Religion Out of Balance: Aceh’s Latest Pogrom

By Lynnea Urania Stuart


Their eyes told a completely different story from what the sullen police chief demanded.  He attempted to present to the world the amazing “success” of his “re-education” of Acehnese Waria (transwomen,)1 to set an example of the imagined superiority of machismo in yet another abuse of religion and human rights.  Many locals in the Aceh province of Indonesia on the island of Sumatra, of course, would believe him, especially the less educated.

Much of the world, however, could see through the pretense.  So could his victims, even if they dared not admit it.  Perhaps others may follow his example of a gross degradation, authorities who back religious Dominionism in its various forms whether East or West, North or South.  But broader-minded people look upon these actions with disgust, and for more progressive Muslims, perhaps even betrayal.  This week’s round-up of transwomen to “masculinize” them has aroused the ire of multiple human rights organizations for good reason.  It’s another of the many pogroms in the name of religion that have accumulated in history’s garbage dump of backwardness.

Not that the authorities of Aceh care.  Religious fanaticism renders such people pathologically incapable of caring, replacing the genuine human interest that brings disparate peoples together into a working society with the stink of high-handed arrogance fueled by ambition.

But it’s neither an exclusively Muslim nor Indonesian trait, of course.  What happened this week in Indonesia, certain factions desire in the United States.  The actions in Aceh province weren’t examples of harmony-a-la-Sharia.  It’s an example of the kind of forcefulness that has typified every society in which religion becomes enforced upon everyone, whether its people universally believe it or not.  It’s a mockery of faith, a blasphemy against the human spirit, the work of the children of a hateful god cloaked in the garb of the Highest, and a slide in fulfillment of international human rights obligations.



On Monday, January 29, 2018, AFP reported the local police chief Ahmad Untun Surianata declaring:

“We have reports from mothers that their sons were teased by the transgender women.  Their numbers are growing here.  I don’t want that.2

That came after a raid upon 6 beauty salons in Lhoksukon and Pantonlabu.3 The police rounded up a dozen trans employees.  The round-up was accompanied by local vigilantes who tried to storm the transwomen.  Police charged the transwomen with “violating the religious laws of Aceh province”.  Police sheared the long hair of some and forced them to wear male clothing.4

Aceh province has been collectively ruled by Sharia law since 2001, sanctioned by the Jakarta government to appease separatists in the region.4 Sharia, of course, offers no universal standard of conduct, except that it’s based upon Islamic teaching as laid out by local imams.  It’s whatever the locals make of it.  Sharia could in some places make a harmonious society.  It can also be abused, teaching intolerance and bigotry, causing many to hate it and to hate the very religion that promotes it.

But the words of the police chief were tell-tale.  What exactly did he mean by “teased”?  Could “teasing” mean people somehow felt moved by the femininity of these transwomen and they felt dissonance with their Islamic upbringing?  It could.  Could this “teasing” have been a defensive measure much like what transwomen did at the Stonewall Uprising in 1969?  It could.  Were these transwomen first under attack by local vigilantes before they had a chance to do anything else? Very likely so.   It’s difficult to believe that transwomen from 6 beauty salons in 2 separate towns would somehow conspire to make trouble at the same time.  How does anyone get a singular incident of “teasing” out of 2 towns without some planned provocation in the first place?

Worse yet, the “I” in the police chief’s comment, “Their numbers are growing here” and “I don’t want that” is a very big one.  In saying this he suggess that this action was his own, not one ordered by the provincial authority.  It reeks of selfish ambition, possibly as a means of scoring religio-political points of his own.

