Homosexuality is not illegal under Indonesian criminal law but a rising number of gay people are being arrested. President Jokowi has remained silent as a tide of anti-gay sentiment ebbs across the nation.
By Oliver Ward, edited by Francesca Ross
Over 1,000 people crammed into Syuhada Mosque Plaza in Banda Aceh on a warm May morning to watch two men receive 83 lashes each. The crowd held up camera phones and cheered in approval as the 20-year-old and 23-year-old men were publicly humiliated. Their crime was engaging in consensual same-sex relations.
Vigilantes had burst into the men’s home two months before and filmed them together. A video of what happened was published on social media. This evidence was used to sentence the two to be caned 85 times. This was reduced to 83 after they both spent two months in prison.
Homosexuality is not considered a crime under the Indonesian Criminal Code
Helen Pausacker, deputy director at the Centre for Indonesian Law at the University of Melbourne said “Currently, the Criminal Code only prohibits gay sex with a minor”. This has not prevented the establishment of a task force in West Java assigned with the task of investigating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activities.
“I hope there are no followers in West Java, no gay or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender lifestyle or tradition” said Anton Charliyan, the chief of the area’s police force. “If there is anyone following it, they will face the law and heavy social sanctions. They will not be accepted in society.”
The Aceh region is deeply conservative and adopted its own Sharia legal code after being granted autonomy in 2001. The central Indonesian government gave local authorities permission to enforce the Islamic legal system to calm the province’s separatist groups.
Aceh is often seen as a model for other regions. “Whenever Aceh issues a law, saying it’s the highest order of Sharia, it provokes others to do the same thing”, said Andy Yentriani, a former commissioner for Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women.
There have been cases of homosexuals being arrested nationwide, despite no law outlawing same-sex relationships and relations.
Homosexuals are facing unlawful arrest across Indonesia
Jakarta police arrested 114 gay men in a sauna in mid-May. They were charged under Indonesia’s pornography laws. Another 14 men were arrested at a hotel in Surubaya in April and forced to take HIV tests. The results of these checks were made public.
These regular decisions to publicly humiliate prosecute gay men shows the reach of Sharia and the extent that the police look to Aceh on matters of Indonesian morality. The police seem far too involved in these matters. Officers should not be not responsible for guarding Indonesian morality; they are there to apply the rule of law.
There are several other countries in Southeast Asia where homosexuality brings the attention of the authorities. Singapore retains the colonial laws and punishes offenders with prison sentences. Brunei’s Sharia law can sentence homosexuals to death by stoning, but this punishment has yet to be handed out.
Brunei’s approach to Sharia is not as strict as Indonesia. The black burqa is rarely seen on the streets there and men and women are not required to sit separately in the cinema. In Aceh children of different sexes are not educated together, from elementary school to university. Shops are forbidden from selling clothing that does not comply with Sharia guidelines.
Will Indonesia join these countries and outlaw homosexuality?
Indonesia is likely to be about to take two steps back in the social reforms around same-sex relationships. The judges of the Constitutional Court are considering calls by the Family Love Alliance to ban homosexuality. This could be done by amending the current law, that bans homosexual relations with a minor, to apply to all ages – including consenting adults.
The court is still holding hearings on the case, but Indonesian judges are swayed by the will of the people and anti-gay sentiment has been rising. The Indonesian minister for higher education has already called for a ban on LGBT organizations at universities across the country.
Ratna is a 20-year-old student at Syiah Kuala University. She watched the flogging last month and believes homosexuality should be a crime. “It is a lesson for us, and it is a lesson near us”, she said.
The Indonesian LGBT community have been betrayed by Widodo
President Joko Widodo campaigned for the 2014 presidential election on a promise of tolerance. LGBT communities and human rights groups saw him as a political ally. However, public abuse, and incidents of intolerance rose by 30% in the first year of his presidency.
Widodo’s government officials have since proclaimed that LGBT rights are not a priority. Presidential spokesman Johan Budi said “rights of citizens in Indonesia like going to school and getting an ID card are protected, but there is no room in Indonesia for the proliferation of the LGBT movement”.
Hardline Muslim groups are rallying behind Jokowi’s opponents, and with the election coming up in 2019 he will not want to face an allegation of being un-Islamic. Leading human rights lawyer, Todung Mulya Lubis expressed his disappointment. “What upsets me,” he said, “is that the president has not stepped into the debate.”
One lesbian activist spoke of the implications of this and highlighted “the impact of anti-LGBT rhetoric from government officials is enormous for us as individuals. For those of us who have worked so hard and risked so much to come out, it is a major step backward.”
The rise of the Islamic Defenders Front is threatening Indonesia’s tolerance
At the heart of this anti-gay backlash is the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). The organisation’s members have long viewed themselves as the enforcers of Indonesian morality. Their rise has pulled the issue of homosexuality into the public sphere. The group’s influence is growing and reports suggest they are receiving financial assistance from political parties, the police and the military.
Sharia is creeping across Indonesia and infiltrating the nation;s legal system under the guise of morality. Indonesia’s tolerant democracy, which was once praised by western leaders, is under threat of being hijacked. Its hardline brand of religious morality acts above the Indonesian law, taking priority over religious tolerance and the human rights of minorities.
The future looks bleak for gay rights groups operating in Indonesia but they remain optimistic. Gay activist, Hartoyo said “our activism may be underground now, but we are not leaving”. They may not be able to rely on Jokowi for support, but they can rely on each other. The two flogged men have benefitted from money raised through social media to help with their recovery.
The LGBT community will stand united in the face of rising Islamic conservatism. They may be fighting a losing battle.