by Sheryl Ho
What was to have been the 4th Regional Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Intersex Association (ILGA) conference scheduled to run from 26-29 March, 2010 in Surabaya, the East Java capital in Indonesia, ended before it could start, due to a combination of inaccurate media reports and participants safety being threatened by Islamic fundamentatists.
Local media had widely reported that the police had refused to issue permits after hardline Islamic organisations vehemently denounced the conference and vowed to ensure that the event would be truly cancelled, the Jakarta Globe and the Jakarta Post reported.
Poedjianti Tan, from Surabaya-based Gaya Nusantara, the longest-running gay rights advocacy group in the country; and conference host, disputed this saying the police had already given approval for the conference however the document bore the wrong date. The amended document was to be collected early in the week but before they were, news of the conference made the front-page of a local newspaper on Tuesday 23 March which triggered the events that followed.
Conference participants were stopped and threatened by religious fundamentalist groups in Surabaya led by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) which forced many participants to leave the Mercure Hotel (conference venue) on Thursday. The next day (26 March), at 1pm local time, a crowd of Muslim fundamentalists entered the hotel reception which forced the remaining participants who had been meeting informally to return to their rooms for their safety.
Participants were initially adviced to remain in the hotels and in their rooms. However, with conflicting reports as to whether the police could guarantee the safety, as well as getting word of more protesters joining the next morning, it was decided that the participants should evacuate immediately.
“We could not rely on the hotel management to secure us, when they themselves were scared. We could not rely nor trust the police, when we could see that rather than arrest this 'mob', they were eating with them. We only had each other and our local Indonesian friends to rely on, both Muslim and non-Muslim,” participant Tesa de Vela, Isis International Associate said.
A statement released by ILGA's Co-Secretary General, Renato Sabbadini said that after negotiation between the police, hotel representatives and organisers of the conference, the decision to cancel the conference was made. “150 activists representing 100 organisations in 16 Asian countries were all safe and were evacuated from the hotel where they gathered for the conference.” Renato said.
Recollecting the events of 26 March, participant Mira Ofreneo said, “All of us, have been advised to pack our things and prepare to evacuate. I see some men with big cameras, probably media men. As they say, 'bad news is good news'”.
“After all the logistical procedures were sorted out, we took the elevator to go down the lobby. The situation was tense. We were watchful of everyone as they in turn watched us. With the help of friends, we rode the van. We saw the other members of our group ride their own vehicles. The police watch us drive out of the hotel. We were on the road to safety.”
While all the international participants have since returned home, there was a great concern for many local individual and organisational participants. They would continue to be under threat as many of the local participants are very young. LGBT youth was among the major themes of the 4th ILGA conference.
“After being trapped inside a hotel room with a group of angry men outside, boldly banging on the glass windows and doors of the hotel, fearlessly storming into the hotel premises, unafraid of the hotel management and untouchable by the local police – I now know what kind of religious fundamentalism Indonesians have to live with.” said de Vela.
ILGA-Asia is the Asian branch of ILGA and it has successfully organised conferences in India, the Philippines and Thailand in the past. ILGA Asia has over 160 member organisations in more than 17 countries across Asia.
A statement released on April 3 by ILGA-ASIA Board said, “This incident has not weakened our movement but has only made us stronger. For we know our work is important and what we do changes the lives of so many people around Asia and the world. Our determination is that much stronger and our belief is that much more.”
“Islamic protestors force evacuation of ILGA conference participants in Surabaya” from FRIDAE posted on 26 March, 2010
“ILGA Asia Conference cancelled” from ILGA, posted on 26 March, 2010
“A Statement from the ILGA-ASIA BOARD on the Cancellation of 4th ILGA-Asia Conference in Surabaya, Indonesia” in Indonesia, April 6, 2010
Correspondents with Tesa de Vela and Mira Ofreneo on March 26, 2010.