One of two Indonesian men is publicly caned for having sex, in a first for the Muslim-majority country where there are concerns over mounting hostility towards the small gay community, in Banda Aceh on May 23, 2017.
One of two Indonesian men is publicly caned for having sex, in a first for the Muslim-majority country where there are concerns over mounting hostility towards the small gay community, in Banda Aceh on May 23, 2017.

JAKARTA - A string of high-profile crackdowns on gay rights in Indonesia has the country’s LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community on edge.

There were several high profile raids of saunas and "sex parties" this month, including one in Jakarta where 141 men were arrested. Last week, a gay couple was publicly caned in conservative Aceh province, in the first-ever application of a 2015 sharia statute against homosexuality. And in West Java, Indonesia’s most populous province, officials have announced the creation of an anti-LGBT "task force.”

The last two years have borne witness to unprecedented attacks on LGBT citizens in Indonesia, where gay sex is not illegal, except in Aceh. Jakarta is controlled by the central government.

Police officers escort men arrested in a raid on a
FILE - Police officers escort men arrested in a raid on a gay sauna at North Jakarta police headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 22, 2017.

Last year, there was an acute “gay panic” where, among other things, a transgender boarding school was shut down, a former minister called on the public to kill gay people, and the Vice President personally attacked a UN program focused on LGBT rights.

Those sentiments never completely died down, and this year’s reaction to gay rights seems even more virulent. And the issue is impossible to disentangle from the overall rise in intolerance towards minorities that was exemplified by the racially charged campaign that unseated Jakarta’s Chinese-Christian governor last month.

Echo chamber effect

“Generally speaking, conservatives have found the perfect target in the LGBT community,” said Dede Oetomo, a veteran gay rights activist based in East Java. “The increased frequency of actions is alarming.”

Twp men convicted of gay sex, center, are surround
FILE - Two men convicted of gay sex, center, are surrounded as Shariah law officials escort them to a mosque to be publicly caned in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia, May 23, 2017.

With regards to the raids on sex clubs in Jakarta and Surabaya, Oetomo said, “police usually know what’s going on. The question is, why do they choose to act at a certain time?” He conjectured that morality policing before the holy month of Ramadan, which started last week, was one potential factor.

Last week in Bandung, the capital of West Java, provincial police chief Charliyan told reporters that LGBT people suffered a "disease of the body and soul.”

But a spokesman for the national police, Setyo Wasisto, said there were no plans to scale up the West Java task force on a national level.

“The duty of the police to enforce the rules and laws so that everyone has the same rights,” said Yuli Rustinawati, chair of the LGBT activist group Arus Pelangi. “Not to be moral police.”

A checkered history

Last October, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo gave an extremely qualified defense of LGBT rights after months of anti-gay rhetoric. He denounced discrimination against gay Indonesians after asserting that “in Indonesia, beliefs [generally] do not allow [homosexuality], Islam does not allow it.”

FILE - Indonesian president-elect Joko Widodo gest
FILE - Indonesian president-elect Joko Widodo gestures as he speaks to his supporters during a gathering in Jakarta.

Gay rights are an uncomfortable topic in Indonesian public life, said Oetomo. “There is no advocacy at the highest level in Jakarta. My sense is that if the rights of governors and chief of police are willing to do something, they’ll do it quietly.”

The spike in anti-LGBT attacks follows the rising profile of one of the most virulent anti-gay voices in Indonesia, the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), the hardline group that organized the rallies against Jakarta’s governor last year. FPI-associated vigilantes filmed the gay couple who was caned in Aceh, and FPI has promised to “help” Indonesian police conduct further raids like the ones in Jakarta and Surabaya.

But a sexting scandal involving its leader, Habib Rizieq Shihab, degrades some of the authority by which FPI has unofficially acted as Indonesia’s morality police since its founding in 1998. It is not clear if his recent arrest will lead to a respite in the LGBT crackdown.

An uncertain future

“This feels like a repeat, in a way,” said Fajar Zakhri, a 25-year-old gay man who lives in Jakarta and who lived through last year’s LGBT crackdown. “But it's a worse repeat. Because the [recent] events sort of overlapped with one another and you can just sense this overall spirit of... they want to criminalize us.”

FILE - In this Nov. 11, 2016, photo, contestants
FILE - In this Nov. 11, 2016 photo, contestants wait backstage during the Miss Transgender Indonesia pageant in Jakarta, Indonesia.

It hasn’t always been so in Indonesia. Transgender people, including the waria “third-gender” people, have long been a part of Indonesian societies. One Sulawesi group, the Bugis people, historically recognize five genders.

The worst development for LGBT rights, meanwhile, is still on the table: a Constitutional Court petition banning homosexual acts between consenting adults. It was filed last May and remains an open question.

In the same week that Taiwan became the first Asian country to move towards formal recognition of same-sex marriage, the proposed anti-gay ban is a sobering prospect for Indonesia’s LGBT community.