Does Egypt 2011 = Indonesia 1998 ?

Two days ago I was dutifully watching the Rachel Maddow podcast while eating breakfast, and during her coverage of the revolutionary events in Egypt, Dezant said to me: “It’s just like Indonesia in 1998.” I checked online to what extent others were making a similar comparison, and for the most part the comparison is restricted to the Indonesian media. On Twitter there are hundreds of Indonesian tweets making the comparison, “Egypt 2011 = Indonesia 1998,” variously infused with nostalgia, fear, excitement, humor, and prayers.

The surface comparisons are compelling. Two iron-fisted dictators known for choking human rights, both in power for about 30 years, ruling a majority-Muslim country, overthrown by massive and electrifying people-power protests considered unimaginable a mere weeks before they erupted. Both dictators respond with brutality, the reform movements claim their martyrs, and then, one hopes in the Egypt scenario, both resign in shame, ushering a new era of democracy. A few days ago, imagining that kind of hopeful outcome for Egypt seemed unlikely, casting Indonesia’s oft-criticized transition to democracy in a far more fortunate light.

But as soon as you dig into the details, the comparison becomes difficult to sustain once you start to account for so many moving parts behind the scenes that propelled these movements forward. As my advisor reminded me by email: Vice-President “Habibie did a damned good job of holding things together” when he succeeded Suharto and became Indonesia’s third president in a constitutional and orderly fashion. The military never formally stepped in to assume power, and Habibie graciously abdicated after the newly elected parliament made it clear in 1999 that they would choose a new president. Indonesia’s reform movement was messy, disappointing, and spasmodically violent in far-flung parts of the archipelago, but it’s hard to imagine a better outcome during those crucial years of transition. It’s also hard to imagine Egypt following the same path.

I’m not a close observer of Arab politics, much less Egypt in particular, but there is plenty of material online this week to provide a quick introduction. I found this article, “Why Mubarak is Out” by Paul Amar, helpful enough to realize that Egypt has its own complicated path to democracy, with a long list of internal and international factors that will determine the outcome:

“This is a very twenty-first century regime change – utterly local and international simultaneously.” — Paul Amar

For me this is all a counterpoint to the histrionic broadcasts, in the USA in particular, arguing that Egypt will follow a path like Iran’s revolution, resulting in some kind of Islamo-fascist regime that will destabilize the Middle East. There is much to suggest this is not the case. The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak’s favorite bogeyman to justify his autocratic rule even though they long ago renounced hardline violent insurgency, didn’t appear in Tahrir Square until at least a week into the protests. As I just heard Ulil Abshar Abdalla say on Indonesia’s TV One station, what’s happening in Tahrir Square is primarily (but not exclusively) driven by a frustrated urban middle class. And Egypt’s military leadership, allies with the USA, most certainly wouldn’t allow an Islamist regime.

So just when I had consigned myself to the relative unimportance of this comparative case study, along comes this article by Thomas Carothers in The New Republic, which makes the case that if you’re going to “grasp onto political analogies to help get our bearings” at times of “unexpected but momentous political change in distant countries,” then you would be doing yourself a favor to look at Indonesia’s reform movement instead of Iran’s. And then during an interview with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on last night’s Rachel Maddow show, Albright herself (at 5:50) recommended Indonesia as a more worthwhile comparative case study with Egypt instead of Iran. Maddow then referred to it as the “Iran–Indonesia Continuum” of outcomes for Egypt’s revolution.

“I think something that has not been mentioned is the example for instance of Indonesia. Suharto who had been a dictator was ousted in the late 90s and he was replaced by a moderate Muslim secular government. You know people talk about the Iran model but there is the Indonesian model.” — Madeleine Albright on the Rachel Maddow Show, 3 February 2011

Madeleine Albright on The Rachel Maddow Show, 3 February 2011

Madeleine Albright on The Rachel Maddow Show, 3 February 2011

Watching Madame Albright speaking clearly and forcefully about this I realized that as long as we’re talking at the level of “models,” as long as we’re grasping for “political analogies,” it is extremely important that the Indonesian analogy gets put out there into the marketplace of ideas (beyond Indonesia, of course, where everyone is well aware). Indonesia’s regime change will not predict Egypt’s, but it’s an aspirational outcome that helpfully opens up the continuum of possibilities in ways that are decidedly less scary.

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Remote Ethnography in Post-Conflict Aceh, Indonesia

"Remote Ethnography in Post-Conflict Aceh, Indonesia" Harvard University Asia Center, Southeast Asia Seminar Series

"Remote Ethnography in Post-Conflict Aceh, Indonesia" Harvard University Asia Center, Southeast Asia Seminar Series

On Friday at 12:30 PM, I will be presenting this talk at the Harvard University Asia Center as part of their Southeast Asia Seminar Series.  This is a draft chapter of my dissertation, and I am soliciting feedback after the talk.  Open to the public.  Please attend if you’re in Cambridge.

