Listyo Sigit is Indonesia's first Christian police chief in decades, significantly at a time of rising Islamic extremism. Image: Twitter

JAKARTA – President Joko Widodo’s nomination of a Christian to serve as the first head of the Indonesia National Police in 46 years signals further pushback against the Islamic conservatives who have given him his biggest political headaches during his six years in power.

Currently chief of the powerful Criminal Investigation Agency, often the stepping stone to the top job, Maluku-born Commander-General Listyo Sigit, 51, is the sole candidate chosen from among five three-star generals to replace General Idham Azis, 57, who retires at the end of this month.

Given his relative youth, Sigit could be in office for more than six years, a period that will span the 2024 general and presidential elections in which the 590,000-strong police force will have an important role to play.

Widodo can’t seek a third term, but as nominal head of the police and therefore internal security operations he will oversee one of the world’s largest single-day elections and also be in a position to defend his legacy and influence the choice of a successor.

When rumors began to circulate last November that Sigit was favored for the job, Muhyiddin Junaidi, deputy chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the nation’s top Muslim clerical body, was quoted as saying the post should be filled by someone from the country’s Muslim majority.

Members of the Police Commission, which advised Widodo on the nomination, rejected Junaidi’s comments, saying religion should not be a factor in an 88% Muslim-majority country struggling to fight off rising intolerance.   

Indonesian President Joko Widodo prays at the Presidential Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, June 5, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum

Government sources say the president secured the approval of the Indonesia’s two mass Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, before making his choice. He is expected to have little trouble winning parliamentary approval for the pick.

The nomination has already been defended by lawmakers from the National Awakening Party, (PKB) the political wing of NU which now controls the religious affairs portfolio after last month’s Cabinet reshuffle.

Widodo’s relations with NU took a dip when he overlooked its help in his 2019 re-election and instead chose retired general Fachrul Razi as religious affairs minister in his second-term team. Without NU’s support, Razi proved to be ineffective.

Religion aside, loyalty appears to have been the key factor. Sigit was police chief of Widodo’s hometown of Solo in 2011-2012 at the time he was mayor. Two years later he was handpicked by the newly-elected president to be his adjutant.

Similarly, current armed forces commander Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto, 57, built a friendship with Widodo as commander of Solo’s Adisumarmo airbase between 2010 and 2011, subsequently serving as his military secretary in 2015.

Tjahjanto is due to retire in November after an unusually long four years in the top post, leaving Widodo with the difficult task of choosing between politically-wired army chief General Andika Perkasa, 56, and navy commander Admiral Yudo Margono, 55, who if the service rotation system is followed is next in line.

Anti-terror policemen stand guard following a bomb blast at a police office in Surabaya, Indonesia May 14, 2018. Photo: Agencies

The only other Christian police chief, Widodo Budidarmo, held the position between 1974 and 1978 during President Suharto’s New Order, an era when religion was not such a deciding factor for leadership positions as it is today. He died in 2017 at the age of 89.

During that same era, two Christians also commanded the Indonesian armed forces – General Maraden Panggabean, Suharto’s successor when he relinquished the post in 1973, and strongman General Benny Moerdani, who served from 1983 until he fell out of favor with the president in 1988.

Moerdani fueled resentment among senior Muslim officers by gathering a strong following of Christians around him, among them Luhut Panjaitan, now Widodo’s right-hand man as the current coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment.

That all came to a boil on May 22, 1998, when the highly-regarded Lieutenant General Johny Lumintang was appointed commander of the Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad), the two-division formation that forms Indonesia’s regular combat force.

A Christian from North Sulawesi, Lumintang’s time in the job lasted barely 17 hours before he was abruptly replaced by Lieutenant General Djamiri Chaniago, one of the so-called “green generals” who came to the fore in the wake of Suharto’s May 21 resignation.

Two years later, a controversy developed over president Abdurrahman Wahid’s appointment of General Suryo Bimantoro as police chief because of suspicions he was a closet Christian. That speculation was finally cleared up and he went on to spend 14 months in the job.

But the campaign against Christian leaders came to a head in 2016-2017 when Islamic conservatives staged massive protests in downtown Jakarta to bring down ethnic Chinese-Christian governor Basuki Purnama, a Widodo ally, on blasphemy charges.

Part of that so-called 212 Movement was the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), recently outlawed after its leader Rizieq Shihab, 55, was arrested and charged with breaking health protocols on his return from exile in Saudi Arabia.

Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab (C), leader of the Indonesian hardline Islamic Defenders Front, gestures to supporters as he arrives to inaugurate a mosque in Bogor on November 13, 2020 Photo: Rangga Firmansyah/NurPhoto via AFP

Sigit will take over as police chief at a time when the force’s leadership is under pressure from the Human Rights Commission to explain the killings of six of Shihab’s FPI bodyguards during a December 6 pursuit on Jakarta’s eastern expressway.

The commission initially said there were indications that four of the men were victims of an unlawful killing, but its chairman, Ahmad Taufan Damanik, appeared to tone that down after a meeting with the president last week.

Sources in the human rights community claim he did seek to persuade – “even demand” – that the president order a more thorough investigation of the incident overseen by Chief Security MinisterMahfud MD.

That now seems increasingly unlikely. “No-one is pushing the envelope, the envelope is pushing them,” says one senior human rights figure. “My worry is that a lot of the muted unhappiness will go underground.”

Earlier this month, an undaunted Widodo pressed on with his crackdown by issuing a decree aimed at preventing “violent extremism that leads to terrorism,whichfeeds into the government narrative that the FPI is a breeding ground for groups loyal to the Islamic State (ISIS).

The preamble to the so-called national action plan, belatedly announced on January 17, said a “comprehensive strategy is needed to ensure systematic, planned and integrated steps involving the active role of all stakeholders.”

That includes the training of selected residents under a community policing program, apparently with the objective of creating a network of neighborhood informants who will report on extremist activities to police and the National Counter-Terrorism Agency.