Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Hundreds of torchlight processions have been held in support of Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama across Indonesia after he was sentenced to two years in jail.
In Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Surakarta, Semarang, Surabaya and other major Indonesian cities, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians joined the wave of peaceful protests in solidarity with the former governor of Jakarta, a Christian who was convicted of blasphemy in a trial that has caused tensions and controversy across the country.
Torchlight processions are seen as an opportunity for civil society groups in modern Indonesia to show their political commitment to justice and pluralism in opposition to radical Islamist movements.
Ahok was the first ethnic Chinese to become governor on 19 November 2014, when his predecessor Joko Widodo resigned after he was elected president. He was also the first Protestant to occupy the strategic post of governor of Jakarta, following in the footsteps of Henk Ngantung, a Catholic who was governor in 1964-1965.
For his supporters, Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama is not just a "fighter for democracy" but also a reference and model for every public servant performing his or her duties on behalf of the population.
In his two years, he made radical changes and improved the quality of life in Indonesian capital: new bus system, river clean-up, anti-corruption fight, new green areas and sporting venues.
Ahok's conviction has deeply shaken many Indonesians. Many have slammed the sentence, which they believed was influenced by the country’s divided politics.
"Last week’s peaceful demonstrations were in support of a government official moved by a spirit of service to the people. However, Ahok has been politically and legally forced away from his people," said Prataman, speaking to AsiaNews. The businessman in North Jakarta is concerned about the economic consequences of the situation in Indonesia.
However, spontaneous protests after the sentence have reawakened a feeling of unity among moderate Indonesians.
"Torchlight processions are a positive reaction to show our feelings, core principles and shared ideas and protect our nation,” said Gunawan, a businessman in Denpasar in Bali, who also spoke to AsiaNews. “We, the good people of Indonesia, have to act ourselves despite our different political and religious beliefs, and join forces to defend the country."
According to Tjahjono, a businessman in East Jakarta, Ahok’s case has triggered a wave of nationalism and unity that is new among civil society groups in modern Indonesia. He calls it a "new nationalism".
Around the world, Indonesians have always been regarded as tolerant. However, in some quarters, that tolerance has decreased considerably.
"Spontaneous initiatives such as torchlight processions have not caused anxieties, but rather generated great sympathy and empathy from all parties, regardless of religion and ethnicity," he added.
In recent months, Indonesia has been alarmed by episodes of Islamic radicalism and sectarianism, linked to short-term agendas of politicians.
The country is still learning to work its way through its young democracy in a pluralistic society. In this regard, some Catholics have criticised the Church for its silence in the Ahok case.
The Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Indonesia recently issued an official statement clarifying its political position.
In the statement, the Commission reiterated its support for pluralism and strongly criticised religious polarisation and the manipulation of religious sentiments for political ends.
The statement calls on the authorities to be independent and not influenced by social pressures in exercising their function so as to ensure equal treatment of citizens.
Yesterday, in a closed-door meeting with religious leaders, Indonesian President Joko Widodo expressed concern over the recent episodes of sectarianism.
He urged his compatriots not to participate in demonstrations that undermine national unity and promised hard punishment for those people or movements that promote ethnic and religious hatred.
Widodo again emphasised the importance of freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution, noting that it must be exercised within the law and based on the principles of Pancasila.
The president also noted that he had ordered army and police leaders to pursue anyone who tries to provoke tensions and cause social segregation.