Posted in Aceh, Anthropology, Conflict, Indonesia, Status Updates | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Book Club: A Certain Age

Book Cover for "A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals" by Rudolf Mrázek

Book Cover for "A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals" by Rudolf Mrázek

I have been struggling with the strange kind of fieldwork I did in Aceh for the past few years and how to both acknowledge that strangeness and write about it. Rudolf Mrázek’s new book, A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals, doesn’t solve the problem, but it gives me a toolkit of methodological and theoretical possibilities for the task. “Speed and lightness over the mud and dust define the city and this observer of the city as well,” Mrázek writes in the book’s preface, and in the role of the observer he conjures up Walter Benjamin’s flaneur, but with a rushing twist. He is not just an idle passerby, doing a series of household interviews in Jakarta, sampling his informants like one might browse paintings in a gallery before moving on to the next. There is also an element of compulsive flight, as if Mrázek was never too comfortable getting into the lives of his informants (“keeping my distance from my subjects, my passing by, the burden of my method”); in fact one might find comfort in the moving on, and Mrázek quotes Sartre: “he knew that it was possible for him to make his escape at any moment with the flap of the wings.”

In spite of, or rather because of his methodological burdens (which inspired in me an awesome sense of déjà vu), Mrázek’s data still generates “cognitive sparks” all through the book. With their words, solicited by gentle prompts from Mrázek, his informants produce historical landscapes located in the noisy present of the interview. Fragments from the interview transcripts that recall memories of youth during the colonial and revolutionary era are recomposed, in vivid collage. Rescuing these fragments from the “dustbin of history” (these are, at heart, informants that the vast majority of Indonesians today have no knowledge of) is intended to disrupt the logics of modernity, nationalism, and progress. And it’s a delicate effort, because if you get into these fragments, if you touch them, the fragments either crumble apart or crumble you, leaving us with only a momentary rupture, just a fleeting glimpse, of what modernity looked and felt like in another age, exposing its illusory effects in the present.

But there are redemptions to be found in the refuse. The trick is to find the unexpected tangential points where your fragments meet your informant’s serendipitously. During my work in Aceh, I had several moments like these that resulted in productive and complicit engagements. (A-ha! I could write about this!) And here Mrázek introduced me to a French anthropologist I had never heard of before named Marc Augé, who writes about “non-places” and the anthropology of “supermodernity.” A non-place lends itself to generic memories at best; they are typically spaces of motion and travel, such as airports, stations, vehicles, hotels, mobile offices, and refugee camps. These are the spaces in which humanitarians work, and this resonates strongly with my experience working in Aceh. Like the flaneur, we are always passing by, checking in and then out of non-places. That makes the serendipitous and tangential touch with the Other much more difficult, but, when it does happen, so much more memorable too.

Mrázek likes those meetings even more when they are fraught with tone deaf misunderstandings: “Misunderstanding is another word for the rhythm with which the only true reality forces its way into the conversation. The more effectively a man is able to speak, the more successfully he is misunderstood.” In so many ways, I think my fieldwork was characterized by misunderstanding, sometimes willful, and other times, for lack of trying. A memorable encounter does not translate into an effective one. What would it be like if we thought of humanitarianism not as “supracolonial” but as “supramodern” or maybe just “supermodern”? That brings the industry down to earth without losing that awesome sense of mobility that so strongly characterizes humanitarians and their work. We could set aside debates on “mobile sovereignty” and focus instead on just the “mobile,” the blasé sense of just “passing through,” where perceptions are blunted to the point where we no longer see the “meaning and differing values of things…in the constantly moving stream of money.” In order to be noticed (Mrázek quoting Georg Simmel), “people have to exaggerate their personal element in order to remain audible, even to themselves.” We may be touched by our informants in unexpected ways, but the filters that mediate those encounters inevitably leave us “touched away” from them, and more than likely leave them misunderstood.

More than likely... a misunderstanding.

More than likely... a misunderstanding.

And so as I try to collate and make sense of my overwhelming piles of data, I have to figure out who and what remains audible through all that noise. I have to identify the tangential meeting points of productive engagement and misunderstanding. Upon retrieving a memorable voice, or recalling a tangential meeting point, I need to acknowledge the mediating distortions (exaggerations or otherwise) in my data that made retrieval and recall possible at all.  To bring this all to life and render it sensible, I have to describe ethnographically the “non-places” in Aceh where I spent the majority of my time that prevented me in specific ways from ever really getting to know Aceh as a memorable place.

