Indonesia has been discussing replacing its criminal code ever since it declared its independence from the Dutch in 1945.
For decades, lawmakers have attempted to replace it, with previous attempts resulting in the largest public protests in Indonesia since the 1998 fall of former president Soeharto.
This time, they succeeded in replacing it.
In the past few days, Indonesia introduced a new criminal code with support from all political parties – and it sent shockwaves around the globe.
Indonesia Outlaws Extra-martial Sex
On 6 December 2022, Indonesia’s parliament passed a controversial new criminal code that bans sex outside marriage.
The cost of doing so is a heavy punishment of up to one year in jail.
Anyone caught engaging in sex outside of marriage faces up to a year in jail or fines and anyone found to be cohabiting as husband and wife outside of marriage faces up to six months in jail.
The police can prosecute anyone if they receive formal complaints made by their family members be it their parent, child, or spouse.
This alone has ignited several protests across the country and the next part of it caught the attention of the world – this law applies not only to residents but also to foreign expats and tourists in the country.
Indonesians and foreigners alike can be prosecuted under this new criminal code.
Prior to the approval of this criminal code on sex and living together before marriage, sex before marriage was banned but that law was usually not enforced.
Adultery (defined as sex between a married man and someone who was not his wife) was also banned before this new criminal code was announced.
Who is Affected and How?
This law targets many groups of people.
Within Indonesia, we have Indonesians themselves, its tourism industry, and its LGBTQ+ community. Outside of Indonesia, the rest of the world is expected to be affected.
For foreigners, which include expats and tourists, uncertainty has brewed while many experts raise concerns about this new law deterring foreigners from visiting Indonesia as well as negatively impacting investments.
This would result in catastrophic blows to Indonesia’s tourism industry and its economic recovery which are barely scraping by since the COVID-19 pandemic.
All eyes have focused on Bali, Indonesia’s holiday and tourist-reliant island, as it regularly welcomes tourists.
In particular, this piece of news has blown up over Australia where some newspapers have dubbed it the “Bali bonk ban”.
Australia is a main pillar of support on which Indonesia’s tourism industry heavily leans. Australia was Indonesia’s number one tourist source before COVID-19 hit.
Thousands of Australians flock to Bali’s sandy shores every month to enjoy its nightlife, party scene, cheap Bintang beers, warm weather, and so much more.
Bali has seen many weddings and it is a common holiday destination for Australia’s graduate students to visit as they celebrate finishing high school.
It comes as no surprise, then, that after this law was introduced, many started hesitating on future trips.
Tourists took to Facebook pages dedicated to tourism in Indonesia, discussing the effects of this new criminal code.
Among the concerns aired were suggestions of bringing marriage certificates along when visiting Indonesia and questions about if one would be allowed to share a hotel room with their partner.
Some even pointed out that the ban on sex before marriage was unlikely to affect tourists because any prosecution would require an official complaint filed by family members of the accused.
Operators in Indonesia’s hospitality sector share the same concerns as tourists too.
Bali was quick to react to this piece of legislation, with its tourism chief Tjokorda Bagus Pemayun stating that foreigners should not be deterred by it.
When interviewed by CNA, Mr Pemayun quelled travellers’ worries, telling them to not worry “because based on our discussions with the various hotel and tourism associations, hotels won’t be asking for marital status (documentation)”.
Travellers would be treated normally, without being checked for their marital status.
The head of the Bali chapter of the Indonesian Tours and Travel Agencies Association, Putu Winastra, also mentioned that there was no need to “make such a fuss” and that tourists “who come to Bali will still feel comfortable because the hotels will ensure their privacy”.
Tourists will be given a room if they arrive with their partners.
Mr Winastra emphasised how one’s marital status is a private matter that hotels would not invade in by asking for a marriage certificate.
In shedding some optimism about the situation, Mr Winastra said, “We are optimistic in 2023, there will be an increase in visits, so we hope the criminal code won’t have any effect because the hotels will ensure people’s privacy”.
For residents in Indonesia, however, this new criminal code is not something that would simply dampen a week of their holiday – it will shake their lives.
The new criminal code, particularly the section which bans premarital sex, has been condemned by critics who say that it infringes on people’s personal lives and attempts to silence criticism levelled at the government.
In other words, this new criminal code is a step backwards for Indonesia’s democracy.
Furthermore, while it does not specify sex work, the ban on extramarital sex effectively makes sex work and prostitution illegal.
On top of this, there are fears that this new code will be weaponised against the LGBTQ+ community, who cannot marry under Indonesian law, in Indonesia.
While homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia (save for the province of Aceh), this new code is said to essentially criminalise members of the LGBTQ+ community.
As members of the LGBTQ+ community are unable to marry under Indonesian law, living together or simply displaying public acts of affection with another person of the same gender could land them in prison.
The passing of this new code, deemed a “disaster” for human rights by opponents of the code, has already incited several protests.
Notably, a few groups of predominantly young people protested against this legislation outside parliament in Jakarta the week it was announced and challenges to the new laws are expected to be made in court.
Multiple businesses have also expressed their disapproval of the new code, citing its deterrence effect on visitors and investors.
However, politicians have celebrated the replacement of the previous laws which stemmed from Dutch colonial rule, considering this an achievement.
It must also be noted that politicians rushed through this new criminal code at short notice in spite of widespread criticism and few opportunities for public consultation.
Many of the code’s provisions’ scopes are dangerously vague and wide. Indonesians dub them “rubber provisions” since they merely empower the state at the cost of its citizens.
This Isn’t Just About Banning Sex Outside of Marriage
Unfortunately, the provision that bans extramarital sex is just one of the provisions that have garnered international backlash.
Other provisions include ones that impose conservative moral values about sexuality and restrict people’s rights to freedom of expression.
The provision which criminalises insulting public officials (which includes the president and government officials) is particularly dangerous in that, even if the allegations against the officers are true, an offence has still technically been committed if the official is insulted.
Another provision restricts women’s access to information about contraception as well as abortions. There are jail terms for those who disseminate information about contraception as well as a four-year sentence for women who undergo abortions (though there are exceptions for rape victims and medical emergencies).
In essence, this code is a blow to open debate and press freedom, giving leeway for the government to crack down on its opponents.
As such, human rights activists and organisations are heavily concerned about the freedom of press implications, freedom of expression implications and so on.
To add to this growing list, the criminal code entails a provision that deals with blasphemy which increases restrictions on religion and religious life, empowering the ways through which minority religious groups can be persecuted. This will inevitably heighten the growing tensions in post-Soeharto Indonesia.
Notably, this new code has made it illegal to persuade someone to be a non-believer.
While this new criminal code will not come into effect for three years in order to allow for implementing regulations to be drafted, the expected effects of it have already drawn cries of uproar from citizens and foreigners alike.
The future of Indonesia’s democracy certainly seems bleak following the wake of this announcement and its citizens appear unwilling to back down without a fight.
As protests against this new code continue, it remains undetermined and unclear how the future will play out.
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