Category: society

Scant internet complicates remote learning in Indonesia

Wearing masks and face shields to guard against coronavirus, four pupils hunch over textbooks and a mobile phone during a remote learning session in a poor neighbourhood near the Indonesian capital.

“It’s not easy to learn online, and it’s also boring,” says 8-year-old Aldina, dressed in a bright red-and-white elementary school uniform and a matching face covering. “I wish I could be back in school so I can be with my friends and teachers,” she adds. 

Schools across Indonesia began implementing online learning as early as after the first cases of the novel coronavirus were detected in the country, but scant internet access in many areas and limited access to devices mean that many students are struggling to keep up.

Cellular coverage is spotty in Aldina’s densely populated neighbourhood in Bogor, a city just outside Jakarta, forcing her and three of her classmates to attend online classes outdoors on the side of the shallow Ciliwung river to get a signal.

“Apart from the weak phone signal, having to buy more pre-paid phone credit is a burden for us,” says Nur Aida, Aldina’s 42-year-old mother, who accompanies the children during classes.

“We don’t always have money for it,” she says.

Nearby, three junior high school students sit on a bench on the front porch of a modest house on the riverbank, each with a mobile phone. 

They are among those who have it easier. 

In West Sumatra province, some students have to walk several kilometres uphill to receive a cell signal to allow them to take part in remote classes, local officials say.  

Parents have also bore the brunt of the situation. 

Local media report that a 42-year-old man who was caught stealing a mobile phone in West Java admitted that he resorted to theft because he could not afford to buy one to be used by his child for remote learning.  

Education Minister Nadiem Makarim, former chief executive of the country’s most successful ride-hailing start-up, Gojek, said he is aware of the difficulties students and parents are facing.  

“It’s a challenging situation for all of us, and I sympathize with the parents and students for having to adapt to this different learning format abruptly,” he told local television.

“This isn’t something we all wanted. The choice is between learning poorly or not learning at all,” Makarim said.

He has promised that his ministry would come up with an emergency curriculum adapted to the pandemic and remote learning in a few days.

He also said the government would provide subsidies worth 3 trillion rupiah (205 million dollars) to schools to allow them to provide wider internet access and purchase devices for online learning.

About 65 per cent of Indonesia’s 265 million people have access to the internet, according to the Indonesian Internet Service Providers Association. More people in the archipelago national have been able to access the internet in recent years thanks to the influx of cheap Chinese-made mobile phones and increasingly affordable data plans.

Fibre-optic internet access is still limited to major cities. 

Over 60 million students across Indonesia have been forced to attend remote classes during the pandemic, the SMERU Research Institute said in a report. While teachers in major cities are well-equipped to conduct classes online, those in villages have to travel as far as 30 kilometres to deliver lessons and homework to each student in-person because of a lack of internet access and gadgets, the institute said.

“If the problems persist until at least schools are reopened, it is highly likely that students under less fortunate circumstances will experience learning loss,” the report said.

“Learning inequality between students with different socio-economic backgrounds will also get even wider,” it said.

Around 80 per cent of Indonesians wanted schools to reopen even though daily Covid-19 cases show no signs of going down, according to the results of a survey by the private pollster Cyrus Network. 

Last week, the head of the country’s Covid-19 task force, Doni Monardo, said only schools in green zones across the country are allowed to reopen, but only 27 per cent of them were ready for physical classes.

“Some parents are happy for their children to return to school, but there are many others who object to in-person classes,” he tells a news conference. “The government leaves it to regional governments to decide.”

Tech-savvy Indonesians go off-grid to help remote villages fight virus

A group of tech-savvy young locals in Indonesia’s northern North Halmahera regency is spreading awareness about the dangers of COVID-19 in remote corners of the archipelago at a time when bureaucracy has impeded a rapid response to the pandemic.

The Relawan Merah Putih, or Red and White Volunteers, includes a multimedia expert, university students, lecturers, civil servants and a web developer in Tobelo, the main city of North Halmahera in North Maluku province, about 2,500 km from the capital Jakarta.

The city is located on Halmahera island, part of the Maluku Islands, Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands on the northeastern part of the sprawling archipelago.

