Late last month, Indonesia's controversial Blasphemy Law (Law 1/PNPS/1956) claimed another victim. Meiliana, a 44-year-old ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman from Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra, was sentenced to 18 months in prison by the Medan District Court for complaining about the volume of the call to prayer at her neighbourhood mosque.
The case first came to national attention in mid-2016, when rioters attacked several Buddhist temples in Tanjung Balai, a small city south of the provincial capital of Medan. The incident was initially reported as an ethno-religious conflict, sparked by a Chinese Indonesian woman's comments, which were viewed as insults directed at a religious symbol. The case then evolved into a blasphemy case after rioters were sentenced in early 2017.
The Paramadina Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy (PUSAD Paramadina) sent a team of researchers to the field to interview key stakeholders, including members of the local community, police, religious leaders, and politicians. Here we recount the series of events that led to conflict and look at how a neighbourhood dispute turned into a riot, and finally resulted in a blasphemy conviction.
The complaint that led to disaster
Meiliana never suspected that her few words of complaint could spark a riot. On 22 July 2016, at 7am, she complained to the owner of a food stall, Kasini (also known as Uo), about the volume of the speaker at the Al Maksum Mosque, across the road from the house she had rented for eight years in Tanjung Balai.
Meiliana told local organisation the United North Sumatra Alliance (Aliansi Sumut Bersatu) that her complaint was simple: "Uo," she said, "the speaker from the mosque never used to be so loud, now it seems quite noisy". According to Meiliana, Uo simply agreed with her.
During Meiliana's trial, Uo said that he responded by saying that he would relay her concerns to his father, Kasidi, the mosque caretaker. A few days later, on 29 July, Kasidi told three members of the mosque's board (Dewan Kemakmuran Masjid, DKM) about Meiliana's complaint. The men then went to her house to confront her about it.
According to Aliansi Sumut Bersatu, the men accused Meiliana of trying to ban the mosque from sounding the call to prayer. Following a tense conversation, Meiliana's husband, Lian Tui, went across the road to the mosque to apologise to Kasidi and other members of the mosque board. Meiliana remained inside, as a crowd had already begun to gather.
News of the incident soon reached the local neighbourhood chief. At about 8.30pm, the neighbourhood chief contacted the local community policing unit (Bhabinkamtibmas) and asked Meiliana and the mosque board to come to the Tanjung Balai Kota I neighbourhood office, where they would try to mediate a solution.
How were the masses mobilised?
By 9.15pm, before any agreement could be reached, a crowd had gathered outside the neighbourhood chief's office. A member of the mob tried to enter the office to attack Meiliana, so police decided to transport Meiliana and her husband to the Tanjung Balai Selatan Subdistrict Police Station for their own safety.
Our interviews with rioters revealed that messages had circulated suggesting that a Chinese person was "going berserk" at the neighbourhood chief's office and that she had tried to prohibit the mosque from sounding the call to prayer. Rumours and speculation continued to spread. One local gathered outside the neighbourhood office told one of the rioters that, "A Chinese person wearing shorts came to the mosque, and when the call to prayer sounded she was furious and demanded that the volume be turned down because it was disturbing her. This wasn't the first time either, it has happened a lot."
Meiliana and her husband were moved to the Tanjung Balai District Police Station, where police attempted to negotiate a solution with the head of the local branch of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), the police criminal investigations unit, the head of the local branch of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), local officials, and the mosque board.
But members of the mob travelled to the station. They attempted to push their way in but were prevented by police. One of the main agitators, Rudi, reportedly attracted the attention of the local community, shouting: "We can't allow this to happen, it's not right for someone to try to ban the call to prayer."
After being knocked back by police, Rudi and his friends grabbed a megaphone and set up camp on the so-called "PLN Roundabout" on Jalan Sudirman. They made continued attempts to whip up anger, shouting to the crowd: "Today we will not be stepped on by the Chinese, they have tried to prevent a mosque from sounding the call to prayer." They also recruited friends over the phone, and the regional secretary of the Al Washliyah organisation, who they knew could mobilise a significant crowd.
At about 10pm, the mob moved to Meiliana's house, where several police were already at the ready. One of the members of the crowd threw a Molotov cocktail at the front of the house. Local residents quickly extinguished the flames but the crowd was not satisfied. They began pelting the house with rocks.