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Community Perceptions of the Peace Process: Eleven Case Studies for the Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming in Aceh (MSR)

Logo for the MSR

Logo for the MSR

At last! The Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming: Identifying the Foundations for Sustainable Peace and Development in Aceh was finally published in hard copy a few weeks ago in Indonesia. This was an enormous undertaking, involving, well, “multi-stakeholders” ranging from various international donors, Indonesian national and Acehnese provincial government agencies, and civil society groups. The review has many components, including quantitative, qualitative, and historical analyses. The logo to the right has a ring of linked little circles surrounding the blue circle (with a map of Aceh inside it and the MSR letters superimposed) to represent these many complementary components of the overall project.  I urge everyone to click the logo to visit the main MSR page on the World Bank Indonesia’s Conflict and Development team website.  There you will find a description of the project, the list of stakeholders involved, and links to download the main report and the executive summary. Another page lists all the supplementary contributing components to the MSR (the little circles, if you will) as annexes. Although it took at least a year longer than expected to complete and then launch the final product(s), the MSR is exemplary not just for its exhaustive empirical findings, but also as a model for multi-stakeholder collaborations in settings of conflict recovery.

One of those little circles is mine. Paid for jointly by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) and the World Bank, this component of the MSR is formally titled “Community Perceptions of the Peace Process: Eleven Case Studies for the Multi-Stakeholder Review of Post-Conflict Programming in Aceh (MSR).” You can download these case studies in English or in Bahasa Indonesia on the MSR annex website (Annex 5), or you can download it directly from this blog here (English) and here (Bahasa Indonesia). There are some excellent and sophisticated quantitative analyses in the MSR, but these qualitative case studies used in-depth interviews and focus group discussions in conflict-affected communities all over Aceh to investigate a range of issues related to processes of reintegration and post-conflict development, the needs of particularly vulnerable groups, and emerging issues in the field that formal questionnaires either could not capture or could not anticipate. I also emphasize that the case studies reflect perceptions from conflict-affected communities, which are not necessarily based in fact, but are important for gauging the successes and failures of the peace process from the perspective of ordinary rural communities.  The fieldwork was conducted in July and August of 2008, three years after the peace agreement, so it’s dated now, in particular by the legislative elections of April 2009 which brought Partai Aceh into political power at the provincial level and in many district assemblies throughout Aceh. It has now been five years since the peace agreement, and the politics are heating up again for the next executive elections, to be held sometime in 2011.

There are eleven case study reports.  In order of their appearance in the compiled annex, the eleven topics are as follows:

  1. ALA and ABAS: Provincial Secession Movements in Aceh
  2. Sawang [a sub-district (kecamatan) of Aceh Utara known for a series of violent events perpetrated by disgruntled GAM ex-combatants]
  3. Local Political Parties in Post-Conflict Aceh [note: the data precedes Partai Aceh’s victory, when there were six local parties competing against dozens of national parties for the first time]
  4. Post-Conflict Mental Health Services in Bireuen
  5. Conflict IDPs from Peunaron, Aceh Timur
  6. FORKAB – [Forum Komunikasi Anak Bangsa] – an organized group of ex-combatants who left GAM and became anti-separatists after participating in re-education programs sponsored by Indonesian security forces
  7. Community Perceptions Toward KPA
  8. Community Perceptions of the Peace Process in Aceh
  9. Community Experiences with Post-Conflict Assistance in Aceh
  10. Anti-Separatist Groups in Aceh [some call them “militias”]
  11. Ex-Political Prisoners in Aceh Three Years After the Peace Agreement

Although I wrote up all these case studies, they are based on the observations, interviews, fieldnotes, photographs, and preliminary analyses that were conducted by an extraordinary team of Acehnese field researchers. They come from all different backgrounds, including civil society activism, journalism, and academia. In no particular order, they are Fuad Ramly, Retno Wandasari, Isra Safil, Muhammad Nizar, Murniyati, Maimun Faudi, Siti Rahmah, Nyak Anwar and Sri Wahyuni.  I finished writing the reports, in February 2009, and even after I went home to the USA and the researchers had long ago picked up their last paycheck for this work, they were all gracious enough to continue communicating with me by email when I needed their help to make sense of the data. They have my thanks. Lanny Susanti did the translations into Bahasa Indonesia. She has my thanks too! I also got terrific support and feedback from my colleagues at the World Bank and other agencies involved in post-conflict recovery in Aceh. Nevertheless the opinions expressed in these case study reports and any mistakes you may find in them are mine and mine alone and should not be attributed to AusAID, the World Bank, nor any of the bodies who have supported the MSR, nor the authors of the main MSR report.

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Book Club: Contemporary States of Emergency

Book Cover for "Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions" edited by Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi

Book Cover for "Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions" edited by Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi

A few months ago, while I was still in Indonesia, Zone Books published Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions, co-edited by anthropologists Didier Fassin and Mariella Pandolfi. I’m pleased because this is my first peer reviewed academic publication to appear in an edited book (albeit only as third author on my chapter). When I got home to the USA, my complimentary copy was there waiting in the piles of mail my parents had set aside for me while I was away.