Stevie Recaldo Karimang, a 28-year-old freelance photographer and videographer, said that he set up the group after social restrictions introduced to counter the pandemic put him out of business. 

He quickly developed a website on the pandemic and created online flyers and audiovisual materials that he and 31 other volunteers distributed on social media platforms and messaging apps to educate the public about the pandemic soon after the first cases in Indonesia were confirmed in Jakarta in early March.

“We translated the information we took from the national COVID-19 task force into the market language spoken here, which is a mixture of Indonesian and the local dialect, to make it more understandable for the locals,” Karimang said.

The group also used a drone to issue public warnings against mass gatherings.

“The drone helped to remind people not to form a crowd when social restrictions were enforced. We attached a flashlight to the device to catch the crowd’s attention, and we were able to dismiss such gatherings.”

But the volunteers shifted their efforts to rural areas after the first coronavirus case in North Maluku province was confirmed on March 23.

Jubhar Mangimbulude, a microbiology expert at Halmahera University and the group’s adviser, said the team had visited 30 isolated villages out of 196 townships in the regency, which is home to 161 million people.

“We reached one village after hours of driving over rough terrain. We have to use four-wheel-drive vehicles because along the way we may have to cross a river where the bridge is damaged,” he said.

Relawan Merah Putih handed over their assistance to village officials in Duma village of North Maluku regency during a campaign to spread awareness of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: Relawan Merah Putih/Komunitas Manyawa)

Mangimbulude said that many villagers were unaware of the pandemic and only knew from TV that a dangerous virus was spreading quickly and infecting people. He was glad to find that no COVID-19 cases had been detected among the villagers.

But he acknowledged that misinformation was rife and said that he had to debunk myths about “how alcohol could be used to prevent the disease.”

“The villagers heard that the virus can be killed with heat in one’s body, and since drinking alcohol can warm the body, they encouraged their children and elders to drink a local alcoholic beverage made of fermented sugar palm fruit,” Mangimbulude said.

Fellow volunteer Oscar Berthomene, a local civil servant, said that the group was able to move faster than the regency administration whose bureaucracy slowed down the response to the pandemic.

“I have support from my supervisor, and we were able to help their activities with cars to allow them to move around,” he said.

The regency has about 18 percent of the 953 cases in the province, which make up about 1.5 percent of the national total of 62,142 as of Saturday.

This story was first published in Arab News

Mahfud MD slammed for comparing coronavirus to wives

Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Mohammad Mahfud MD, has been criticized sharply for comparing the novel coronavirus to a wife in an attempt to allay public concerns about easing COVID-19 restrictions. 

The Indonesian government is preparing to lift partial lockdowns in parts of the country in early June and adopt what it calls ‘the new normal’. 

“Are we going to be holed up forever? We can adjust to the situation while still paying attention to our health,” Mahfud said in a video posted on YouTube on Wednesday. 

“The other day I got a meme from my colleague Luhut Pandjaitan that says: Corona is like your wife. Initially you tried to control it, then you realize that you can’t. Then you learn to live with it,” he said in English. 

Pandjaitan is the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment.  

The off-the-cuff remarks drew ire from women’s rights groups and other Indonesians online.

“Not only does the statement reflect the incompetence of the government in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, it also demonstrates the sexist and misogynistic attitudes of public officials,” Women’s Solidarity Society said in a statement.  

“Jokes that objectify women will only normalize the culture of violence against women,” it said.

Indonesians on social media joined the chorus of criticism. 

“A man who marries a woman with the intention to control her is horrifying. Comparing a woman to a virus is an insult to the dignity of women,” a Twitter user named Deslina wrote. 

Some Indonesians have expressed concerns about the plan to reopen the economy at a time when the curve appears to have not flattened. 

The government is deploying 340,000 security personnel in four provinces – Jakarta, West Java, West Sumatra and Gorontalo – to enforce “the new normal,” Armed Forces chief Air Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto. 

They have been tasked with ensuring the public observe health guidelines prescribed by the government, including wearing masks and respecting social distancing. 

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Indonesia rose to 23,851 on Wednesday, an increase of 686 from the previous day. 

An additional 55 deaths brought the number of fatalities to 1,473.

