What’s behind the Indonesian president’s troubling silence on LGBT persecution?

The silence of President Joko Widodo amid a growing sense of clear and present danger to Indonesia’s LGBT population is troubling. EPA/Mast Irham

These are some of the anti-gay statements made recently by public officials in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. The increasingly hateful rhetoric shows no sign of abating.

President Joko Widodo, who secured his election victory on a platform of promoting economic development and human rights, has yet to publicly speak out against these discriminatory statements.

Public officials against LGBT

Since January, numerous government officials have demeaned and threatened Indonesia’s LGBT population. Education officials have commented that gays and lesbians on campuses threaten Indonesian “values and standards of morality”. Government officials ordered police to halt an HIV-prevention outreach event for gay and bisexual men.

On February 11, information ministry spokesman Ismail Cawidu requested social media platforms to remove any emojis “that smack of LGBT”. He said it was a gesture of respect for “religious values and norms”.

The Japan-based mobile chat application LINE acquiesced on February 12. Adding insult to injury, it apologised for failing to:

… filter culturally sensitive content.

That same day, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission banned TV and radio programs that portray LGBT lives as “normal". Backed by the Indonesian Child Protection Commission, it argued the ban was to protect children and adolescents from materials that might encourage them to imitate or justify “LGBT behaviours”.

Even senior government ministers have joined the chorus. Vice President Jusuf Kalla on February 15 instructed the United Nations Development Program to cut funding to LGBT-rights education programs. Kalla gave no reason, but has previously declared that LGBT-related campaigns violated the country’s “social values”.

Indonesia’s co-ordinating political, legal and security affairs minister, Luhut Pandjaitan, has publicly spoken out about the need to respect the rights of LGBT people. But he qualified his support for LGBT rights by adding that he believed homosexuality was the result of a chromosomal condition that required “curing”.

That assertion follows the Indonesian Psychiatric Association classification of LGBT people as “persons with psychiatric problems”, despite the World Health Organisation having removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1990.

Aceh’s anti-gay bylaws

Indonesia has no history of criminalising same-sex relations or of widespread abuse of the rights of LGBT people. But that tradition of tolerance appears to be waning.

The root of this change started in Indonesia’s northern province of Aceh. Before this most recent episode of anti-gay onslaughts, official persecution against LGBT people had already begun in Aceh.

Under a special status agreement brokered in 1999, Aceh is the only province in Indonesia that can adopt bylaws derived from sharia, or Islamic law. That status has empowered the government in Aceh, a long-time bastion of strict Islamic observance, to impose increasingly draconian restrictions on the rights of women and LGBT people.

In September, Aceh’s Sharia police arrested two young women who were hugging in public as “suspected lesbians”. In October, the Aceh government enacted bylaws that harshly punish gambling and adultery. Gay people “caught” having sex can possibly get 100 lashes.

Islamic organisation abetting anti-gay sentiment

Indonesia’s mainstream Sunni Muslim organisations have abetted this rise in anti-LGBT sentiment.

The Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest mass membership Muslim organisation, issued a statement on February 27 advocating the criminalisation of same-sex sexual relations. It argued that homosexuality is “incompatible with human nature”.

NU likely took its cue from the March 4 declaration by the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), the country’s highest Islamic clerical body, that LGBT people are “deviant” and an affront to the “dignity of Indonesia”.

The Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, which has a well-earned reputation for extremist violence, has already been implicated in a January 2015 attack on boarding houses inhabited by LGBT people in the city of Bandung.

Concern for safety

These incidents have caused dismay among Indonesia’s increasingly besieged LGBT community. The recent anti-gay comments by public officials may inspire militant Islamists with a propensity for violence to physically harm LGBT people.

LGBT people have good reason to fear a co-ordinated attack in the form of religion-based discriminatory legislation and the brute tactics of militant Islamists. Since 2009, that same combination has fueled a surge in violence against religious minorities, including Shia, the Ahmadiyah and some Christian congregations.

Religious radicals have killed members of religious minorities. They have destroyed their houses and uprooted entire communities. Government officials and security forces have been passively and actively complicit in these crimes.

NGOs and LGBT rights activists warn the same signs of impending peril facing religious minorities in 2009 are now directed at Indonesia’s LGBT population.

Widodo’s silence amid this growing sense of clear and present danger to Indonesia’s LGBT population is troubling. His most senior minister has assured Indonesians that Widodo “is listening to the people’s voice” on the current surge in official anti-LGBT sentiment and that “we’ll see what happens”.

But unless Widodo finds his own voice to speak out – and soon – for the protection of rights of LGBT people, he’ll share in the blame.