Bans on extramarital and gay sex proposed in Indonesia – RTÉ World Report

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https://www.rte.ie/news/player/world-report/2018/0211/ – radio piece here, in a few minutes after the start

UN human rights chief Zeid Raal al Hussein and Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi share a joke, one assumes, at the Indonesian foreign minister on Feb. 5 2018 (Simon Roughneen)

JAKARTA — When the Indonesian government invited the United Nations’ human rights commissioner to Jakarta, it must have known that Zeid Ra’al al Hussein, a Jordanian diplomat who is nearing the end of his 4 year term, would have plenty to say about proposed changes to country’s criminal code.

Indonesian parliamentarians will vote soon on measures which include criminalizing not only gay sex but all sex outside marriage between men and women.

Al Hussein joined foreign minister Retno Marsudi in addressing a conference at the ministry last week, telling the officials and diplomats that human rights are not restricted by geography, ethnic group or gender.

Two days later, after meeting Indonesian President Joko Widodo, al Hussein was less bland, claiming that the proposed changes “betray strains of intolerance seemingly alien to Indonesian culture.”

Despite the potential criminalization of extramarital sex — and other proposals such as new penalties for insulting the president and for blasphemy, as well as curbing the powers of the hyperactive anti-corruption commission — human rights groups and international media such as Reuters and AFP have mainly picked up on the LGBT angle, perceiving a rising social intolerance among ordinary Indonesians.

However the wider concerns around the proposed measures have been addressed by business lobbies, who feel that if passed they will undermine highly-bureaucratic Indonesia’s already-shaky appeal to foreign investors.

Tourism could also be affected. Indonesia usually gets around 10 million visitors a year The government feels, probably rightly, that such a vast country of beaches, jungles and mountains should get a lot more visitors than that, and has launched a marketing campaign to spread the word about locations such as Lake Toba in Sumatra — the site of a massive volcanic  eruption around 70,000 years ago — or Raja Ampat, hundreds of islands surrounded by turquoise sea and coral reefs in indonesia’s far east.

But around half of Indonesia’s inbound tourists aim for Bali, a Hindu-majority island that functions like a kind of Ibiza for drunk Australians. The Balinese would likely resist enforcing any laws that could undermine their economy, a reminder that not only is Indonesia huge, 17,000 islands spread across 3,000 miles, it is, by necessity perhaps, highly decentralised.

The Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, a NGO in Jakarta, said that the proposed changes will contradict local regulations across the country, particularly in remote tribal areas where adat, or customary law, takes precedence. Moreover, Indonesians who cannot afford marriage certificates or who marry under customary law could be liable to charges of sex outside marriage under the revised code.

The drive to amend the criminal code goes back a decade, but some analysts are citing a recent “surge” or “wave” of Islamicisation — a clumsy choice of words given Indonesia’s vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis, and the fact that Jakarta is sinking, the terrain on which its traffic-logged streets sit subsiding due to groundwater being tapped for domestic use.

But to be fair, some recent developments do lend weight to the Islamicisation thesis. In December a narrow 5-4 majority of constitutional court judges voted to reject a request made by a group called the Family Love Alliance to categorise adultery, which is illegal in Indonesia, to mean any relationship that involves extra-marital sex, not just marital infidelity.

In late 2016 around a half a million protestors blockaded central Jakarta, taking to a huge plaza outside the presidential palace to demand that the then governor of Jakarta, a Protestant of Chinese descent, be arrested for blasphemy against Islam.

In the election that followed, the governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, lost to the former education minister, Anies Baswedan. Baswedan was a social liberal who defected to the Islamist and opposition camps after being fired by President Widodo during a cabinet reshuffle.

Jeremy Menchik, author of Tolerance without Liberalism, a book about Islam and democracy in Indonesia, said that Baswedan “did terrible damage to the rule of law” as he “embraced anti-democratic actors to win power.”

Less than month after losing the election ,Purnama was in jail — the highest profile political casualty of Indonesian Islamists’ growing assertiveness. Ironically Purnama has since asked his wife for a divorce, alleging infidelity, which of course would make her vulnerable to prosecution should the criminal code amendments — driven by much the same sentiments that forced him from office — pass into law.

In another irony, Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, the main protest group that helped drive Purnama from office and into jail, last year fled to Saudi Arabia after being charged under Indonesia’s anti-pornography laws for allegedly “sexting” with a female admirer on WhatsApp.

But maybe even hardliners such as Shihab do not really want laws that would ban such licentiousness. Indeed, it remains to be seen how strict the criminal code revisions end up — there are several drafts floating around, with proposed amendments leaked to the press every few days.

Several times in recent years Islamic parties, who usually get around 30% of the vote between them in parliamentary elections, have tried to ban alcohol sales. The prohibition drive was in the end watered down to a ban on selling beer in corner shops, as there was not enough political thirst to make Indonesia officially dry.

Such precedents suggest that al Hussein, the UN human rights chief, was probably onto something when he mentioned politics in his criticism of the criminal code revisions.

The jailed ex-governor Purnama was an ally of President Widodo. Indonesia will hold local elections later this year and then parliamentary and presidential elections next year. Widodo is popular, so it looks like the campaign to oust Purnama on ethnic and religious grounds was a test run to unsettle the president, as well as a heads-up on next year’s campaign tactics.

For sure, the criminal code revisions have put the president on the back foot – he’s a Javanese Muslim, but not overtly-pious in his demeanour. All the same he has been heard saying that the proposed penal code revisions reflect Indonesian culture, which, whether he believes this or not, is surely a defensive move — rhetoric aimed at trying to neutralise the noisy demagogues who will likely campaign against him next year.

For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Jakarta

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