Indonesia urges pregnancy postponement amid fears of COVID-19 baby boom

Indonesia’s family planning agency on Thursday urged couples to delay pregnancies after estimates showed that 10 percent of reproductive couples in the fourth most-populous country had abandoned contraception as a result of restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

The lack of access to contraceptives could result in 420,000 unplanned pregnancies, sparking fears of a COVID-19 baby boom, said Hasto Wardoyo, the head of the National Population and Family Planning Agency (BKKBN).

“With an additional 420,000 births next year, population growth in Indonesia could surge dramatically,” he said. “If you plan to get pregnant, now is not the right time.”

The government estimates that about 15 percent of 3 million couples who stopped using contraception between March and April could end up pregnant, Hasto said, adding that 95 percent of contraceptive users in Indonesia are women.

Hasto said people had been reluctant to visit health clinics because of fears they would contract COVID-19, while many health workers have suspended their practices to avoid contact with other people.

Government health workers assisted by military personnel are going door-to-door to provide contraceptives and other family planning services, along with personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical personnel in the field of reproductive health, he said.

Health officials in Tasikmalaya, a regency in West Java province, reported earlier this month that the pregnancy rate doubled to more than 3,200 in the January-to-March period compared to last year.

“The April-to-May period may see another rise,” said Uus Supangat, chief of the Tasikmalaya health office, according to Kumparan.com online news portal.

Nearly 5 million babies are born every year in Indonesia and about 28 million couples were using contraception last year, according to government data.

COVID-19 cases

Indonesia recorded 973 COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the largest single-day rise so far, taking the total to 20,162. East Java province saw the highest daily increase on Thursday, 502, COVID-19 task force spokesman Achmad Yurianto said.

Globally, more than 5 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and nearly 330,000 have died as of Thursday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian Obstetrics and Gynecology Association (POGI) has urged couples planning pregnancy to postpone visits to clinics until the pandemic is under control as health workers are focusing their attention on providing services to expectant women to prevent COVID-19-related complications.

“Even though there’s no evidence yet that the fetus can be infected by COVID-19, we still have to take precautions,” said Budi Wiweko, POGI’s deputy secretary general.

“We have to avoid caesarian delivery as much as possible,” he said.

Angga Sisca Rahadian, a researcher with the Population Research Center at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said the predicted 420,000 additional births in 2021 would make it harder for Indonesia to achieve its total fertility rate target of 2.1. The rate refers to the average number of children a woman would have if she survives all reproductive years.

Indonesia’s total fertility rate is 2.4, according to a 2017 demographic and health survey.

“With the increase in pregnancy rates during the pandemic, it will certainly affect the growth rate,” Angga said, referring to population growth.

Angga said the government must ensure that women who are pregnant during the pandemic are given maternity care.

“These are unplanned pregnancies and the government has to find ways to keep pregnant women well-nourished to prevent complications,” she said.

Infant mortality rate in Indonesia is 24 per 1,000 live births, while under-5 mortality rate is 32 per 1,000 live births, far beyond the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) target of 70 per 100,000 live births, according to the 2017 demographic survey.

Travel concerns

Task force spokesman Yurianto attributed the jump in single-day COVID-19 cases in Indonesia to increased testing and the failure to observe social distancing measures.

He warned that the country could see an increase in infections because of higher mobility during the holy month of Ramadan culminating in the Eid al-Fitr festival, which falls on Sunday.

Traffic in the greater Jakarta region has been busier in recent days ahead of Eid al-Fitr, while airports, sea ports and markets have also started to reopen.

The head of the COVID-19 task force’s team of experts, Wiku Adisasmito, said public perception that travel restrictions had been relaxed could also be a factor.

“It could be due to increased testing, or due to the lack of discipline in observing health protocols,” he said.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on Monday said the government would not ease restrictions amid criticism that the government is silently relaxing measures to curb the spread the virus to keep the economy running.

Speculation that the government is taking steps toward reopening the economy emerged last week after Wiku said residents 45 and younger could be allowed to return to work.

He said West Java has been a bright spot in the fight against COVID-19 for its success in flattening the curve.

“Hopefully other provinces can catch up,” he said.

