Bima Arya Sugiarto became mayor of Bogor in 2014 on the back of promises to root out corruption in the bureaucracy, restore order to the city’s chaotic streets and resolve the longstanding conflict over the construction of the Yasmin church. With a master’s degree from Monash University, a PhD from Australian National University and experience working with the United Nations Development Programme, he was touted as one of the new batch of reformist leaders who had come to power through direct elections and were set to transform Indonesia. Over recent months, however, his name has become synonymous with religious intolerance.
On 22 October, Bima Arya and other local officials prevented local Shi’a Muslims from commemmorating Ashura, a core celebration in the Shi’a faith that marks the death of the grandson of Ali, the first Shi’a Imam. Bima Arya issued a circular forbidding the celebration for the sake of “security”, saying that it had the potential to make other religious communities uncomfortable. The fate of the Yasmin Church, meanwhile, is still uncertain. Bima Arya has continued the much-criticised policies of his predecessor, Diani Budiarto, who ignored a clear Supreme Court ruling in the church’s favour and sealed the church property after protests from hard-line groups.
During Ramadhan earlier this year, Bima Arya also created controversy by reportedly smashing a glass in a bar that had remained open during the fasting month. And in 2014, he issued a circular urging all residents to stop work and pray at the closest mosque or prayer room whenever they heard the call to prayer. These incidents have created the impression that the so-called reformer of Bogor has some decidedly conservative tendencies.
How did Bima Arya get to this point? Bima Arya and his running mate, Usmar Hariman, won the mayoral election by a slim margin over Ahmad Ru’yat and Halim Hermana. The Bogor General Elections Commission (KPUD Bogor) reported that they won by under 2,000 votes, equivalent to less than 0.5 per cent of the total votes. There were just 673,938 registered voters in Bogor, and a voter turnout of 63 per cent, low by Indonesian standards.
Bima Arya surely knows that he won because Bogor residents were sick of the old mayor, who was more famous for preventing the construction of the Yasmin church and taking on multiple wives than for any efforts to improve the city. Electors wanted Bima Arya to restore order to the city, reduce congestion and improve waste management.
Residents of Bogor are mainly office workers, university staff, students, and traders. Many of the office workers commute every day to Jakarta. As in most areas of Indonesia, the majority of residents are Muslim, with the rest Protestant, Catholic or Buddhist, many of them ethnic Chinese.
But Bogor is also a centre for hard-line Muslim communities. When Abdurrahman Al Baghdadi first brought the ideas of Hizbut Tahrir to Indonesia, he stayed in Bogor’s Al-Ghazali Islamic boarding school, led by the charismatic preacher Mama Abdullah bin Nuh. Bogor Agricultural Institute (IPB) has also been fertile ground for conservative Islam, and was home to the Qur’an discussion groups that went on to form the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). There is emerging evidence of the influence of the conservative Wahhabi ideology in the region and it is not uncommon to see women with long black gowns covering them from foot to head, or men in long loose Islamic robes.
Given that many Bogor residents are commuters and new arrivals, they don’t show the same love for their city as, say, the residents of Bandung, who live, work and play in their city. It therefore makes sense that one of the first steps Bima Arya took when he came to power was to encourage residents to fall in love with Bogor, or “Bogoh ka Bogor”. He looked for quick wins, such as improving the city’s public gardens, revitalising public playgrounds, addressing waste management and trying to restore some order to the unruly public minibuses that clog the city’s streets. Bima Arya also promoted cultural events, such as Bogor-themed cooking demonstrations, and held public tours of the city’s unique Dutch architecture.
But Bogor is not known as the city of a million minibuses for nothing. Unchecked development of hotels and malls under the previous administration has also contributed to traffic chaos. The most miserable days are weekends and public holidays, when residents should be able to be out showing their love for their city. Instead they face infuriating congestion.
Bima Arya’s efforts to eradicate corruption in the civil service have also moved slowly. When the mayor came to power he began firing government officials who were suspected of corruption. Recently, however, he has admitted that when power relations are built on money politics, it is important to take a careful approach to combatting corruption to avoid being impeached.
Despite these ongoing frustrations it must be acknowledged that public order and the management of city parks have vastly improved under Bima Arya. But as even he admits, waste management is a formidable task. Citizens who litter without any concern for who is going to pick it up – as well as a lack of commitment from city waste management staff – mean that it will be a very long time before Bogor gets a reputation for cleanliness.
Facing these intractable problems, maybe it is no great surprise that Bima Arya has turned to trying to woo the conservative supporters of his electoral rivals. After two years of only modest progress, and being dubbed “Wagiman” (Walikota Gila Taman, or Park-Crazy Mayor) perhaps Bima Arya sees exploiting the intolerance of the Sunni majority toward Shi’a, Christian or Ahmadiyah minorities as a way to boost his waning popularity. But by doing so he has alienated his core supporters, who have begun to walk away.
As a city mayor, Bima Arya’s focus should be on public services and on getting things done, not playing politics. Perhaps his actions can be explained by further political aspirations, for example to the governorship of West Java. The depressing truth is that an anti-minority stance is popular among the conservative voters of the province. But other observers who have known the mayor since high school say that we are now seeing the real Bima Arya. He might seem like a reformist nationalist on the outside, they say, but the inside is Islamic fundamentalist.
Rather than turning their backs on him and allowing conservative groups to dictate policy, Bogor residents still have the potential to turn things around by demanding that Bima Arya demonstrate the strength of character that made people vote for him two years ago. Of course it will depend on which residents Bima Arya chooses to listen to, and the signs are not encouraging so far.