This is more sinister than you think – my people’s freedom is on the line

A video still showing Indonesian security forces using water cannon to suppress peaceful West Papuan protesters
A video still showing Indonesian security forces using water cannon to suppress peaceful West Papuan protesters on 16 August 2021. Image: Screen shot Amnesty International

By Veronica Koman in Sydney

As an Indonesian lawyer living in exile in Australia, I find it deeply troubling that the changes to the Indonesian Criminal Code are seen through the lens that touchy tourists will be denied their freedom to fornicate on holiday in Bali.

What the far-reaching amendments will actually mean is that hundreds of millions of Indonesians will not be able to criticise any government officials, including the president, police and military.

You can be assured that the implementation of the Criminal Code will not affect the lucrative tourism industry which the Indonesian government depends on – it will affect ordinary people in what is the world’s third largest democracy.

With just 18 out of 575 parliamentarians physically attending the plenary session, Indonesia passed the problematic revised Criminal Code last week. It’s a death knell to democracy in Indonesia.

I live here as an exile because of my work on the armed conflict in West Papua. The United Nations has repeatedly asked Indonesia to drop the politicised charges against me. One of the six laws used against me, about “distributing fake news”, is now incorporated into the Criminal Code.

In West Papua, any other version of events that are different to the statement of police and military, are often labelled “fake news”. In 2019, a piece from independent news agency Reuters was called a hoax by the Indonesian armed forces.

Now, the authors of that article can be charged under the new Criminal Code which will effectively silence journalists and human rights defenders.

Same-sex couples marginalised
Moreover, the ban on sex outside marriage is heteronormative and effectively further marginalises same-sex couples because they can’t marry under Indonesian law.

The law requires as little as a complaint from a relative of someone in a same sex relationship to be enforced, meaning LGBTQIA+ people would live in fear of their disapproving family members weaponising their identity against them.

Meanwhile, technically speaking, the heteronormative cohabitation clause exempts same-sex couples. However, based on existing practice, LGBTQIA+ people would be disproportionately targeted now that people have the moral licence to do it.

The criminal code has predictably sparked Islamophobic commentary from the international community but, for us, this is about the continued erosion of democracy under President Joko Widodo. This is about consolidated power of the oligarchs including the conservatives shrinking the civic space.

Back when I was still able to live in my home country, it was acceptable to notify the police a day prior, or even on the day of a protest. About six years ago, police started to treat the notification as if it was a permit and made the requirements much stricter.

The new Criminal Code makes snap protests illegal, violating international human rights law.

Under the new code, any discussion about Marxism and Communism is illegal. Indonesia is still trapped in the past without any truth-telling about the crimes against humanity that occurred in 1965-66. At least 500,000 Communists and people accused of being communists were killed.

Justice never served
Justice has never been served despite time running out because the remaining survivors are getting older.

It will be West Papuans rather than frisky Australian tourists who bear the brunt of the updated criminal code. The repression there, which I have seen first hand, is beyond anything I’ve seen anywhere else in the country.

Treason charges which normally carry life imprisonment are often abused to silence West Papuans. Just last week, three West Papuans were charged with treason for peacefully flying the symbol of West Papuan independence — the Morning Star flag. The new treason law comes with the death penalty.

It’s shameful that Australia just awarded the chief of Indonesian armed forces the Order of Australia, given that his institution is the main perpetrator of human rights abuses in West Papua.

The new Criminal Code will take effect in three years. There is a window open for the international community, including Australia, to help safeguard the world’s third largest democracy.

Indonesians need you to raise your voice and not just because you’re worried about your trip to Bali.

Veronica Koman is an Indonesian human rights lawyer in exile and a campaigner at Amnesty International Australia. This article was first published by The Sydney Morning Herald and is republished by Asia Pacific Report with the author’s permission.

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