This is clearly a pogrom instigated at the hands of an ambitious police chief representing a party of extremists.  CNN reported that the operation was part of a campaign to prevent LGBT peoples from “adversely affecting” the next generation of Indonesians.  The actions weren’t even intended to force a cosmetic makeover either.  Officers also forced their detainees to run for an extended period, chanting loudly till their “male voices came out.”6

North Aceh Police Chief Untung Sangaji addressed a crowd according to a YouTube posting, where he said:

“Our ulama [scholars] disagree with this disease. [It] is spreading.  It’s inhumane if Untung Sangaji is to tolerate these [sic] sissy garbage.”7

He also declared that he decided to work with the Sharia police after receiving complaints from local clerics.  He warned that he not only intended to prosecute the transwomen but also any visitors to their salons.8



It’s difficult to ascertain exactly what the relationship is between Sangaji and Surinata, or whether these are 2 names for the same person.  But the attitude is clearly the same.  The decision to work with Sharia police was his own.  The North Aceh police chief considers it “inhumane” to require “tolerance”, specifically “inhumane” against him personally as an affront to his authority.  It’s the same kind of “inhumanity” that religious extremists in the United States consider a violation of their own “religious liberty” if they are required to “tolerate” LGBT peoples.

 But we don’t call upon peoples of the world to tolerate us.  That’s not what we demand.  We demand liberty.  Tolerance isn’t the opposite of intolerance.  Liberty is the opposite.  Tolerance is a shifty mean.

Tolerance in societies is like tolerance in shop practices measured by inches, millimeters, or microns. A standard is set and any allowable deviation from that standard is tolerance.  In societal tolerance, that standard is one by which one uses to judge another.  As concerns actions of cruelty and meanness, we must judge.  Cruelty must not be tolerated.  But when it comes to how a person identifies, the fact of his, her, or eir existence cannot be judged this way, whether it’s a matter of ethnicity, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.  We have no right whatsoever to pass judgment upon people concerning existential matters.

That’s the difference between tolerance and liberty.  Tolerance presumes the right to pass judgment upon one’s neighbor.  Liberty allows no such right.  Germany was an incredibly tolerant nation and even had a thriving gay culture prior to Hitler.  Then Germany sowed death camps across central Europe like sowing winter wheat.  Tolerance ran thin.  After all, social tolerance upon existential matters can’t be measured except perhaps through surveys.  It’s something vague, subjective, and changeable on a whim.  That shiftiness alone makes tolerance untrustworthy because “tolerance” sooner or later will end in acts of wholesale cruelty.

It’s a shift that has repeated in every society without exception including the United States.  When tolerance fails, something else happens.  Principles like liberty, humanity, and inhumanity go through redefinition to accommodate their claimants who become desperate to assert their own authority or imagined authority.  Police Chief Sangaji called any call for his tolerance “inhumane” not only because he felt that authority threatened somehow, but because he acted out of religious hatred.  In much the same way, many American parachurch organizations demand “religious liberty” to force their religious mores upon those not of their religious communities.  The 2 are essentially no different.

This kind of criminalization is essentially like what Arkansas legislators attempted in 2017 in a series of bills designed to make it impossible for transpeople to exist in that state.  They wanted to prosecute any transperson with “public indecency.”9 Their bills didn’t fly in 2017.  Few believe proponents won’t make another try.  Proponents in Arkansas attempted a pogrom of their own. 

But in Indonesia as a whole, the shift in human rights recognition isn’t just evident in Aceh.  Homosexuality is already prohibited in by Aceh’s Sharia law.  In May 2017, 2 men were caned 83 times, a punishment, not only designed to inflict serious pain, but disfigurement as well.  But now the whole nation of Indonesia could likewise outlaw homosexuality in February, with convictions resulting in 5 years in prison.10



A completely different face concerning human rights in Indonesia appears in the website for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) than what’s revealed through Amnesty International.  The ASEAN website attempts to show that the world’s largest Muslim nation honors human rights.   We find this immediate claim about the establishment of a human rights office:

