George Clooney clout seen unlikely to change LGBT+ laws in Aceh

George Clooney’s star power is unlikely to help in a celebrity boycott of businesses in anti-LGBT+ hotspot in Southeast Asia, LGBT+ advocates said. — Reuters pic
George Clooney’s star power is unlikely to help in a celebrity boycott of businesses in anti-LGBT+ hotspot in Southeast Asia, LGBT+ advocates said. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, May 31 — George Clooney’s star power helped in Brunei but LGBT+ advocates said a similar celebrity boycott of businesses in another anti-LGBT+ hotspot in Southeast Asia was unlikely to have the same results.

Clooney, who led celebrity protests over the death penalty for gay sex in Brunei, is global ambassador for Nestle-owned coffee maker Nespresso that sources coffee beans from ultra-conservative Aceh in Sumatra where homosexuality is illegal.

Aceh is the only Indonesian province that enforces Islamic law and where, for the past five years, anybody caught in consensual gay sex faces 100 lashes, 100 months in jail or a fine of 1,000 grams (35 oz) of gold.

Teguh Iman Affandi, from Indonesian LGBT+ advocacy group Suara Kita, said the situation in Aceh was getting worse with people forced underground or to flee to big cities in Indonesia and Malaysia but this was falling under the global radar.

“It’s getting difficult for our community living there. The reality for our community is that people keep a close eye on them, put them under surveillance and scrutinise them,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But Affandi and other LGBT+ campaigners said government action rather than Hollywood influence was the only likely way to lead to a change in Aceh.

Human rights activists said Aceh had some of the strongest anti-LGBT+ laws in the region, alongside Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Clooney has won plaudits as a leading LGBT+ rights campaigner after becoming a vocal opponent against Brunei when the Southeast Asia sultanate rolled out Islamic laws in April imposing death by stoning by gay sex, adultery and rape.

Following diplomatic and economic pressure – with Clooney leading a boycott of hotels owned by Brunei – the oil-rich state this month said the death penalty would not be imposed.

Appearing on a US talk show, Clooney described the economic pressure as a “warning shot” to Indonesia and Malaysia should they consider introducing similar anti-gay laws.

Representatives of Clooney did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment about his possible role in Aceh.

Nespresso said the Brunei boycott was a “personal position” for the actor and unrelated to his work for the brand. It did not respond to a request for comment on sourcing from Aceh.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth largest coffee growing nation, with Starbucks among many global companies purchasing Aceh beans, Indonesian coffee industry officials said.

Starbucks confirmed they sourced coffee from Indonesia but did not respond when asked if they purchased beans from Aceh.

But LGBT+ rights campaigners doubted an economic boycott would have the same impact in Aceh as it did in Brunei.

“The Indonesian government is more inward looking and has a higher resilience than Brunei so a boycott may not work as effectively,” said Dede Oetomo, a prominent Indonesian LGBT+ activists and founder of the GAYa NUSANTARA Foundation.

‘Police state’

Oetomo also expressed concern about the situation in the Aceh where sharia police have since 2002 patrolled public spaces looking for unmarried couples, women without headscarves or wearing tight clothes, or people drinking alcohol or gambling.

Authorities there caned 339 people in 2016 for a range of crimes, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which did not have a breakdown of the offences.

In 2017, two men convicted of having gay sex were publicly flogged and images of their punishment were livestreamed and uploaded on the internet, drawing international criticism.

A police-led crackdown on Aceh’s transgender community last year involved raids on hair salons with about 12 people detained, forced to cut their hair, and stripped and beaten, according to media reports.

Kyle Knight, a researcher at HRW who has worked in the province, said while public floggings attracted worldwide outrage, “the daily interactions between the sharia police and presumed or actual LGBT people” often went unnoticed.

Aceh is one of Indonesia’s least developed provinces which received autonomy in a 2005 peace deal with Indonesia’s government ending a decades-long fight for independence.

Knight said the government-owned Brunei Investment Agency (BIA), which owns hotels including London’s Dorchester and the Beverley Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, had a lot more global business exposure than Aceh. “The fact that (the sultan) owns hotels in Los Angeles and other major cities makes it an easier target for a specific boycott instead of going to your coffee supplier and asking them where their Aceh Gayo coffee comes from,” said Knight.

Rio Damar, founder of Indonesian LGBT+ website, also dismissed any possible success from a boycott.

“I don’t see the problem lies with the common people of Aceh, so why imperil their economy? The problem, I see, is in the government, not the people,” he said.

Puri Kencana Putri, a campaign manager at Amnesty International Indonesia, urged newly re-elected Indonesian President Joko Widodo and lawmakers to ensure Aceh respected international human rights commitments.

A spokesman for Widodo did not respond to requests for comment.

“We hope the newly elected government and parliament have a very decisive position on the protection of LGBTI, in Aceh especially,” said Putri. “With the ongoing sharia law in Aceh, there are no safe havens to protect them.” (Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Claire Cozens and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit — Thomson Reuters Foundation

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