News of a boat turn-around at Christmas Island bothered officials in Jakarta this week, while police took offence to a bad joke by hardliners, and preparations got under way for next week's nationwide regional elections.
Indonesian officials condemned Australia's boat turn-back policy this week when a boat allegedly provided by the Australian Navy turned up in Kupang, West Timor. Sixteen asylum seekers from Bangladesh, India, Nepal (and in some reports, Pakistan) were reportedly rescued by residents and authorities when their vessel ran out of fuel and began to sink off the coast of Kupang. The men said they had travelled by boat from West Java to Christmas Island to claim asylum, where they were detained offshore and sent back towards Indonesia with a boat and supplies, only to end up thousands of kilometres away from their starting point, in the islands of East Nusa Tenggara. Government officials criticised Australia's approach as dangerous and uncooperative, saying that 'unilateral action will not solve the problem'.
The boat turn-back policy was a point of tension in the Australia-Indonesia relationship under Tony Abbott as prime minister, particularly after reports emerged of Australian officials paying people smugglers to turn their boats back towards Indonesia. The captain and crew are now on trial in Indonesia. The latest incident could prove to be the first real test for Malcolm Turnbull in handling the relationship, after he made a good impression during his recent visit to Jakarta. International pressure is now mounting for Australia to change its approach, including from the United Nations.
Meanwhile in Jakarta, an antiterrorism discussion was cancelled under pressure from a hardline Islamist group this week. The Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI), a hardline group known for its support of sharia law and episodes of vigilante violence, caused security concerns for an antiterrorism discussion slated to be held by the Association of Journalists for Diversity (SEJUK) and German foundation Friedrich Naumann Stiftung over the weekend. Organisers were reportedly forced to cancel the event when police were unable to guarantee security. The FPI had earlier complained to police that its members were unfairly portrayed as sympathisers of Islamic State on promotional material for the event, such as posters which placed the group's photo beside the IS flag and an image of Paris. Organisers changed the poster, but refused to apologise to FPI. Ironically, it was the implied threat of a violent backlash from FPI over being labelled terrorists that eventually forced the cancellation of the antiterrorism event.
In West Java this week, FPI caused further disturbance when the group's leader made a joke at the expense of a traditional Sundanese greeting. Speaking to followers, leader Rizieq Shihab denounced the use of traditional Indonesian greetings in place of the Arab Islamic greeting assalamualaikum. In making his point, he used a play on words to joke that traditional greetings such as 'sampurasun' from West Java could be 'campur racun', that is, 'laced with poison'. Rizieq blamed the alleged revival of traditional greetings on political leaders such as Purwakarta regent Dedi Mulyadi, who recently issued a circular confirming the right to religious freedom in his jurisdiction, and now commonly uses 'sampurasun' as a general greeting. Sundanese youth and cultural groups have reacted angrily to the slight on their traditional greeting, causing a stir in the media and online.
In many parts of Indonesia, the political climate is heating up as the country prepares for its first round of simultaneous regional elections next Wednesday. As many as 269 mayors, regents and governors will be re-elected or replaced in next week's direct elections, with hundreds more to follow in the second and third rounds in 2017 and 2018. The goal is to eventually hold all regional elections at the same time to improve efficiency and policy coordination. In Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama has until 2017 to make his case to retain the governorship, meaning that the campaign atmosphere in the capital may last well into next year.