The spiraling hostilities in Indonesia against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people--and the intensity of the assault--over the last several weeks has shocked and appalled people who tend to associate the country with moderate Islam. Put bluntly, people are asking, “What the hell is going on in Indonesia?”
Since January 23, several high level leaders of the Indonesian government, including seven ministers, the commander general of the national Indonesian army, members of parliament, the Indonesian ambassador to Japan, along with religious leaders have publicly condemned LGBT people and demanded actions against them.
For instance, the Minister of Technology, Research and Higher Education called for LGBT persons to be kept out of Indonesia’s universities. The Minister of Social Affairs advocated that LGBT Indonesians be forced into conversion therapy. The Minister of Defense compared LGBT human rights advocacy to a proxy war. The former Minister of Information and Communication, presently a member of the Indonesian Parliament advocated LGBT people be killed. Most recently, one political party pushed for a national law that “curbs the presence of LGBT people in the nation.”
The opponents claim in their public statements that they do not advocate violence against LGBT yet propose coercive tactics to suppress human rights advocacy--one parliamentarian did advocate killing LGBT.
In addition to the verbal hostility, the Ministry of Information and Communication blocked 477 online sites with LGBT related content--enforcing the 2008 Anti Pornography Law with renewed vigor, and Indonesia’s Vice President, Jusuf Kalla ordered financing for LGBT programs in Indonesia to stop. This latter action taken last month was publicly endorsed by an interfaith assembly of Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist and Confucian leaders. This assembly also advocated that the government should block legal registration of LGBT groups, claiming that advocating for LGBT rights violated Article 29 of the 1945 Constituion of Indonesia, which affirms that Indonesia is founded on the belief that there is “one and only god.” I assume this means they think LGBT people are godless--which is clearly a myth given the number of LGBT Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus around the world and in Indonesia and the vast numbers of faith-based groups that do not support the injustices that being advocated. The Indonesian Ulemma Council has taken it a step further, announcing the possibility of a fatwa (non-legally binding religious edict) on Muslims who attend LGBT events.
The Indonesian National Police has a written policy prohibiting hate speech but frequently fails to enforce its own directive when religious fundamentalist groups disrupt LGBT gatherings or activities. The Police are now requiring any group holding an activity that covers LGBT information to obtain a police permit--purportedly to ensure these activities do not lead to public disorder. In reality, disorder is caused not by groups holding the events but by anti-LGBT opponents. One such activity was a human rights training last month on LGBT access to justice. Members of Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front) appeared at the venue and threatened retaliation against the hotel for allowing an LGBT activity on the premises. When police arrived, they demanded a permit although it was a small indoor activity held on private premises by invitation only. Although the police were unable to show which laws were broken by the training organizers, they pressured hotel management to evict training participants.
Also in February, another religious fundamentalist group, Front Jihad Islam (Islamic Jihad Front), forced the closing of a historic religious school for transgender women in Yogyakarta that was in operation since 2008. The same month, in Yogyakarta, instead of protecting LGBT activists and supporters from violent religious fundamentalists, police used physical force to stop the activists from holding a rally, ostensibly to prevent clashes between the groups.
Piling it on
Indonesia's National Intelligence Agency has also muscled in. Officers have entered the office of an LGBT organization in the capital city, Jakarta and interrogated staff about the organization's activities. From trusted sources we learn that individual LGBT human rights activists in smaller cities beyond Jakarta are also being sought for questioning by police. In provinces like Aceh and Yogyakarta, individuals are being targeted by anti-LGBT religious groups, sought for interrogation, and spied and reported on by neighbors. This has forced LGBT human rights defenders, especially the more visible and vocal transgender activists to constantly change their places of residence to avoid being tracked.
The state's campaign of intimidation and discrimination is not limited to LGBTcommunities. Anyone voicing support for or working on issues related to LGBT rights is being targeted. One journalist said his peers publicly ostracized him and verbally harassed his family members because he stood up for LGBT people's rights. In provinces further from the capital, such as North Sumatera, Yogyakarta and East Kalimantan, I hear that the 2016 campaign of homophobia and transphobia is having a chilling effect on allies, some of whom are taking "a grey position"--being suddenly non-committal on LGBT issues.
Why is this state-coordinated anti-LGBT campaign been unleashed now?
From Indonesian activists, I hear that it's a moral panic about LGBT rights being given too much attention in what is after all a Muslim country. The moral panic is exacerbated by a knee-jerk conclusion that same sex marriage could be pushed on Indonesian society even though Indonesian activists have not prioritized same sex marriage. They are focused on ending discrimination and violence on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in jobs, schools, and in access to health. They are also fighting for better treatment of LGBT people by police, courts and citizenship administration services.
While not said in so many words, conservative leaders are also raising the fear of divine retribution for defaming Islam. Political, community and religious leaders have coalesced in varying degrees of antagonism towards LGBT people--some believing LGBT persons are not human and therefore have no human rights, some believing they have no place in Indonesian society and must be stopped when they organize to advocate for rights, some believing that LGBT people are damaged beings who need to be cured in order to become acceptable members of society, and some believing that state sovereignty is being threatened by foreigners with the help of western-funded LGBT groups in Indonesia.
The moral panic is also linked to the draft law on national security, which provides an excuse to scapegoat LGBT people by framing non-conforming sexual orientation and gender as a potential "soft threat" to national interest and state security.
Some Southeast Asian (ASEAN) member countries have begun recognizing that LGBT people like other vulnerable communities also deserve respect, dignity and protection from abuses. In February 2016, the Cambodia Minister of Information publicly stated that LGBT people are human beings and part of society. He is working with LGBT groups in that country to create a radio program to educate the public about LGBT issues and struggles. Vietnam's Ministry of Justice used government media channels for a positive propaganda campaign to raise public awareness and educate its parliamentary assembly about LGBT issues and struggles. In 2015, Vietnam lifted the ban on same sex weddings and recognized transgender rights. Thailand passed a national law in 2015 that prohibits and penalizes discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. In the Philippines, there may finally be national anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people in 2016 or 2017. Can these alternative responses to LGBT people by other ASEAN governments be fanning the moral panic in Indonesia?
What is to be done?
Back in 2015, when I asked LGBT Indonesians who voted for President Jokowi why they still believed in him, I heard that he, unlike his predecessor, opened up spaces for civil society--that people who work for social justice, democracy and human rights could dissent, advocate, organize. That space appears to be shriveling.
Indonesian human rights activists are fighting this coordinated campaign against LGBT human rights. They have written to the United Nations and to President Jokowi, appealing for interventions. They are negotiating with moderate segments of the Indonesian Parliament and faith leadership to prevent what could easily turn into a nationally orchestrated witchhunt.
All of us can show our support and solidarity by:
- Urging moderate voices of Indonesian government and religious leaders to loudly denounce the surge of hate and condemnation against LGBT communities.
- Loudly exposing the hypocrisy of government ministers who on one hand say that they don’t advocate violence against LGBT people while at the same time portray them as a danger to be eradicated.
- Demanding that the statements made by government ministers are retracted publicly.
- Asking your religious and community leaders and your members of parliament to write to Indonesia’s President Jokowi Widodo, urging him to speak out against the state coordinated campaign of hostility against LGBT persons.
- If you do business in Indonesia, writing to the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce in support of LGBT human rights for Indonesians and protest the wave of hate speech by government representatives.
Indonesians have a long history of resistance and struggle. This turn of events in the country must be stopped.