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Seeking balance in diverse Indonesia

Eureka Street - September 30, 2019

Devana Senanayake – 'My crotch does not belong to the government,' read a board held up in a protest against a series of proposed updates to the Dutch-era criminal code in Indonesia.

After a series of violent protests and mass demonstrations, President Joko Widowo announced on 20 September that the 628-article draft bill had been halted. Though several articles targeted basic freedoms and an anti-corruption institution, the regulations around gender, sex and sexuality stood out.

The ban on extramarital (and pre-marital) sex, punishable by up to one year in prison, stood out as particularly troubling. Registered marriage is an undefined concept in the country. According to the Australian Aid Report 2015, not all marriages are registered under the Civil Registry or Religious Affairs Office. Fifty-five per cent of couples in the poorest households do not have an official marriage certificate. Furthermore, couples married under the country's indigenous faith systems are not recognised.

As vocabulary in the bill is vague, any union that falls under the term 'obscene act' could be criminalised. This linguistic nuance could be used to hound and target LGBTQIA+ people.

Couples living together outside of marriage could face up to six months in prison and can be reported by a village head. Though homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia, same-sex unions and marriage are not legally accepted. As a result, same-sex couples could be imprisoned for de facto relationships (or other non-heteronormative arrangements).

Abortion could have carried a maximum of a four year prison term if no evidence of a medical emergency or sexual assault could be proved. Sexual assault is rife in the country; according to the United Nations' Global Database on Violence Against Women, 'lifetime physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence' stands at 18 per cent and child marriage at 14 per cent. The Eradication of Sexual Violence bill has been stuck in parliament since 2014 and has been reduced from its original 155 to 59 articles by members debating its ratification.

The restriction of abortion means females have limited choice over their relationships, bodies and livelihoods. Sexual assault examinations and court cases can re-traumatise victims, sometimes more than the actual assault. Womens' reproductive health is also endangered because they are unable to access basic information about their bodies, while limited discourse around acceptable sexual practices (such as consent and boundaries) increases the likelihood of gender based violence.

"The legitimation of local legislation means that there is a legal foundation to enact discriminatory beliefs in a climate of moral panic."

The changes also sought to legitimise various 'living' legislation that included Sharia and customary legislation at a local level. In the Aceh province, local rules already discriminate against consensual, heterosexual relationships. When two rice farmers left their son and his girlfriend home alone, a group of young men from their village raided the house and arrested them.

This surveillance is exercised more harshly against LGBTQIA+ unions in Aceh. In March 2018, a university couple suspected of being gay and a transgender person were rounded up by local people and handed over to the Sharia police. The region is also infamous for the public flogging of gay men.

This discrimination is set against the backdrop of anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment running through the country. Indonesia Survey Institute identified LGBTQIA+ people as the most disliked minority. According to the Jakarta Post, in 2016 academics and activists asked the Constitutional Court to annul a number of articles in the Criminal Code (KUHP) regarding any form of homosexual sex.

In May 2017, West Java Police Chief Anton Charliyan announced the creation of a special taskforce to hound LGBTQIA+ people. Days later, police raided a gym and sauna in northern Jarkarta during an alleged sex party. The police detained 141 men and charged ten for violation of pornography rules.

The legitimation of local legislation such as Aceh's means there is a legal foundation to enact discriminatory beliefs in a climate of moral panic.

Groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have been pushing for Indonesia to be ruled by Shariah for years. They played a key role in the defeat of Jakarta Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also called Ahok), and staged a mass protest before the vote. They argued that he had insulted the Quran, leading to his arrest for blasphemy and conviction for up to two years in prison.

Understanding the importance of conservative votes, President Joko Widodo recruited cleric Ma'ruf Amin for his 2018 campaign. Currently the Vice President, Amin is a supporter of Shariah and also believes homosexuality should be criminalised.

Though hardliners and (even moderate) conservatives might approve of the proposed changes, the large scale social unrest demonstrated that the multifaceted electorate is far from dormant. They demanded to be heard and considered.

With Widodo's decision to reconsider the proposed updates, policymakers and parliamentarians should seek to initiate balanced and nuanced reforms that help liberal lifestyles and conservative values coexist. While appeasing the conservative portion of the electorate is a good election tactic, ignoring a diverse electorate is a recipe for disaster in the long term.

Source: https://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article/seeking-balance-in-diverse-indonesia