'During election time, organisations like us always become a target.'

'During election time, organisations like us always become a target.'

On the morning of 15 January 2019, the office of PITCH partner OPSI (The Indonesian Network for Social Change - Organisasi Perubahan Sosial Indonesia) was raided by the village police and members of the Islamic Defenders Front. Regional coordinator Ruli Ramadhani was there when it happened: “I felt intimated and was afraid they would harm me, but the thought of then being able to bring a case to the court gave me the strength to stay and defend our work, our place and our cause.” 

Ruli Ramadhani joined OPSI two years ago. He worked as a sex worker in night clubs when a lot of his friends started to get sick because of HIV. At the time he, and many others like him, didn’t know what HIV was. He first encountered OPSI during a training on sexual and reproductive health and rights. He realised he wanted to help people in the same situation as himself and joined OPSI as a focal point soon after. 

Over the past years Indonesian politics have grown more and more conservative. Religious groups are extremely influential on public opinion and on (local) governments and their policies. They strongly oppose sex work.  As part of the Partnership to Inspire, Transform and Connect the HIV response, OPSI works to get access to health services for all sex workers (for example through obtaining identity cards, health insurance and setting up drop-in centres), to address stigma and discrimination against sex workers (by working with journalists) and to empower the sex worker movement through a variety of activities and trainings at OPSI's headquarters in Jakarta (OPSI National) and in 18 provinces. 

“Since I joined OPSI, we have focussed all our efforts on getting recognised and registered as a legitimate NGO.” If they thought it would be smooth sailing from then on, they were sadly mistaken. “We have many allies in the area. Other NGOs that support our work. However, we also have other civil society organisations that look upon us with suspicion. They see us as competitors because of our strong network and access to sex workers. This creates a lot of tension for us.” 

 

During election time, organisations like us always become a target.

 

In an already tense situation, hostilities rise to another level during election time. With the next elections in Indonesia due in April, Ruli and his colleagues know local politicians go out to get easy votes by zooming in on moral issues such as the hotly debated place of sex workers and LGBTI people in Indonesian society. “This kind of tactic is very common in Indonesia, people will fold easily because of moral issues that the candidates sell. Organisations like us always become a target because we are an easy subject to be “grilled”.”

 

They say sex workers and LGBTI are the cause for natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.

 

On the morning of 15 January, Ruli was accompanying a sex worker to the health centre, when he got the call. “The local village police (babinsa) working for the local municipality, ordered me to get back immediately to the local secretariat. He said they were already there with the local parliamentarian and members of the Islamic Defenders Front. When he arrived at the office, he found they had broken in and had interrogated a sex worker that had sought refuge at OPSI’s safe house. The focus of the interrogation soon shifted to Ruli. “They asked what kind of organisation we were, so I explained and showed them our registration letters. However, Islamic Defenders Front interfered and said that our work goes against the teachings of Islam.” The atmosphere soon turned grim when they started accusing OPSI of helping LGBTI and sex workers. “They said that people like sex workers and LGBTI are the cause for natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.” The arrival of the local police didn’t signal a positive change in goings-on though, because dozens more members of the Islamic Defenders Front started to arrive. “No matter what I said or what evidence I showed, they didn’t want to listen to me. They said that we employ transgender staff and therefore promote this in Indonesian society and that we hide behind human rights to promote LGBTI in Indonesia.” 

 

They said ‘You hide behind human rights to promote LGBT in Indonesia’. 

 

The pattern of accusations and defence went on for some time, while the atmosphere deteriorated fast. Islamic Defenders Front demanded that Ruli take down the OPSI sign on the office building. When Ruli refused, local police urged him to do it anyway because of the size of the mob that had gathered around the office. When he took the sign down the local police and members of Islamic Defenders Front searched the premises and continued with their accusations and videotaped the entire ordeal. “I asked them repeatedly to stop and asked for their warrant, but unfortunately they didn’t listen.” Finally, the local police took Ruli into custody and brought him to the local police station where they questioned him and searched his phone until his legal aid arrived who was able to get him free. 

“Looking back on that day, I still feel uncomfortable. I am afraid people look at me and think I am a criminal. Everything has been on the news and social media so everyone has seen that I was taken away by the police.” Besides all this, Ruli is also able to see the positive side of what he went through. “More people know about me now so I also got a lot of sympathy and support. People contact me if they want to know more about OPSI and what we do. I guess I am truly part of the OPSI brand now for a lot of people. This is what makes me go on with my work. We are more visible now than before, so we also get more invites from local stakeholders. We decided to put the OPSI sign back up after the elections in April. “

As a result of the raid, OPSI has decided to change some of its strategies. They now include the local community surrounding their offices in the local outreach and public relations. “We do more local activities with neighbours so we can explain what we do and why we do it and get more allies and try to prevent raids like the one on 15 January to ever happen again.” 

OPSI Riau office with and without the street sign
OPSI Riau office with and without the street sign

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