The editors lay out the reasons for putting together this collection of essays in their introduction:

Disasters and conflicts are now embedded in the same global logic of intervention, which rests on two fundamental elements: the temporality of emergency, which is used to justify a state of exception, and the conflation of the political and moral registers manifested in the realization of operations which are at once military and humanitarian. This book is devoted to that dual reality of contemporary interventionism: the generalization, at the international but also at the national level, of states of emergency and the institution of a military and humanitarian government as a mode of response to situations of disorder.

The book is organized into three sections. The chapters in the first section, Foundations, lay out some of the historical and theoretical underpinnings that justify intervention as a mode of governance in which tropes of urgency and morality supersede the rule of law. The second section, Scenes, offers several case study chapters that provide the necessary ethnographic detail to support critical inquiry into the humanitarian encounter. The third section, Landscapes, plumbs down into the logics of intervention, juxtaposes field experience with the ethical imperatives that frame intervention, and nods reflexively at us, the social scientists who have entered into the fray with our own partisan commitments.

My chapter, co-authored with my academic advisors Mary-Jo Good and Byron Good (who are first and second author respectively) is in the second section. The title is “Complex Engagements: Responding to Violence in Postconflict Aceh,” and it tells the story of our collaborative work with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the heady days of Aceh’s postconflict humanitarian encounter following the Helsinki MOU in August of 2005. In their introduction to the book, the editors describe our chapter as follows:

Mary-Jo DelVecchio-Good, Byron Good, and Jesse Grayman focus on the problems posed when humanitarian action takes place in a military context. The December 2004 tsunami, which resulted in an unprecedented natural disaster in Indonesia, affected populations that included some who were already subject to violence in the armed conflict between the government and resistance fighters. Aid operations, including the medical-psychological programs described by the authors, were thus embedded in a context of police monitoring by the government and compromises on the part of the NGO involved. Here, the conflict of sovereignty was played out between the government, the intervening organization, and the population concerned.

Our chapter lays out several ethnographic “scenes” that describe our collaboration with IOM and what we discovered while conducting our psychosocial needs assessment in conflict-affected communities.** My main contribution to this chapter is a description of when I presented the findings of our research to members of Aceh’s police force, which turned out to be one of the most memorable and gratifying moments in all my years of working in Aceh. The end of the chapter takes these various scenes and uses them to draw attention to some of the analytical issues that arose from our experience as social scientists conversant with the prevailing critiques of humanitarianism (and yet) “working from the inside” of a major intervention. First we highlight the facile assumptions that support taken-for-granted concepts such as “psychosocial” and “bearing witness” and without too much exegesis we at least acknowledge some of the deeper complexities. Then we describe how the NGO world plays by donor time, developing projects that must be fit into a highly compartmentalized portfolio of programs. For example, it was an administrative and fundraising challenge to develop a mental health program at IOM that involves both “medical” and “livelihood” components because those kinds of programs do not traditionally intersect. Then there are politics, sometimes ugly, within and between NGOs, donors, host governments, beneficiaries, and research consultants. We describe some examples in brief, not to assign blame, but rather to–again–acknowledge the complexity.

But when you have an opportunity to raise more than a million dollars for designing and then providing mental health outreach to conflict victims, the payoff is worth some of the compromises and frustrations. At least that’s how it was in our experience. Just as I reject the absolute moral arguments in favor of humanitarian intervention, I am equally uncomfortable with the strident and theoretical critiques of humanitarianism as a “supracolonial” endeavor because the facts on the ground are so much more complicated than that. That is the simple premise from which my dissertation will begin, and that’s what I take away from our chapter’s modest contribution to this book.

** The primary findings of this research were published by IOM here (in 2006) and here (in 2007). We used some of the data from this project to analyze conflict nightmares, published here and here. Treatment outcomes from the mental health and livelihood intervention have not been formally published yet, but early analyses are complete with publications forthcoming.

Posted in Aceh, Anthropology, Book Club, Conflict, Indonesia, Publications | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Obama the Menteng Kid” Hits the Big Screen at Lightning Speed

Book Cover for "Obama Anak Menteng"

Book Cover for "Obama Anak Menteng"

This week the Multivision Plus Pictures production house began filming Obama Anak Menteng (“Obama the Menteng Kid”), a children’s film about President Barack Obama’s childhood years in Indonesia, based on a book with the same title by Damien Dematra. A press conference and selamatan was held at Plaza Senayan in Jakarta on Tuesday 11 May to announce the start of production and introduce the cast. Dematra, who also wrote the screenplay and will co-direct the film, spent five days interviewing 30 people, mostly former classmates, who knew “Little Barry” when he lived in Menteng, a residential neighborhood of Jakarta, between the years 1967 and 1971. He spent another five days writing the book. Multivision plans to complete the shooting within two weeks and release the film in mid-June, to coincide not just with Obama’s (re)scheduled visit to Indonesia, but also with public school recess.