Rudi and another agitator, Aldo, then encouraged the crowd to head to the Huat Cu Keng Temple, about 500 metres away. They arrived at about 11pm, damaging several ethnic Chinese residences along the way, and began hurling rocks at the temple. The Tanjung Balai deputy police chief and several personnel from the Tanjung Balai Selatan Subdistrict Police station arrived soon after and were able to prevent further damage.
But Aldo continued to fire up the crowd, repeating the claim that a Chinese woman had tried to prevent the call to prayer, and calling on the Buddhist temple to take responsibility for the actions of one of its followers. The crowd also called on the police to process the woman for blasphemy.
The Tanjung Balai deputy police chief confirmed that Meiliana had already been taken to the police station for questioning, and if there was evidence of blasphemy she would be processed. He continued to try to calm the crowd and Aldo and others agreed to leave.
But not all returned home. The Al Washliyah regional secretary called on his followers to head to the Tri Ratna Temple, about a kilometre away. The crowd arrived in two waves, at about 11.30pm and again at 1.00am, causing damage and setting the temple alight. The crowd also split up and headed to several other temples around the city.
The police gathered local government officials, and representatives from the local MUI and Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB). They patrolled the city, with the head of the MUI calling from the police car for Muslims to return to their homes. The Police's Mobile Brigade (Brimob) was dispatched at 2.30am, and the situation was finally brought under control by 4.30am.
Several temples, Chinese pharmacies, and social organisations in Tanjung Balai were destroyed as a result of the mob's actions. The damage bill was estimated to be hundreds of millions of rupiah. The presence and preparedness of security forces was a major factor in the damage caused. The mob's attempts to damage the Bhakti Meitreya and Ariya Satyani temples failed because of their proximity to navy and water police bases, respectively, where officers were on hand to hold off the crowd.
At the time of the incident, few police were stationed at the Tanjung Balai District Police Station. The district police chief was attending an official function in Parapat, more than 150 kilometres away. The Tanjung Balai Brimob force had been deployed to Kabanjahe (about 200 km away) to deal with a land conflict earlier in the day, as had the nearby Tebing Tinggi District Brimob.
The Tanjung Balai deputy police chief was left to deal with the rioters with little support. His priorities were split between attempting to mediate a solution between Meiliana and the mosque board and directing his personnel to control the crowd. Police clearly failed to anticipate and prevent the mobilisation of the crowd, especially at the roundabout.
Whether it was a matter of discounting the seriousness of the growing mob or whether they were intimidated by the size of the group, police took no action to prevent the riot instigators from gathering a crowd at the roundabout. The "conflict entrepreneurs", Aldo and Rudi, are, in fact, well-known activists in the region and have connections to local politicians. They have experience in mobilising the community in mass demonstrations for a variety of causes.
There was, however, one crucial action taken by the head of the Subdistrict Criminal Investigation Unit on the night of the incident. He pursued the rioters and quietly arrested nine of those responsible for damaging property. This allowed police to quickly investigate and arrest 20 more suspects. If not for the actions of the criminal investigation head, the process could have dragged on for months, and many of the perpetrators could have escaped punishment.
Within two days of the incident, efforts were made to restore peace in the community. National Police Chief Tito Karnavian travelled from Jakarta to Medan, and met a broad range of community members. He directed the provincial police chief to lead investigation and community rehabilitation efforts.
The North Sumatra Provincial Police led the investigation process and even formed a cybercrime unit to trace the spread of hate speech on social media. Provincial police were stationed in the Tanjung Balai District Police Station on rotation to assist with developing the case against the conflict instigators.
A member of the Tanjung Balai District Police said that they gathered so much evidence that they "could have arrested hundreds of suspects". In the end they chose to focus on 22 suspects but police acknowledged there was no special consideration in selecting these 22 suspects, beyond the fact that they were the easiest to identify.
The Tanjung Balai District Court on 31 January 2017 convicted eight of these defendants, finding them guilty of offences including property damage, theft and provoking violence. They received sentences ranging from just one to four months in prison.
