Saturday, 27 March 2010

Islamists hunt gays as authorities close gay conference in Indonesia

By Paul Canning

LGBT attendees at a gay conference in Indonesia have reported being "staked out" by Islamists at their hotel.

According to the Associated Press Indonesian police ordered the cancellation Wednesday 24 March of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, or ILGA regional conference, which was due to take place in Surabaya, East Java's capital with participants from 16 countries.

The decision was made after considering public objections by Muslim groups and the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), Indonesia's top Muslim clerical body, police said.

Abdussomad Bukhori, a prominent member of the cleric council, said the board would oppose any kind of gay event.

"The event will hurt Indonesian Muslims because lesbians and gays are contrary to Islamic teaching," he said. "We will continue to reject any kind of homosexual event."

"There are indications that the event could trigger a social crisis and cause public unrest," national police spokesman Brig. Gen. Sulistyo Ishak said. "This ban was issued for the sake of public order."

However Poedjianti Tan, the head organiser from Surabaya-based Gaya Nusantara, the longest-running gay rights advocacy group in the country and host of the conference, said that police had already given their approval for the conference to be held. However the document bore the wrong date. The document was to be amended by the police and collected early in the week but before they could do it news of the conference made the front-page of a local newspaper on Tuesday.

“The problem is the newspaper articles,” she said.

Conference participants reading a newspaper report of the conference

An estimated 50 to 60 members of conservative Indonesian Islamic groups on Friday March 26 arrived at the hotel where many conference participants were staying.

Organisers had earlier announced that the conference, which was to be held at the Mercure hotel Friday through Sunday, has been officially cancelled although informal meetings were held on Friday morning in several guestrooms at Oval hotel. Many conference participants who were supposed to stay at the Mercure were transfered to Oval hotel after a 20-strong crowd had protested outside the Mercure on Thursday.

Conference participants, who were in the middle of lunch in the hotel lobby at about 1.30pm on Friday, were abruptly told by organisers to return to their rooms as they had received word that protesters were on their way to the hotel.

Shortly after, about two dozen men arrived at the hotel in several minivans. A number of them waited outside the main entrance while others who appeared to be religious leaders came into the hotel and were received in the lobby as staff laid out two rows of chairs.

Conference participants were strongly advised by organisers to remain in their rooms as members of the hardline groups were in the lobby and said to be walking along the hotel corridors.

According to local sources, the men are believed to be from conservative and hard-line Islamic groups including the MUI; Islamic Defender Front (FPI), a local extremist group that is known for violent tactics; and the Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), a local chaper of a worldwide network of the same name that is believed to be very active in a number of countries including the United Kingdom despite being banned by many governments.

At about 5.40pm, from the window of a third floor room which overlooked the hotel’s main entrance, several other participants counted some 30 motorcycles that had trickled into the hotel’s carpark in the past four hours.

At about 7pm, organisers gathered participants in a room and said that they had received information that not only would protesters return in greater numbers the next morning but they might be armed.

At about 8pm, the number of protesters outside the hotel had thinned considerably and by 10.30pm, at least half of the estimated 80 or so participants had left the hotel with all their personal belongings.

There were conflicting reports as to whether the police was willing to guarantee the safety of the participants should they remain in the hotel as some local activists said that it was not beyond members of radical groups to conduct raids of hotel rooms as it had occurred in another city.

Police outside the conference hotel

Poedjiati Tan, head of the organizing committee, told the AP that: "we want to convince Indonesian authorities and religious leaders that we only want to talk about social problems related to this minority group. We are seeking direction and a way out of our problems in health, education and issues of discrimination."

Homosexuality is not illegal in Indonesia, but remains a sensitive issue in the socially conservative, Muslim-majority nation. At the same time, most of its society, which follows a moderate form of Islam, is tolerant, with gay and transsexual entertainers often appearing on television shows.

The ILGA is a worldwide federation of more than 560 local, national and international organizations. Regional ILGA conferences have been held in India, the Philippines and Thailand in the past.

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