In the space of a few months, the Obama Anak Menteng project—both the book and the feature film—will be complete, perfectly exemplifying the Indonesian phrases asal jadi or asal kelar, a slapdash effort. This is Multivision’s specialty. They are known more for television sinetron, Indonesia’s formulaic soap operas, shooting and editing scenes until moments before broadcast, with insufferable production values. On the big screen Multivision produces low budget horror franchises such as the Kuntilanak and Pulau Hantu films. As an American who has spent years living in Indonesia and (full disclosure) voted for Obama, I am worried this project has the potential to be an irresponsible disservice, if not an insult, to its subject.

Obama’s childhood in Jakarta is an irresistibly compelling subject for Indonesians and Americans alike; so let’s start by giving Damien Dematra and Multivision the benefit of the doubt. In Dematra’s own words:

The point of view in this film is from Obama’s friends. It’s not a true story but based on true events (bukan kisah nyata tapi berdasar kejadian nyata). There are so many perspectives on Obama’s childhood when he lived in Menteng. His friends such as Slamet, Yuniardi, and others have unique stories based on their point of view.

I will grant Dematra some baseline credit for having a terrific idea. Since we probably won’t get anything more from Obama than what he already wrote in Dreams from my Father about his years in Indonesia, then the obvious next step is to talk to the people who knew Obama and his parents. Although Dematra hasn’t fully convinced me on the distinction between true story (kisah nyata) and true events (kejadian nyata), I’m going to generously assume that he’s privileging personal vignettes from the people who knew Obama over a singular biographical narrative. From there one could piece together some episodic memories into an evocative narrative mosaic. Anthropologists love the “partial narrative” and “memory politics.” In the right hands, this could work.

Obama's 3rd Grade Class, 1970 Former Classmates With Obama Good Luck

Dematra’s personal website reveals him to be a champion of Indonesian pluralism in the tradition of Gus Dur, and this is the angle that Dematra wants to take with Obama Anak Menteng: “Obama is an icon of pluralism who proved to the world that although he was different, and from the minority, he could aim for the top and beat the majority.” They are calling this a children’s film, and Obama’s childhood, as recalled through the memories of his Indonesian friends, broadly lends itself to an inspirational “yes we can” narrative of greatness born out of humble and decidedly pluralistic beginnings. Obama himself loves “teachable moments.” His years in Jakarta certainly qualify as instructive material about diversity, pluralism, achievement, and leadership. Again, in the right hands, this could work.

Obama Childhood Photo from Menteng, Jakarta Obama Childhood Photo from Menteng, Jakarta

Little Barry Statue in Menteng, Jakarta

This same sentiment underlies the effort that brought a group of Menteng residents, other Indonesians and ex-pats together to raise money for a statue of Obama as a child that appeared for a few weeks in a public park in the neighborhood. The idea was not to honor “President Obama of the USA” but to celebrate the childhood of “Little Barry” in their own community as an inspirational example of every child’s potential for greatness. And while I believe that a majority of Indonesians are proud of Obama’s connection to their country, the statue was too much for a disproportionately loud minority of ultra-nationalists who argued that public space should not be given over to statues of foreigners, that Obama hasn’t yet proven any tangible contributions to Indonesia to deserve a statue, that there are plenty of Indonesian national heroes who deserve recognition over Obama. A facebook group (TURUNKAN PATUNG BARACK OBAMA di TAMAN MENTENG) opposing the statue garnered more than 57,000 members, and the organizer of the movement filed a lawsuit against the Jakarta municipal government. Within a few weeks the statue was relocated to Obama’s former elementary school. The film will surely inspire a similar reaction. Trash tabloids are already posting headlines like Mengapa ‘Obama Anak Menteng’ Pakai Pemain Asing? (Why is ‘Obama the Menteng Kid’ Using Foreign Actors?) that invite ugly sentiments in the comments section.

The film may also provide fodder for a similar group of disproportionately loud conservative xenophobes in the USA. Dematra claims to have “proof” that Obama prayed to Mecca and practiced Islamic chanting, and he reserves the right to depict that in his film because it is part of the inspirational message he wants to pass along to Indonesian children. As of last week’s press conference, Multivision has not made a decision yet whether to include this in the film, and they recognize the sensitivity of the matter in the contexts of American politics and bilateral relations between the USA and Indonesia.

The Right Hands...

The Right Hands...

I have not read the book yet, so I will not judge the quality of Dematra’s five days research into Obama’s childhood in Menteng. Having looked at his website and the promotional material for the film, Dematra clearly has good intentions. The project is worthy and fascinating. But I keep coming back to the facts: five days of interviews, five days to write a book, two weeks of filming, two weeks of editing. Dematra’s goals may be noble, but I can’t say the same for his workflow, and there’s nothing to recommend Multivision’s own track record of crapass production values. Asal jadi. Asal kelar. These are not the right hands for producing what might have been an interesting and poignant account of one of America’s and Indonesia’s only joint historical figures.

"Mohon Tidak Disentuh..."

"Mohon Tidak Disentuh..."

