LGBT Activism Under Attack in Surabaya, Indonesia

Part 2

Indonesia hotelPhoto by Karen Liao, Common Language China

Staff members Grace Poore and Ging Cristobal of IGLHRC's Asia & Pacific Program were in Surabaya, Indonesia for the ILGA Asia conference scheduled to begin in the East Java capital on Friday March 26 and run through the weekend to March 29 2010.

However, on March 24th as participants began arriving in preparation for the weekend's activities, Indonesian police ordered the cancellation of the conference after anti-LGBT pressure from Islamist fundamentalist groups. Although conference participants moved to a new venue in Surabaya, they were tracked there and fundamentalist groups continued to threaten their safety with one of the groups occupying the hotel lobby for several days, starting on Muslim prayer day, Friday March 26th After many tense hours of negotiation and threats of violence, local activists were forced to leave the hotel and foreign attendees forced to disperse throughout Surabaya until they could leave Indonesia.

The 100 activists who made it to Surabaya, representing 100 organizations in 16 Asian countries are all currently safe.

Grace Poore documented her experience.

Go to Part 1: Police force activists to cancel the conference »

3/26/10 - Friday

Morning: The breakfast buffet is bustling. Ninety-nine percent of us are Asian, and you see our diverse faces, skin tones, hair textures. The atmosphere is light and even cheery. There is no hint of the doom and terror from last night's security briefing. It's surreal.

Two members of the waria community that I met at the Indonesia launch of the Yogyakarta Principles in 2008 smile when they seem me and kiss me on both cheeks. "The situation is blown out of proportion. Don't worry," says the waria from Yogyakarta. The other adds, "We face this in Aceh every day!"

8:30 AM – We cluster in a circle in the fourth floor corridor for abbreviated speeches in lowered voices, stifled clapping, and lots of shushing. Someone says, "This is real activism. Not theory."

9:00 AM – Discussion groups are held on "Regional LGBT Advocacy," "Homophobia, Transphobia and Domestic Violence," and "Reaching Out to Queer Asia."

Before we end, a member of the ILGA Asia Board tells us that the afternoon meetings are cancelled to avoid trouble with the hotel and police.

12:30 PM – Lunch. Half way through chicken and rice, a member of the evacuation team comes around.

"Every one must go to their room now. The fundamentalists are coming." The urgency in her voice is not matched by our response. Curiosity keeps me from going to my room on the third floor. I hang back to watch what happens from over the first floor balcony.

A black SUV with darkened windows pulls up in front of the hotel tailed by a police car. Three uniformed officers get out of the police car. I later learn they are police intelligence. Two more SUVs quickly follow, out of which tumble young men dressed in pants, t-shirts, and jackets; some with beards, others with clean-shaven faces; most seemingly working class or maybe poor. The leaders are older and well dressed, some in clerics robes.

To my amazement, the fundamentalists walk directly into the hotel lobby.

Motorcycles and more vans arrive. About twenty more young men approach the hotel entrance, but the police stop them from entering. They form a mob just beyond the glass panels of the hotel lobby.

Photo by Karen Liao, Common Language China

Some of the Indonesian conference organizers are negotiating with the fundamentalists. From the balcony above, I can see a fundamentalist leader talking and gesturing non-stop. I recognize a member of the negotiating team and feel an overwhelming need to stand with my Indonesian colleagues, but I hold myself back. I don't look Indonesian, and so my presence would be a liability -- newspaper reports have made clear that the mob believes the conference is driven by foreign influence. Suddenly there is a shout, followed by more shouts; there is some kind of altercation: one fundamentalist physically strikes one of our organizers, who is negotiating.

The evacuation team orders those of us standing on the balcony to go to our rooms immediately. The eyes of some of the mob members below are hard, narrowed with the look of hate. I know it's a tactic to instill fear, and it works. I've seen the face of rabid condemnation and rage at anti-choice and Pride marches, but I've never been so close. Still, the thought of being locked in my room, unable to witness anything is suffocating. One of the participants has a room facing the front of the hotel, and it becomes an observation point for some of us for the next several hours.

4:20 PM – More fundamentalists are showing up, many with cell phones. Some of them stare up at the windows and draw fingers across their throats signaling death. Seven to ten police vehicles are parked in front of the hotel, one of which is a large olive green truck. Most of the police that I can see mingle among themselves, relaxed, as if waiting for a dignitary to emerge from a concert. I also see some police casually chatting with the protesters.

