Tough love: City mayor shuts down Southeast Asia’s largest red light district
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Tough love: City mayor shuts down Southeast Asia’s largest red light district

As the addled current of twenty-first century Puritanism ebbs and flows across Indonesia, the sex workers of Surabaya’s most enduring red light district have become the latest victims of a local mayor’s moral crusade.

After almost four years of posturing and threats from both local and regional government officials in East Java, the forced closure of Southeast Asia’s largest red light district was finally accomplished late on Wednesday evening, as police moved in to secure the area despite virulent opposition from local sex workers, pimps and other residents whose livelihoods are dependent on the area’s bustling sex trade.

The two neighbourhoods targeted by the shutdown, known as Gang Dolly and Jalan Jarak, have been home to an extensive complex of brothels since the late 1960s, and have—up until now—operated with minimal interference from either local government or law enforcement agencies.

On Wednesday, however, this all changed—literally overnight.

At least 1,020 sex workers, as well as 311 pimps, were suddenly made redundant; and an even greater number of low-waged, informal workers—such as cleaners, street vendors, motorcycle taxi drivers, and parking attendants—saw their usual source of income abruptly terminated.

The purge on Surabaya’s largest and most lucrative red light district, described by as an “engine” of the city’s wider economy, is both remarkable and alarming on a number of levels.

First of all, the Dolly closure represents a second consecutive victory for the increasingly draconian form of government espoused by popular mayor Ibu Tri Rismaharini, who previously created a local bylaw prohibiting the sale of all alcoholic beverages in Surabaya’s supermarkets and convenience stores. The bylaw was apparently part of a well-meaning campaign to rid the city of a potentially fatal, illegal moonshine, known as oplosan, which Risma thought could be achieved by reducing the general availability of much safer, legal alcoholic beverages. In short, it was an attempt to banish all alcohol from the city—legal or otherwise—passed off as a ‘tough’ response to oplosan driven by Islamic dogma. In other words, a counter-productive  approach to a serious problem.

In a similar fashion, Risma’s ill-conceived and reckless crackdown on prostitution in Surabaya is almost entirely predicated on kneejerk moral outrage and religious notions of sexual misconduct (‘perbuatan asusila’), rather than evidence-based, public health-focussed policy initiatives, or meaningful dialogue conducted between local authorities and persons directly involved in the sex trade.

Risma considers herself to be engaged in a noble quest to “lift our people from oppression”—a commendable feat, perhaps, if it weren’t for the virtually unanimous resistance of the very people she intends to liberate.  East Java governor Jatim Soekarwo is similarly unconcerned by the sentiments of the anti-shutdown camp, insisting that Risma’s “humanitarian” intervention is necessary to “reduce the  immorality” of the local community.

This obvious disconnect between the benevolent leaders and their most marginalised and vilified subjects is surely one of the saddest aspects of the purge unleashed on Gang Dolly. However, it is important to also acknowledge that the recent crackdown in Surabaya has thankfully not escaped the censure of a few other more reasonable voices within the Indonesian government.

Encouragingly, several representatives from the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM) have condemned the city administration in Surabaya for ignoring the demands of Dolly’s workers and local residents.

On June 12, for example, Commissioner Dianto Bachriadi took the time to visit Dolly and meet with representatives of the neighbourhood’s Local Workers Front. Both parties agreed that they were most concerned for the welfare and prospects of the children whose parents’ earnings are contingent on Dolly’s sex trade. Dianto also voiced his suspicion that the local government in Surabaya does not yet have a clear strategy for providing dispossessed prostitutes with a sustainable source of income in the event of Dolly’s closure.

Later on, whilst making a speech to angry Dolly residents from a makeshift protest stage, Dianto declared: “I support the struggle of mothers and fathers. It is your right to fight for your own destiny and economic prosperity…[sex workers, pimps and citizens] are here [in Dolly] to make a living and seek prosperity. If [Dolly] is shutdown without a clear solution, then it will be a human rights violation.”

Another peoples’ champion prominent among the Dolly resistance movement is a Surabaya-based PDI-P politician named Baktiono, who also voiced his own set of scathing indictments after making a visit to Gang Dolly this Tuesday. Baktiono told reporters from that residents of Dolly had previously “requested a blueprint or feasibility study [for the shutdown proposal], but the city government has never given anything.” He went on to admit that “We [the Surabaya government] don’t know the next step,” and also explained that he had personally called for a review of the shutdown scheme but his pleas fell on deaf ears in the city government.

Such cases of high-level politicians having genuine solidarity with Dolly’s embattled residents are indeed a redeeming feature of an otherwise grossly one-sided debate. Unfortunately, however, the consensus among most high-profile Indonesian politicians—or at least those who are currently on record—is that Ibu Risma and Governor Soekarwo are essentially doing right thing.

Leading presidential candidate, Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, for example, was asked to give his thoughts on the Dolly shutdown after performing prayers at a West Java mosque this Tuesday. “Ibu Risma has already done the calculations,” he told reporters. “What’s important is to offer a solution and to have an alternative [prepared] so that the work done there [Dolly] won’t be reversed.” Presumably the “solution” and the “alternative” which Jokowi refers to here is the $500 compensation scheme pledged to each of Dolly’s redundant sex workers, and the vague promise of retraining in some other more womanly vocation, such as sewing or cooking. However, the $500 one-off payment has been almost unanimously rejected by Dolly’s sex workers.

Another hugely prolific national politician who spoke yet more appraisingly of Dolly’s closure is Jakarta’s current acting governor, Ahok.  When asked about the police occupation of the area yesterday morning, Ahok replied, “It’s great isn’t! Excellent isn’t it!”

It remains to be seen whether the shutdown will hold given the scale and the tenacity of local opposition. Already speculations such as “Dolly will be open again after Ramadan” have been published in the national news, and irate sex workers have burned their compensation notices in defiance of Risma’s re-education scheme. But possibly the most novel repercussion of the neighbourhood’s controversial shutdown is the compassionate response of sex workers elsewhere in Indonesia, who have offered solidarity and refuge to their counterparts banished over in Surabaya.

It is likely that the Dolly closure, should it survive much longer, will precipitate a so-called “balloon effect”, whereby prostitution networks previously entrenched in Surabaya will simply spread out and migrate to other more permissive destinations. More dangerous still, however, is the undeniable potential for Surabaya’s sex trade to go further underground and out of sight, resulting in increased risks of violence, exploitation, trafficking and sexually transmitted diseases for Indonesia’s vulnerable sex workers.

Given the demand for paid sexual services in Indonesia, (an obvious facet of the debate rarely mentioned in the media), top-level politicians such as Risma and Soekarwo would do better to realise that prostitution is not a phenomenon which can simply be ‘eradicated’ from society, as if it were akin to some sort of pest or vermin. Far from it, prostitution is an irrepressible reality lived daily by many of society’s most vulnerable members; and with this being so, regardless of whether one thinks that prostitution is an ultimately desirable feature of society or not, all efforts should be taken to ensure that the rights and safety of sex workers are protected to the fullest extent possible, without threat of criminal sanction. Who could object to that?