Indonesia’s troubled minorities by Greg Fealy, 13/09/2018, The Sydney Morning Herald
Meiliana, a 44-year-old Buddhist mother of Chinese descent, sat crying in disbelief in a North Sumatra court in late August. The judges had just sentenced her to 18 months’ jail for blasphemy because she complained to a neighbor in 2016 about the ear-splitting volume of amplified calls to prayer from a nearby mosque. Her complaint had sparked violent backlash from local Muslim groups, who had stoned her home, forcing her and her family to flee to another city. They also attacked and seriously damaged twelve Buddhist temples in the area. The same court that sentenced her showed leniency to eight attackers arrested by police, giving them jail terms of just 1-2 months.
Meiliana’s story shone a spotlight on Indonesia’s draconian blasphemy laws and more broadly on how the nation treats its minorities. For a country that presents itself to the world as a moderate Muslim-majority democracy that respects diversity and enjoins religious and ethnic harmony, Indonesia has faced increasing criticism for rising intolerance and sectarianism. Human rights advocates argued that the violent reaction to Meiliana’s mosque complaint and her subsequent jailing are inseparable from the fact that she is from a double minority: Sino-Indonesians comprise less than 4 per cent of the nation and Buddhists less than 2 per cent. The Chinese have long been targets of social unrest, particularly from the majority Muslim community.
Assessing how moderate or intolerant Indonesia is towards its minorities is more difficult to assess than it might first appear. For example, a number of well-regarded non-government organisations annually compile figures on acts of religious intolerance. One such NGO, Setara Institute, recorded 201 breaches of religious freedom across Indonesia in 2017, most of which were directed at Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Confucian minorities. Viewed in isolation, this is a significant number.
But on the other hand, in a religiously diverse nation of some 250 million people, several hundred cases might suggest that intolerance is relatively rare.