4:30 PM – About twenty mobile patrol police officers arrive on motorcycles. They immediately don vests and riot gear.

Photo by Ging Cristobal

5:30 PM – Someone from the ILGA Asia Board says, "Go to your room and pack your bags." The South Surabaya Chief of Police has still not agreed to give us police protection and is demanding that we leave the hotel and go to the airport immediately. Most of the participants cannot change their flights on such short notice. Most have nowhere else to stay. We pack, hoping the outcome will change through negotiations.

6:30 PM – The ILGA Asia Board informs us that the South Surabaya Chief of Police has guaranteed protection for one night. He has also agreed to permit international participants to stay until March 29, which is when most of us are scheduled to fly home. However, fundamentalists are permitted to continue to occupy the hotel lobby. Police officers stationed in the hotel will monitor them, whatever that means. The Chief of Police gives us his mobile phone number as a precaution.

I later discover that our side's negotiations with the Chief of Police were at least in part lead by Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, who is a member of the Indonesian Parliament representing East Java, where Surabaya is, and a prominent human rights lawyer, and by Monica Tanuhandaru who works on police reform and assists the central government with the development of a national plan of action on human rights. These women have leverage with police, so their engagement is invaluable. They also our allies, having worked on LGBT rights before. They intervened in Aceh when two gay men were assaulted and later physically and sexually re-victimized by several police officers while they were in police custody.

7:30 PM – The hotel sends up boxes of food so we can eat dinner in our rooms. The restaurant and lobby are crowded with fundamentalists, who have also been served dinner by the hotel - probably a necessary strategy to appease the mob.

8:00 PM – We are warned, "Fundamentalists are going floor to floor to do a sweep. Make sure your doors are locked and all lights turned off." The fundamentalists apparently want to check that we are not holding meetings. I sit in my room, door locked, lights out. After what seems like forever, the room phone rips the silence. Police have intercepted the fundamentalists. The sweep is over.

9:00 PM – As participants and conference organizers strategize about safety and evacuation, one participant receives intelligence from her networks that an armed group of fundamentalists called the Defenders of Islam plans to come to the hotel tomorrow morning with weapons.

We panic. Do we leave? Do we stay? Leaving does not guarantee our safety since the minimal protection offered by police only covers this hotel. And, leaving requires going into the lobby and past the mob. Leaving means even greater uncertainty.

We are advised to leave in two and threes to avoid giving the impression that we are transferring to another hotel. Some participants are afraid their taxis will be followed. The Indonesian organizers try to reassure us. One says, "The fundamentalists are not interested in individuals. They are campaigning against the fact that we congregated together to organize for our rights. The leader of the group that showed up today said as much — ‘As long as you are mere individuals committing this sin, we don't really care. But as soon as you organize we will fight you.' They want to prevent us from using anything from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to claim our rights. They see our organizing as a provocation."

10:00 PM – The participants are making different evacuation plans. Some contact embassies and consulates for sanctuary. Some check out of this hotel and into others. Some leave for the airport. Some choose to stay because they feel safer in the hotel than in the unknown.

I learn that press reports indicate that fundamentalists went from hotel to hotel to see where we had gone after the first hotel reneged. This sweep helped them locate us at our current location. As bad as it is here, going to another hotel is a real risk.

I decide to check-out and leave for another hotel with another participant. I try to be nonchalant as the fundamentalists watch me walk through the lobby. They will consider each of our departures a victory.

At midnight, the fundamentalists threaten to bring a larger mob if the hotel doesn't kick people out. Organizers are intimidated into turning over a list of conference participants. All the Surabaya residents and organizers are forced to evacuate the hotel by 4 AM.

While this is all going on, fundamentalists sealed off the office of Gaya Nusantara, the Surabaya LGBT organization that handled the local organizing for the conference. No staff was in the office at the time, thankfully. I can't believe this is happening. Why do these radicals have so much power in a country of moderate Muslims? Why are police not enforcing rule of law?

3/27/10 - Saturday

In the morning, I watch on Indonesian TV - either Channel 1 or 3 - a demonstration by the Unity Front of the Islam Community (FPU) not far from the Oval Hotel. Among the demonstrators are members of the Indonesian Muslim Students Action Front (KAMMI) carrying posters that pronounce, "Say No to Homosexual Conference in Surabaya," "Say No to Lesbians" and "Surabaya is Not a Gay City."