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A “Shariah Police” Operation in Banda Aceh

"Menerobos Razia WH," Serambi front page, 5 May 2010

"Menerobos Razia WH," Serambi front page, 5 May 2010

On Tuesday morning, 4 May 2010, the Wilayatul Hisbah (WH, the Aceh government’s “vice and virtue patrol,” the so-called shariah police force) together with the Satpol PP (the public order officer corps) staged one of their largest ever public “sweeping” operations (razia). They chose a strategic time and place to achieve perfect optics. Simpang Mesra (the “Intimate Intersection”) is a traffic circle so named with tongue firmly in cheek because when you drive around it your fellow passengers centrifugally slide up against you, hence the intimacy. This is the main thoroughfare that connects Banda Aceh proper to its adjacent campus community in Darussalam just across the river. So on weekday mornings, young nubile college students are driving to and from their classes, many of them on motorbikes. The WH set up their check-point on both lanes of the stretch of road along the river between Simpang Mesra to the north and the bridge over to Darussalam just a few hundred meters south.

The purpose of the razia is to surveil citizens, particularly women, to make sure their bodies are well-covered. If a person’s aurat (not aura, ok) is showing, it could incite uncontrollable sexual urges among men, and so women have a responsibility to keep their aurat covered. The regulations are defined in Qanun (Aceh provincial law) Number 11/2002. In places like Simpang Mesra, in broad daylight, the razia is a fairly orderly and bureaucratic exercise. If the WH decide that your aurat is showing, they have the authority to give you some religious instruction on the correct ways to keep your aurat covered. After the lecture, some other WH officials take down your name and ID number, and then you have to sign a statement that says you intend to dress appropriately in the future.

WH Checkpoint at Simpang Mesra, Banda Aceh. 4 May 2010 *

WH Checkpoint at Simpang Mesra, Banda Aceh. 4 May 2010 *

It wasn’t long before word reached us at our office that the WH were conducting a razia just across the river, so Joko took my camera and went to go check it out.* The WH officials at the checkpoint graciously gave Joko permission to take pictures, and I’ve collected them all along with some newspaper clippings in a flickr set linked here. In these photos, the WH wear dark green and the Satpol PP wear beige. WH men pull over offending women and give them religious fashion tips, while the WH women do the administrative processing of taking names and collecting signed forms. As for the Satpol PP men, they help pull people over, and the Satpol PP women just stand around wearing uniforms that don’t look all that different from the clothes worn by the women who got pulled over.

WH Fashion Tips *

WH Fashion Tips *

Serambi newspaper reported that the WH registered 194 offenders, easily one of the WH’s largest sweeping operations. All but four of the offenders were women! But looking at these pictures, it’s hard not to conclude that the WH’s definition of aurat for women is unreasonably strict, because every one of them are fully covered. Some are wearing “shapely” pants or shirts, but all are wearing jilbab veils. It’s unsafe to ride a motorbike with the kind of drapery that women are expected to wear. I’m confused about this because there is no formal regulation against women wearing jeans, except in Aceh Barat, so on what grounds can the WH justify pulling these women over? As for the four men that were pulled over, they were wearing shorts above the knees, so the double standard in defining gendered aurat exposure speaks for itself.

What matters, I’m guessing, is the dramatic figure of 194 registered offenders. It fills a quota, justifying the bureaucratic ambitions and budget allocations of the Islamic law agency (Dinas Syariat Islam). For those who support formal Islamic law without looking at the details of its implementation, 194 registered offenders caught at Simpang Mesra during the campus commute readily confirms a prevailing discourse in Aceh about how the youth threaten Aceh’s reputation of religious probity and therefore require constant surveillance and moral intervention.

Registered Offenders

Registered Offenders *

The WH technically do not have the authority to arrest; they can only advise. Few people understand the limits of the WH’s authority, and their common nickname, the “shariah police” (polisi syariat), does not help to demystify their role. What would happen if one of these women refused to stop?

The next day we found out! The accident pictured above and below was headline news not just in Serambi, but also in Kompas, Indonesia’s largest and highly regarded national daily paper. What I conclude from the limited information in both articles is that if a woman does not stop, then the WH (or, in this case, a Satpol PP officer) will put her (and themselves) in physical danger by actually trying to stop her. She crashed right into the Satpol PP dude, knocking him over and falling off her bike as well! But all we really know is that she tried to drive through the checkpoint without stopping, and that the crash did not cause any serious injuries. What a terrible pity that Serambi made no effort to get her side of the story to find out what actually happened.

