From Asia Times http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/HC18Ae01.html

Mar 18, 2006

Indonesia: The politics of bare flesh

By Desi Anwar

BALI - The Balinese are calling it the third Bali bomb, threatening to frighten even more foreign tourists away from their beaches.

A proposed bill on pornography currently under deliberation by Indonesia's parliament could be the coup de grace for the island's tourism industry - already in the death throes after a second bomb attack that targeted tourists (in October 2005) and recent fears over the uncontrolled spread of the bird-flu virus, according to Tjokorda Oka Sukawati, head of Bali's Hotel and Restaurant Association.

Hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops are slashing prices to compete for the continually dwindling number of tourists. Many vendors are closing down and contemplating going back to till the land, says Tjokorda. The proposed pornography ban - which would make kissing and baring flesh in public punishable by possible jail terms and fines reaching into the millions of rupiah - threatens to drive sunbathers to neighboring countries' beaches at a time when Bali's tourism industry is already deep in the doldrums.

Economics aside, the proposed anti-pornography law and its oddly named companion the "anti-pornoaction" bill vie to push modern, moderate Indonesia in the direction of the many repressive regimes seen in the Middle East. The bill is generating a wave of popular resistance from women who see the bill as a further violation of their already limited rights. More broadly, the proposed legislation threatens the harmony of a predominantly Muslim nation that has historically celebrated its unity in diversity. The bill also threatens to undermine Indonesia's hard-won democracy and new laws aimed at protecting freedom of expression.

The porn law threatens to criminalize various actions that by their very nature are subject to interpretation and would necessarily result in arbitrary enforcement. For example, showing one's buttocks in public can get you two to six years in jail, though for some reason showing your genitals or breasts is less of an offense, earning you only one to five years in the clink.

For masturbating in public, you can get two to 10 years behind bars, which incidentally is an offense viewed only slightly less seriously than pedophilia, a crime that carries three to 10 years in jail. That's on par with moving one's body erotically in public, which to some legislative minds might incite sexual arousal and other moral depravities.

Why Indonesia's legislators are expending their valuable time to deliberate the proposed legislation, particularly considering that the laws on the books regulating public decency, domestic violence and other sexual offenses are still in need of better enforcement, is mind-boggling. Syafriansyah, a legislator with the Muslim PPP (United Development Party), has said the country's morality is in decline and hence the people need to be controlled to make sure that the nation doesn't go collectively to hell. The unnerving subtext is that prominent members of certain Muslim parties are trying to use the proposed legislation as a beachhead for pushing forward their broader political agenda of implementing Sharia law nationwide.

Aceh, whose special autonomy status allows it to impose its own brand of sharia law, which includes the use of public lashings, publicly parading alleged prostitutes and casting judgment on women's attire, is the model these legislators aspire to. In several urban areas, such as the regency of Tangerang on the outskirts of Jakarta, some local governments have taken advantage of their new regional autonomy to arbitrarily force women to wear head scarves and stay home at night or risk being charged with soliciting.

Increasingly these Muslim politicians are obsessed with issues of morality rather than delivering on their electoral promises of cleaning up corruption and creating a more just and equitable society - the issues that got them elected in the first place. Now that questions of morality have entered the national agenda in the shape of an anti-pornography bill, it looks as if the central government also is keen to impose these narrow sectarian values on the entire nation - which could stoke ethnic, religious and cultural tensions across the archipelago.

From Papua, where normal clothing consists of penis sheaths and grass skirts, to Bali, where the baring of the flesh is an integral part of its cultural traditions reflected in dances, paintings, sculptures and even religious worship, to Java, where female traditional costumes such as the kebaya are designed to enhance a woman's curves rather than hide them, Indonesia is a testimony to a pluralist society that celebrates its beauty and art in all its different manifestations.

To force a restrictive style of clothing, where women cannot show their hair, arms and legs or move about in a manner that might provoke lust in men, not only violates Indonesia's basic laws and cultural character, but threatens to undermine the greater regional autonomy and grass roots democracy-promoting policies the government is meant to be implementing.

The secessionists in Papua see this as another form of central government arrogance and another reason to opt out of the republic. Banners protesting the anti-pornography bill in Bali are already calling for the Hindu island's independence. At the same time, other non-Muslim Indonesians are wondering how they fit into all of this discussion.

The Asian financial crisis hit Indonesia particularly hard, and many people are looking to the government to find ways to improve the economy and up the national standard of living. Many wonder why parliamentarians instead are dedicating so much time and national resource to a cause that appears to be a distinct move away from pluralistic democracy and toward the authoritarianism seen in many Middle Eastern countries.

In practicality, it would be difficult to impose this kind of law short of assigning moral police across this archipelago of more than 17,000 islands and 215 million people. Most of the local arts and entertainment would have to be banned as nearly all of the traditional dances figure sensual movements and bare shoulders of some sort, not to mention hiding away paintings, sculptures and all kinds of traditional art works that pertain to fertility and physical beauty. Women would conceivably be forced to stay at home as they fear being mistaken for a prostitute or arrested for showing too much flesh. The bill's hugely adverse impact would be as much social as it would be economic.

Supporters of the bill, who often decry the country's trend toward liberalization as kowtowing to the degenerate West, might be wondering why they have encountered so much popular resistance. Past efforts to turn Indonesia into an Islamic state have been launched and failed. As a full-fledged representative democracy, parties that campaigned on fundamentalist platforms performed poorly during the last round of presidential and parliamentary elections. And if those that were elected prioritize anti-pornography legislation over improving the overall national good, they could find themselves out of jobs after the next polls.

<i>Desi Anwar is a Jakarta-based television and print journalist.
_________________________
Jawawa.net: Indonesian Business and Investment News Aggregator