East Java Deputy Gov. Emil Dardak told local television that the provincial government had tested not only people who showed symptoms of COVID-19, but those who were at risk, resulting in the high number of daily cases.

The story was first published on BenarNews.org

Lautze Mosque: A symbol of Chinese-Muslim assimilation in Indonesia

The bright red, yellow and green temple-like exterior of the Lautze Mosque in Jakarta’s Chinatown could be mistaken for a Chinese home.

However, the distinctive structure of the mosque reaffirms its role as a good example of how Indonesians of Chinese descent blended in with their predominantly indigenous Muslim neighbors.

“Many mistook the mosque for a Chinese temple, so two years ago, we put up signs bearing the name of the mosque,” Imam Naga Kunadi said.

The three-story mosque is part of a row of buildings in a busy trading area along Lautze Street, after which the mosque is named, in Central Jakarta. Because of its location, the mosque only opens during the day.

“In Ramadan, we usually open every Saturday, starting at Asr time, because we have a specific type of congregation — many of the members live far from the mosque. We would provide iftar and hold taraweeh prayers. But we cannot do that this year as we have to close due to the large-scale social restrictions in this time of coronavirus,” Kunadi said.

Kunadi, whose Chinese name is Qiu Xue Long, said the mosque would still operate in a subdued manner for alms collection and distribution, or to assist those wishing to convert to Islam, and that mosque officials would act in compliance with social distancing measures.

The mosque was established in 1991 by the Haji Abdul Karim Oei Foundation, named after a Chinese-Indonesian Muslim nationalist, the late Abdul Karim Oei Tjeng Hien.
It aimed to facilitate the assimilation of the ethnic Chinese community and indigenous Muslims, especially in cases where ethnic Chinese people wished to embrace Islam.

“We understand the specific needs of Chinese mualaf (convert). We understand what they go through because we’ve experienced it before,” said Kunadi, who converted to Islam in 2002.

The original mosque occupied a shophouse and, a few years later was expanded after acquiring an adjacent building to accommodate 300 congregation members.

“The Chinese-style exterior is also to show that we still maintain our Chinese heritage even though we converted to Islam,” Kunadi said.

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Muslim faithful gathered for a mass taraweeh prayer in Ramadan 2019 in front of Lautze Mosque 2 in Bandung, West Java. Photo: Instagram @masjidlautze2

Muhammad Ali Karim Oei, son of Oei Sr., said the facade was designed to make the mosque more welcoming for ethnic Chinese people wishing to come inside and ask about Islam.

“They are free to ask anything and learn about Islam here, even some burning questions they may be reluctant to ask in other mosques. It is another reason we chose the name Lautze — a Chinese word for teacher,” Oei Jr. said.

The mosque has seen more than 1,000 Chinese-Indonesians embrace Islam. In addition to making an ethnic Chinese person part of the country’s Muslim majority, it also makes the person a double minority for being a Muslim minority in an already small ethnic group.

Its reputation as a nonjudgmental place for Chinese-Indonesians who want to study Islam, and for the new converts, as well as other Chinese Muslims to observe the faith, led to the establishment of Lautze Mosque 2 in Bandung, West Java in 1997.

“There was a need for a mosque that accommodates the growing number of Chinese-Indonesian Muslims in the city. They felt like there was still a gap when they pray in regular mosques. People would look at them differently, even though they are already part of the Muslim brethren,” Hernawan Mahfudz, an official from Lautze Mosque 2 Foundation told Arab News.

To make them feel more at home, congregation members are encouraged to address each other as “koko” and “cici,” the Chinese words for brother and sister.

Like its Jakarta predecessor, the mosque maintains the Chinese-style facade accentuated by a row of Chinese red lanterns. The ground floor serves as the prayer hall for 200 people while the upper floor serves as a shelter for the mualafs who might be experiencing hardship as a result of their conversion.

Despite the mosque closures, Mahfudz said they would still keep the Ramadan tradition alive even without the communal gatherings.

“We still provide iftar meals every day but instead of having them at the mosque, we distribute the meals directly to the beneficiaries. We also conduct group Qur’an recitations and sermons using videoconferencing applications,” he said.

