation.  You see, Ahok was originally elected Vice Governor under the current president Jokowi.  They were a team who came riding into town on a populist/reformist wave in 2012, from the city of Yogyakarta, where they were widely heralded as having cleaned up local government and ridding the city of entrenched corruption.

They were elected governor and vice governor together in Jakarta.  Two years later, Jokowi won the presidency and Ahok took over as governor.  During his tenure, the city buses actually started running on a schedule, the mass transit system was overhauled and an MRT system was inaugurated, city employees were made to show up on time and work full days, and corruption declined precipitously.

When Jokowi ran for president, he was opposed by a man named Prabowo.  Prabowo is widely considered to be part of the Establishment: a former general in the army and one of the deep crony insiders.  One could think of this match-up as similar to Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton.

Prabowo was so sure that he would win that the loss led to court battles and media slurs and all kinds of political maneuvering behind the scenes.  In short, the Establishment had lost a major battle and were on the outs, but that didn't stop them.  The lay in wait for a hole in the Jokowi/Ahok armor, which came in the form of a highly questionable comment back in September.

Ahok was recently defeated for re-election by a man named Anies, who is supported by Prabowo and the Establishment.  Many consider the election to have been rigged, but in the interest of stability, no one stood up to challenge the vote, least of all Ahok, who was under trial at the time for blasphemy.

The trial, too, is suspected of being rigged.  Even some of the people involved in the trial have said the judges need to be investigated for accepting bribes, since the prosecution asked for two years' probation, but in a highly irregular move, the court (five judges) threw the book at Ahok.

At any rate, this leaves President Jokowi completely isolated without any powerful allies.  He is under relentless attack by Prabowo and the Establishment, and rumors have gone around that Jokowi has been directly threatened since the Ahok result.  Jokowi stands for re-election in 2019, if he makes it that long.

In what could hardly be considered a coincidence, Agung - the son of the former president, Yudhoyno - has announced his intent to run for president, and he is openly allied with Prabowo and possibly with Anies.

In other words, the whole sordid affair has all the hallmarks of a subtle but distinct coup.  The reforms and constant attacks on corruption in government have taken a toll on the Establishment, which is widely known to use the State Treasury for political activities.

Knowing this, Ahok is reported to have placed a triple password on city accounts, with one of them being in the hands of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), meaning that even if the Establishment regains power, they may have a difficult time dipping into public funds.

It should also be noted that Djarot, the new acting governor of Jakarta, is openly antagonistic to Jokowi.

Whatever the truth is, the appearances are suspicious to a lot of folks in these parts.  Apparently, investors feel the same way, as the Jakarta Composite Index dropped precipitously after the verdict, and is continuing the down trend as I write.  A bill in Parliament banning alcohol across the country would further undermine the economy by killing tourism, and the general uncertainty is surely causing a lot of foreign investors to think twice about committing funds in the country.

Much remains to be seen, but among expats there is considerable discussion of bailing out and looking for more stable digs elsewhere - like Vietnam and Singapore.  The coming days, weeks and months will tell a tale, and many folks are sitting on their wallets expecting another 1965 or 1998 blow up.

Indonesia is the largest and richest economy in Southeast Asia, and what happens here will ripple throughout the region, which has enjoyed significant stability over the past 20 years.

More to come...

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