"Menerobos Razia WH," Serambi front page, 5 May 2010

"Menerobos Razia WH," Serambi front page, 5 May 2010

Measured against recent events surrounding the implementation of formal Islamic law in Aceh, this operation was very tame. In January 2010 three WH officers in Langsa were arrested for gang raping a woman they “arrested” after they caught her together with her boyfriend. The very existence of laws that invest the WH with surveillance authority has unofficially encouraged civilian communities to do the same, which has frequently led to mob vigilante violence against unmarried couples “caught in the act.” A soon-to-be published book (Serambi Mekkah yang Berubah) has a chapter written by one of my research colleagues (Marzi Afriko) that recounts how religious groups in Aceh Utara increased their vigilante violence activities when there was a demonstrable decrease in funding for the WH to carry out their legally sanctioned operations. Communal vigilantism is even portrayed sympathetically in Serambi, as this very recent horrifying example (linked here) attests. But at Simpang Mesra, the WH’s razia on 4 May 2010 was procedural and banal by comparison. Maybe it was a recuperative PR exercise designed to reset deteriorating public perceptions of the WH. Another look at the pictures suggests that the women pulled aside were not particularly ashamed or upset, but rather annoyed and inconvenienced. They are late for class or some other engagement. They are texting on their phones to let others know, perhaps also to warn friends away from the razia that has delayed them. The traffic accident depicted above merely hints at the violence that men are capable of perpetrating against women (and other men) who violate their interpretation of religious laws that are still widely debated in Aceh.

* All non-newspaper images in this entry were taken by Joko Sutranto.  Thanks Joko!

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Aceh Peace Monitoring Update September – December 2009

Due to an unfortunate two-month contract gap for the research staff at the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies (CPCRS), this latest Aceh Peace Monitoring Update (APMU) is four months late. We are still in a process of catching up. The next APMU will cover January through April 2010, and then I hope we will return to a bi-monthly and more timely publication schedule.

The English version is here: Aceh Peace Monitoring Update September – December 2009 (and cover letter)

The Bahasa Indonesia version is here:  Laporan Pemantauan Perdamaian Aceh September – Desember 2009 (and surat pengantar)

Summary:

In November 2009 there were three shooting incidents in Banda Aceh targeting foreigners (causing one critical injury), the first such attacks since the peace agreement in August 2005. To date, few details have emerged about police investigations into these incidents, fuelling security concerns among the international community and allowing space for speculative theories that undermine trust in Aceh’s ongoing peace process. Apart from these attacks, levels of conflict-related and criminal violence from the beginning of September 2009 until the end of the year were at their lowest since the peace agreement, while levels of non-violent conflict remained similar to previous months. In September the outgoing provincial assembly (DPRA) passed the Qanun Wali Nanggroe (“Guardian of the State” law), but like the controversial Qanun Jinayat legislation described in the previous APMU edition, Governor Irwandi has refused to sign it and the new DPRA legislators have yet to repeal or amend it. The ambiguous status of both the Wali Nanggroe and Jinayat laws serves as another example of how legislative gamesmanship with roots in conflict-era political cleavages can weaken government performance, which can invite resolution from the central government in Jakarta, undermining the autonomy provisions that Aceh’s new generation of leaders worked so hard to attain.

Previous updates (formerly titled “Aceh Conflict Monitoring Update”) from August 2005 until February 2009 can be downloaded from the website:  http://www.conflictanddevelopment.org

Previous updates (now titled “Aceh Peace Monitoring Update”) from March 2009 until present are available at the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies – Syiah Kuala University website:  http://cpcrs-usk.or.id/

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Response to Hartoyo’s Opinion Piece in the Jakarta Globe

A few days ago, an opinion piece appeared in The Jakarta Globe titled “Longing for Acceptance, Homosexuals in Indonesia Find Hatred and Discrimination”, written by a gay Indonesian activist named Hartoyo.  His editorial was prompted by Front Pembela Islam’s (FPI, the Islamic Defender’s Front) success in preventing an international lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) conference from being held in Surabaya a few weeks ago.  An absolute miscarriage of justice, FPI’s embarrassing pre-emptive threats of vigilante violence triumphed over the rule of law in secular Indonesia. The organizers already had a permit from the local police to hold the event, but FPI successfully pressured and convinced the police to rescind it. In national headlines, mixed opinions were put forth, and while most do not support FPI’s methods, I think it would be safe to report that in aggregate, more than half of the opinions expressed were in favor of banning the event, and not least from Indonesia’s Minister of Religion.

But something about Hartoyo’s editorial did not sit well with me. His argument for legal protection for gay and lesbian Indonesians was narrowly constructed upon what another response described as “a world of rights defined by strata of acceptability.” I also left a comment under the name “kopyor”, and I reproduce a slightly revised/corrected version here:

 

