(CNN)In less than 18 months, being gay in Indonesia has gone from widely tolerated to just plain dangerous.
An unprecedented wave of police raids, vigilante attacks, and calls for the criminalization of homosexual sex have left many in the country’s LGBT community fearing for their safety.
“(Gay Indonesians) are exhausted and they’re horrified,” Kyle Knight, a Human Rights Watch researcher with the LGBT rights program, told CNN.
“Even the activists I know who started the very first organizations in the 1980s say they’ve never seen anything like this.”
It’s a dark turn for a country that for decades prided itself on its diverse, heterogeneous society.
The world’s largest Muslim democracy, Indonesia is often considered something of a bulwark of tolerance amid growing conservatism elsewhere in the Islamic world.
In less than two weeks, two young men were seized by vigilantes who burst into their home in Aceh province, then taken to authorities who caned them for having homosexual sex.
In a separate incident, later in the month, attendees at an alleged gay party in a Jakarta sauna were arrested and images of their faces were disseminated online by Indonesian police.
Homosexual sex is not illegal in the majority of Indonesia, except in the extremely conservative province of Aceh. Jakarta is not part of any province; it is controlled by the central government.
One week ago, West Java Police Chief Anton Charliyan announced that he would create a special taskforce to crack down on LGBT people.
“They will face the law and heavy social sanctions. They will not be accepted by society,” he said.
It wasn’t always this way.
Despite being a Muslim-majority country, only small parts of Indonesia — such as Aceh province — follow strict Islamic law.
Same-sex relations have never been illegal either, even if a 2013 Pew survey found that 93% of the country refused to accept homosexuality.
Jonta Saragih a former LGBT activist from Sumatra, now studying in the UK, said while his family weren’t quick to accept him when he came out, Indonesians used to have a live and let live attitude to their country’s LGBT population.
“[Even] a few years ago, when I was in Jakarta, though homosexuality was not recognized by the law, there was no one talking about it,” he told CNN.
Indonesian human rights activist Tunggal Pawestri corroborates this notion that homosexuality was previously frowned upon but tolerated.
“Since my childhood I was told that LGBT people are sinful, being a homosexual is sinful but of course … it doesn’t mean you have to criminalize them,” she said.
So what changed?
he problems began in early 2016, when a number of high-profile Indonesian politicians, including several government ministers, suddenly started to make unprompted attacks on Indonesia’s LGBT community.
Among them was the Defense Minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, who said Indonesia’s LGBT movement was more dangerous than “a nuclear war.”
“In a nuclear war, if a bomb is dropped over Jakarta, Semarang will not be affected — but (with LGBT rights) everything we know could disappear in an instant — it’s dangerous,” he said, according to the state Antara news agency.
Soon, the country’s medical professionals joined in. The Indonesian Psychiatrists Association issued a statement in February saying people who were gay or bisexual had “psychiatric problems.“
By August, a group of conservative activists had taken a case to the Constitutional Court to call for homosexual sex to be made illegal in Indonesia.
Knight said it’s hard to tell why the sudden wave of anti-LGBT feeling swelled up across the country, but where it was heading appeared much clearer.
“This is fueled not just by bigotry and misunderstanding but by public officials … I think that’s the really scary thing as we go forward. It’s fair game to go after LGBT people in Indonesia,” he said.