January 2023


Dangerous revisions

Richard Gregson aconsiders the implications of Indonesia’s new hard-line criminal code, which proscribes a wide number of personal freedoms

The sprawling archipelago of Indonesia is home to a mind-boggling 1,340 ethnic groups, practising 245 traditional belief systems, besides mainstream religions like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and other sects.This should be a compelling reason for the country to celebrate diversity.  And it has indeed tried to preserve this socio-cultural diversity, even during tumultuous times, defeating insurgencies and separatist movements. The magic mantra has been the state’s ‘ideology’ of Pancasila –a term derived from Sanskrit: panca (five) and sila (principles) – which has held together the 270 million people inhabiting 6,000 of the more than 17,000 islands of Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy.

These five principles are: (1) The one divinity; (2)Just and civilised humanity; (3)The unity of Indonesia; (4) Democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations among representatives; (5) Social justice for all of the people of Indonesia.But the rising tide of transnational jihadi Islam, seeping into the ranks of clerics and the Sunni Muslims who form 87 percent of the population, is threatening the country’s rich syncretic traditions. The hardliners want to bulldoze the diverse local traditions and culture to inculcate Salafi Islam, which talks about establishing a Caliphate and enforcing Islamic canonical laws, or Sharia.

Today, there is a perceptible shift from the liberal Islam practised by a majority of Indonesian Muslims to a puritanical form of Islam that views other religions and practices with contempt. The fanatics have been gaining strength, influenced by West Asian jihadi groups and concerted efforts by the Arab monarchies to fund and spread Salafi Islam. The growing number of dome-type mosques,breaking away from the traditional pagoda-style multi-tiered Javanese architecture, ominously points to this changing perception.

Politicians are quick to read the public mind and have no qualms about compromising principles for quick political gains. Indonesian politicians are no different. This was witnessed during the last presidential elections, when President Joko Widodo took cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running vice-presidential mate in order to woo the hardliners.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo
PRESSING REQUEST: Indonesia’s Press Council has called on President Joko Widodo not to sign the bill

The latest attack on Pancasila comes wrapped in a long-pending draconian criminal code passed by Parliament, which replaces the earlier code, a legacy of Indonesia’s Dutch colonial past. Politicians insist the new code conforms with the country’s traditions and culture. A draft was released for public discussion in 2019, leading to widespread protests. This time, however, the government rushed through the legislation, without releasing the draft for public scrutiny. Passed unanimously by Parliament on December 6, the bill –comprising 624 articles –will come into effect three years after it is signed into law by the President.

Talk of ‘tradition’ is more about Islamic mores such as compulsory head-coverings for women, separation of men and women, strict blasphemy laws and curbs on free will. The new code criminalises sex and cohabitation outside marriage; further strengthens the blasphemy law; and continues prohibition of abortion, while adding a provision for punishment of anyone assisting in the termination of a pregnancy. It also proscribes giving information about contraceptives to minors and bans Marxism, Communism and black magic. These provisions have pleased the Islamists, although they want more, including the prohibition of alcohol and full enforcement of Sharia.

The rising tide of transnational jihadi Islamis threatening Indonesia’s rich syncretic traditions

Other provisions of the code give sweeping powers to the government to punish anyone insulting a sitting president or vice-president, state institutions, and the national ideology of Pancasila with up to three years in jail.The code has many provisions regarding online and offline criminal defamation, making it possible for anyone to bring such charges against a journalist or other individual. Articles 263-264 maintain that individuals accused of spreading false news or hoaxes which result in riots can be punished with a maximum penalty of up to six years’ imprisonment. Knowingly reporting ‘uncertain’, ‘exaggerated’ or ‘incomplete’ news thatis likely to cause unrest could result in a two-year jail term.

Indonesia’s Press Council has called on President Joko Widodo not to sign the bill because it will be used to jail journalists and create an atmosphere of fear in newsrooms throughout the country. In a statement released on December 8, the UN expressed concern that ‘the revised Criminal Code contravenes Indonesia’s international legal obligations with respect to human rights. Some articles have the potential to criminalise journalistic work… Others would discriminate against, or have a discriminatory impact on, women, girls, boys and sexual minorities’.

