Sandals and Solidarity: Why Indonesians Are Using Flip-flops as Symbols of Protest

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Bay Ismoyo / AFP / Getty Images

Officials from Indonesia's Child Protection Commission collect sandals in Jakarta on Jan. 4, 2012. Flip-flops have become a protest symbol in Indonesia, after a boy faced jail time for stealing used shoes.

The wheels of justice stumbled over a pair of flip-flops this week in Indonesia, where a 15-year-old was tried and found guilty on Wednesday for stealing a pair of worn-out rubber sandals. Unfortunately for the boy, the three-dollar sandals belonged to a police officer in Palu, a small city in the province of central Sulawesi. The child admitted to taking the sandals, but says his confession came after a beating by the police officer. When news hit the public that the case actually went to trial this month, child protection advocates launched a sandal donation drive. More than a thousand dirty sandals were donated in a week and dropped off at the police station in protest.

The boy, who has only been identified by his initials, A.A.L., was released into his parents’ custody, but not before his plight sparked outrage online and across the country. “No proof was provided during the trial that A.A.L. stole the sandals,” Seto Mulyadi, from the National Commission to Protect Children, told “So what’s wrong if he just picked up a pair of sandals to use at home?”

The case tapped into mounting anger and frustration with the country’s criminal justice system. Indonesians say the police pick on vulnerable citizens, including the aged, the poor and children. More than 6,000 minors are believed to be serving sentences in adult prisons across the country. Meanwhile, light sentences are handed down routinely to police in numerous cases where they have been accused of serious human rights abuses. In the most recent case, five officers were sentenced this week to three days of detention after breaking up a protest West Nusa Tenggara. Three people were believed killed in the incident.

The perception that those in power act with impunity runs deep in Indonesia. Dozens of high-profile cases, from the killing of protestors in 1998 to the murder of human rights campaigner Munir in 2004, have yet to be solved and their masterminds go unpunished. Several major corruption investigations involving influential politicians are currently underway though many doubt the actual masterminds will actually end up behind bars. If that’s the case, you can expect more to come from Indonesia’s fledgling flip-flop revolution.

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