Home > South-East Asia >> Indonesia

Sex, lies and politicians

Inside Indonesia - January-March, 2014

Edward Aspinall Everyone in Indonesia is familiar with the case of Ariel, arguably Indonesia's best-known pop star, who went to jail in early 2011 when videos of him having sex with a couple of famous and beautiful television celebrities went viral on the internet.

The videos had been taken by him for his own private use. They were leaked onto the internet in circumstances that remain murky (Ariel claims his laptop was stolen), but probably had a lot to do with someone bearing a personal grudge. Remarkably, despite all the predictable condemnations of Ariel by religious leaders and other guardians of public morality, his fan base remained loyal. There were 'free Ariel' protests outside the courtroom and jail and, upon his release, Ariel went on to record, with his renamed band, Noah, one of Indonesia's bestselling pop albums of all time. The case was at once an example of the prurient moralism that can affect Indonesian public culture, but also a refreshing reminder of many Indonesians' open-mindedness when it comes to sexual matters.

Ariel's case is just one example of a furore involving a sex movie and a famous Indonesian. As in other countries, sex videos featuring singers, actors and other celebrities have made their way onto the internet and into public consciousness. A little more unusual is the large number of politicians who are stars in their own porn films (though perhaps we should add the word 'allegedly' here, because in many cases discussed in this article the individuals concerned claim that it was not them, but a lookalike, in the starring role). Over the last ten years, there have been about a dozen cases in which local government heads (governors, district heads and mayors) have been captured on film either having sex or in states of undress with members of the opposite sex, with those films then being distributed on the internet, between mobile telephones, via DVDs and by other means. There are also similar cases involving other senior politicians, notably members of the DPR, Indonesia's national parliament. If you care to check, just type into Google or some other search engine a phrase like 'video mesum anggota DPR' ('DPR member dirty video') and you will get a surprising number of hits.

Unlike Ariel, so far none of these politicians have ended up in jail. In fact, with a couple of exceptions, their political careers have rarely suffered. But why should there have been so many such public exposes in the first case, and what do they tell us about political power in Indonesia, and about changing attitudes to sex? To account for the spread of the phenomenon, we need to look not only at the Indonesian public's thirst for titillation, but also to the nature of electoral competition in the new Indonesia, and to the rise of new communication technologies that make it much easier to capture and distribute images of sex with or without the knowledge or permission of the participants. Whatever their cause, these cases also throw a bright and strange new light on the disjuncture between public morality and private sexual behaviour in Indonesia.

Sex on film

Let's start by getting a sense of the topic at hand. The first politician sex tape scandal I became aware of was in 2007 when videos of a man who was purportedly Syahrul Ahmad Limpo, then deputy governor of South Sulawesi, scion of a major local political dynasty in the province, and soon to be elected as the South Sulawesi governor, were distributed in the province. A friend, rather embarrassingly, pulled out a laptop at a hotel cafe in Jakarta and showed me and a group of companions the video of a man having sex with a woman. The video didn't leave a lot to the imagination, with the man in the frame holding a remote control that he used to zoom in on areas of particular interest. Despite the very clear face shots in the video, Limpo never commented on the video and its wide circulation it didn't stop him winning his election.

A bit of research, mostly on the internet, shows that there had been other cases. The earliest I have discovered involved the mayor of Singkawang in West Kalimantan. Awang Ishak was elected in 2002, but in 2005-06 (according to the website of the Sinar Harapan newspaper) a sex video involving him and a middle aged woman called Anita Tjhung started to be passed around town. Awang lost his bid to be reelected in 2007. He subsequently had a 'secret marriage' (nikah siri) with a woman called Tjhai Nyit Khim, despite the very public objections of his first wife, Yutina. Even so, Awang ran again as mayor in 2012 in a campaign that relied heavily on Islamic discourse and pitched Awang as the sole Islamic candidate in a town that is more or less evenly divided between Muslims (mostly Malays) and non-Muslims (mostly Chinese). He won the election. Though he seemed to have put the video behind him, his personal matters were still a source of public controversy (Yutina was one participant in a large demonstration shortly after the election calling for the local council to refuse to swear him in). Even so, he was the consummate survivor and rules untroubled today.

The first case involving a female politician also dates from around this time. In the district of Pekalongan, Central Java, photos of a couple who looked like a district head candidate, Siti Qomariyah and her deputy, Wahyudi Pontjo Nugroho, first circulated in the lead up to the local government election in 2006. The couple won the election, making Siti one of Indonesia's few female local government heads; a rival unsuccessfully tried to use the photos to annul the result. The pictures were distributed even more widely in the lead up to Siti and Wahyudi's re-election bid in 2011, which they lost. A fake facebook account was set up in their name with the photos (most of which featured 'Siti' in a bra, but some being more revealing), declaring that 'Intimacy is our start-up capital for building a joint commitment to be bupati and deputy bupati... but so is our hobby of unleashing our lusts on Valentine's day.' Both of them denied it was them in the photos.

