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Indonesia’s Police Chief Investigates Transgender Raids

Rebuke of Beauty Parlor Arrests in Aceh Should Prompt Wider Inquiry

Indonesia’s National Police chief, Gen. Tito Karnavian, at police headquarters in Jakarta, October 17, 2016.  © 2016 Reuters

Indonesia’s police chief General Tito Karnavian has ordered his provincial head in Aceh province to question a subordinate about raids his forces conducted over the weekend on beauty parlors where transgender women worked.

On January 27, police and Sharia (Islamic law) police jointly raided five hair salons that employed waria, or transgender women, arresting a dozen clients and employees, forcing them to strip off their shirts and cut their hair in public, and detaining them for 72 hours. The Sharia police in Aceh have a well-documented history of targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Immediately following these latest raids, North Aceh Police Chief Untung Sangaji said, as captured in a phone recording posted to YouTube: “Our ulama [Muslim scholars] disagree with this disease. [This disease] is spreading. It’s inhumane if Untung Sangaji is to tolerate these sissy garbage.” He initially threatened to take action not only against waria across the province, but also any visitors to their hair salons.

On Tuesday, General Karnavian, who reports directly to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, told reporters that he had ordered an investigation into Sangaji’s behavior. And by Wednesday, after the chastisement from Jakarta, Sangaji had issued a lukewarm apology to, “parties who felt offended with what I did.” In 2016, amid rising anti-LGBT intolerance, Jokowi declared that, “the police must act,” against any attempts to harm LGBT people or deny them their rights.

Karnavian’s action sends an important and timely message, but he should cast a much wider net and conduct meaningful investigations into similar incidents across the country. This is just the latest case in which Indonesian police have targeted LGBT-related spaces and people. Raids have targeted everything from lesbian-owned houses to private gay clubs. Last year, police nabbed more than 300 LGBT people in raids as the government-driven moral panic about sexuality intensified.

The raids form a disturbing pattern that strike fear into already-marginalized communities. Police invading private spaces – be it hotel rooms, homes, clubs, or beauty parlors – to harass an unpopular minority represents a threat to all Indonesians. Karnavian’s rebuke of the Aceh raid is a good start, but police need to stop these raids altogether to restore public confidence.

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