While violence was erupting last week in more than 20 countries over video clips from the U.S.-made anti-Muslim film “Innocence of Muslims”, Southeast Asia had remained relatively calm, with Malaysia and Indonesia keeping a tight lid on protests and urging restraint.
But the first sign of violence in the region was seen yesterday in the world's most populous Muslim country when a mob of Indonesian Islamists attacked a U.S. embassy in Jakarta. The mob, numbering at around 700, initially started peacefully, shouting anti-American slogans like “America go to hell” and burning an American flag and a picture of U.S. president Barack Obama who spent some of his childhood in the country. But the protests soon grew violent as they began advancing towards the embassy and throwing bricks, rocks and Molotov cocktails at hundreds of riot police surrounding the embassy as well as into the embassy compound itself. They also harassed Western journalists, surrounding them at one point, accusing them of being American and threatening violence. While riot police eventually managed to repel the protesters with tear gas, 11 officers as well as one protester were hospitalized.
The demonstrations were led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the Majelis Mujahideeen Indonesia, groups that had previously been involved in various acts of intolerance including assaults on nightclubs, harassing the minority Ahmadiyya sect, and, most recently, preventing U.S. pop star Lady Gaga from performing in the country. Other groups were also reportedly involved including Solidarity for Palestine, Muslim Cadets, Hizbut Tahrir, and Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by Washington. A spokesman for the FPI told reporters that the United States was responsible for the actions of the filmmaker, and that it needed to prosecute him despite laws on free speech. “We will continue to protest until the U.S. government takes proper legal action”, he said. Several protest slogans also called for the death penalty for the director for insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
Other demonstrations were held on Monday in the Indonesian cities of Medan and Bandung. Although demonstrators in Medan trampled on an American flag and threw eggs at a U.S. diplomatic mission there, no violence was reported. Some protesters did storm KFC and McDonald's restaurants and forced the management to shutter the stores over the weekend, but no casualties resulted. Indonesian authorities have acted swiftly to restrict access to the film, and the country's Communications and Information Ministry spokesman Gatot Dewa Broto said over the weekend that Google had been assisting them in that process as well. However, Broto also added that the process could take some time, and video clips were still viewable on Monday in the country.
While the Indonesian government deserves credit for moving quickly to put a lid on reactions to the film and protests have remained mostly peaceful, the assault on the U.S. embassy in Jakarta shows how easily relatively peaceful protests can escalate into violence. And with reports suggesting that more protests could be planned not only in Indonesia but Malaysia and Thailand, one cannot dismiss the possibility of such violence repeating itself.
Prashanth Parameswaran is a PhD candidate in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a non-resident WSD-Handa fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. You can read his blog The Asianist at and follow him on Twitter at @TheAsianist.