I return to the Oval Hotel with Ibu Hesti Armiwulan, a national human rights commissioner and an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights. I see that a handful of fundamentalists remain inside the lobby restaurant. Things are quiet. Nine participants including three ILGA Asia board members are still at the hotel until they can leave on Monday morning.

3/28/10 – Sunday

Fundamentalists conducted a room-to-room sweep of the Oval Hotel. The remaining nine participants are told that another mob plans to enter the hotel on Monday morning if everyone from the conference has not left. All non-Surabaya participants will leave this city on Monday.

3/29/10 – Monday

I find out that at one point the Surabaya police offered to issue a new permit in exchange for 5 million rupiah (552 U.S. dollars). They subsequently asked ILGA for 25 million rupiah (2,758 U.S. dollars), presumably for "protection" money. The mob also wanted 1 million rupiah (100 U.S. dollars) from ILGA – presumably as a pay off not to inflict harm. It is likely the hotel paid the mob at least something.

National Human Rights Commission
Ibu Hesti Armiwulan, the Indonesian Human Rights Commissioner, says the Indonesian Human Rights Commission has begun gathering information about the events around the conference, will continue their investigations, and will release a report on their findings. The chair of the Commission, Ifdal Kassim, was a consistent and outspoken critic of efforts to cancel the conference. He said we had broken no laws. The Commission has strongly advocated respect for LGBT people and implementation of the Yogyakarta Principles not only in Indonesia but also throughout the region.

International Solidarity
Indonesian activists have recommended various courses of action. This includes requesting that the international community write letters protesting the failure of the Surabaya police to carry out their duty and arguing that Indonesian activists should not be charged with wrongdoing.

Personal Reflections
It is incredible to me that the police allowed the fundamentalists to enter the hotel at all. Even if a permit for the conference was denied, the police have an obligation to enforce the rule of law—prevent harassment and threats to safety, arrest protesters if necessary for inciting or planning violence, evacuate the mob for trespassing on private property, demand a permit from the fundamentalists if they insist on holding a demonstration, and cordon them off so they can exercise their freedom of expression without preventing ours. Most importantly, the police must protect vulnerable people from violence.

I have spoken with many Indonesian activists, and they have different theories for the police behavior. I heard that: the police do nothing because they have links to the fundamentalists, they extort money in exchange for "protection," both sides benefit from the security racket, they let confrontational situations get out of hand and then arrest everyone in sight. I have also heard that the police can control mobs effectively, but as one person theorized that it can be different with religious groups. The person said to me, "It's different with Muslim groups because they use the name of Islam, which makes it difficult for police to question the legality of the group. To question their legality is to question Islam." I also heard that fundamentalists accuse Muslim police officers with damnation for being "bad" Muslims if they defend the rights of LGBT people.

We have to hold the Indonesian government and the provincial government accountable for caving in to the bullying of a handful of fundamentalist thugs to carry out the ideologies of hard-line ultra-conservative Islamists. This tactic is used in many countries where fundamentalisms thrive, including the United States.

There must be a national and international outcry over what happened in Surabaya. The State and religious moderates in particular must loudly condemn the misuse of Sharia law to justify lawlessness and human rights violations. Raiding hotels, imposing dress codes on women, legalizing death by stoning law for adultery, and/or deploying violence, intimidation and extortion to suppress freedom of expression and association are all contrary to the human rights to which we are all entitled.

This is a wake up call. The fundamentalists posed a much greater threat than was expected--even in a city like Surabaya, often known for being moderate and tolerant. For the Indonesian LGBT movement, questions of organizing capacity and security at grassroots and community-based levels will most likely be addressed with greater attention. Future LGBT activities like the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) and Pride in Surabaya will likely demand alternative and inventive strategies. The emotional and psychological impact of the last few days will be felt for a long time.

Questions remain about the safety of Indonesian activists who conducted most of the face-to-face negotiations with the fundamentalists, including activists from Jakarta. Staff at Gaya Nusantara in Surabaya are still at risk of being attacked, stalked, disrupted. Their office remains sealed and locked up by fundamentalists. The fact that police allowed vigilantes to shut down an NGO that is legally recognized by the State is a clear indication, in my opinion, that non-state actors have gained power over the State. As one activist points out, "It is a turning point for Indonesia."

Meanwhile, those of us who were there will not forget the heartening rallying of Indonesian human rights activists and non-LGBT allies to support LGBT conference attendees. Their solidarity speaks volumes about the need for inter-movement alliances and the need to ensure that our struggles for human rights are interconnected all of the time, not only in a crisis.