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Indonesia Goes Its Own Way

Changes to Indonesia’s criminal code send liberal internationalists into a frenzied opposition.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo

In the wake of Indonesia restructuring their criminal code, liberal observers of world politics are left wondering if anti-colonialism and democracy are all they’re cracked up to be.

On Tuesday, lawmakers in Indonesia unanimously passed large changes to the country’s criminal code. It now bans cohabitation before marriage, sex before marriage, and apostasy against the country’s six recognized religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. It criminalizes spreading communism and associating with organizations that espouse Marxist-Leninist ideologies, violations that could carry a prison sentence up to four years and ten years, respectively. It also reinstates a ban on insulting a sitting president or vice president or the national ideology. Criminalization of abortion and the use of “black magic” remain.

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The revised criminal code, which spans about 200 pages, is the product of a years-long process. A previous draft of the revision, which included many similar provisions, was considered in 2019 by the legislature. But large demonstrations of students (who else) led Indonesian President Joko Widodo to table the vote on the new criminal code and return to the issue after “seriously considering feedback from different parties who feel objections on some substantial content of the criminal code,” he said in a televised address at the time. Widodo then tasked Law and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly with hearing the dissatisfied parties’ objections so that reasonable changes could be made.

International human rights organizations and other outside groups, such as Amnesty International Indonesia, claim that “no meaningful changes” have been made between the 2019 and the current draft.

But that is not completely true. Some of the provisions have been watered down. For example, the statute that bans sex outside of marriage added stipulations that only spouses, parents, or children of the offenders can report offenses. Furthermore, violations of the reinstated code that bans insulting the president must be reported by the president himself.

During a Tuesday news conference, Laoly said creating a criminal code for a multicultural and multi-ethnic country that “accommodates all interests” isn’t easy, and hoped that the Indonesian people see that the government made efforts to accommodate all “public aspiration[s]” throughout the process and with the unanimous vote in favor.

Edward Omar Sharif Hiariej, the Indonesian deputy justice minister, told Reuters, “We’re proud to have a criminal code that’s in line with Indonesian values.”

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Prior to the criminal code revisions, which President Widodo is expected to sign next week, Indonesia’s penal code was predominantly a relic of the colonial period. Despite declaring their independence in August of 1945, the Dutch colonial administration’s code has lingered as Indonesian lawmakers grappled with the difficulties of their own self determination. These civilizational questions eventually gave rise to Soekarno, then Suharto, then the revolution of 1998. But Indonesian lawmakers kept toiling on how to form a criminal code in line with the traditions, norms, and values of the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation while recognizing the country is home to more than 1,000 different ethnic groups and sizable religious minorities.

“It turns out that it is not easy for us to break away from the colonial living legacy, even though this nation no longer wants to use colonial products,” Laoly said at the Tuesday press briefing. “Finalizing this process demonstrates that even 76 years after the Dutch Criminal Code was adopted as the Indonesian Criminal Code, it is never too late to produce laws on our own,” Laoly continued. “The Criminal Code is a reflection of the civilization of a nation.”

Bambang Wuryanto, a member of the People's Representative Council who led the parliamentary commission to revise Indonesia’s criminal code, said, “All have agreed to ratify the (draft changes) into law… The old code belongs to Dutch heritage … and is no longer relevant.”

One would think liberals, self-proclaimed champions of democracy and anti-colonialism, would celebrate Indonesia’s new criminal code. Isn’t this exactly how their chosen politics should work? The people elect representatives in what international observers consider mostly free and fair elections, those representatives make laws, and when the people voice their objections, politicians reconsider and revise their proposals to build a more thorough consensus. 

This isn’t to say that Indonesia is some model country. It still has a myriad of problems. Some changes to their criminal code are better—like how the new code altered the country’s death penalty laws so that prisoners with ten years of good behavior can have their sentence changed to life in prison—some worse. Nevertheless, Indonesia’s government and its people seem to be in agreement that this was a good faith effort to create something uniquely theirs; something that mirrors their traditions and values; something meant to combat some of the cultural rot every country seems to be experiencing. Indonesia played this one by the book, but don’t expect them to get any credit for it.

Western corporate media outlets manically thumbed through their rolodexes to find a cadre of experts they could trot out in opposition to the new criminal code. CNN reported that critics of the changes feared it would “disproportionately impact women.” Andreas Harsono, a researcher with Human Rights Watch Indonesia, told CNN that it's “a setback for already declining religious freedom in Indonesia.” Shinta Widjaja Sukamdani of Indonesia’s Employers’ Association feared it might “make investors reconsider investing in Indonesia.” Association of the Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies Chairman Putu Winastra also spoke with CNN, and claimed the criminal code would “make foreigners think twice” about visiting the archipelago nation. Another story published by CNN, this time from CNN Travel, was headlined, “How Indonesia's new sex laws will affect tourists,” as if to say, if you’re like us, and were hoping to get laid on your next trip to Indonesia, think again!

It is all awfully telling of where liberal internationalists' priorities truly lie. Liberal internationalists conflate or use terms like democracy and anti-colonialism interchangeably with liberalism, but aren’t really for either in any meaningful way. Liberal internationalists were always, first and foremost, for liberalism: that grand choose your own adventure where the state counts beans, rather than directs its citizens to man’s ultimate ends. They perceive democracy and anti-colonialism are means to those liberal ends. When they’re not, they’re thrown by the wayside. After all, they have a litany of other ways to impose their depravity that prioritizes consequence-free sex and multi-national corporate investment over strong families.

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