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February 06, 2011

Indonesia's Falun Gong Tolerated But Not Legal

by Brian Padden

Indonesia recently refused legal status to the spiritual group Falun Gong. The group is banned in China and human rights organizations say the ruling to restrict Falun Gong in Indonesia was made to maintain good relations with one of its biggest trading partners.

On a Sunday morning in front of Jakarta's main sports stadium Falun Gong practitioner Yap Sungkono leads a group of about 20 members in their exercises.

A recent decision by the Indonesian Ministry of Home Affairs to not recognize the group as a legal social organization has not stopped their weekly gatherings. But Sungkono says it does prevent the group from organizing large demonstrations.

He says for bigger events like parades there were some problems from the authorities and that they are always questioning the group's legality.

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, began in China in the 1990s. It involves meditation and slow stretching to promote spiritual awakening. The group says it is non-political and not a religion. Many of its Indonesian members are Muslim.

Titi Rachman, like many of the people out walking and jogging near the Falun Dafa exercisers, sees the practice as healthy.

She says it is good to exercise the soul and the body and it is the same as wai tan kung or tai chi.

Wai tan kung and tai chi are two traditional forms of exercise in China.

Falun Dafa followers perform their exercises in public places throughout the country in part to recruit new members. The group claims over 7,000 members in Indonesia. Practitioners also use these events to raise awareness about the persecution of Falun Gong members in China.

The limits Indonesia has placed on Falun Gong pale in comparison with China's ban on the group. China considers Falun Gong a cult and imprisons many of its members. It denies any mistreatment of the group but the United Nations has documented numerous cases of human rights abuses by Chinese authorities against Falun Gong followers.

There are a few Chinese Falun Gong members living in Jakarta. Indonesia will not allow them to stay permanently, nor to work while they seek asylum in other countries.

He Yungfeng says before he escaped China he was imprisoned for years for publicly declaring his beliefs and tortured by the Chinese police.

He says in the winter when it was very cold in the prison, they stripped his clothes off, poured cold water over him, then brushed his body in a way that almost tore up his skin.

An Indonesian Home Ministry official told VOA that maintaining good relations with China was one of the reasons for refusing to recognize the Falun Gong. Court documents the Home Ministry filed on its ruling say that China requested Indonesia to ban the group.

Haris Azhar, coordinator for the human rights group Kontras, says China's efforts to pressure other countries to punish groups Beijing does not like is not surprising. But he says as a democracy Indonesia should protect minority rights, not restrict them.

"We are getting concerned when the government (is) also reluctant to secure them, to protect them from the other group who would like to persecute this group," Azhar said.

He is concerned that as China's economic influence in the region grows, Indonesia and other countries will further repress the Falun Gong to maintain good relations.