Serang copy 2

Images of Saeni pleading in protest as her food was confiscated by officials galvanised Indonesian netizens, who collected about $27,000 in support of Saeni and other traders whose stalls were raided by authorities. Photo by Kompas TV.


Senior civil society activists in Jakarta also contributed to this post.


Public Order Agency officials (Satpol PP) empty tubs of food into plastic bags, while a food store (warung) owner protests, fear and confusion on her face. A Kompas TV reporter flatly explains that officials are enforcing a directive from the Serang government prohibiting the selling of food during daylight hours during Ramadan, “to promote tolerance and mutual respect among religious groups”.


Watching this distressing footage over the weekend, Indonesians were incensed, and within hours a spontaneous grassroots campaign sprung up to support Saeni, or Eni, the woman in the footage. Raids on businesses selling food during the day have become a regular occurrence in the fasting month, but the perpetrators are usually hard-line Islamic groups like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), not state officials.


Dwika Putra Hendrawan, a public relations worker in Jakarta, and some of his friends, decided that rather than just moan about the case on social media, they would try to help the warung owner, and began collecting donations. When they closed collections 36 hours later, they had amassed Rp 265 million (almost $27,000). Although the campaign was originally intended just to help Eni, following the overwhelming response they received, they decided to help other traders raided by authorities.


The case was an important reminder that despite the actions of some officials, Indonesians care deeply about social justice. But it was important for another reason. If the national government acts quickly, it can use the raid in Serang to send a strong message to local governments that it is serious, and able, to act against intolerance and discrimination.


It is a simple case. And because it is so simple, it is easy to resolve. The case is limited only to Satpol PP officials and the directive (surat imbauan) from the Serang authorities. It is not multidimensional, such as the complex cases of discrimination relating to the construction of houses of worship, or against Shi’a or Ahmadiyah minorities. And in contrast to these other cases affecting minorities, there has been an outpouring of public sympathy in support of the victim, Eni.


Netizens were spurred into action. Civil society, too. Senior government figures were also forced to make comments. Minister of Religious Affairs Lukman Hakim Saifuddin criticised the actions of Satpol PP for being far from the spirit of tolerance they claimed to represent. Vice President Jusuf Kalla said that people should not be “sweeping” restaurants open during Ramadan because even Muslims had legitimate reasons for not fasting.


But these statements will remain just that unless there is firm action from the government. For example, the Serang government should be forced to pay compensation to the traders whose stalls it raided, and the district head should be forced to repeal the directive. The director of Satpol PP should also face sanctions. If the Serang Satpol PP is punished, imagine the message it would send to other Satpol PP across Indonesia. It would provide a strong deterrence against arbitrary and repressive actions by the state in the name of religion. It would also discredit those local government elites who pass discriminatory regulations on a whim, without thinking of the consequences.


If the central government wants to use this case as a sign that “the state is present”, it is crucial that it is removed from its religious context. Too often, local governments ignore directives, instructions or decrees from the central government. Not even the involvement of the minister of religious affairs has been able to resolve the conflict in Sampang, East Java. Four years after the outbreak of violence, the Shi’a community remains displaced in Sidoarjo, while the Sampang district government uses the excuse of regional autonomy to reject efforts to bring them home.


This case should therefore be managed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, or even the Coordinating Ministry of Political, Legal and Security Affairs. It should be taken to the legal arena, for example, by arguing that the raid violated these traders’ constitutional right to a source of income.


On Monday, Minister of Home Affairs Tjahjo Kumolo called on the head of Satpol PP to instruct regional Satpol PP not to be excessive as they carried out their duties. But this means little unless there are consequences for district governments who issue the regulations in the first place. From 2009-2015, the National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) recorded at least 389 local regulations that discriminate against the rights of women and minorities. Although clearly within its purview, the Ministry of Home Affairs has never shown much interest in cancelling these discriminatory regulations.


This is an extraordinary opportunity for the central government to record a victory against the arrogance of discriminative local governments. It should not let it go to waste. There are four probable outcomes if the government takes firm action against the Serang district government. First, the broader community will appreciate the government’s efforts in support of poor traders like Eni. Second, local governments will think twice before passing discriminatory regulations in the future. Third, Satpol PP will be reluctant to act in such a draconian manner. Finally, it could build faith that the central government will not simply stop at reminding or instructing local governments who break the law. The political implications of firm and successful management of this simple case are enormous.



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