This story was first published in Arab News

A crate idea: Indonesian architects reuse plastic boxes to build mosque

Under normal circumstances, the small mosque on the outskirts of Jakarta constructed from 1,208 used plastic bottle crates would have been abuzz with the sound of people praying and reciting the Quran during Ramadan.

It would be the first Ramadan since the 42-meter-square mosque was built in late 2019, following the establishment of Kebun Ide (Garden of Ideas) — a restaurant with a back-to-nature theme — which houses the facility.

The coronavirus pandemic might have prevented communal prayers, but the mosque’s plastic recycling design is still attracting attention.

“Since we have this prayer room, many residents around here have expressed interests to organize gatherings such as group Quran recitations there. But unfortunately, we cannot do that now as we have to close the restaurant due to social distancing rules,” Handoko Hendroyono, the owner of Kebun Ide, told Arab News.

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A worshipper prayed inside Kotakrat, a praying room that can accommodate nine worshippers and constructed of 1,208 reused plastic bottle crates built in late 2019 in Bintaro township on the southern outskirts of Jakarta. Photo: Instagram @psastudio

The pavilion, named Kotakrat, was initially constructed to be part of a local architectural exhibition in Bintaro township.

“The project concept was good because it reused discarded material, and there was a need for a praying room for our guests and employees, so I agreed to have the Kotakrat to be constructed in our space. Now we have a very good place to pray. Many visitors didn’t realize that it is actually a prayer room,” he added.

Designed and constructed by architect firm PSA Studio, Kotakrat is part of an architectural project to build a multi-purpose “space of kindness” to meet the community’s social needs.

“This space of kindness can be in the form of a kiosk, place of worship, shelter, bus stop, security post, and many other places. It is built from plastic crates that we can easily find and install to form a space for various architectural shapes and purposes. The crates can be arranged to function as a roof, a partition, and a wall,” Ario Wirastomo, a principal architect in the firm, told Arab News.

This construction used 1,208 used plastic bottle crates to form the prayer room’s walls and roof, and benches for the visitors to remove their shoes before entering.

It also provides water faucets for congregants to perform ablutions.

The architects used bolts to join the crates. They also used a polycarbonate roof supported by hollow metal frames.

The mosque has two separate entrances for men and women, although it does not separate men and women in the 8.64-meter-square praying space that can accommodate three rows of nine worshippers. The first row is for the imam, while the other two rows are for men and women respectively.

“As a prayer room is a public place that Muslims would look for to perform the five daily prayers everywhere they go, we expect the Kotakrat space would be durable and functional for a long time,” Wirastomo said.

Despite reusing discarded material, Wirastomo said he could not claim this project was environmentally friendly but he hoped people would be more aware of recycling waste.

Indonesia is one of the world’s top plastic waste producers with 5.05 million tonnes of plastic rubbish generated annually, out of which 81 percent is mismanaged and contributes 10 percent to the global total of mismanaged plastic waste. Our World In Data projected that Indonesia would contribute almost 11 percent of global mismanaged plastic waste by 2025.

The country’s chief maritime affairs and investment minister, Luhut Pandjaitan, recently said that Indonesia has come up with an action plan that aims to reduce 70 percent of its plastic pollution by 2025, hoping to be free of plastic waste by 2040.

This story was first published in Arab News

Indonesia extends partial lockdown in second-largest city

Indonesia extended the partial lockdown of its second-largest city Surabaya and the two neighbouring administrative regencies of Sidoarjo and Gresik, in East Java province, as new infections and deaths spiked at the weekend.

East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa said on Sunday that the decision was taken following a review of the Covid-19 growth rate and consultations with epidemiologists.

“After evaluation on the first phase of enforcing the large-scale social restriction, we agreed to extend the restrictions in Surabaya, Gresik and Sidoarjo,” Parawansa said in a statement.

The first phase of partial lockdown in the three regions had been set to end on May 11. It is now due to expire on May 25.

The governor said authorities would more strictly enforce the anti-virus restrictions – including stringent social distancing measures and bans on events and other social gatherings – in place during this second phase.

IMG-20200507-WA0070

Achmad Yurianto, the spokesman for the national Covid-19 task force, said on Sunday that the national caseload in Indonesia rose to 14,032 with 387 new confirmed infections.

