Thursday, February 10, 2011

INDONESIA - Sex, torture and videotape

Take me back to never-never land

IT CAN be hard to know what to make of Indonesia these days. On the one hand, it delivered the world’s third-best economic performance during the recent global financial meltdown, and hears itself mentioned in the same breath as China and India among global investors looking for a place to park their spare billions.
But this newfound international recognition—Indonesia recently joined the G20—and the ongoing economic boom seem to be doing nothing for the country’s ongoing democratisation and anti-corruption drives, both of which have stalled in their tracks.

And then there’s the matter of Indonesia’s old-fashioned moral compass, which is plainly coming unstuck. But there is fierce disagreement about which kind of morals need defending.

On January 31st a district court in Bandung, two hours’ drive from Jakarta, sentenced Nazril “Ariel” Inham, frontman for the pop group Peterpan, to three and a half years in prison for making a series of homemade sex tapes with his celebrity girlfriends. (Shades of Hong Kong’s Edison Chen!) Never mind that the recordings were only released after they were stolen from Ariel’s house near Bandung; they were posted online in June 2010. Under the law that resulted from the Bill on Pornography and Pornaksi, his “pornoaction” was liable for prosecution, regardless of whether or not he was involved in its dissemination. A national sensation ensued, bringing out screaming teenyboppers in support of the defendant and fire-breathing Islamist groups demanding that poor Ariel be lynched. The panel of judges who tried his case ruled that the pop star himself was guilty of “giving other people the opportunity to spread, make and provide pornography.”

The verdict made little sense from a legal perspective, but it makes perfect sense in today’s climate of moralistic iniquity. Attacking pornography has become the easiest way to attract populist sympathy. While Ariel himself didn’t post the (quite popular) sex tapes, the judges appear to have been cowed by radical protestors who vowed to burn down the courthouse if the young lothario was acquitted. It didn’t help that the president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), a no-nonsense retired general, took a personal interest in the case last year, ordering the national police to go after everyone involved. The sex-tapes ruling was only the latest black eye for the country’s judiciary, which in recent months has been caught arranging to acquit defendants charged with corruption in exchange for a share of the spoils.

Meanwhile popular musicians, as well as journalists and poor people, are sent to prison. In August 2010 the Supreme Court inexplicably overturned the acquittal of the editor-in-chief of Playboy Indonesia and sentenced him to two years in prison.

He was jailed on a charge of indecency, despite the fact that his now-defunct magazine had never published a single nude photo.

Not only is the ongoing morality crackdown at odds with the reformasi movement, which ousted a long-reigning dictator, Suharto, in 1998, but the state officials who are charged with enforcing it have themselves been implicated in profile corruption cases and—yes, even sex scandals. Top prize must go to the senior national police officials, state prosecutors, and judge who were implicated last year in fixing the trial of a rogue taxman, Gayus Tambunan, who bilked the government for $11m by helping big businesses avoid paying taxes. “SuperGayus”, who subsequently became a household name, was retried and sentenced to seven years in January. But not before bribing his way out of police detention on more than 60 separate occasions, taking holidays in Bali, Macau and Malaysia. Two members of SBY’s own cabinet were alleged to have had extramarital affairs, while another lawmaker from the president’s party was accused of rape. All three are still in their jobs.

SBY, who boasted of Indonesia’s democratic and economic gains during a speech before the World Economic Forum in Davos, must have been thanking his lucky stars that the verdict in the “Peterporn” trial came afterwards. Otherwise, he might have been asked to explain an awkward discrepancy to the world’s press. For on January 24th three soldiers from SBY’s beloved armed forces took jail sentences of less than one year each, after being convicted of brutally torturing two Indonesian civilians in the restive province of Papua last year. Their crimes too were caught on video, then leaked and posted online. But then Ariel received a sentence of more than four times that length, for the crime of making sex tapes in his own home. The irony raises a difficult question for the new Indonesia: is sex now considered to be a worse offence than torture?

(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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