Widodo skips Australia trip as unrest simmers at home

JAKARTA - Indonesia's President Joko Widodo postponed a visit to Australia on Saturday after a mass protest in Jakarta that briefly turned violent as Muslim extremists pressed for the resignation of the capital's governor, a Christian they say insulted the Quran.

Widodo has faced criticism for failing to rein in hardline groups that had promised for weeks to bring tens of thousands onto the streets of the capital, and during Friday's protest his office said he was inspecting a rail project at the airport.

At a news conference after midnight on Friday, he blamed"political actors" for fanning popular anger over city Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is standing for re-election in February, competing with two Muslims for the job.

The governorship of the capital is a powerful position and one held by Widodo before he became president two years ago.

Widodo had planned to use the Nov.6-8 visit to Australia to cement improving ties, with a focus on economic and maritime co-operation and efforts to counter Islamist militancy. "Looking at the latest situation and condition in Indonesia that require the presence of the president, President Joko Widodo decided to postpone his scheduled state visit to Australia," a statement from his office said.

The protest against Purnama, the first ethnic Chinese to hold the position, was largely peaceful but in the evening the crowd grew restive and police restrained them with tear gas and water cannon fire.

One person died and more than 100 were injured in the violence, many of them police officers, three vehicles were torched and 18 were damaged, national police spokesman Boy Rafli Amar told a news conference on Saturday.

Clashes broke out in a north Jakarta area where there are large communities of non-Muslims and about 15 people were arrested there for looting a minimart, Amar said.

Some Chinese-owned shops and restaurants remained shuttered in the northern district, while security officers were still guarding a temple and a school, according to a resident.

WIDODO BLAMES 'POLITICAL ACTORS'

Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, but most people follow a moderate form of Islam and protests on such a large scale are rare.

Ethnic Chinese make up just over 1 per cent of Indonesia's 250 million people, and they typically do not enter politics.

Indonesian Chinese have faced persecution and violence in the past, especially during the political and social turmoil that gripped Jakarta when former strongman Suharto was toppled in the late 1990s.

About a dozen Muslim groups have accused Purnama of insulting Islam after he jokingly said his opponents had used a verse from the Quran to deceive voters. The verse implies that Muslims should not choose non-Muslims as leaders.

Chanting "God is greatest", many in Friday's protest waved placards calling for Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, to be jailed for blasphemy. A white banner hung at an overpass was painted with red letters that read "Hang Ahok here".

Police are investigating the case against Purnama, who has apologised for his remarks, insisting he was not criticising the Koranic verse but those who used it to attack him.

Purnama is seen as a no-nonsense reformer with little patience for the corruption widely blamed for the chaos and dilapidated infrastructure of an overcrowded city of 10 million.

He remains popular despite efforts by Muslim groups to vilify him and is seen as the frontrunner in the election, though many voters are angry with him for evicting thousands from slums to modernise Jakarta.

Widodo, a Muslim, has vowed not to interfere in any legal proceedings against Purnama, according to media reports. But he said at his news conference that any legal process involving Purnama would be executed "swiftly, firmly and transparently".

He criticised politicians - whom he didn't name - for inciting die-hard protesters after most had already gone home. " ... we deplore the incident after the Isha prayers, when should have already disbanded but became violent. And, we see this was steered by political actors who were exploiting the situation," he said.

Purnama made no comment on Saturday but his office said the city governor would not be cowed by the protests against him. "There's no need to be afraid or to hide," spokesman Ruhut Sitompul said.