The Capital of Indonesia, Jakarta, has been in chaos over post-election riots.
Incumbent President Joko Widodo achieved a victory in the April 17 presidential election (with 55.5% votes). The president’s challenger, former general Prabowo Subianto, has refused to accept the result and instead declared himself the winner. He and his allies claimed that Widodo’s victory became possible due to massive fraud but the only evidence of fraud provided by his team was links to online articles. The election supervisory agency rejected Prabowo’s complaint.
So, the opposition moved to a ‘direct action’.
Hundreds of rioters, mostly young men, some of them under flags often used by radical Islamist groups, clashed with police at six locations around central and west Jakarta on May 21 and May 22.
Police and security forces, which got reinforcements, restored relative calm in the capital by May 23 only. As a result of the clashes, at least 7 people were killed and over 700 others were injured. 442 rioters were detained.
During the protests, various groups on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram were spreading anti-government fake news and hoaxes fueling tensions. One of the key narratives were the involvement of Chinese special forces and ‘snipers’ in these events. Some messages alleged that ‘Chinese forces’ employed live fire.
For example, these reports pretending that “China has sent security forces to Indonesia disguised as foreign workers” and some security personnel “cannot speak Indonesian”. All of them appeared to be fake news. The government was forced to block temporarily Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, to halt the spread of false information. Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population numbers about 3 million (out of Indonesia’s 260 million people).
During the riots, some protesters chanted anti-Chinese slogans: “Usir Cina” (kick Chinese out) and “Awas Asing” (beware of foreigners). The opposition has repeatedly blamed Widodo for his alleged ‘pro-Chinese’ stance.
Ethnic tensions between Indonesians and the ethnic Chinese minorities are often used among other tools designed to limit the rapid growth of the Chinese influence in Southeastern Asia.
Another important factor was the involvement of Islamists in the riots. Authorities openly blamed the violence on “provocateurs” that had come from outside Jakarta to stir up trouble. Many of the protesters are thought to be members of the fundamentalist Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) that supported Prabowo’s push for presidency.
National Police Spokesman Muhammad Iqbal officially stated on May 23 that at least 2 of the detained protestors were members of the Islamic Reform Movement (Garis. This group had pledged loyalty to ISIS, and sent almost 200 Indonesians to Syria.
“They intended to carry out jihad during May 21 and 22 protests,” Iqbal said.
Commenting on the confirmed deaths, he said that police had not used live rounds, and “only rubber bullets, tear gas, shields and sticks” when facing the protesters.
Police also seized envelopes containing money on some of the people they searched. Authorities described this as an evidence that the riots were not “a spontaneous incident – this is something by design. There are indications that the mobs are paid and bent on causing chaos”.
In May, at least 31 terror suspects were detained in Indonesia. According to authorities, militants were seeking to exploit the political instability to fuel instability in the country.
“There is an effort to provoke, to create martyrs, blame the authorities and invoke public anger,” National police chief Tito Karnavian said showing reporters a sniper rifle with silencer and two revolvers seized from the suspects ahead of the May 21-22 riots.
Methods and approaches (the employment of provocateurs, radicals as well as the exploitation of ‘ethnic card’ and ‘foreign interference’ propaganda narrative) employed by rioters and their supporters in Indonesia look very similar to what was observed during the 2014 Maidan coup in Ukraine and the so-called Arab Spring in the Middle East.
At the recent Belt and Road Forum held recently in Beijing, Indonesia signed over 20 agreements related to the various projects, most important in the infrastructure development. This move as well as previous examples of the Indonesian-Chinese cooperation faced a smear campaign alleging that the government is selling the country to the Chinese. However, the results of the presidential election showed that such campaigns were not enough to shift the Indonesian policy in favor of the so-called “democratic world”. Taking into account the recent increase in the US-Chinese economic war, Indonesia appeared to be one of the hotspots of the global geopolitical struggle.