Indeed, the code comprises oppressive and vague provisions which open the door to invasions of privacy and selective enforcement. Police could use it as a tool to extract bribes, politicians to harass political opponents, and officials to jail suspecting bloggers.

‘In one fell swoop, Indonesia’s human rights situation has taken a drastic turn for the worse, with potentially millions of people… subject to criminal prosecution under this deeply flawed law,’ says Andreas Harsono, senior Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Politicians insist the new code conforms with the country’s traditions and culture.

The law banning sex outside marriage and cohabitation, attracting prison sentences of one year and six months respectively, will have far-reaching consequences for millions of couples living together without marriage certificates. Many indigenous people, minorities and even poor Muslims who have married in traditional Islamic ceremonies called kawin siri are unable to obtain marriage certificates due to the complicated application process, and will thus live in constant fear of prosecution. The government says only a husband, wife, parents or children can be the complainant, but this will enable suspicious men to report against their wives, or families to report young women who independently choose their partners. LGBT people and sex workers will be the worst affected.

Abortion continues to be punishable by up four years in prison, though exceptions have been added for victims of rape or sexual violence if the foetus is not more than 14 weeks old, or when there is a medical emergency. Anyone who helps a pregnant woman to procurean abortion can end up in prison for five years. This implies that even those using or selling morning-after pills could be proceeded against.

However, most controversial is the expansion of the 1965 blasphemy law (already widely misused against minorities), covering six officially recognised religions– Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism – from one to six articles (300-305). While the jail term has been reduced to a maximum of three years, Article 302 criminalises relinquishing a religion or a belief as apostasy. Anyone trying to persuade a believer to become a non-believer faces punishment, too.

HARSH PENALTY: Former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was jailed for two years for ‘insulting’ Islam
HARSH PENALTY: Former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was jailed for two years for ‘insulting’ Islam

A high profile case is that of former Jakarta Governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent popularly known as Ahok. In May 2017, Ahok was sentenced to two years for ‘insulting’Islam by referring to a verse from the Holy Quran during a gubernatorial campaign speech. Earlier, in 2012, Alexander Aan, an atheist, was given a 30-month jail term and fined 100 million rupiah for posting ‘God does not exist’ on Facebook, which was interpreted as being blasphemous.

Then there is the Religious Harmony Regulation, under which places of worship have to be licensed, for which the support by at least 150 local residents and local officials is mandatory. More than 2,000 churches have been closed down since the regulation came into force in 2006, according to reports.

Attacks on minorities by fanatic groups have also been reported. In November 2020, a Christian village in Sulawesi was attacked by the East Indonesia Mujahideen. Four people were killed and six houses and a church burned down. Other minorities have also been at the receiving end of attacks, especially Muslim sects including Shia, Ahmadiyya and Bohra. In September, an Ahmadiyya mosque was attacked and burned down by a mob organised by the Alliance of Muslims in Sintang, West Kalimantan. In August 2020, a group of fanatics attacked a Shiite pre-wedding party in Solo, Central Java, shouting anti-Shia slogans.

A very strong undercurrent exists, among both hardliners and those considered comparatively liberal, against Marxists and Communists. In 1965-66, the Suharto military regime unleashed a murderous campaign against communists, progressives and trade unionists. It also targeted ethnic Javanese, Chinese, and atheists, killing more than a million people. Even today anti-communism is alive. The criminal code has a provision of 10-year prison in term for associating with organizations having Marxist-Leninist ideology and a four-year sentence for spreading communism.

Business circles and those with a modern outlook are worried because this controversial new law could adversely affect the economy, leading foreign investors and tourists to avoid Indonesia. Nevertheless, there is still hope that the government might reconsider and deliver a reformed package, following discussions with civil society, business associations and other stake holders.

Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada

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