In 2009, in the district of Sula Archipelago, North Maluku province, a two minute video allegedly showed the district head and local Golkar chairperson, Ahmad Hidayat Musa, having sex with a senior public servant in the district. The video prompted protests from various youth groups calling for Hidayat to be sacked. He denied it was him: 'I'm not bald and I'm not old,' he told the press, 'I've looked at that video and I'm completely convinced it's not me.' He accused his political opponents of manufacturing the issue in the lead up to the local government head election in 2010. He won the election (though he has since been charged with corruption in a mosque construction project).

Another case involving a woman politician occurred in 2010 in the famously resource-rich district of Kutai Kertanegara in East Kalimantan. In a case of dynastic succession, Rita Widyasari, the daughter of Syaukani Hasan Rais, was running as district head to take over from her father after he had been convicted of corruption in 2007. A video showed a couple apparently acting in a movie of their own entering a room, watching a pornographic film and having sex. Rita's political opponents tried to use the video to bring her down. There were demonstrations, and the video was widely distributed in the district, but Rita won anyway. According to the merdeka.com website (a prime source for titillating sexual stories of this sort) someone from the local branch of her Golkar party said that they would not take action against her because the man in the video was her husband, though other reports said it was a previous boyfriend.

More recently, in February 2013, in Bangkalan in Madura, photos were distributed that allegedly showed the newly elected bupati, Makmun Ibnu Fuad, in bed with a woman. They became public just after he was elected but before he was officially sworn in. Makmun, Indonesia's youngest bupati at only 26 years old, was the son of the previous bupati another case of dynastic succession and had won a landslide victory with over 90 per cent of the vote. News sites report that local religious scholars and NGOs took the images to the police, and there were demonstrations in which protestors held banners featuring enormous pictures of the photos. As far as I am aware, however, nothing became of the case.

Late in 2013, a sex video featuring the head of Mappi district in Papua, Stevanus Kaisma, was widely distributed in the district. According to Kaisma's supporters, the video had been taken secretly by the woman involved in the liaison, who had carefully kept her face out of the shot, as part of an elaborate entrapment exercise engineered by Kaisma's political opponents. Not only was the whole scam, it was alleged, set up by members of the 'success team' of Kaisma's chief rival, but the woman in the shot was now standing as a legislative candidate for one of the Islamic parties in nearby Merauke.

One of the more intriguing cases, and the only one I am aware of that has actually resulted in a prosecution is in the district (not city) of Bogor in West Java. Here, the deputy bupati, Karyawan Faturahman, has been charged with distributing a pornographic video involving a political rival from his own PDI-P party. He was also accused of paying a sex worker tens of millions of rupiah to make the video, and an accomplice has already been sentenced to one year's jail for distributing the video (Karyawan's own case was not finished at the time this piece was finalised).

These cases do not exhaust the list. Internet sources also describe cases involving the district heads, mayors or deputies in Banjarmasin in South Kalimantan, Palembang in South Sumatra, East Jabung in Jambi, and Central Lombok.

Then there are the cases involving other sorts of politicians, such as parliamentarians. These include one of the few cases that had a negative impact on a politician's career, involving videos of a naked (and rather chubby) DPR member and Golkar politician Yahya Zaini, which appeared mysteriously on the internet in 2006. Also in the video was an equally naked Maria Ulfah (aka Maria Eva), a dangdut singer. Maria Eva told the media that the couple were not married when the video was taken and that she had become pregnant and had an abortion (she later said that they had a secret marriage at the time). Yahya resigned from his positions in Golkar; Maria Eva later unsuccessfully tried to run as the district head of Sidoarjo in East Java.

Finally, one of the more notorious of recent cases involves another DPR member, Karolin Margret Natasa. From PDI-P, she is the daughter of the governor of West Kalimantan. In another video that has gone viral on the internet (this seems to be the case for all the videos involving women politicians), it is alleged that she appears with fellow parliamentarian, Aria Bima, though both have strongly denied involvement. The case is being investigated by PDI-P's political opponents via the Disciplinary Committee of the DPR, who have said they are going to call experts to see if they can identify the people in the video.

The politics of sex

Sex scandals involving politicians happen in every country. They are hardly a specialty of Indonesia. But such a large number of actual sex videos allegedly involving politicians does seem to be unusual. What explains it?

