Since 2011, the percent of HIV-positive Indonesian men who were having sex with men rose from six to 26, and as many think it’s the government’s fault.
Following a raid in May of this year, targeting gay men in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, many gay men are too frightened to get tested for HIV, fearing they will be outed.
“People are scared,” says Fajar Prabowo, programme officer at Yayasan Suwitno, a group that operates clinics and mobile units that provide HIV testing. “It’s very hard to get people to come to the clinic. Now it’s even harder to reach them.”
According to the South China Morning Post, Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu “likened the spread of tolerance toward homosexuals to a proxy war waged by the West,” resulting in police raids like the one earlier this year.
Although homosexuality is technically not a crime in most of Indonesia, the semi-autonomous northern province of Aceh, which has been governed by Sharia law since 2001, adopted a measure in 2015 that punishes same-sex relations with up to 100 lashes. The lashings, which are carried out by hooded officers using a rattan cane, are incredibly painful and often leave permanent scars.
Now HIV testing and treatment has gone underground—even Jakarta’s main clinic for HIV testing only known “by word of mouth” and has no website to offer information.
“We like to keep [the clinic] known for only those who need it, no matter their sexual orientation,” said the clinic’s chief doctor, who remained anonymous.
“Sensitivity is the frontline of our campaign,” said Rena Janamnuaysook, the program coordinator of the Thai Red Cross Aids Research Centre. “We are normalising HIV/Aids.”
The percentage of HIV-positive men has gone up 20 percent in six years, but in larger cities like Jakarta and Bali the numbers are 36 percent. Bangkok also saw a rise from 21 percent in 2000 to now close to 30 percent. By 2020 half of new HIV infections in Southeast Asia will be among men who have sex with other men.
“Gay men are increasingly vilified and oppressed,” said Ryan Figueiredo, the deputy director of Apcom, a group that raises awareness of HIV and AIDS in Indonesia. “It’s disturbing that the authorities are denigrating the very community they need to be working with to address this epidemic.”
In 2015 the Indonesian health ministry debuted a new campaign meant to debunk myths about the spread of HIV, but did the exact opposite with hundreds of posters that claimed HIV can be transmitted through mosquito bites, swimming, saliva, food, and sneezing.
The posters, plastered on commuter trains throughout Jakarta, were removed following public outcry.