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Culture Shock

Indonesia’s Morality Bill: Paternalism in Democracy

By Carter Cooley

Last week, tens of thousands of Indonesians flooded the streets of their capitol Jakarta. Protesters were marching against a proposed morality bill that would completely overhaul the Indonesian criminal justice code as it stands known today. Facing down police lines, tear gas, and water cannons, protesters hocked rocks at the parliament building and clashed with authorities, causing dozens to be hospitalized for minor injuries. The morality bill includes several damning proposals that have inflamed the populace nationwide: the new criminal code sought to ban extramarital sex (which effectively prohibits all homosexual relationships, as gay marriage is illegal), prevent unmarried couples from living together, restrict access to abortion and contraceptives (especially for minors), and significantly expand the legal definitions of blasphemy and treason.

While legislating relationships invoked outrage among the populace, the protesters took special offense to the impingements on private life implied by redefining the terms ‘treason’ and ‘blasphemy.’ According to the conditions of the bill, treason laws would give officials the power to arrest dissenters, peaceful protesters, and anyone who speaks ill of the government; it even included a provision that makes personal insults against the dignity of the president punishable by up to 3 years in prison. The morality bill follows on the footsteps of a bill that curtailed the power of the widely respected Corruption Eradication Commission, an independent agency established as a check on the President and Parliament; the convenience of the morality bill’s proposal following on the footsteps of a bill that severely weakens Indonesia’s foremost anti-corruption infrastructure has been cause for alarm.

Additionally, the bill’s proposed expansion of blasphemy codes and a vague article addressing “living laws,” would give the criminal justice system the appearance of enforcing Sharia Law. From provisions for the jailing of indecently dressed women to the prohibition of unmarried cohabitation, the bill is clearly partial to a somewhat-ecclesiastical, traditional code of law that many have speculated could be used to enforce Sharia law. Intentional or not, the verisimilitude between the bill and Sharia law have evoked contumelies against paternalism and integration of Church and state.

The bill was postponed until the next session of parliament, at which time it will be voted upon. Protests subsided as the week concluded, but Indonesians are still on alert; after decades of corruption and authoritarianism, Indonesians are not likely to roll over and surrender their hard-won democratic liberties.


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