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Story Publication logo April 29, 2021

Indonesia’s Invisible People Face Discrimination, and Sometimes Death, By Database

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With more than 1 million COVID-19 cases in early 2021, the Indonesian government is racing against...

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The Putat Jaya cemetery in Surabaya is a neglected place. Wild grass grows uncontrollably, and, after it rains, the reek of decay rises over the graves. When Febby Damayanti went there in November 2019 for her friend Hani’s funeral, there were no flowers, no family members, and no cleric to lead the prayers. Only six people attended.

Hani was a 33-year-old trans woman who worked in the sex industry in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city. She died due to complications from HIV/AIDS, for which she had refused to take antiretroviral therapy. “She thought she was healthy,” said Damayanti, a 37-year-old trans woman who owns a beauty salon and volunteers with Perwakos, one of Indonesia’s oldest LGBTQI advocate groups. “She didn’t know that she needed the drugs to suppress the virus. Things got worse, and her family refused to bury her.”

Like many in the trans community, Hani had been expelled from her family in her youth and never registered for Indonesia’s official identity card, meaning that she was essentially invisible to social services.

Locals call Putat Jaya “the cemetery of Mr. X,” since many who end up there are outcasts, unidentified people, or those like Hani, without official documentation. Six of Damayanti’s friends are buried at Putat Jaya, and, in late February, she went back to pay her respects. Unable to locate her friends’ gravesites, she stood beside a freshly dug open grave, half-filled with rainwater from the previous night’s downpour. It was only one meter deep, and too short to accommodate an adult’s coffin.

“[Hani] was buried like an animal,” Damayanti recalled, her voice trembling. “Put inside a knee-deep grave, with only a wooden headstone. Without a name, just identification numbers.” She wondered aloud, “Just because we don’t own ID cards, does that mean we can be buried like this?” 

Indonesia’s identity document, known as the KTP, is the gateway to officialdom in the country. You need one to access basic public health care and education; to participate in elections; to register births, deaths, marriages, and SIM cards; and to apply for jobs and bank accounts. Starting in 2011, the simple laminated document with a photo and fingerprints was to be replaced by a microchipped card backed up by a huge online database. 

Digitizing IDs was supposed to streamline access to public services for millions of people and make Indonesia’s notoriously tangled bureaucracy more efficient. But, for invisible people like Hani, all digitization has done is hard-code existing inequalities and prejudices in Indonesian society, making it harder than ever to get access to vital health care and protections. This has been especially true as the e-KTP system has been at the forefront of the country’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout. 

While Zudan Arif Fakrulloh, the director-general of Indonesia’s civil registry, has denied allegations of discrimination against vulnerable communities and minorities, many experts take a different view. “As the country is relying more on a digital ecosystem, undocumented people are simply invisible,” said Sukamdi, lecturer and researcher at Center for Population and Policy Studies at Gadjah Mada University. “They don’t exist in the online database, and the inability of undocumented citizens to provide proof of identity impacts nearly every aspect of their lives.”

Everyone in Indonesia is required to get an ID card at 17, and, before the new system, doing so was a bureaucratic nightmare. Applicants needed to bring their birth certificate and their Family Card, a document issued to the so-called “head of the family” — typically the eldest male — which lists all of their family members. They also had to get written permission from the head of their local neighborhood unit, take their documents to their sub-district office and then to the civil registry office, and then wait three months for their card to be issued. The card had to be renewed every five years, which meant starting the process all over again. 

The cards were supposed to be free, but many people hired middlemen to avoid the process. The going rate was between $14 and $35 (200,000 and 500,000 rupiah) — a hefty sum in a country where 25 million of its population of 270 million still live on less than $1 per day. Forgery and corruption were rampant, and people often had to bribe officials to get their ID cards issued quickly.

The process was implemented in the 1970s under the authoritarian New Order regime of then-president Suharto. A Western-backed autocrat who demonized socialists and ethnically Chinese Indonesians, Suharto used the ID card system to systematically discriminate against those groups. Instead of a KTP, Chinese-Indonesians were issued a proof of citizenship and forced to abandon their birth names and adopt Indonesian ones, while former political prisoners (tapols) had their ID cards stamped with “ET” — an abbreviation for eks tapol

After Suharto resigned in 1998, the Indonesian government attempted to break down the bureaucratic labyrinth he had created. Under the moderate Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid, it abolished the Chinese-Indonesian proof of citizenship requirement and annulled the ET identity cards, in a bid to promote pluralism and inter-religious relations. In 2011, the government launched the e-KTP, or electronic ID card, with an embedded microchip containing the holder’s biometric data. For a country that sprawls across 17,000 islands, the e-KTP was an ambitious megaproject, involving a consortium of four private companies and two government bodies and a budget of more than $400 million (6 trillion rupiah).

Modeled off Estonia’s ID card system, e-KTP was intended to create a single identification number for every citizen, which could be used to access a range of public and commercial services, from banking to public transport. However, even after the post-Suharto reforms, the system remained complex and discriminatory, full of overlapping regulations that welcomed corruption and collusion. 

