Malaysia and Indonesia (2) – Homosexual Villages and Passionate Love
Having established a settlement in Goa on India’s west coast, the Portuguese with their missionaries set sail eastwards again. With China and Japan as their goals, they first had to get around the Malay Peninsula and ensure their ships future safe passage. In 1511 they captured Malacca by force from the local Sultan, established a settlement and fully intended to stay. They reckoned without the determination of the Malays.
For a century the Portuguese had to repulse a continuing series of attacks from the local peoples frequently joined by other Muslims from Sumatra. After a century, though, a far more formidable foe appeared. By 1600 the government in protestant Holland decided it wanted greater control over its traders. Two years later it formed the Dutch East India Company and thousands set sail for the east. Soon it had set up trading posts in what is now Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia.
Britain was also becoming a major player in trade with the orient through the establishment of its of its own East India Company. This led to frequent clashes with the Dutch, not helped by the fact that in Europe the two countries were constantly at each other’s throats. Eventually, after the Dutch executed some British traders in Batavia on the north coast of Java, Britain finally left Indonesia to seek other Asian outposts to the north. The Dutch also took on the Portuguese at Malacca and in 1641 managed to drive them out. But it was in Java and later Sumatra that the Dutch changed from being mere traders to colonial masters.
Over the next 300 years, the abominable treatment of the local Indonesians by their Dutch masters included forcing them to change the crops they grew, fulfil artificially high quotas on pain of heavy penalties including torture, and crippling taxes resulting in extensive famines. When met with resistance, a group would be denied the right to plant rice for themselves. Servants employed by Dutch masters were effectively slaves. Ultimately the Dutch began the deportation of Indonesians as slaves for their South American colony in Suriname, even after most countries had already banned slavery.
As has happened throughout history, when one nation is brutally dominated by another, the oppressed peoples band together more tightly. An Indonesian nationalist movement was started in 1909 under the banner of Islam. As communism reared its head in Europe, so an Indonesian Communist party was formed. The repression of both merely solidified the desire to rid themselves of the Dutch. The Japanese were to achieve that for them as their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity movement with all its horrors moved into Indonesia to gain access to its oil.
As all this was taking place in Indonesia, further north in the now Islamic Malay Peninsula a series of wars and skirmishes was breaking out with local Sultans competing to expand their territories. In 1796 the British arrived and established themselves on the island of Penang. Over the next 100 years they were to colonize the Peninsula and take over the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo.
Their interests were only partly spices and the protection of their routes to and from China. The industrial revolution in Europe was now in full swing and raw materials became a vital requirement for Britain’s increasing empire. Malaya was discovered to be a major source of tin and then rubber. Complicating cultural issues, British plantations owners needed more labour and so started importing workers from British-controlled India. Throughout the 19th century, waves of Chinese also started to arrive, a result of wars and starvation as the Qing Empire disintegrated.
So when it finally departed the Malayan Peninsula, Britain left it with a mix of several nationalities and a variety of cultures. Despite many of its plantation owners having part-time Malay boyfriends, it also left behind its Victorian law banning homosexuality. There is certainly evidence that this law had not had a major effect in at least parts of the country.
As late as the 1960s in the coastal state of Kelantan bordering Thailand. historian Douglas Raybeck found that the Sultan enjoyed the performing arts and maintained several troupes in villages in or around the capital, Kota Bharu. Often called homosexual villages, they comprised almost exclusively gay couples. One or both of the partners would make their living as transvestite performers of the originally Thai dramatic genre known as mak yong. These men were no outcasts, there is no evidence they were harassed in any way, and they were able to earn substantially more than the breadwinners in other villages.
Generally speaking, transvestites were far more accepted in many Asian cultures than they ever were in the west. Nowadays, thanks to politics and religion these Kelantan villages have disappeared. Indeed, the state became one of the first to try and impose much stricter Islamic laws for the 90% of its population who are Muslims. One it has succeeded in introducing is the banning of many traditional art forms. Performances of mak yong can now no longer be seen. Another was to change the name of a popular beach. The “Beach of Passionate Love” was a major tourist attraction. It is now named “Moonlight” Beach.
Throughout the country, sadly, there is increasing evidence of disapproval of homosexuality – and Islam is the primary reason. Whilst retaining the hated British sodomy law, Malaysia has two sets of laws, the stricter for the majority Muslim population. First visiting in 1980 I was struck at the beauty and friendliness of the Malays, the women wearing their colourful hijab headscarves and long patterned dresses, the mix of Chinese and Malay boys offering tempting enjoyment in a few gay bars or just as eye candy when cruising down Bukit Bintang and other central streets. I reckon I have had almost as many lovely encounters in Kuala Lumpur as anywhere in the region.
A change, though, was in the works for both Malaysia and Indonesia, and it seems to have been sparked by the fundamentalist Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. This raised concern in both governments about several issues, a key one being the possibility of fundamentalism spreading to their own countries. Each felt it had to control the political role of Islamic movements seen as detrimental to the state’s own policies.
Some groups certainly did begin to express a desire for a stricter Islamic form of government, especially in Malaysia. Change was essentially slow at the outset, only to hasten towards the end of the century as the 1997 Asian Economic crisis threw the entire region into chaos. Added to the fear of economic collapse was s deep concern in the populations about the cronyism, nepotism and corruption in politics resulting from what were effectively one-party states despite their being democratic – at least in name. It was time to erect the stockades.
Now in 2016, in both countries political developments and yet more calls for implementation of religious fundamentalism, some quite shocking especially as they concern the LGBT community.
What’s your observations about Gay Malaysia and Indonesia History and Culture? Please post your comments below
Contribution by Penn Regis who is an academic who regularly visits Asia.