One starting point is that almost all the videos have been distributed as part of attempts to discredit the politicians concerned. In a few cases, the videos themselves were taken secretly by the politician's opponents and it seems at least in a couple of cases they involved entrapment engaging the target politician in a sexual act in order to capture it on film covertly. As we have seen, the politicians almost always deny involvement, and it's possible that some of the videos do in fact feature lookalikes. But even when the videos were apparently taken with politicians' consent, they have made their way into the public arena as a result of actions by their enemies.

In this regard, then, the sex videos are just one part of the hidden side of electioneering in Indonesia. The public face of election campaigns in Indonesia is often fairly anodyne, with dull speeches, lots of singing and dancing and formulaic policy promises. But these vanilla-flavoured public campaigns are almost always accompanied by so-called 'black campaigns'. These are more or less deliberately engineered campaigns of rumour and innuendo accusing candidates of any number of sins: corruption, nepotism or other forms of illegal behaviour; polygamy; underworld connections; ethnic bias; religious laxness or heresy; hidden agendas and conspiracies of various sorts; and, of course, sexual infidelities or peculiarities of many kinds.

Almost every candidate will be confronted by a black campaign, typically distributed by way of anonymous leaflets, sms messages, and, increasingly, social network sites. Often, these under-the-radar campaigns can tip an election one way or the other, and they typically provide most of the spice that comes with an election. Sex videos are thus just one part of a wider set of underhanded strategies that candidates can use against their rivals. It seems such videos are often considered to be especially potent when targeted at religious networks, or at networks of women voters. Women voters are often viewed as being particularly hostile to any sort of behaviour by male politicians that harm their wives (for this reason, polygamous men are often punished at the ballot box).

I recently met one candidate in a mayoral election in West Java whose name was similar to a national politician alleged to feature in one of the widely distributed sex videos. Local Islamic leaders who were otherwise inclined to support him were so worried about this that they asked him directly about it and expressed great relief shouting out Allahu Akbar! when he assured them it wasn't him.

Sex and public culture

But what makes such tapes such a potentially potent force and one that typically attracts attention far beyond the province or district where the election is staking place is how they place pressure on deeper faultlines within sexual culture.

Indonesia's formal public political culture is, on the whole, rather conservative on sexual matters. In recent years this became most evident with the passage, in 2008, of an anti-pornography law that defined pornography and pornographic acts in very loose and potentially all-encompassing terms. The criminal code outlaws adultery under certain conditions. Typically, it is the Islamic parties who are identified as the source of moral puritanism in national politics, but in fact conservatism goes much more widely than this. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for example, is famously prim on sexual matters and has complained several times in public about women entertainers who display their belly buttons.

Yet anyone who has spent any time in Indonesia knows that this prudish public culture bears little relation to how many Indonesians actually live their lives. In private and often semi-public situations, ribald sexual innuendo and joking is part of everyday conversation. Pre-marital sex may be frowned upon, but it is commonplace. So are extra-marital affairs. There is a massive and diverse commercial sex industry, much of it taking place in quasi-legal complexes known as 'lokalisasi'; even outside these areas police and other security officials are almost always involved in running and protecting the industry.

And for members of the political elite, power can bring sex in ways that have little to do with the public version of propriety they peddle. For example, using the services of commercial sex workers appears to be a common practice among male politicians; indeed, investigations by Indonesia's Corruption Eradication Commission have revealed that sessions with prostitutes are often gifted as a form of bribe in political corruption cases. At the same time, male politicians are often involved in sexual relationships that might fall short of out-and-out commercial sex but that nevertheless have a strong element of commercial exchange: witness the large number of dangdut singers, models and other minor celebrities who become attached to politicians.

In one notorious recent example, in 2012 Ahmad Fathanah, the aide to the president of the Islamist and extremely moralist Prosperous Justice Party was arrested in flagrante delicto, naked in a hotel room with a female university student for his part in a massive graft case involving the sale of beef import licenses. It later transpired that he had channeled an extraordinary amount of gifts and cash to 38 women, with single transactions ranging from 40 million rupiah (about US$3,300) to 1 billion rupiah (US$82,000). Most of the women were described as having professions such as swimsuit models, dangdut singers and soap opera actors.

This disjuncture between public conservatism and private license fuels mass interest in the sexual behaviour of people in power, as part of a broader suspicion that all power-holders are basically cheats and hypocrites anyway. Such curiosity is longstanding. Thus, in the past, there were numerous lurid rumours about the sexual peccadilloes of members of the Suharto family. I recall stories from the 1990s of rampant lesbianism, orgies in airplanes and other goings-on allegedly involving Suharto's children and grandchildren. During his term as president, Abdurrahman Wahid was exposed in the national media as having an affair with a middle-aged woman ('It's a sin, but we can always repent later,' he was reported as having told the woman in question).

