Andreas Harsono on the Threats to the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Indonesians
In early 2016, the basic rights and safety of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Indonesia came under unprecedented attack, following an onslaught of hateful and misinformed rhetoric from government officials and politicians. Anti-LGBT statements by government officials provided social sanction for harassment and violence against LGBT activists and individuals. In some cases, the threats and violence occurred in the presence, and with the tacit support, of government officials or security forces. On 20 September, Human Rights Watch Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono discussed the increasing attacks against sexual and gender minorities in Indonesia. Below are excerpts from his presentation and discussion.
Andreas Harsono has covered Indonesia for Human Rights Watch since 2008. Before joining Human Rights Watch, he helped found the Jakarta-based Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information in 1995, and in 2003 he helped create the Pantau Foundation, a journalism training organisation also based in Jakarta. A staunch backer of the free press, Harsono also helped establish Jakarta’s Alliance of Independent Journalists in 1994 and Bangkok’s South East Asia Press Alliance in 1998.
What were the origins of the attacks against the Indonesian LGBT community?
Although anti-LGBT sentiment had already been growing for several years, I believe the LGBT issue really took off in September 2014, when the Aceh provincial legislature passed its Islamic Criminal Code, the Qanun Jinayat. This extended shari’a law to non-Muslims, and criminalised same-sex sexual acts, as well as adultery. Under the Qanun Jinayat, same-sex relations can be punished with up to 100 strokes of the cane or up to 100 months in prison. This was the first legal product explicitly criminalising homosexuality in Indonesia, including under the Dutch East Indies. The Qanun Jinayat came into force in October 2015 and within minutes of it becoming official, Aceh’s shari’a police, the Wilayutul Hisbah, arrested two suspected lesbians, aged only about 18 or 19. They were detained by the shari’a police for three days for questioning, and were sent to a psychological rehabilitation centre as if they had a mental illness. That was when the gates were opened.
In January 2016, the Minister of Higher Education Muhammad Nasir said that he wanted to ban LGBT student organisations from university campuses. He later backtracked on Twitter but it was too little too late. Within weeks, anti-LGBT sentiment, ranging from the absurd to the apocalyptic, echoed through Indonesian media. This all occurred within about three or four months of the Aceh Islamic Criminal Code becoming active. Of course, I should point out that no Indonesian national law specifically protected LGBT Indonesians against discrimination, but neither was there any national law criminalising same-sex behaviour.
What has been the impact of this national demonisation of the LGBT community?
Within about three months, the cacophony had died down but the story was not over. Militancy was unleashed. We have seen raids on LGBT individuals and groups, in city after city, from Aceh to Yogyakarta. On 30 April, police arrested 14 gay men that they accused of holding a ‘sex party’ in a hotel in Surabaya. On 24 May, two gay men from Aceh were caned 83 times each in front of a cheering crowd. They had been caught having sex a few months earlier, when vigilantes broke into their private accommodation. The men were not represented by a lawyer at any stage of their questioning or trial, and were subjected to involuntary HIV tests during their time in detention. In Jakarta, also in May, 141 gay men were arrested following a raid on a sauna. Just recently, a local village official in West Java forcibly evicted from their homes 12 women who were suspected of being lesbians.
In addition to these attacks, the government has restricted foreign donors, like the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Hivos (from the Netherlands) from providing funding to any LGBT-related organisations. Even HIV-related activities have been restricted. That is one of the most dangerous things about this development, it could lead to an increase in sexually transmitted infections. A few months after the Aceh legislature passed its Islamic Criminal Code, in May 2015, LGBT activists held a demonstration for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) at the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout in Jakarta. This would be the last time that they could hold such an activity. There have been no more public LGBT events since the controversy in early 2016.
Why do you think this is happening now? Why didn’t it happen earlier, for example, under Soeharto?
The attacks on the LGBT community are related to the broader trend of discrimination against women and religious minorities that has occurred in the democratic era. From 514 districts in Indonesia, 129 districts have now passed mandatory hijab regulations. These are also the same areas where we have seen the closure of minorities’ houses of worship. During the decade-long presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, we saw the closure of 1,056 churches and 33 Ahmadiyah mosques. Where is this happening? The trend is strongest in the three provinces of Aceh, West Sumatra, and West Java, and to a lesser extent in South Sulawesi, North Maluku, and Lombok. These are generally the same areas where we see anti-LGBT sentiment rising.
Could you comment on the Constitutional Court challenge that seeks to criminalise same-sex relations?
This could be incredibly dangerous. At the time of the initial controversy in 2016, a group of Islamists submitted a challenge to the Constitutional Court over articles in the Criminal Code (KUHP) that they viewed as providing a loophole for consensual sex outside marriage and same-sex relations. The case has now died down, after one of the most controversial of the nine judges hearing the case, Patrialis Akbar, was caught with a woman and $A200,000 at a mall in Jakarta. He was recently sentenced to eight years in prison. After he was arrested, the hearing stopped. I don’t think the decision is going to be announced for some time – I suspect the Constitutional Court is waiting for a politically beneficial moment to announce the verdict. The judges are mostly conservative and if they agree to criminalise consensual sex outside of marriage, you can imagine what will happen to Indonesia. These kinds of legal changes take many years, even decades, to reverse.