What’s Wrong With Gay Rights in Indonesia and ASEAN?

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What’s Wrong With Gay Rights in Indonesia and ASEAN?

A recent incident exposes the country’s – and the region’s – lingering challenges on this front.

Two “alleged gay men” have become the focus of international attention after being arrested in the semi-autonomous Aceh province in Muslim-majority Indonesia where controversial new Islamic bylaws are being enforced. The immediate focus of the incident is the inhumanity of the fact that the two face 100 lashes for being gay. But the incident also highlights what is wrong with LGBT rights and tolerance more generally – both in Indonesia and in some of its other Southeast Asian neighbors as well.

The men, aged 20 and 24, were apparently caught in the act in the privacy of a home amid a raid by vigilantes, and a citizen’s arrest followed. A widely-circulated video shows a distressed man speaking into a mobile phone: “Brother, please, help me, help me. We are caught.” He went on to plead for his parents’ intervention.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for their immediate release, rightly claiming the lash is a form of torture and should not be used.

“The arrest and detention of these two men underscores the abuse imbedded in Aceh’s discriminatory, anti-LGBT ordinances,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia division director at HRW.

“These men had their privacy invaded in a frightening and humiliating manner and now face public torture for the ‘crime’ of their alleged sexual orientation.”

He added that Aceh’s parliament had gradually adopted sharia-inspired ordinances that criminalize non-hijab-wearing women, drinking alcohol, gambling, and extramarital sexual relations, which can be enforced against non-Muslims.

HRW added Aceh’s sharia police have previously detained lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

In October 2015, two women aged 18 and 19 were arrested by sharia police on suspicion of being lesbians because they embraced in public. They were detained for three nights at a Sharia police facility in Banda Aceh. Sharia police repeatedly attempted to compel the two women to identify other suspected LGBT people in Aceh by showing them photographs of individuals taken from social media accounts, HRW said.

Though the two men in the recent controversy were detained under a local ordinance in Aceh and the province has its own special circumstances – it is the only one of Indonesia’s 34 provinces that can legally adopt bylaws derived from sharia – rights groups have rightly taken the government of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to task for not acting on the president’s rhetoric about taking action against intolerance towards LGBT people. This reveals the folly of characterizing Indonesia’s troubling record on LGBT rights as being purely an Aceh or fringe problem.

A Constitutional Court ruling this week also held that the central government can no longer repeal local sharia ordinances, thereby further restricting its ability to scrap laws that violate LGBT rights. It has been viewed as just the latest in a string of incidents indicating a rising tide of intolerance in Indonesia.

Indonesia is not alone when it comes to such cases. Southeast Asia has a mixed record when it comes to LGBT rights. In Vietnam, the communist one-party state has been applauded for its attitudes to LGBT and that includes gay marriage. But in Malaysia, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is languishing in jail after being convicted of homosexual acts with a consenting adult. His supporters claim the charges were trumped-up after he won the popular vote over Prime Minister Najib Razak at elections in 2013.

The sharp, often extraordinary differences within ASEAN were highlighted by The Diplomat five years ago when an atheist in Indonesia was arrested for not believing in god – yes it is a crime – while in Vietnam people were locked-up at the same time for – believing in god.

In Indonesia, atheism – little more than a personal opinion – carries a five year jail term. Similar creeping Islamization has been seen in other places in Southeast Asia as well, most notably in Malaysia and Brunei, the two other Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia.

Indonesia has previously imposed sentences of 100 lashes on adulterers. But this was understood to be the first time it has been used to enforce laws regarding homosexual crimes.

As ASEAN turns 50 this year, the self-platitudes and the “celebration of remarkable milestones” have been many. It’s a great pity that tolerance, understanding, and respect for human differences – both in Southeast Asia’s largest country and in other neighboring states as well – are too often not among them.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt