Indonesia’s New Criminal Code Leads to Conflict with US

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
High angle view of city buildings against sky,Jakarta,Indonesia - stock photo
Jakarta, Indonesia. (Stock Photo)

Although it is the world’s fourth largest country by population, and the third largest democracy, Indonesia usually attracts comparatively little attention overseas. But it has had a good year on the international stage with its successful Presidency of the G20 and its coming chairmanship of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The Economist was moved to write: “Why Indonesia matters: Indonesia is back on the map. In the next decade it will only become more important.”

However, in recent weeks, most news coverage has focused on the December 6 passage of its new draft Criminal Code, and this has led to clashes with the US The Code, which would take effect three years hence, was approved by all nine parties during a plenary session in the 575-member lower chamber of the legislature. The current code is over a hundred years old, dating from the height of the Dutch occupation in 1918, and contains many anachronisms. Almost everyone agrees it needed radical revision. 

But the content of such revision has been highly contentious and efforts in 2019 to pass an earlier version failed after riots in the street. Dozens of civil society groups have protested many provisions in the new draft. 

On December 5, the Alliance of Independent Journalists protested against the Code and asserted that it contained at least 17 problematic articles, many of which could threaten press freedom. It maintained that Articles:

–263 criminalizes broadcasting or disseminating false news; 

–264 criminalizes broadcasting news that is uncertain, exaggerated, or incomplete; 

–300, 301, 302 are quasi-blasphemy laws criminalizing statements against religion; 

–218, 219, 220 criminalize attacks on the honor or dignity of the President and Vice President.

–240 and 241 include a crime of insulting the government.

Citra Referandum, of the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute avers that “Expressing your opinion will be seen as an insult to the president, vice president and state institutions,” which could lead to a sentence of up to five years in prison, or a heavy fine. 

The Code extends the long-existing ban on communism and Marxism-Leninism to include all “other ideologies that contradict [Indonesia’s founding ideology of] Pancasila.” But Pancasila is a very broad set of beliefs, so that what might contradict it is unclear. There is also alarm that the new law weakens general legal human rights protections. 

Another concern is that the legislation seeks to protect marriage by outlawing adultery and cohabitation. Following its implicit hierarchy of rights, the US has focused its statements on this latter issue.

In a December 7 press conference, Sung Y. Kim, the US Ambassador to Indonesia, expressed official concern about this element of the Code. He also expressed disappointment over the cancellation of US Special Envoy to Advance Human Rights for LGBTQI+ Jessica Stern’s visit after the Indonesian government said that she would not be welcome. On the same day, in a press briefing at the State Department, spokesperson Ned Price criticized the law and said that the United States is “closely monitoring” it. Price also opined that the law could affect the investment climate in Indonesia—driving away tourists and making expatriate workers nervous. 

In response, the Acting Director General of Law and Human Rights, Dhahana Putra, declared that the new Code would not affect private lives nor drive away foreign investors and tourists since most of these provisions were actually already present in Indonesian law. He added that there could be no juridical process unless someone lodged a legal complaint showing that they had been directly harmed. (cf. Article 284 and Law No. 1/1974) Charges of adultery or cohabitation could only be brought by a spouse, parents, or children. 

Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly stated that if, for example, people from Australia “want to go on a holiday in Bali, and they want to stay in the same room whatsoever, that is their personal matter…. Unless there’s a complaint made by their parents in Australia which is not their culture.” 

In turn, Anwar Abbas, the Deputy Chair of the Indonesian Ulema Council maintained that Ambassador Kim’s statements were threatening and showed that the US wanted to impose its views on LGBT acts and cohabitation on the rest of the world. He added that the US government should have respected Indonesia’s religious and cultural traditions and that if it did not, then Indonesia must, in the words of its first President, Soekarno, say “go to hell with your aid and investment!”

Read in Providence.