Indonesians appear to be broadly accepting of human rights but most respondents in a recent survey said that they did not believe lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Indonesians deserved equal rights. Photo by Irwansyah Putra for Antara.


On paper, Indonesia’s commitment to human rights is stronger than almost all other countries in the region.


Nearly two decades have passed since a new chapter largely based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was inserted into the Indonesian Constitution in 2000. One year earlier, the landmark 1999 Human Rights Law was passed, which strengthened the role and function of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM). Nearly all pieces of legislation passed since 1998 contain at least a discursive commitment to human rights.


But to what extent do Indonesian citizens accept human rights principles? How much do Indonesians really understand and appreciate human rights? Going by the first presidential debate on 20 January, neither candidate feels that the electorate is particularly concerned about human rights issues.


In October 2018, we conducted a public survey of 2,040 respondents drawn from all of Indonesia’s 34 provinces. The survey, which has an estimated margin of error of 2.3 per cent, revealed serious contradictions about Indonesians’ understanding and acceptance of human rights.


Most respondents (79 per cent) believed that they knew what human rights were, although only a third of those respondents reported that they had ever read a definition of them. Almost all respondents (98 per cent) agreed that human rights must be fought for as mandated by the Constitution. Some 91 per cent of respondents agreed that the government must guarantee the rights of its citizens, and 82 per cent considered that it was important that provincial and national leaders were committed to human rights.


Almost half of respondents stated that human rights were consistent with Indonesian culture, while another 43 per cent stated that human rights were somewhat consistent – only 10 per cent of respondents said human rights were inconsistent with Indonesian culture. More than half (53 per cent) of respondents agreed that human rights were consistent with their religion, and another 36 per cent said that they were somewhat consistent. Similar results were seen in the relationship between human rights and tradition (46 per cent consistent and 41 per cent somewhat consistent).


The survey also sought to explore Indonesians’ levels of tolerance. Some 83 per cent of respondents said that they agreed or somewhat agreed that they could accept people of Chinese ethnicity living in their neighbourhood. Similarly, 86 per cent agreed or somewhat agreed that they could accept people of a different religion living in their neighbourhood. Meanwhile, 77 per cent agreed or somewhat agreed that they could accept members of a different religion building a house of worship in their neighbourhood.


On the whole, the survey provided a positive picture about understanding and acceptance of human rights in Indonesia. It also showed that despite fears about eroding tolerance in Indonesia, many Indonesians appear tolerant of members of other faiths in their local environment.


But when pressed on other individual rights, a more complex, and much less rosy, picture emerges. Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of respondents agreed or somewhat agreed with the death penalty. Only 13 per cent disagreed with the death penalty outright, while 25 per cent somewhat disagreed.


Likewise, 70 per cent of respondents responded that they could not accept interfaith marriage, and the survey results were particularly grim when it came to the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Indonesians. Three-quarters of respondents (77 per cent) said that they did not agree that LGBT people deserved equal rights. A similar proportion (73 per cent) said that they could not accept LGBT Indonesians in their neighbourhood.


Our survey shows that Indonesians accept religious difference and tolerate living side by side with followers of different faiths, however they appear to reject individual choice, such as in the matter of interfaith marriage, and firmly object to having LGBT neighbours. This rejection could also be based on the fact that many Indonesians see human rights as being consistent with their religious beliefs, that is, rights cannot contradict their religious opinions. Further, in-depth interviews revealed that many of the people surveyed rejected LGBT citizens because of misplaced fears that they would “recruit” their children or family members.


Indonesians accept human rights and acknowledge that they are important but the survey results suggest that acceptance has its limits, and many Indonesians reject some individual rights. Put another way, human rights in Indonesia could be said to be human rights without liberalism. This suggests that understandings of human rights in Indonesia are influenced by communal ideas around religion and nationalism.


This contradiction is also reflected in political debates. In 2014, many civil society activists backed President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo because he was considered to have a clean human rights record, in contrast to his opponent, Prabowo Subianto. This year, however, Jokowi would struggle to run on a human rights ticket again.


There are three main reasons for this. First, Jokowi has failed to resolve past violations of human rights, as he promised he would during his 2014 campaign. Second, Jokowi has appeared reluctant to respond to clear violations of human rights during his time in office, such as the shooting deaths in Paniai district in Papua, and the acid attack on Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) senior investigator Novel Baswedan. Third, Jokowi’s government has intentionally emphasised economic policy and infrastructure, while paying scant attention to human rights problems and related legal concerns.


Why don’t either of the candidates take human rights seriously? Perhaps it is because both Jokowi and Prabowo have emerged from political traditions that emphasise communalism, nationalism and religion. These are political traditions that see individual freedoms as foreign or even subversive ideas. This is disappointing, and it seems to mark a departure from the aspirations of the post-Soeharto reform era, but it is not that surprising. After all, our survey suggests it makes them no better and no worse than most of the Indonesian citizens they seek to serve.


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