Further back, attitudes were more muscular. President Sukarno in particular gained kudos for stories of his sexual prowess. He was the only Indonesian president to have had multiple wives. In one presumably apocryphal but endlessly retold story, the Soviet intelligence services were said to have taken a secret film of him having sex with a Russian woman during a visit to Moscow (in other versions it was the CIA and the film was made during a visit to the US). Their plans for blackmail fell flat when Sukarno expressed delight with the film and, so the story goes, asked to take copies of the film back with him to Indonesia. But Sukarno was perhaps the last Indonesian leader to openly boast of his sexual conquests. Since that time a gossamer curtain of propriety has fallen over discussion of sexual matters in formal political settings.

Sex and technology

If rumours and gossip were the traditional way to bridge the gulf between the public discourse and the private practice, in recent years another method has emerged: technology. Cameras in mobile telephones, the internet, USB sticks and other innovations have led to a proliferation of sexual footage and made it much easier to share such material, including anonymously via social media. In other words, technology has not only made it easy to capture and distribute such images, it also dilutes and disguises responsibility for doing so. Politicians whose names have been associated with sex videos often say they will sue those responsible for naming them or for distributing the videos, but such people can be very hard to track down.

The rise of the politician sex video has happened at the same time that there has been an explosion of technology-facilitated, home-grown and mostly DIY pornography in Indonesia. Years ago, most pornography that circulated in Indonesia was imported and distributed hand to hand. Digital technology has changed all that. Despite the fact that pornography is still often described as a threat that emanates from outside the country, politician sex videos are only a tiny fraction of the Indonesian pornography that now circulates on the internet.

Indonesians seem to have a particular predilection for 'candid camera' style pornography in which the participants are purportedly unaware of being captured on film. This style of porn is common the world over, its special appeal in Indonesia presumably reflects the satisfaction and delight many people feel in catching others engaged in sexual behavior which is officially designated as illicit. All the more so when those caught out are in positions of authority. Thus, along with the usual range of school kids, university students, housewives and similar categories who feature in such clips, there are numerous examples on the internet of public servants being caught on film having illicit sex. Public servants are not deemed a particularly sexy category in most countries, but in Indonesia they are typically among the most respectable authority figures in their local areas. Catching them having sex on film helps bring them down a notch or two, and speaks to wider beliefs about the corruption, immorality and laziness of the bureaucracy.

It's a dirty business

In summary, then, it's possible to read the epidemic of politician sex videos in multiple ways. Viewing them positively, we can think of them as a sign of the Indonesian public's willingness to separate the private and public spheres, by ignoring the sexual indiscretions of their leaders. After all, very few of the politicians concerned have been brought down by these scandals. It's hard to imagine, say, a governor in the United States surviving the sort of public notoriety that Syahrul Ahmad Limpo enjoyed for a while when his (alleged) home movie first emerged. In the United States, it should be said, it is possible to survive a sex scandal, usually by way of public expressions of contrition; in Indonesia, most politicians simply tough it out and ignore the videos, or deny it was them.

Shift the perspective just a little, however, and this very same outcome seems like a sign of the continuing hypocrisy of Indonesia's political bosses, and of their ability to maintain themselves in power even when flagrantly violating local norms. In this regards, the most apt comparison is perhaps Italy's Berlusconi, who was able to survive politically in what is in many ways a conservative nation, despite his 'bunga-bunga' parties and liaisons with underage prostitutes. Pornography is vigorously condemned right across the political spectrum in Indonesia, and some of the politicians who have been caught on film also cloak themselves in religion and morality when they campaign for office. Viewed in this light, surviving a sex video looks a more like surviving a corruption scandal than standing up for the sanctity of the private sphere.

But there's another way to view these sex videos, too: as one more sign of the remarkable democratisation of political life that has occurred in Indonesia. These videos are a by-product of a new no-holds-barred style of competition that has come to characterise Indonesian electoral politics. Nobody can believe Indonesian elections are lethargic affairs when competitors routinely use such dirty tricks against each other. Perhaps more deeply yet, these videos have the unexpected effect of humanising politicians, and bringing them down to earth. There was a time when Indonesian political leaders strove to achieve qualities of dignified detachment and calm poise in their public presentation. Nothing punctures that balloon quite like being exposed on the internet as a sweaty, grunting person engaging in one of the most basic of human functions.

[Edward Aspinall (edward.aspinall@anu.edu.au) researches Indonesian politics at the Australian National University and is an editor of Inside Indonesia.]

See also:


Home | Site Map | Calendar & Events | News Services | Links & Resources | Contact Us