“The issuance of Law No. 39 Year 1999 on Human Rights reinforced the creation of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), initially established under Presidential Decree No. 50 Year 1999. Komnas HAM is endowed with the functions to study, research, disseminate, monitor, and mediate human rights issues. Komnas HAM has completed investigations into five past human rights cases and recommended that the Attorney General’s Office establish ad hoc human rights courts for the following cases: Trisakti Case (1998), Semanggi I (1998) and Semanggi II (1999) Cases, May 1998 Case, Talangsari Case (1989), and Wasior and Wamena (2000). The establishment of such human rights courts was impeded by the unwillingness of the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute the cases.”11

It sounds impressive.  But 5 sets of human right cases represent a teaspoon of sugar in a swimming pool of rancid tea.  Besides, what has Komnas HAM done since 2000?  Did the Office of the Attorney General so thwart the activities of Komnas HAM that they only exist as a figurehead?  Amnesty International reported this concerning LGBT peoples in 2016-2017 with even greater indictments concerning freedom of expression, freedom of minority religions, prisoners of conscience, impunity given to rogue law enforcement people, torture, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment:

Discrimination increased against LGBTI people after officials made inflammatory, grossly inaccurate or misleading statements in January on the grounds of ‘defending the country’s public morality and public security’. In February, police disbanded a workshop organized by a leading LGBTI NGO in Jakarta and prevented a pro-LGBTI rally from taking place in Yogyakarta. In the same month, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission issued a letter calling for a ban on any television or radio broadcasts promoting LGBTI activities, to ‘protect the children’.

“Also in February, amid increasing anti-LGBTI rhetoric, the Islamic school for transgender people, Al Fatah in Yogyakarta, was forced to close following intimidation and threats by the Islamic Jihadist Front. In June, the government voted against a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council, and again at the UN General Assembly in November, to appoint an independent expert on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”12

It’s interesting that in Indonesia, as in the United States, extremists declare similarly against LGBT peoples, declaring us “diseased”, “a threat to public morality,” a “threat to public security,” and a “threat to children.”  However, the American Psychological Association disagrees with the view that we’re “diseased” and children generally have no trouble accepting the concept of transpeople unless taught by elders to disrespect us, with examples being found in everyday trans experience.  It’s a religiously orchestrated red herring.

We also find this on the ASEAN site concerning their glowing report on Indonesia:

“Indonesia has ratified or accessed to eight of nine international human rights treaties, namely the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and two of its Optional Protocols, the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW), and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Indonesia is a signatory to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (OP-CEDAW) and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances (CPED).

“Indonesia was selected as a member of the UN Human Rights Council (2011-2014) for the third consecutive period since 2006. As of September 2013, Indonesia has received 13 visits of the UN Special Procedures and agreed to the visits of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and the Special Rapporteur on Health.”13

So what has happened to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)?  You’d think the actions against transpeople in Aceh would be addressed by this convention.  But Amnesty International made the following observation about Indonesia’s commitment to human rights:

Broad and vaguely worded laws were used to arbitrarily restrict the rights to freedom of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association. Despite the authorities’ commitments to resolve past cases of human rights violations, millions of victims and their families were still denied truth, justice and reparation. There were reports of human rights violations by security forces, including unlawful killings and the use of excessive or unnecessary force. At least 38 prisoners of conscience remained in detention. Four people were executed.”14

Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch reported that more than 300 LGBT people were arrested across Indonesia in 2017.15  Nothing is said concerning the nature of these arrests.  But given the actions this week in Aceh, we may expect an escalation of incidents.

It appears that the desire to hold the Indonesian union together in the face of Islamist extremists has undermined the Jakarta government’s willingness to fulfill its international human rights obligations.  What’s happening in Aceh is representative of growing intolerance.  That intolerance cannot help but further fracture the Indonesian union over time.  Jakarta increasingly risks losing the goodwill of many of its diverse peoples.  Instead of preventing civil war, it has sowed the seeds for exactly that and for many, Indonesia will cease to be a country where anyone but a structured majority could possibly live.



