Indonesian Muslims Riot over Buddhist Statue in Their ‘Islamic City’, Tanjungbalai, North Sumatra


It turns out the roots of a recent riot in Tanjungbalai, North Sumatra, could have been the presence of a Buddha Amitābha statue on top of a temple in the city, since the local Muslim community has been protesting against its presence since it was erected in 2009, but to no avail.

The complaint of a woman against the loudness of the adzan (call to prayer) from a nearby mosque could apparently have only been a convenient trigger for the rioting.

This conclusion was revealed during a meeting between religious leaders and the community held at the office of Tanjungbalai’s mayor on Friday, which was also attended by representatives from the Office of the Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Minister.

Muslim community leaders attending the meeting questioned the presence of the Buddha Amitābha statue, considering that they claimed there had been an agreement made in 2011 between the city administration and the people of Chinese descent in the community to take down the statue.

However, the claimed agreement had never been complied with as until now the statue has remained on top of the Tri Ratna Temple.

Tanjungbalai Interfaith Communication Forum (FKUB) chairman Haidir Siregar said the Muslim community in Tanjungbalai objected to the presence of the statue in the city.

If the city administration had carried out the agreement made in 2011, he said, the riot might never have broken out.

“The presence of the Buddha statue in Tanjungbalai is like a flame in the husk, it can trigger a riot at any time. That’s why it has to be taken down soon,” said Haidir during the meeting, which was also attended by Tanjungbalai Mayor M. Syahrial.

Haidir said the majority of Muslims in Tanjungbalai could not accept the Buddha statue in their region because they considered the city to be Islamic, especially as some ulemas (groups of Muslim scholars) had been formed there.

“All of a sudden the Buddha statue icon was here. We are offended. We cannot accept that,” Haidir said.

He also expressed fear that if the statue was not taken down the riot that occurred two weeks ago could be repeated. He said Meliana’s protest against the noise of the adzan was merely a trigger.

“At another time another trigger can incite another riot in Tanjungbalai because the root of the problem is the Buddha statue,” Haidir said.

The head of the Indonesian Chinese Clan Ethnic Association (PSMTI) Tanjungbalai, Weng Li, who also attended the meeting, said firmly that the people of Chinese descent in the community refused to take down the statue.

He admitted that there had been an agreement made in 2011 between the Tri Ratna Temple’s management and the city administration to take down the statue, but he called it one sided, since it had been made without the consent of the Chinese-Indonesian community.

“We have never known that the agreement was made. For sure we object to take down the statue,” said Weng Li, adding that the person who made the agreement with the city administration had died.

One year after the six-meter-tall Buddha Amitābha statue was erected on top of the four-story Tri Ratna Temple on Jl. Asahan-Tanjung Balai in 2009 a number of Muslim organizations staged protests demanding it be removed.

However, during the meeting Weng Li asked that the riot two weeks ago not be linked with the statue, arguing that the violence had only been triggered the reaction to one woman who asked that the volume of an adzan be lowered.

M. Syahrial, meanwhile, said his administration could not yet act regarding any possible agreement made to take down the statue as he had not been the officer who signed it. “I will learn about the agreement first,” he said.

Separately, Tanjungbalai City Council speaker Bambang Harianto said he was not convinced the presence of the Buddha statue had been the root of the riot in the city.

He said other riots aimed at people of Chinese descent had taken place in Tanjungbalai long before the violence occurred two weeks ago. According to him the root of the problem was the economic gap between the Chinese-Indonesian minority and the Melayu majority.

“As long as this gap is not addressed, the potential for conflict remains,” said Bambang, who urged the local administration to quickly seek a solution to deal with it.

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