Following the sentences, many of the community and religious leaders we spoke to said that they hoped that this would be the end of the case. But several figures, especially representatives from the United Independent Community and Students Alliance (AMMIB), a body that was set up mainly to assist those accused of damaging property, continued to agitate for Meiliana to be charged with blasphemy.
Mass pressure leads to charges
Meiliana's case is particularly interesting because not one community member was willing to report her to police for her supposedly insulting comments. In fact, police eventually asked one of their own, Kuntoro, a member of the local community police, to file the blasphemy report. Kuntoro reportedly felt very uncomfortable about doing so.
The Tanjung Balai branch of MUI also initially refused to issue a fatwa on Meiliana's case. But organisations like the Islamic Community Forum (Forum Umat Islam, FUI), Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), Al Wasliyah and AMMIB continued to push. In December 2016, AMMIB even protested outside and blockaded the Tanjung Balai MUI office. Eventually, in January 2017, the North Sumatra provincial MUI published Fatwa 001/KF/MUI-SU/I/2017, which stated that Meiliana had defamed Islam by equating a mosque with a place capable of causing a disturbance.
One member of the North Sumatra MUI explained its decision to publish the fatwa this way: "Fourteen Muslim campaigners have been sentenced and we have accepted it, but why hasn't the source of the problem faced the law?"
This was all unfolding at about the same time as the massive protests against former Jakarta Governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama in Jakarta. On 28 December 2016, just weeks after the largest protest against Ahok, FPI leader Rizieq Shihab visited Medan to speak at an event supported by the National Movement to Safeguard the MUI Fatwa (GNPF-MUI) and the North Sumatra Anti-Blasphemy Movement (GAPAI).
There is a strong chance that his presence encouraged local police to continue to process Meiliana's case. Police revealed that they did so despite the fact that they had difficulty building a case against her because the statements of three key witnesses, Lobe, Dai and Rif, differed considerably.
Eventually, in March 2017, North Sumatra Provincial Police named Meiliana a suspect. She was accused of violating Articles 156 and 156a of the Criminal Code (KUHP) on blasphemy.
Our research revealed several important points not covered by most reports on this case. Although the violence was not planned long in advance, it was certainly not spontaneous. Conflict provocateurs drew on established networks to mobilise a crowd, amplifying a neighbourhood complaint to provoke the rage of a large portion of the city.
They were effective because of the lack of communication between different religious and ethnic groups, unresolved past tensions, economic anxiety, and political disappointments. The political drama in Jakarta also perpetuated tensions in Tanjung Balai, and conversely, the tension in Tanjung Balai was used to increase pressure in Jakarta.
The conflict escalated rapidly between 29-30 July. Significantly, beyond the property damage caused, it also generated new players, like AMMIB, whose specific aim was to free those accused of perpetrating the riots and send Meiliana to prison.
In our review of coverage of the incident, most media outlets depicted Meiliana as triggering a spontaneous outbreak of violence through her comments. The media should be more careful in reporting on this type of event, and describe the role of all actors agitating for violence or whipping up hate.
The case also shows how the Blasphemy Law has clearly become a tool in religious conflict. It does nothing to prevent conflict as some government and religious figures claim. If it is too politically difficult to get rid of the Blasphemy Law, which appears to be the case given the failure of past attempts, the government must come up with a way to prevent it being constantly manipulated as a tool to target religious minorities.
The police must also face scrutiny. The Tanjung Balai Police had sufficient resources to anticipate violence. But they failed to implement any preventative measures. In fact, they actively contributed to the problem. Rather than standing up to the organisations and individuals pushing for blasphemy charges, they forced a Bhabinkamtibmas official to file the blasphemy complaint. These community police, which are closest to the public, need to be provided with more resources and training so that they are better equipped to prevent these kinds of tensions escalating into larger scale conflict.
Finally, the government needs to promote communication and opportunities for regular meetings between groups of different religious and ethnic backgrounds. This is time-consuming work, but is crucial for helping communities to better manage tensions – like a simple noise complaint – without it leading to violence.
[This post is based on a report produced by PUSAD Paramadina. A longer version of the post was published on Tirto as "Rekayasa Kebencian dalam Kasus Meiliana di Tanjung Balai" on 24 August. It was translated and edited by Tim Mann.]