PARLIAMENTARIANS from across Southeast Asia have warned of “dark forces” of intolerance in Indonesia, calling upon the government to act to counter rights abuses against minorities and restrictions on freedom of religion.
Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) members from Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) and Indonesia concluded a four-day fact finding mission in Yogyakarta earlier this week, a city long reputed for being a tolerant melting pot of religions and cultures.
In recent years, however, incidents involving attacks against religious minorities, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and other minority groups have risen significantly.
In January, hardline Muslim groups harassed cafes and bars in a popular tourist street of Yogyakarta over the service of alcohol, later demanding that the city government shut down the cafes. The following month, a man wielding a sword attacked a church in Yogyakarta, injuring four people and slashing at the statue of Jesus.
“The authorities must ensure that all faith communities are afforded equal protection and the freedom to worship and practice their religions,” said Eva Kusuma Sundari, a member of the Indonesian House of Representatives who led the delegation in a statement.
“This includes ensuring accountability for vigilante attacks and instituting preventive measures to protect vulnerable communities from attacks before they happen,” she said.
While Muslim-majority Indonesia’s constitution protects pluralism and freedom of religion, rights groups have long criticised so-called “religious harmony” laws introduced under former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which in practice has made it more difficult to establish minority houses of worship.
“We heard stories of how difficult it is for religious minorities to obtain necessary approval for their houses of worship,” said Rachada Dhnadirek, an APHR member and former MP from Thailand. “The burdensome process and unclear requirements create unnecessary barriers to religious practice for too many, and it is clear that this decree should be amended.”
Intolerance and violence against the LGBT community has also grown in Yogyakarta, as elsewhere in Indonesia. In 2015, a demonstration by the LGBT community in Yogyakarta to mark the Transgender Day of Remembrance was targeted by radical groups who violently attacked the protesters.
A local Islamic boarding school for transgender people founded in 2008 has in recent years been targeted by the vigilante groups such as the Front Jihad Islam (FJI), which has attempted to shutter the school.
“All sectors of society must work together to push back against the rising tide of intolerance in Yogyakarta and across all of Indonesia,” added Sundari. “We need to put human rights at the centre of efforts to address religious hatred and vigilantism.”
Intensified crackdowns against homosexuals and transgender Indonesians have accompanied rising Islamic conservatism, including bans on LGBT-friendly phone apps and raids against so-called “gay parties” by police and hardline religious vigilantes.
“As parliamentarians, we have a role to play not only to ensure that strong laws are in place, but also to provide proper oversight of the implementation of those laws,” Sundari said.
Indonesia’s parliament is currently considering revisions to the national criminal code which would make sexual relations defined as zina – the Islamic concept of adultery – jailable offences. This would criminalise pre-marital sex and homosexuality, putting millions of people at risk of prosecution.
Back in February, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein expressed concern over the spread of “extremist” views in Indonesia, leading to discrimination and violence against minority groups.
“If Muslim societies expect others to fight against Islamophobia, we should be prepared to end discrimination at home too,” said Zeid. “Islamophobia is wrong. Discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs and colour is wrong. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or any other status is wrong.”
“The spectre of growing intolerance and vigilantism threatens Indonesia’s democratic success,” Sundari added. “We cannot allow the spirit of democracy, human rights, and Pancasila to be undermined by these dark forces.”