FOR a Muslim-majority country, Indonesia has often been regarded as relatively tolerant on gay issues, as long as gay people were discreet. Homosexuality has never been criminalised and sexual minorities have mostly been left alone. But in recent years, as LGBT groups have become more vocal in pursuit of equal rights, religious conservatives have reacted angrily and started to push back.
A report this week by Human Rights Watch (HRW), a pressure group based in New York, says LGBT rights have come under “unprecedented” attack this year.
In January the minister for higher education sought to ban LGBT student groups from university campuses. They were, he said, at odds with the “values and morals” of Indonesia. Conservatives are petitioning the constitutional court to make gay sex a crime punishable by five years in prison. The past couple of years have also been bad. In 2015 the country’s top clerical council passed a fatwa condemning homosexuality. Yuli Rustinawati, chairman of Arus Pelangi, a civil-society group which campaigns on LGBT issues, worries that matters will only get worse. “We are close to criminalisation,” she says.
The absurdity of some aspects of the government’s anti-gay campaign—in which ministers have, among other things, told popular social-messaging apps to remove emojis depicting same-sex couples because they might spark unrest—belies the threat it poses to millions of people in Indonesia. A series of homophobic statements by prominent politicians, religious leaders and the mass media have provided “social sanction” for Islamist hardliners to persecute LGBT people, according to the HRW report. Some activists have gone into hiding after receiving death threats.
Groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front, a hardline religious organisation, have frequently disrupted LGBT parades and other assemblies with impunity. But what has been just as shocking this year is how ministers and officials have stirred things up. In February the defence minister claimed that LGBT groups were waging a “proxy war” that posed more of a risk to national security than a nuclear attack. Indonesia’s television and radio regulator has issued rules against content that might depict homosexual relationships as anything other than “deviant”. And politicians have applauded quacks from the psychiatrists’ association talking of homosexuality as a sickness that can be cured.
Politics, as much as religious conviction, plays its part. Many politicians sense they may win more votes by presenting themselves as pious Muslims than by defending sexual minorities from persecution. Local leaders have used the far-reaching powers devolved to them since the overthrow in 1998 of Suharto, Indonesia’s former strongman, to pass by-laws that discriminate against LGBT people and other minorities.
The most extreme case is Aceh, the only province to enforce Islamic sharia, under which homosexual acts are punishable by 100 lashes. LGBT groups worry about more anti-gay measures ahead of local elections next year. And they fret that the national government does not seem to provide any protection.
For Ms Rustinawati this is especially troubling. LGBT activists campaigned vigorously for Joko Widodo, known to all as Jokowi, during the closely contested presidential election of 2014. They saw him as the man to uphold Indonesia’s traditional tolerance.
Now he is president, they feel he has let them down by failing to support them. Ms Rustinawati says LGBT groups are not seeking special treatment: “We want the same rights as other people.”