In Indonesia, Practicing Religious Tolerance One Dirty Floor At A Time

A group of young people of all religious backgrounds are living proof of religious tolerance, as they volunteer to clean Jakarta houses of worship, whether they be Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian.

Members of the berhati group cleaning up a Vihara in Jakarta.
Members of the berhati group cleaning up a Vihara in Jakarta.
Danu Mahardika

JAKARTA — Indonesia is often praised for its religious tolerance and diversity. But recent developments such as churches being banned and minority groups being attacked reveal a darker side of Indonesian society that a group of young people in Jakarta is trying to change.

At a Buddhist temple, or Vihara, in West Jakarta, monks are praying in front of the altar. In the corner is a giant statue of Buddha surrounded by red candles. A group of young people recently visited the area on a mission to clean up the temple.

The group is called "Berhati," an Indonesian acronym that translates as "cleaning up places of worship, cleaning your soul."

The group's leader, 23-year-old Agustinus Ardi Widiatmoko, says that the volunteers don't want anything in return. "We're not a social organization," he says. "We can't donate anything, but we want to clean the place. It's simple: We come, clean, then go home."

Vihara head Yusak Li Saputra was surprised when the group arrived. "We just gave them some snacks and drinks, and they immediately started working," he says. "Even if we hadn't given them anything, they would've done it. They said they were happy to be welcomed so warmly here. We don't have many cleaning staff, and all of them are women. They can't climb up high like these young people did."

But that's not what impressed Saputra the most. "Not all of them are Buddhist," he notes. "Some of them are Muslims. There's a mix of people. They have taught us to respect each other's place of worship, and they are not religious fanatics. They just came here and cleaned up."

The Berhati group also visits mosques, Hindu temples and churches such as the Cathedral, the oldest and largest Catholic Church in the capital.

Resti Nainggolan, a member of the church staff, still has the gift the group gave her after they cleaned the church. "They gave us some T-shirts with the Berhati logo on the front," she says. "I asked them, "Why are you giving us gifts like this? You've already cleaned the place? Then they said, "It's a gift, nothing more. No hidden agendas.""

Photo: Berhati

Stephani Yuliana, a 22-year-old university student, joined the group three months ago. Since then, she regularly joins the clean-ups in various places of worship. "For me the group has a strong element of tolerance and togetherness," Yuliana says. "This group is universal. You're not here because of your ethnicity or religion. That's why I joined. And we can also cleanse our soul by cleaning up places of worship."

On the side of angels

Since it was formed last year, the group has so far cleaned up more than 150 places of worship in and around Jakarta. Widiatmoko, who also serves as the group's community coordinator, says that there are about 80 members — and that people often join on the spot when they're working somewhere. "Some of them even ask us to let them know of any upcoming cleaning events," he says. "We, the young generation, are willing to help. There are many mosques and churches here that need our attention."

One such on-the-spot recruit is 23-year-old Anugrah Pandu Satrio, who works in an ad agency. "There was a cleaning event in a mosque, near my house," Pandu says. "I was curious to know what were they doing. I joined them and asked some questions and became very interested in their mission."

Every two weeks the group members go to different houses of worship. "We split up," Widiatmoko says. "Muslims can clean churches, while Catholics can clean Hindu temples. We don't decide which house of worship to clean based on people's religion. We want to show how we can be tolerant of each other's religions. We want to set an example for others."

But things aren't always easy for them. "Some people ask us which party or company we are working for," Pandu says. "We understand that they might be afraid of potential consequences. But we stay positive. If they don't accept us, then we look for other places. What’s important is that we've offered to clean the place. It's their decision to accept us or not."

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono received the World Statesman Award this year for promoting religious freedom. But the reality is that there have been recent cases of churches being banned and minority groups being attacked.

Many say the country is failing to protect its citizens' religious freedom. But for Pandu, the Berhati group has been a real eye-opener. "I'm a Muslim. I went to Islamic schools. I also went to an Islamic university. But with this community, I've learned not to see people based on their religion or ethnicity."

Simple actions like these can help to restore religious harmony in Indonesia, Nainggolan says. "We need to encourage tolerance with small steps. This way we don't have to feel awkward about entering other people's house of worship. We have to get rid of negative perceptions between religions and encourage tolerance from an early age."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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