ILGA is an international association with members of all the regions of the world. Part of its activity consists in organizing every two years a World Conference and several Regional Conferences. After successful conferences in India, the Philippines and Thailand, ILGA Asia accepted the proposal of Gaya Nusantara, the oldest organization of lesbians, gay and transgendered people in Indonesia, to host the IV Regional Conference of ILGA Asia in Surabaya, Indonesia.
To organize the Conference, they asked for the related endorsement to the police of the City. Upon receipt of the endorsement, Gaya Nusantara drew the authorities’ attention to the fact that the dates on the permit did not correspond to those of the conference (26-28 March 2010). The authorities recognized the mistake and promised to correct it. When the organizers came back to collect the new permit with the correct dates, the authorities, with the signed permit in their hand, received a phone call from someone asking for the cancellation of the conference, three days before the opening of the conference, when most participants had already booked their tickets to or were already on their way to Surabaya.
The rationale provided for the cancellation was that the press had announced the celebration of the Conference and fundamentalist groups, which were against its celebration, had begun to threaten with violent protests, despite the different voices aroused from the academy, the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission, and social organizations in protest of the fundamentalist press.
The Police itself gave then a warning to the hotel Mercure (of the Accor group), where the Conference was expected to take place, and the management of the latter dissolved the contract with Gaya Nusantara. As a consequence, the Conference and its participants had to move to the Oval Hotel, which kindly accepted to host the event and where some participants had already booked their rooms. In the remaining days before the conference the organizers tried to mobilize as much support from high-level public figures as possible to persuade the Police to return to their initial endorsement, but it was to no avail.
In order to avoid problems, the organizers decided to declare the Conference canceled and to celebrate only low-profile meetings in the hotel, with the participants who had already arrived, in the hope that such an arrangement would put an end to all problems, while seeing at the same time its right to assembly recognized and respected. Wednesday night we all met, the participants were made aware of situation and the possible risks we would be taking and we still, in spite of all of that decided to go ahead with what we had come to Surabaya for! On Thursday 25 March, in the morning, the inaugural room was empty, a welcome took place in one of the wide corridors of the 4th floor of the hotel, with three strong speeches, after that, four excellent workshops, called “meetings of activists”, among the 100 representatives of more than 12 countries that were there, took place in some of the guests’ rooms.
It was announced that the participants would have had the afternoon off and some left the hotel to visit the city. At lunch time, the personnel of the hotel asked the participants to finish their lunch in their own rooms, as both participants and hotel management were informed about the imminent arrival of fundamentalist groups at the Oval Hotel. All guests went to their rooms. The leaders of the fundamentalist groups entered and sat around a table in front of the entrance of the hotel next to the elevators, talking to one another, while other demonstrators grew into a threatening crowd in front of windows of the entrance.
According to local sources, the men were from the Unity Front of the Community of Islam (FPUI), an ad-hoc coalition of 7 conservative and hard-line Islamic groups including the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), Indonesia’s top Muslim clerical body, the Islamic Defender Front (FPI), a local extremist group that is known for violent tactics, and the Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), a local chapter of a worldwide network by 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 the same time moderate and progressive Muslim groups criticized the actions of the above mentioned groups.
Minutes later, the Regional Board and the Secretaries Generals of ILGA and the communications team were called, to analyze the situation and to take the necessary measures. This implied hours of negotiation with the police and the management of the hotel. At around 4 pm a group of hundreds of demonstrators arrived at the Oval Hotel and the atmosphere grew more tensed as the demonstrators started to make hostile gestures to spectators from the hotel windows.
Initially, the police wanted to shortcut their responsibility by pressuring the organizers to leave the hotel immediately. Only after the mediation of some public figures who were among the participants the police finally offered protection to the participants of the Conference and the hotel management accepted that they could remain in the hotel until the end of their reservations (i.e. between 29 and 30 of March). The police also negotiated with the demonstrators and told them that it had decided to give protection to the participants.
In reality, however, things went differently, as the demonstrators refused to leave and began to put more and more pressure on the organizing Committee and the participants, the former receiving proposals of solution which changed every minute, while those of the latter who wanted to return to the hotel from their excursions feared to come back because of the presence of demonstrators at the entrance.
At the beginning of the night, after 12 hours of tense sit-in, it became necessary to evacuate slowly the participants in groups of four. Some of these were supported by their respective embassies, while others who had to rearrange their flights home went directly to the airport, while others still went to other cities by train or simply to other hotels in Surabaya. This process was very complex and required a constant registration of the participants’ departures, the search for help to take care of the different needs of every participant, and constant attempts to maintain calm inside the hotel.
The tension increased when we knew that the hotel management had been forced by the fundamentalist groups to give the guests list, which included also the names of non-participants to the conference. The fundamentalists demanded that the local people leave the hotel and these had to leave. At 2 am on Saturday 27 March, when we all thought that calm was recovered, the fundamentalists not only demanded the departure of the local people of Surabaya – they also demanded the departure of all Indonesian participants from the hotel. At around 4.30 am, everything seemed back to normal.
As the sun rose the following morning, those who remained in the hotel went to the restaurant for breakfast and noticed a group of people at the entrance of the hotel – where they plain-clothes police? Or were they demonstrators in charge of watching the participants? These questions remain unanswered. The atmosphere in the hotel however was calm, but tense at the same time. The few participants left went out to have a meeting with the organizing Committee, to a place far from the hotel, to exchange updates and to make a first assessment and to examine the possible prospects. The Secretary Generals of ILGA remained in the Oval hotel until most of the participants had left.
On Sunday 29 March, news spread in relation to an article appeared on the Jakarta Post that the fundamentalist promised to come to the Oval hotel to remove all remaining foreigners and to take them directly to the airport. The Secretaries General of ILGA left the hotel with the last participants left and went quickly to a hotel near the airport, where the last departures were arranged. On the same day, news spread also in relation to the Ministry of Religious Affairs announcing a court action against the organizing Committee for “activities against the religion”. According to the opinion of a lawyer consulted by the organizing Committee, such a court action has no legal basis in the Indonesian system. Throughout the same day reports about the safe arrival to destination of certain passengers kept coming in, while the condition of other participants remained uncertain.
ILGA, as part of an international coalition of LGBT rights defenders, has initiated a coordinated operation to denounce and protest against these facts with the concerned international bodies and to demand action from these as a result. Many voices have risen, in Indonesia and in different countries from the world, demanding the respect of the human rights of LGBT people and the right to assembly. The reactions of the extremists and the police have met with great criticism from members of the Indonesian government, and even members from a Muslim government actually voiced their support for our cause.
The demand of action is based on the fact that in Indonesia, (a) the constitution has a strong equality clause, (b) the constitution is based on secular principles, and (c) Indonesia has ratified the major UN human rights treaties, d) LGBT public activities have been openly developed for some years.
But the base for the demand of action is above all the fact that the rights of an important sector of the population were violated, as a number of activists just tried to meet peacefully to discuss about their rights, and as their Conference, as a result of the threat of violence of a group of fundamentalists, was canceled.
We thank all those involved in this process, our colleagues of the International Coalition on LGBT rights, Nursyahbani Katjasungkana and Monica Tanuhandaru, all the participants to the ILGA-Asia Conference, but especially to the ILGA-Asia Board members, all together made us all come back home safe and have already defined with us the lines for the next steps.
This experience has brought on all of us the need for new analyses and reflections. There are deep discussions among ILGA members, and not just within Asia. It is clear that this action will help us reorganize and will lead to amazing networking and building of solidarity amongst the LGBT activists in Asia and the world!