Tue, 13 Jun 2000

'Sinful' business plagues Bandung mosque

By Kafil Yamin

BANDUNG (JP): The Bandung grand mosque (Mesjid Agung) has just been renovated, providing more convenience to regular worshipers and passersby. A Muslim who happens to pass through Bandung's main city park at prayer time can drop in the grand mosque and fulfill his religious duty.

But right after getting in touch with Allah, and walking down to the mosque park, he will meet with the seeds of evil.

Cleaning the park and the square of street vendors, gamblers, and prostitutes is a job that still poses a challenge to the city administration. And the situation creates a challenge of faith to those who come to perform the duties of their religion.

Siwi, a high school student here, said she could sense the atmosphere of these two different worlds in one spot. "I just performed my maghrib (sunset prayer). I prayed to God that I would be stronger in facing temptations. And the temptations are right here," she said.

The presence of street vendors in the compound and around the square is a total breach of city regulations. And despite repeated warnings of a sweeping operation by the city administration, the vendors remain. All efforts of the local administration to put order in the square seem to run into a brick wall.

Units of city police were deployed, but things did not change. Early last week, police were sent to clear the square. It worked, but only for one day. The next day, a larger number of vendors swarmed the square in defiance of the authorities.

"It is obvious that they are toying with the security. You see that gambling crowd over there? They were not there before the last operation," said Maman Suherman, an employee of the city administration.

The operation resulted in nothing but worse traffic congestion. The vendors even expanded their areas. They occupy half of each street around the square. And now the mosque park turns out to be a gambling site too.

Just within the mosque compound, gamblers engage in various games -- roulette, kupluk (dice game), and ceki-ceki (card guessing game). Groups of ABGs, local acronym for young teens, pack stalls of pirated VCDs and CDs. This is the place where people with "human desire" go for pornographic VCDs to fulfill desires of the flesh.


The closure of a brothel in another part of the city, Saritem, adds to the parks makeup. Prostitutes are hawking in the park every night. When panderers to sexual desire frequent a location, other appetite providers will follow. On the heels of the sex traders came the drug dealers.

"The place has become a site of complete immorality, wickedness and other social diseases," complains a local resident.

The vendors, meanwhile, have their own reason for defiance. "Not a single spot in this area is free of charge," said a vendor who asked for anonymity. "We pay the rulers of this square various amounts", he disclosed.

What he refers to as rulers are preman -- the local name for hoodlums. There is a network in this regard that incorporates vendors, preman and the authorities. Vendors pay the preman. The latter pay off the authorities.

Because of this network all efforts to displace the vendors seem to flop. The police are on the take when gambling and sales of pirated VCDs occur and business runs as usual in the square.

"If they (the police) come here. We just give them packs of cigarettes, and the problem is solved," said a vendor.

Just like the trend among political parties these days, the Mayor assigned civilian guards (Satgas) of PDIP, Banser of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and tens of santri (students of Muslim boarding school). Many expected violence when the mayor announced the decision.

The expected violence did not break out. The civilian guards in military-style uniform came to the square, but only for chats with the vendors.

"In any case, we will not take the job," asserted Enceng S. Dinata, a commander of the Satgas of the West Java PDIP.

As Dinata put it: "The street vendors are the ones that PDIP is supposed to take care of. They are the ones who are being oppressed," he said.

The truth is, as many see it, many members of the security units are former preman of the square. "They became what they are now because they hailed from here. The vendors are their associates," said Ian, a vendor of pirated VCDs.

Dinata admitted such emotional links between members of his unit and the street vendors. "If we act against them (the vendors), PDIP will risk losing its constituents. Satgas PDIP is founded not for waging war against the people".

The NU-linked Banser members were also visible, but their presence did not cause any disruption to the illegal business. "We gave them several pornographic VCDs for free. They were excited," a VCD vendor said.

Local PDIP legislators, who are the majority, joined the chorus in opposing the mayor's ruling. "There should be another way of putting the city in order," said Lia Noer Hambali, House member of PDIP faction.

Meanwhile, the vendors are determined to stay. "Here is where we belong, in the park of the grand mosque. This is good, isn't it?" said a beverage vendor.

The sound of adzan (prayer call) echoed through the square. Worshipers proceeded to the grand mosque. From another direction, flirtatious women with a lot of make-up come to the park for other purposes.