Out of the total national tally, 1,502 are in East Java where the death toll rose to 143 and 83 new cases were recorded, surpassing West Java as the second-most infected province after Jakarta, where more than 5,000 infections were found.

East Java found new clusters of Covid-19 cases in the past two weeks, including in a Surabaya plant owned by Indonesia’s largest tobacco company, HM Sampoerna, where two workers died of infection and dozens of others tested positive.

Parawansa also said the provincial administration is seeking approval from the Health Ministry to impose the large-scale social restrictions in the greater Malang area, which consists of Malang and Batu municipalities and Malang regency, after assessment from epidemiologists at Airlangga University showed new infection cases have spiked in the area.

Indonesians face sombre Ramadan amid pandemic restrictions

During the fasting month of Ramadan, which begins this week, Muslims in this mostly Muslim country are accustomed to spending more time at mosques, iftar gatherings with friends and other, more casual social mores.

But this year, with more deaths from COVID-19 than any Asian country outside China, many in Indonesia will not be able to attend in-person evening prayers, merry breaking of fasts at day’s end or travel home at the end of the holy month to celebrate the festival of Eid al-Fitr, as they  keep to themselves to help curb the spread of the disease.

Authorities in the greater Jakarta region, home to 30 million people — and across the nation that is home to 12% of the world’s Muslims have ordered places of worship, schools and nonessential businesses to close temporarily.

The Indonesian Council of Ulema, or MUI, has followed with a fatwa, or clerical ruling, that calls on Muslims not to perform Friday prayers and other congregation activities in mosques during the pandemic, instead urging the faithful to conduct Ramadan evening prayers at home.

 

“Performing prayers at home won’t reduce the value of our devotion to God,” said Asrorun Ni’am, secretary of MUI’s fatwa commission, last week. “Just staying at home to avoid spreading the virus or being exposed to the virus is considered a religious duty at a time like this.”

Ni’am said the pandemic was an opportunity for Muslims to strengthen their faith and family bonds. “We can turn our home into the center of worship. We pray together and share iftar meals with our family,” he said.

The Religious Affairs Ministry, in a circular released last week, banned government institutions from hosting iftar gatherings.

“Post-Ramadan gatherings can be conducted via social media or call/video conferences,” said the circular.

The council also said that traveling while knowing that one could be carrying the virus is a sin.

While the edicts have not been universally followed — hundreds of members of the international Islamic missionary group Tablighi Jamaat have been quarantined at two Jakarta mosques, after some worshippers tested positive for COVID-19 — many Indonesians are accepting the curtailed Ramadan as fate.

“We have no other choice but to pray at home. Praying together in a mosque is religiously preferable, but I’m sure God will understand,” said Arie Gustian, a 27-year-old member of a mosque in Bogor, West Java. “We have to obey our government, because it’s for our own good.”

Gustian said he will be the only one who fasts in the house because his wife is pregnant, and he will be doing so while worrying about the security of his job.

Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati said Friday (April 17) that more than 1.4 million workers had been furloughed or laid off and the government has warned that 5.2 million could lose their jobs.

Renaldi Adri Rimbatara, a 32-year-old father of two who lives in Bogor, fears for his future as the pandemic has forced him to temporarily close his small printing shop.

Rimbatara said he will keep his iftar feast simple this year.

“I don’t know if I can continue to put food on the table if this situation persists,” he said.

Even those who continue to work expect a somber Ramadan. Diana Marsella, a 33-year-old software engineer in Jakarta, has worked from home for a month and said she’s not worried that fasting will make her susceptible to contracting the virus. “We’ll just have to consume more health supplements and eat a lot more fruit and vegetables,” she said.

But she said the confinement would surely make days feel longer. “Ramadan is a time of joy and people spend a lot of time outside praying, meeting friends and even eating suhoor (pre-dawn meals) outside,” she said. “This time it will not be like that.”

For members of the persecuted Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the restrictions to defend against COVID-19 will make this Ramadan doubly difficult. Indonesia’s council of Muslim scholars has declared the teachings of the sect, founded in 1889 by Indian Muslim scholar Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, to be deviant.

