Widodo is not that different from Trudeau

Widodo is not that different from Trudeau

Joko Widodo. (Bangkok Post file photo)
Joko Widodo. (Bangkok Post file photo)

The news out of Indonesia this week is disturbing. In West Papua, the Indonesian-ruled half of the world's second-biggest island, New Guinea, the native people are definitely restive. Some 1.8 million of them, 70% of West Papua's native population, signed a petition demanding the right to self-determination last year, and now much of the island is in revolt.

It's not just about independence. It's a protest against the racist contempt of many Indonesians for the ethnically, culturally different native Papuans. The demos began last month after videos circulated of Indonesian security forces calling protesting Papuan university students "monkeys", "pigs" and "dogs".

On Monday, 27 people were killed in protests in two West Papuan provincial capitals, and the Indonesian government closed down the internet throughout the territory in an attempt to stop the flames of unrest from spreading. Meanwhile, 3,000km to the west in Jakarta, Indonesia's megacity capital, people are protesting against a very different outrage.

This one is legal. Official respect for civil and human rights in Indonesia has greatly improved since the overthrow of Suharto's three-decade dictatorship in 1998. The current president, Joko Widodo ("Jokowi" to one and all), is seen as a sort of Asian Justin Trudeau by his many admirers, and he has just won a second five-year term in a free and fair election. And suddenly, this.

Last week, the Indonesian parliament was about to pass a revised version of the country's criminal code after years of debate -- and the public finally noticed that it is a nightmare of prejudice and intolerance. Many people were aghast and public protests began at once.

The 628-article draft penal code demands a year in jail for extra-marital or pre-marital sex. If they didn't actually catch you at it, just living together as a couple would still earn the guilty parties up to half a year in prison.

The new code criminalises all same-sex activity and bans abortion except in cases of rape or medical emergency (four years in jail for women who unlawfully terminate their pregnancies). And forget freedom of the press: four years in jail for "insulting" the president, the vice-president, parliament, religion, the national flag or the national anthem.

The student-led protests spread all across Indonesia, and last Friday Mr Widodo intervened. The outgoing parliament will not vote on the new code this week. Instead, the parliament will take it up again after it opens next month, and he will ask it to "review" 14 controversial articles before it votes.

But no apology from Mr Widodo for letting things get this far, and no acknowledgement from him that in West Papua Indonesia is effectively a colonial power. What happened to the good guy we thought we knew?

It's like pictures of a younger Justin Trudeau in blackface. The disillusionment is extreme: Mr Nice Guy has feet of clay right up to his armpits. But no politician with aspirations to longevity can always be a good guy.

West Papua, like Indonesia, was part of the Dutch East Indies, but the two had little in common: very few native West Papuans are even Muslim, although Muslim immigrants from Indonesia now account for almost half the population. The people of West Papua wanted independence, but the United States thought it would be safer from Communism if it were ruled by an Indonesian dictator.

So in 1969, West Papua became part of Indonesia by a UN-sanctioned "Act of Free Choice". That is to say, the Indonesian army murdered around 30,000 West Papuans between 1962 and 1969, and then rounded up 1,026 West Papuan men and held their families hostage. An Indonesian general told them that if they voted for independence, their tongues would be ripped out.

Indonesia has no claim to West Papua, and the majority of West Papuans want independence. But they are outnumbered by Indonesian immigrants now, and no Indonesian politician who refuses to condemn West Papuan separatism could survive. So Mr Widodo just keeps quiet when the subject comes up -- and similarly with the criminal code.

Indonesia used to practise an amiable, tolerant form of Islam, but decades of Saudi subsidies for the extreme and intolerant Wahhabi version of the faith have created a powerful activist minority who seek to impose their values on everybody else by law.

No politicians, including Mr Widodo, wanted to make themselves vulnerable to accusations of being anti-Islam by opposing the new criminal code's oppressive measures publicly while they were running for re-election. However many, probably including Mr Widodo, were hoping for public protests after the election, and the protests have occurred.

Now it's safe to intervene, and the worst provisions of the new code will probably be dropped. But that's how politics works.

So is Mr Trudeau, for that matter, although his wounds were self-inflicted. Basically still a good guy, although not that smart.

Gwynne Dyer's new book is 'Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)'.

Gwynne Dyer

Independent journalist

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. His new book is 'Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)'.

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