While getting an ID card is now much simpler, in day-to-day use, the e-KTP has few advantages over its predecessor. Because many public systems have not been digitized or merged onto a common platform, the promise of a universal ID number is “a fantasy,” said Ibnu Dwi Cahyo, a researcher with Jakarta-based Communication and Information System Security Research Center (CISSReC). It is still common for Indonesians to have a stack of cards in their wallet: their e-KTP, a taxpayer ID card, a driver’s license, a health care card, and a social security card. “Everything is still the same,” Cahyo said. “We still can’t use [e-KTP] for any purpose.”

But even beyond questions of functionality, the e-KTP has failed to address an even bigger structural problem — the fact that marginalized communities, including LGBTQI people, refugees, internally displaced people, indigenous groups, and people living in remote areas of the archipelago, are still in large part excluded. Members of minority groups are unlikely to have many of the formal documents needed to apply for the cards, and, given historic distrust of the government, are less likely to engage with the system at all. As a result, it is possible that as many as millions of Indonesians remain undocumented. “The system is flawed,” said Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s multilayered discrimination, systematically excluding vulnerable communities.”

“The system is flawed. It’s multilayered discrimination, systematically excluding vulnerable communities.”

The consequences of this have become especially apparent during the coronavirus pandemic. When the country began its Covid-19 vaccination program last January, one of the most basic requirements was the e-KTP. With the country suffering more than 1.5 million cases and around 40,000 deaths — the highest in Southeast Asia — Indonesia’s government has been criticized for downplaying the virus. In the early months of the pandemic, its response was ranked among the worst in the world, testing only 36 in every one million people. More than a year on, it’s unclear to what extent the country’s failure to get a handle on the pandemic can be attributed to the e-KTP.

Bunda Eli, a 69-year-old trans woman in Jakarta, escaped her home in Palembang, South Sumatra, at the age of 15. She vividly remembers how her father beat her up and threatened her at knife point on a daily basis. Once, he tried to burn her alive. “They thought I brought disgrace to the family,” Eli told Rest of World. When she finally fled to Jakarta, she had nothing more than the clothes on her body. 

She said that, without an e-KTP, she couldn’t get access to health care and social assistance. Whenever she felt sick, she would buy the cheapest over-the-counter medicine she could find. She has never voted in an election. “I couldn’t get an ID card because I have to get my Family Card number, and I’ve never been in touch with my family.” She isn’t alone. Rest of World spoke to around a dozen trans women in Jakarta and Surabaya who have been unable to get e-KTPs for similar reasons; almost all fled their homes as a result of domestic violence. According to a 2017 study conducted by the human rights group Gaya Warna Lentera Indonesia, out of almost 1,000 trans women, roughly 34% had no identification documents. 

Even when trans applicants do have their documents, that doesn’t ensure that things will be easier. Jihan, a 47-year-old trans woman from Surabaya, still finds it hard to access public services, even with an e-KTP card. At the bank, she often has to wait for hours while staff verify her identity, which lists her assigned gender. “Perhaps they suspect me of having a fake ID,” she lamented. “It’s never easy.”

Fakrulloh, the head of the country’s civil registry, denies that the government discriminates “on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex.” In late April, he said that his office is willing to help transgender people get e-KTP cards, and that he has collected data from 100 people from the community.

However, as Indonesian society has grown more conservative in recent years, government bodies are increasingly participating in moral crusades against LGBTQI people and religious minorities. In 2018, for example, the city of Pariaman, in West Sumatra, passed a regional law fining members of the LGBTQI community for “disturbing public order.” That same year, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Indonesian government had purchased phone-hacking and digital surveillance systems from the intelligence companies Cellebrite and Verint and used the software to surveil LGBTQI communities, activists, and religious minorities.

Kai Mata, a 23-year-old lesbian singer-songwriter and one of the country’s most outspoken LGBTQI activists, was one of about half a dozen people targeted in an Instagram ad campaign last February that urged LGBTQI activists to undergo conversion therapy. The “treatment” this campaign promoted included Islamic exorcisms and "corrective rape." Through this experience, and the violence Mata encountered after coming out, she came to realize that, although the internet offers anonymity, it is not a safe space for marginalized people in Indonesia — especially when their identities are constantly being monitored and dissected.

“I don’t have full trust in the government and how the data they gather is handled,” she said. “Especially as an ethnic, religious, and sexual minority in Indonesia. That being said, I don’t think any place in the world has found equilibrium between government technology, corporate data mining, and an individual’s protection.”

Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice-chairman of the Setara Institute human rights group, echoed the belief that the state uses technology to place people in rigid and conservative categories. “There’s no known solution in this rather homophobic country,” Naipospos said. “No space to celebrate your identity, and, in the end, the digital existence of the vulnerable people will be wiped out.”

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s LGBTQI community has been among the worst hit by Covid-19. Many trans women who contracted Covid-19 were forced to isolate and unable to access testing or proper care. For the undocumented communities, the failure is sadly not surprising. “We try not to rely on the government that much,” Damayanti said. “You know, many trans women have been suffering since day one, but I’ve never seen one of them complaining about this situation. So when Covid-19 hit hard, they just moved on and didn’t look back. We have learned how to survive on our own.”

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