For the Waria, Aceh is already unlivable.  Various eye expressions appear in the “thumbs-up” AFP photo of 8 of the dozen victims in male garb and close-cut hair.  They’re gathered around a stern police chief whose uniform shined with decorations reminiscent of Ugandan tyrant, Idi Amin.  We see eyes full of mockery, eyes that suggest a desire for revenge, eyes that suggest a desire to die on one’s own terms, and eyes that were just plain tired.

Islamic authorities may think they’ve won.  They haven’t.  Far from it.  Those with a genuine and persistent desire for transition can’t be kept down forever.  Perhaps some may acquiesce to detransition.  Some may choose to suffer.  Some may choose suicide once they find opportunity to carry it out.  Others would try to escape Aceh, even Indonesia entirely and then re-transition.  By sea, it’s less than 500 kilometers to Phuket, Thailand, where surgeons perform gender confirmation surgeries.  Some may flee to Jakarta or even Australia.

In fact, some Waria have fled already.  Shannon Power of Gay Star News has been kind enough to cooperate with those who seek to assist Waria seeking to escape Aceh.  She published an e-mail for anyone seeking information on how to donate to that cause:  Her help provides a buffer between genuine donors and those who seek to target such efforts and to further abridge the liberties of the Waria.16

After all, if the police chief threatens patrons of the beauty salons, one could expect to be targeted just by approaching one of the Waria or asking questions to identify them.  Facilitating escape is a dangerous activity.  One could as easily take severe risks with the law by facilitating an escape from Iran, Chechnya, or North Korea.

It’s the case when any society goes mad with NIMBYism (NIMBY being an acronym for “Not In My Back Yard”) amid a pernicious craze of religious extremism.  Today’s freedoms could evaporate in a tide of intolerance in any country.   Indonesia is sliding downward right alongside America’s current slide, both built upon fear of one’s neighbor that a majority does not want to understand.

It’s for us to help.  It’s also for us to protect what liberties remain as part of our role to heal the earth.



Featured image:  Map of the region, showing the location of events described in the article (by author, adapted from satellite image Google Earth), Enhanced details of mistreatment of transwoman by shearing and arrest of detainees during the round-up (YouTube: Current Affairs).

  1. AFP photo showing the police chief of North Aceh posing with forcibly masculinized transwomen, all giving the “thumbs up” signal, article: Megan Palin. “Transgender women released from jail on one condition: ‘Return to their nature as men’” com (Australia, January 29, 2018, accessed January 29, 2018)
  2. AFP “Indonesian police force ‘manly makeover’ on transgender beauticians in Aceh” The Straits Times (January 29, 2018, accessed January 29, 2018)
  3. Jakarta Post “Amnesty International condemns arrest of transgender women in Aceh” Jakarta Post (January 30, 2018, accessed January 30, 2018)
  4. Op. cit.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ben Wescott and Mochamad Andri. “Indonesian police shaved transgender women and made them dress as men” CNN (updated January 30, 2018, accessed January 30, 2018)
  7. Andreas Harsono. “Indonesian Police Arrest Transgender Women” Human Rights Watch (January 30, 2018, accessed January 30, 2018)
  8. Ibid.
  9. Stefanie Gerdes. “Arkansas could make it ‘illegal to be transgender’ this week” Gay Star News (March 27, 2017, accessed January 29, 2018)
  10. Josh Jackman. “Indonesia is set to ban gay sex” Pink News (January 31, 2018, accessed January 31, 2018)
  11. “Constitution, Laws & Court Decisions” Human Rights in ASEAN (ASEAN Website accessed January 30, 2018)
  12. (n.a.) “Indonesia 2016/2017” Amnesty International (accessed January 30, 2018)
  13. Op. cit.
  14. Op. cit.
  15. Andreas Harsono,
  16. Shannon Power. “Trans women are trying to flee Aceh after police raids and vigilante attacks” Gay Star News (January 30, 2018, accessed January 30, 2018)
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