March 30, 2010


I wrote the following article for GAY CITY NEWS, New York City's largest queer weekly:

A large, well-organized mob of Islamist fundamentalists in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, on March 26 attacked an international conference led by ILGA-Asia, a branch of the International Lesbian and Gay Association.

The mob used aggressive threats of violence to force police to ban the meeting and to intimidate two host hotels to expel conference participants.

Speaking by telephone from Surabaya, a city of 3 million that is the capital of East Java, ILGA’s co-secretary-general, Renato Sabbadini, told Gay City News that the mob, which grew from 50 to 150, invaded and occupied the Oval Hotel at around 1p.m, shortly after Friday morning prayer services in the city’s mosques had concluded.

According to Indonesian newspapers, the mob was organized jointly by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) –– which has a long history of attacking Indonesian LGBT people and was described by the Jakarta Post as a “radical” group of “hardline” fundamentalists –– and the Indonesian Council of Ulema, an association of Muslim clerics.

Indonesia, a multi-island nation of some 230 million people, has the world’s largest Muslim population. According to the country’s 2000 census, 86.1 percent of Indonesians are Muslims.

“The mob invaded the lobby of the hotel [named the Oval] and would not leave unless the police and the hotel management would guarantee that our conference would not go forward,” Sabbadini told Gay City News.

“The rule of law was basically suspended during the occupation by the Islamists, and both the police and the hotel management gave in completely to the demands of the mob’s leaders, who threatened to call in reinforcements if their demands were not met,” he added. “The hotel management even went so far as to give a complete list of the conference participants staying in the hotel to the mob.

“Later that evening, mob members conducted a floor-by-floor sweep of the hotel, going to the rooms of conference participants to make sure they had left.”

But that was not enough for the mob’s leaders; one member of the event’s local organizing committee, King Oey, told Gay City News he was repeatedly punched by one of the fomenters in the Oval’s lobby for refusing to turn over ILGA’s list of the 150 conference participants from 14 Asian countries, 60 of whom were Indonesians.

One conference participant, Joel Bedos of France, staff coordinator of the Paris-based IDAHO Committee (which organizes the International Day Against Homophobia observed each May in more than 65 countries), said, “We had to hide in our hotel rooms, where we were confined, because a mob of men outside the hotel screamed threats at us as soon as they saw someone at the hotel’s windows.”

Oey, a member of GAYa Nusantara, Indonesia’s oldest gay group, founded in the 1980s, which helped host the conference, told Gay City News, “East Java is a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism, which makes it one of the most hostile parts of Indonesia for LGBT people, and the rise of these extremist groups here are the biggest threat to us now –– more so than the police.”

Although there is no national law making homosexuality illegal in Indonesia, many provinces and cities have local measures against “moral vice” that criminalize homosexuality along with prostitution and drug abuse. (For background, see this reporter’s October 12-18, 2006 article "Indonesian Gays Fight Back.")

Oey told Gay City News the Islamic Defenders Front “will use violence against LGBT people any time they think they can get away with it.”

The Jakarta Post reported that the Front’s secretary-general, Muhammad Chaenruddin, said, “The foreigners were told to leave because Surabaya Muslims believe the conference was against religious values and teachings. We forced them to leave by Sunday, and we also told them not to make a media statement.”

The Jakarta Globe reported, “When the ILGA members planned to hold a news conference after the raid, the Islamic Defenders Front members prevented them, leading to another skirmish.”

The newspaper quoted Arukat Jaswadi, a fundamentalist mob leader, saying, “They are undermining us. It’s clear that we don’t want them to be here for the conference, now they want to hold a press conference.”

By the time Gay City News spoke with Sabbadini late Saturday night Indonesia time, he said that all of the conference participants –– except for five ILGA staffers who remained behind unharmed –– had safely left the hotel and been evacuated to other locations or had returned home.

According to Sabbadini, the ILGA-Asia conference began having problems four days earlier, when local newspapers published sensationalized accounts of the planned meeting.

Oey told Gay City News, “In general, the media here treat homosexuality as hype, and while a few newspapers have somewhat neutral or realistic treatment of homosexuality, for the most part an ingrained homophobic bias persists” in the press.

Following those news reports about the conference, the Islamists began organizing against it. The conference had originally been scheduled for Surabaya’s Mercure Hotel, but after the Islamists contacted its management, the hotel summarily canceled the conference and expelled participants staying there from their rooms.

The Mercure is owned by the giant French-based Accor hotel group, which owns more than 4,000 hotels worldwide, including the Sofitel, Novotel, and Ibis chains.

The conference was hastily switched to the Oval Hotel, where many of the participants moved as well, but by Friday morning the organizers, warned of an impending attack, canceled the public sessions. They succeeded, however, in holding a few workshops in hotel rooms they occupied –– at least until the mob arrived and took over the hotel lobby.

ILGA’s Sabbadini denounced the collusion of both police and management of the two hotels with the anti-gay mob’s leaders.

“By Friday evening, when the occupation of the hotel continued, we saw both the police and the hotel’s managers chatting amiably with the mob leaders, who were being served dinner by white-gloved waiters,” he said.

The Oval Hotel was built last year by an Indonesian company, PT Surya Karang Indah.

Sabbadini told Gay City News, “The police claimed they were powerless to assure the security of the participants in our conference, with the local police passing the buck to the national police, while the national police said it was purely a local matter.”

The conference’s local organizing committee tried to contact Indonesian political leaders to lift the police ban on holding the meeting, but to no avail, he added.

The Jakarta Post did, however, quote Benny Kabur Harman, the justice and human rights commission chairman of the Indonesian House of Representatives, saying on Friday, “[Holding a congress] is a basic human right. Gays and lesbians are citizens whose political and legal rights are guaranteed and protected by the Constitution, which allows freedom of opinion. The state should in no way forbid the congress from being held.”

The website of the Indonesian gay group GAYa Nusantara is gayanusantara.or.id/ . The English-language website of Arus Pelangi (Rainbow Flag), the Indonesian Federation of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex Communities is at aruspelangi.or.id/indeks.php. The ILGA website is http://ilga.org/.

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