'It's dangerous': Sinaga case fuels LGBT backlash in Indonesia

Indonesia's gay community has struggled with abuse for years and Sinaga's rape conviction has fuelled more anger.

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    LGBT people in Indonesia have long suffered discrimination and in the far western province of Aceh can be prosecuted under Islamic laws and publicly whipped [File: Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA]
    LGBT people in Indonesia have long suffered discrimination and in the far western province of Aceh can be prosecuted under Islamic laws and publicly whipped [File: Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA]

    Jakarta, Indonesia - Described by British prosecutors as "the worst-known sex offender in the country's history," Indonesian exchange student Reynhard Sinaga drugged and sexually assaulted nearly 200 men in Manchester over several years.

    But Sinaga, who was sentenced to life earlier this month, is not the only one being punished for his crimes.

    According to the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights, revulsion over the case has sparked a widespread homophobic backlash in his Muslim-majority Southeast Asian homeland.

    "Some regents and mayors have set policies to discriminate against LGBT groups and violate their rights in the name of family values," Commissioner Beka Ulung Hapsara told Al Jazeera, referring to local government officials.

    The most high-profile example took place in Sinaga's hometown, the Javanese city of Depok, where Mayor Mohammad Idris announced raids targeting the LGBT community. He also described gay people as "victims" and promised to open centres to rehabilitate them.

    Local news coverage on the Sinaga case also smeared the LGBT community, with newspapers and TV stations obsessing over his sexual orientation.

    "They, and the public also, paid more attention to Reynhard Sinaga's sexual orientation instead of focusing on the real problem, which is rape," Hapsara said.

    Indonesia LGBT
    This year's LGBT beauty pageant in Bali was cancelled after the organisers received violent threats on social media [Yayasan Gaya Dewata via Al Jazeera]

    Even Sinaga's distraught mother joined the fray, saying that as Christians her family did not "believe" in homosexuality. Tellingly, she also said her son had rejected her appeals for him to come home from the UK because he did not believe Indonesia was a good place for him.

    A more tolerant past

    Indonesia's parliament has debated introducing laws criminalising same-sex conduct on several occasions. Yet, with the exception of the autonomous, remote region of Aceh, which is governed by Islamic law, homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia.

    Many cultures within the archipelago were historically tolerant of LGBT people. Some groups, like the Bugis of South Sulawesi province, even revered them.

    Since the15th century, transgender priests called "bissu" crowned Bugis kings and queens and offered blessings to expectant mothers and farmers before harvest. To make ends meet, they worked in weddings as maids of honour - a custom also practised in neighbouring Malaysia and Thailand.

    But when Indonesia gained independence in 1945, local monarchies were disbanded. The bissu were labelled un-Islamic and subsequently marginalised. Today they are a dying breed with only a handful remaining.

    Indonesian President Joko Widowo, popularly known as Jokowi, has taken small steps to enforce human rights, such as criminalising child marriage and pardoning a woman who was imprisoned for defaming her alleged sexual abuser.

    But according to Human Rights Watch 2019 World Report, harassment and discrimination of the LGBT community has increased under Jokowi's tenure.

    Indonesia LGBT
    Gay bars in Bali have been uncharacteristically quiet in the wake of the Sinaga rape case [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

    "Indonesian authorities continued to fail to uphold basic rights of LGBT people, fueling a spike in the country’s HIV epidemic," the report said.

    "Police arbitrary and unlawful raids on private LGBT gatherings, assisted by militant Islamists, has effectively derailed public health outreach efforts to vulnerable populations," the report said. "HIV rates among men who have sex with men have consequently increased five-fold since 2007, from 5 to 25 percent."

    Crackdown on Bali

    As a unique Hindu-majority island in the world's most populous Muslim country, Bali is a popular gay haven in Southeast Asia. The resort island has entire industry catering to LGBT tourists, including gay-friendly villas, tour companies and massage joints that advertise their services openly on the Internet.

    Camplung Tanduk Street, which boasts the liveliest gay bars and clubs, is the heart of Bali's gay district in the Seminyak tourist neighbourhood.

    "All religions are the same, they do not accept LGBT people. But Balinese Hindus are more tolerant and more accepting than people are in other parts of Indonesia," said Arya, spokesperson for Yayasan Gaya Dewata, a Balinese NGO that delivers free HIV testing, sexual health counselling and awareness campaigns on the island.

    "I think it's also because we have so much tourism. They accept what foreigners do here so long as they don't break the law," said Arya, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name.

    But a few days after the Sinaga case made global headlines, a villa in Seminyak was targeted by the local Public Order Agency over allegations it was marketed specifically to gay men. The Angelo Bali Gay Guesthouse has since closed and three more villas in Seminyak have also been targeted for inspections.

    Both the Bali Villa Association and Cultural Agency in Badung, the government body that administrates Seminyak, released statements saying such marketing practices contradicted social and religious norms.

    Online Hate

    LGBT activist Arya believes the targeting of these villas was purely coincidental and not related to the Sinaga case."The problem is they labelled themselves as gay businesses," he explains.

    "The bars in Seminyak that are popular with LGBT people, they don't write that they are gay bars and they don't discriminate. They welcome everyone."

    Indonesia LGBT
    Business has slowed at gay bars in Bali [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

    But Arya acknowledges Bali has not been immune to the rise of homophobia in Indonesia.

    "LGBT life is getting harder because this country is becoming more religious," he said. "In Bali, we never had problems before, but now we are seeing the rapid spread of anti-LGBT campaigns on social media. We don't know who's behind it, but they usually use religion to justify their hate."

    Hapsana confirmed a "massive campaign on social media from conservative groups working with faith-based organisations has worsened the situation."

    Reports of anti-LGBT violence linked to the Sinaga case have not surfaced in Bali or anywhere in Indonesia. But violent threats made on social media forced Yayasan Gaya Dewata to cancel its annual LGBT pageant in Bali this year. Meanwhile, the gay bars in Seminyak are uncharacteristically quiet.

    "Look around, it's empty," said a Balinese cross-dresser who spoke on condition of anonymity. "There are only tourists here but very few locals. I don't blame them. This is the first time I have gone out since the story about that guy in English came out. It's dangerous," he said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News