While she was a student at University of Indonesia, Raisa Widiastari began volunteering with the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence, a big national NGO dedicated to raising awareness for the victims of human rights abuses. She saw it as a way to make her country confront its chequered past.

But last year, Widiastari herself became a victim of abuse. In September, she and about 200 other activists were trapped in a building by Islamic vigilantes for more than eight hours on suspicion they were harbouring communists.

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So when President Joko Widodo agreed last week to meet her and other activists who gathered outside the presidential palace to protest against the government’s seeming inaction on human rights issues, you might think she would be excited. She wasn’t.

“Jokowi lies. He is just trying to raise hopes before 2019,” Widiastari says, referring to next year’s presidential election.

After disappointing the very activists who helped sweep him to victory in 2014, Widodo is in the middle of a charm offensive to help bring them back on board ahead of elections next year.

Late last week, for the first time he met victims and their relatives who had gathered outside his official residence every Thursday, rain or shine, for more than a decade. Days earlier his administration agreed to drop a ban on gay sex in a revised criminal code.

But for many like Widiastari, the overtures are too little, too late.

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“He just wants us to choose him again,” says Widiastari who refused to meet Widodo.

Widodo’s troubles with human rights activists started during his election campaign, when he promised to confront the country’s dark past and make amends on behalf of victims of abuse. Item No. 4 in his nine-point election platform, Nawacita – Sanskrit for priorities – was a vow to resolve historic human rights abuses.

To be sure there have been attempts to make good on his promises. He directed his top lieutenant, Luhut Pandjaitan, coordinating minister for maritime affairs, to look into evidence of mass graves dating back to the anti-communist purges, as well as splashing out on much needed infrastructure in poor and remote Papua.

But activists say the measures resulted in few tangible results, in part because of the company Widodo keeps. Pandjaitan, who has publicly scoffed at the notion of mass graves, was a general during the dictatorship of former president Suharto. Accompanying Widodo in his meeting with the Thursday group was Wiranto, his security minister who is wanted for war crimes by the United Nations.

Earlier this year, in a bid to appease religious conservatives, Widodo agreed to include a ban on sex outside marriage and to expand the definition of sexual molestation to include consensual sex among adults of the same gender.

But last week the administration backed off the ban in the proposed revision of its criminal code. Widodo’s parliamentary deputy who is overseeing the revision, Enny Nurbaningsih, said the government would remove all mention of same-sex relations. The wording now simply enjoins Indonesians from engaging in “indecent” sex.

The change of heart comes after a torrent of lurid headlines over the country’s treatment of its homosexuals, including the public caning of two young gay men in Aceh. In February, UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein publicly criticised the efforts to criminalise homosexuality.

Even so, with the government now in the business of regulating sex between adults, police are no less likely to harass the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) citizens, says Andreas Harsono of Human Rights Watch. Last year police rounded up more than 200 gay men.

“The changes aren’t enough to prevent law enforcement officials and vigilantes from using those articles to raid and to abuse potential victims,” he says.

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Widodo’s meeting with the Thursday protesters, who are known locally as Kamisan – derived from the Indonesian word for Thursday – came only after activists forced his hand.

Every Thursday for 11 years about 50 protesters assemble outside the presidential palace just ahead of evening rush hour calling on the administration to investigate abuses ranging from suspected mass killings in Papua, to the thousands of disappearances of dissidents during Suharto’s dictatorships, to the shootings of unarmed students who struggled to bring his regime to an end.

Widodo’s attorney general, Muhammad Prasetyo, has refused to investigate the alleged human rights abuses owing, he says, to the lack of evidence. Prasetyo hasn’t even brought charges against the hardliners who trapped Widiastari and other activists, even though their faces were broadcast on television.

Last September thugs linked to the hardline group Islamic Defenders Front encircled the headquarters of Jakarta Legal Aid Institute as the human rights group convened a symposium focusing on the 1965 anti-communist purges. They hurled bottles and rocks into the window and attempted to force their way past police, injuring many officers.

For two weeks following the siege, Widiastari couldn’t return to her family, fearing she would lead attackers to them.

“Jokowi’s meeting with Kamisan created an impression that the administration wanted to have a useful photo opportunity,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono.

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It wasn’t always like this. Slamet Rahardjo remembers a time when Widodo wasn’t so circumspect.

Rahardjo, an HIV/Aids activist in Solo, Central Java, where Widodo was mayor for seven years until 2012, said Widodo took meetings with him and other LGBT residents and would attend community events such as Solo Batik Carnival.

“Most of the designers and the models were gay and he still came,” Rahardjo said. Those events, often used to raise awareness of HIV, were safe. he recalls.

While Rahardjo understands Widodo has more at stake now as president relative to when he was a running a medium-sized town, he worries that his former mayor has lost his voice in fear of upsetting conservatives.

“His silence has been disappointing on LGBT issues,” Rahardjo says.

“We just want him to say that LGBT people are citizens of Indonesia, too.”