The Ahmadiyya, who number about 400,000 in Indonesia, have been targets of attacks by Muslim extremists since at least 2005, when the MUI issued a fatwa declaring that anyone who follows its teachings is no longer Muslim. In 2011, hundreds of machete-wielding residents attacked a house in the Pandeglang district in Banten province, west of Jakarta, killing three Ahmadis.

“It’s like we are at war with two kinds of virus – the coronavirus and the virus of intolerance,” said Abdul Hafiz, a preacher at the Ahmadiyya community’s headquarters in Depok, south of Jakarta.

The mosque in Depok has been sealed off for years, its front door blocked by wooden bars. A sign plastered on the door declares that the building has been closed by the city. Worshippers have been forced to perform congregation prayers in the courtyard outside the mosques.

But Hafiz said their predicaments would not stop the dozen or so Ahmadis at the mosque from worshipping during Ramadan, or carrying out charitable activities, while observing social distancing measures and obeying restrictions imposed by the government.

“During Ramadan, we usually distribute iftar meals to the needy, attend iftar gatherings and perform congregation taraweeh (evening) prayers,” Hafiz said. “This year we will do whatever the authorities tell us to do. But of course as social beings, we have an obligation to help each other and we will continue to do that despite the limitations.”

This story was first published by Religion News Service and The GroundTruth Project exploring how faith communities around the world are adapting to COVID-19, produced with support from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Something to celebrate

The Indonesian government has added another cultural event of its ethnic Chinese community to its official list of top attractions in a bid to lure more domestic and international tourists.

Chap Goh Mei marks the end of the Chinese New Year period, and the most lavish celebrations take place in Singkawang, a coastal town of roughly 240,000 in West Kalimantan on Borneo. About 40% of the town’s residents are of Chinese descent, but the celebration itself is a fusion of Chinese, indigenous Dayak and Malay cultures, laden with mysticism and supernatural power.

The highlight of the annual festival is the parade featuring Tatung, or people who are believed to have supernatural powers because they are possessed by the spirits of their ancestors or deities.

Dressed in the colorful garb traditional Chinese and Dayak warriors, more than 800 Tatungs from Singkawang and neighboring towns, as well as from Malaysia and Australia, thronged the town’s main streets on the last day of the celebration on Feb 8.

Spectators lining the parade route watched in awe as marchers demonstrated their supernatural abilities by having their faces and bodies pierced with sharp metal objects. Some were hoisted wooden chairs, but instead of soft upholstery, the seat, backrest, and armrest contain rows of sharp blades and arrows.

“We are proud that Chap Goh Mei in Singkawang is included again in the tourism ministry’s annual top 100 calendar of events, and has become one of the top festival destinations for tourists,” Mayor of Singkawang, Tjhai Chui Mie said prior to the parade.

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A Tatung stepped on a blade as he was hoisted on a chair with arrows of sharp blades and passed by the main podium during the annual Tatung parade in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, on Feb 8, 2020. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

The annual parade was the culmination of two weeks festivities that started on Jan 23. It has become the main attraction to spur economic growth in Singkawang, through the development in the real sector, the mayor added.

Last year’s festivities attracted 76,964 foreign and domestic tourists, an increase from about 70,000 in 2018, according to the ministry.

Sutarmidji, governor of West Kalimantan, acknowledged the festivities were the biggest tourism event in the province.

“When I was the mayor of Pontianak, I did not allow the Tatung parade to be held during the city’s Chap Goh Mei celebration so that it would remain the main attraction for Singkawang,” he said.

“Pontianak can have the longest dragon dance, but the Tatung parade should be the focus of Singkawang’s Chap Goh Mei.”

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Dressed as a Dayak warrior, a Tatung made his way to Tri Dharma Bumi Raya temple to pay respect during the road cleansing ritual on Feb 7, 2020, in Singkawang, West Kalimantan. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Dian Halidi, a tourist from Sumbawa Besar, the main city on Sumba Island in central Indonesia, said he had come to the festivities because he was curious to see the Tatung parade in person.

“I came here just by myself and this is my first time in Singkawang. It turned out the Chap Goh Mei here is really amazing and as spectacular as I have been seeing on television.”

