From early 2016 it was clear Indonesia’s president, JokoWidodo, wouldn’t be martialing a gay pride parade anytime soon.
Known better as Jokowi, he was quiet for most of that year even as his cabinet ministers ratcheted up anti-gay hysteria. LGBT student groups were banned from university campuses. Jokowi’s defence minister, Ryamizard Ryacuducompared spread of gay rights to nuclear war. When Jokowi eventually called for calm it came with the caveat that homosexualityoffended Islam.
Ambivalence noted, local police and vigilantes went to work. More than 200 gay men were rounded up in raids on bathhouses and private apartments the next year, Human Rights Watch has said. Women sharing hostel rooms were chased away on worries they were lesbians. A young gay couple was publicly flogged in Aceh.
Some of those caught in the dragnet are my friends. Many more suffer indignities of being searched at gay clubs. The hysteria makes HIV testing and treatment for many of them fraught. An estimated 25 percent of gay men are infected with the virus.
The anti-gay reached a fever pitch in early 2018 when police in the regency of North Aceh, under the command of Ahmad Untung Surianata pulled a dozen transgendered women from their salons and detained them for what appeared to be masculinity training .
Even in conservative Aceh, which enforces a version of Sharia, the detention and abuse of the trans women was considered egregious. A little more than a month later, though, Ahmad was transferred to neighbouring North Sumatra. Jokowi’spolice chief, general Tito Karnavian, said the transfer had been previously planned, but the anti-LGBT purges by police have since fizzled.
Ahmad’s transfer then was vintage Jokowi: never get in front of public opinion, make deals when you can, pounce when your opponent overreaches. Rizieq Shihab’s effective banishment to Saudi Arabia and outlawing Hizbut Tahir are cases in point.
While Jokowi has been surprisingly cozy with Suharto era generals like Wiranto, who is wanted for war crimes by the UN, his administration has been moderate. He allows food vendors to remain open during Ramadan and has appointed a number of women to important cabinet positions.
Cautious, and wrong footed by the onslaught of identity politics following the ouster of his one time political ally Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, Jokowi’s track record at least moves in a general direction toward strengtheningindividual freedom.
Where Jokowi’s instinct has been moderation -- PrabowoSubianto’s has been to fan sectarianism and xenophobia.
Prabowo routinely blames the country’s yawning income inequality on foreigners. Once a three-star general overseeing the country’s Kopassus commando unit, he was forced from his post after soldiers under his command disappeared 13 student activists. For good measure he objected when a Balinese Hindu was named as his replacement because most of the commandos were Muslim.Two decades on Prabowo, who is otherwise charming, is unable to discuss his checkered military past without detonating into flash of self-pitying fury.
Such scapegoating would spell disaster for gay Indonesians.
But the case for Jokowi is not simply that he is not Prabowo. Instead, the one-time furniture exporter is setting the ground upon which rights of sexual and other minorities may thrive.
Jokowi’s successful candidacy has forged a path to power that circumvents the military or elites. Through his deft use of social media, he has transformed the presidency from a remote and stuffy office to an agency for change.
Jokowi comes by this approach honestly. When he became mayor of Solo in 2005 he extended free health care to the poor and untangled traffic by food carts from streets. As president he doubled down on the approach, splashing out billions on badly needed infrastructure while presiding over a virtually scandal free cabinet. Government -- at the centreat least – has transformed into a unifying servant for the people and not the vehicle of patronage it had been. This bodes well for minorities of all stripes, whose prospects generally improve as living standards do.
That, of course, is a long-term view. Conditions are grimnow. Roughly a fifth of the 534 local governments have laws requiring women to cover their heads in public. Local chiefs pander to voters with promises of fines, banishment of LGBT residents or even parading them “Game of Thrones” style in public.
If not role it back outright, then a second term for Jokowi’swould at least staunch the tide of conservatism and bigotry that has inundated parts of the country. A Prabowoadministration would surf it to power.
Indonesia’s LGBT voters should cast their ballot for JokoWidodo.