A gay couple accused of running a LGBTQ Facebook group in Indonesia were arrested by police last week as the country's ongoing crackdown shifts from raids on gay nightclubs and the private residences of same-sex couples to the kinds of community-based social media sites that were once seen as some of the last safe spaces in an increasingly homophobic country.
The arrests, which occurred last Thursday in Bandung, West Java, were seen as a sign that the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric that has reared its head in recent years is only going to intensify as the country heads into another national election year.
"We thought this issue wouldn't be used for political purposes because there are other issues out there," Lini Zurlia, a queer activist, told VICE. "We tried to prevent the LGBT rights issue from appearing, we even rarely made any public statements [about it].
"But it turns out there are no guarantees. Our prediction that the LGBT rights issue would be used as a tool by political interests was true. LGBT is now the top [political "trigger" issue] followed by communism and the Chinese minority/ Christianity issue. It's been shown that public hatred of something the do not fully understand can easily be turned into anger."
State-sponsored homophobia has been on the rise in Indonesia for years, with some prominent government officials going as far as declaring the LGBTQ community a threat more dangerous than nuclear war and a cultural weapon in a proxy war being waged by "the West."
In West Java, a conservative province that borders the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, a local government sent around an official letter last week asking all mosques to add six pages of an anti-LGBTQ sermon to Friday prayers. The raids have continued, with police recently storming yet another private residence over claims that it was being used for "gay parties." And incumbent President Joko Widodo's running mate in the coming presidential election is a conservative Islamic preacher who has repeatedly railed against the LGBTQ community, playing an active role in the drafting of several fatwas targeting the group.
All of this is happening in a country where, outside the province of Aceh, it's perfectly legal to be queer. That might change if a new, incredibly conservative draft of the Criminal Code ever makes it through the House, but, until then, there's no legal basis for police to arrest queer Indonesians just because they're gay.
So then how does this keep happening? The use of vague laws criminalizing pornography and, now, the spread of immoral content online. Indonesian laws are notoriously vague, which allows the authorities to use them whichever way they want. Miniskirts, public displays of affection, and male strip teases in an adults only nightclub have all been classified as "pornography," in the past by the law.
This recent arrest of the men behind a Facebook group was made possible by the Electronic Transactions and Information Law, known as the ITE Law, which allows police to jail someone for up to six years in prison for sharing so-called immoral content online. It's a law that's so open to interpretation that it's been called a "rubber law," by critics. In the past, it's been used against a college student who insulted her new city, a woman who complained of being abused by her husband to a friend, and a satay seller who created a political meme that put the faces of President Jokowi and PDI-P party boss Megawati Soekarnoputri over some porn actors.
It's basically a sledgehammer being used to strike a nail, according to the law's critics. And now it's being used against the LGBTQ community as well.
"There is growing negative sentiment toward LGBTQ that's being promoted and sponsored by government," said Andreas Harsono, an Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "This was coupled with abuse of the already wildly interpreted ITE Law. Before the Bandung raid, the LGBTQ community was subjected to the vague anti-pornography law, such as in the raids in Harmoni, Jakarta, and Surabaya. But now the government can easily charge them under the ITE Law."
The couple arrested in last week's raid were accused of running a Facebook group called "Gay Bandung Indonesia." In a city of 2.3 million, it had a little more than 4000 followers. The city's deputy director for special crimes Adj. Chief Comr. Hari Brata, told the press that the group existed to "connect and matchmake people who want to make same-sex friendships."
The couple faces up to six years behind bars and Rp 1 billion ($66,000 USD) in fines. The arrests were a chilling reminder for Indonesia's LGBTQ community that, as the country heads into an election, things were only going to get worse.
"It's actually systematic," Lini told VICE. "There are no regulations that criminalize sexual and gender minority groups but they still act like it's a criminal act. Our offline safe spaces were raided and now online safe spaces as well. WE have no safe spaces anymore. Instead, it's just baseless hatred."