Hotels and homestays in the city were fully booked ahead of the parade, wit room rates as much four times higher than they normally are. Some tour operators even had to book the rooms for their clients a year in advance.

However, concern about the coronavirus in recent weeks led to some people having second thoughts about traveling, although Indonesia officially has reported no cases of infection yet.

Hotel occupancy and visitor numbers slipped as a result, although Daniel, a manager of a homestay in Central Singkawang, said the rooms in his establishment were fully booked for the festivities.

“But reservations and confirmations were slow and occurred at the last minute,” he said.

IMG_1126
The Dragon statue, one of Singkawang’s landmarks, was adorned with red lanterns during the city’s Chap Goh Mei celebrations in the West Kalimantan town. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

Hellen Chia, who comes from a family of Tatung and whose siblings are Tatungs from the Tho Fab Kiung temple took part in the parade, said that this year’s crowds of spectators were smaller compared to last year.

Dewi Virtana, a tour leader from a tour operator in Surabaya, East Java, said her company took just one group of 31 tourists to Singkawang this year, compared with three groups last year.

“I think it was mainly due to the rising prices of plane tickets, instead of the coronavirus,” she said.

But another tour operator based in Pontianak, Sentosa Tour, reported a small upturn this year. One of its tour leaders, Willy, said the company had about 200 guests this year, compared to 180 last year.

“We see the number of clients increase every year, he said. “Ninety percent of our clients are domestic, from other big cities in the country, and we also had a few foreign visitors from Japan and Australia who booked our private tours.”

In a bid to attract more tourists to the city, which is about four-hour drive from Pontianak, Mayor Thjai said the city has allocated and cleared an area of 151.45 hectares to build an airport and is seeking to develop it under a public-private partnership.

According to the transport ministry, the first phase of the airport will have a 1,400-metre runway that could accommodate ATR aircraft. A 2,600-metre runway that would allow a Boeing 737 to land could be developed in the future.

A day before the parade, the Tatung also toured the city performing a road cleansing ritual to ward off bad spirits. They also paid respects to their ancestors and deities by visiting various temples and houses of worships, or cetiya, scattered around Singkawang, which is known as the city of a thousand temples.

Jelangkung Datuk Suleiman
Rattan dolls from the Hok Lo Nam temple believed to have been possessed by the spirits of their ancestors and deities were brought to pay respect to the sea goddess in the century-old House of Tjhia in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, on Feb 7, 2020. Photo: The Parrot/Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata

An entourage from the Hok Lo Nam temple also took part in the ritual. Carrying five dolls made of rattan and dressed in colorful Chinese costumes, the entourage visited a cetiya at a century-old mansion belonging to the Thjia clan in the city center, to pay their respect to the sea goddess to which the cetiya is dedicated.

The dolls were believed to have been possessed by the spirits of their ancestors and deities, as well as a local Malay elder identified as Datuk Suleiman.

More cities in the country with a large population of Chinese descent have been making Chap Goh Mei, or the 15th day of the Chinese new year an annual celebration. They include Jakarta, Palembang in South Sumatra, Bali, and Bogor in West Java.

Bogor celebrated in style this year, with organizers buoyed by the tourism ministry’s decision to place the festival on its official calendar of events.

The West Java provincial administration has even disbursed 30 billion rupiahs to revamp Suryakencana Street, the main street where the annual Chap Goh Mei parade is held in Bogor, 55 kilometers south of Jakarta.

“This is a show of support from the provincial administration,” West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil said.

The story was first published in Bangkok Post

Minister urges fatwa requiring rich to marry poor

An Indonesian minister has called for a fatwa, or religious edict, requiring the rich to marry the poor to reduce inequality.

“What happens is the poor marry the poor and they create more poor families,” Minister of Human Development and Culture Muhadjir Effendy was quoted as saying by the news portal Tempo.co.

“The religious affairs minister should issue a fatwa requiring the rich to marry the poor and the poor marry the rich,” he said.

In November, Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi said he was considering requiring those wishing to get married undergo a pre-marital preparation course.

He has not responded to Muhadjir’s suggestion.

A 2017 study by international charity Oxfam found that four richest Indonesians own as much wealth as the country’s poorest 100 million citizens. Indonesia is home to 260 million people.