Mere weeks after Indonesia had strengthened its international reputation by successfully hosting a G20 summit in Bali, a suicide bomber tempered that optimism, acting as a reminder of the south-east Asian nation’s fractious political nature. The attack on Java killed one person while injuring dozens more, with the country’s controversial morality laws at the heart of the issue.
The attack follows the long-awaited overhaul of the nation’s divisive criminal code—a relic of Dutch colonial law that had remained in place for decades. The changes outlawed sex outside marriage as well as prohibited insults, ideological differences, and protests without a permit, leaving human rights advocates and Islamist extremists reeling at the updates. Alarmed by the threat of fines and potential prison sentences for cohabitation outside of marriage, the move highlights Indonesian human rights groups’ deepest fears: a state hellbent on ensuring as little sexual freedom as possible. Yet Islamist groups are also unhappy with the government, having hoped for even more draconian measures such as an explicit ban on homosexuality.
Andreas Harsono, a Researcher for Human Rights Watch, believes that the law prohibiting sex outside of marriage could “implicitly be used against LGBTQ+ individuals” since same-sex marriage is also illegal, while the law would also act as a “political weapon to jail opponents.” Yet amidst many people’s deeply felt aspiration for a more socially progressive Indonesia, profound conservatism remains at the heart of society. Peter Mumford, an analyst of south-east Asian politics for the Eurasia Group, affirmed that “people place greater influence on the role of religion now,” highlighting how ingrained Islamic culture has become. A 2019 Pew Research Survey found that roughly 80% of Indonesians believed homosexuality should be strictly prohibited. The leading school of thought in explaining this phenomenon is that Islamic or religious schools now educate more than 14 million of the nation’s students, with many educational institutions financially supported by the Saudi Arabian state—a country dominated by Wahhabi fundamentalist doctrine.
Thus, President Joko Widodo is caught between the country’s conservative religious culture and an inclination to presenting a modern face to the international community. Widodo himself has successfully acted as a reformist while in the hot seat, having focused his policies on improving infrastructure, protecting Indonesia’s sovereignty, and prioritizing and scheduling capital punishment for drug smugglers. Far from ideal as far as softening its global image is concerned, fears linger that the growth of hard-line Islam could make things significantly worse. Widodo’s presidential term will end in 2024, and despite concerns over his record on civil liberties, he is still regarded as moderate—an adjective not often used to describe Islamist candidates.
Though for now, Indonesia remains focused on improving its international standing. While attacks characterized by extremism provide incessant hits, the country has nonetheless improved its reputation. Widodo’s diplomatic capabilities were highly praised at the G20 summit, and, as a result, interest from foreign investors has heightened particularly in industries such as nickel. Consequently, Indonesia is sending a large delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos next month in order to build on this momentum.
Although the country’s international standing may have improved somewhat, the truth remains that valid human rights concerns still remain, specifically for women and the LGBTQ+ community. The criminal code reforms—and the negative headlines it created—worry not only businesses looking to invest in the region, but also foreigners living on the archipelago. Growing extremism along with the imminent risk of a more conservative leader being voted in could ultimately put everything think-tanks and groups such as Eurasia have worked for at huge risk. Even tourism to the country may be affected by the new laws, which for many of Indonesia’s islands is utterly unthinkable. Indonesia must, therefore, find a way to reverse this impending democratic fallout of these new laws, though that’s a task that’s certainly easier said than done.
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