Hartoyo makes the case to normalize his own sexuality at the expense of other marginal groups in Indonesia. He argues that he practices a ‘normal’ Islam, based on a mainstream Muhammadiyah upbringing, which “is not like those branded by ulema as ‘devious,’ such as those from the Ahmadiyah or Lia Eden sects, or even Shiites.” Whether Hartoyo meant it or not, the suggestion here is that within the diversity of Islamic practices found in Indonesia, some are less normal than others, and in turn less worthy of the recognition and protection he argues should be accorded to gays and lesbians. Then Hartoyo extends the comparison to “infidels” and wonders why infidels are accorded more respect and protection than gay and lesbian Muslims… again suggesting that infidels are somehow less worthy.
Hartoyo’s argument really falls apart when he sets up the supposed “legal protection” for religious diversity against the lack of it for sexual diversity in Indonesia. Sufi beliefs and practices are under attack in Aceh, the Ahmadiyah sect is under attack in West Java, and “kejawen” beliefs in the Java countryside are routinely belittled and condemned. In each of these examples, the formal modernist Islam that feels “normal” to Hartoyo (as “normal” as his homosexuality) stridently attacks its ‘other.’ And beyond Islam, the paranoia surrounding so-called kristenisasi (Christianization) is an excuse to prevent construction of churches and even to burn them down with legal impunity. In Banda Aceh, the local Confucian temple was prevented from holding a public celebration of Chinese New Year for the city’s Chinese community. Let’s not even start a discussion about Jews who officially do not exist in Indonesia.
I applaud Hartoyo’s broad argument that gay and lesbian Indonesians require legal protection. We need more voices, in particular from LGBT allies, and in Bahasa Indonesia especially, championing this cause. The FPI success in preventing an international LGBT conference in Surabaya constitutes nothing less than the failure of the rule of law and the triumph of vigilantism. But I condemn Hartoyo’s argument which implicitly throws other minority groups under the bus and forecloses possibilities for meaningful coalitions among Indonesia’s diverse communities.  –JHG
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Impressions From Our First Week Living in Aceh’s College Town

Jantong Hatee Rakyat Aceh

Jantong Hatee Rakyat Aceh

During our first week living in Darussalam (mid-March 2010), I tried to take a bunch of pictures to capture my first impressions.  I’ve collected them as a set titled “Jantong Hatee Rakyat Aceh” on my Flickr page.  I have been working full time in Darussalam since early September 2009, so moving there has now brought all my daily routines within walking distance, and despite several shortcomings in the area, on balance the change, so far, has been totally worth it.

Darussalam is home to Aceh’s two largest institutions of higher education: Syiah Kuala University (UNSYIAH) and the Ar-Raniry State Institute for Islamic Studies (IAIN). These schools border each other closely and the resulting mega-campus really sprawls. UNSYIAH is affectionately known as the “jantong hatee rakyat Aceh” (roughly translated as “the heart and soul of the Aceh people”) because it was the first nationally accredited institution of higher learning in Aceh, and for generations has reliably produced citizen bureaucrats for the provincial government.  I prefer to generously extend the term of endearment to all of Darussalam, not because I’ve developed some sentimental fondness for the town (hardly!), but rather because IAIN also deserves credit for producing equally competent (if not more so) intellectuals for Aceh, and also because I think UNSYIAH needs to get over itself.

Gedung Pusat Latihan Penelitian Ilmu Sosial dan Budaya - UNSYIAH

Training Center for Social and Cultural Sciences - UNSYIAH

I work at the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies (CPCRS) at UNSYIAH’s Training Center for Social and Cultural Sciences, which is conveniently located right at the front and center of campus.  It’s a lovely old building, recently renovated and restored by the Australian government.  The building has an identical twin, the Wisma UNSYIAH, right next door:

Wisma UNSYIAH

Wisma UNSYIAH

Unfortunately not all buildings in the greater campus area of Darussalam have fared as well as the building where I am lucky enough to work.  I suspect the combined legacy of conflict and tsunami has left much of the campus buildings unattended, especially over at IAIN (though I hear the Saudi government is financing a total reconstruction of their campus in the near future…a mixed blessing at best).  If I take the long way home to my new house, usually in the late afternoon, I pass by these sad lonely buildings.  I confess to some biased editing on these pictures, but I am also trying to capture the spookiness and slight discomfort that I feel when I walk through this area:

That's me at Rise Up Cafe, probably play Fishville

That's me at Rise Up Coffeehouse, probably playing Fishville!

But to be fair, the gloomy parts of campus are at the outskirts of IAIN and UNSYIAH.  The center of campus and the town are quite lively. The quality of life in Darussalam increased exponentially when the Rise Up Coffeehouse opened two months ago. Free and fast wifi, a space for art on sunny-bright walls, magazines for reading, guitars for playing, and a friendly student-oriented staff that includes women servers, a rarity in Aceh cafes!

Rise Up Cafe in the Early Morning

Rise Up Coffeehouse in the Early Morning

There’s a tension between Darussalam’s dynamic student life on the one hand and Aceh’s new legal framework for moral policing on the other. One might expect a higher level of tolerance and nuanced critique among Aceh’s educated elite, but I have not found this to be the case, at least not in Darussalam, which most people consider more conservative than the rest of Banda Aceh across the river. One of my research associates at CPCRS once told me that when she was still in college (at IAIN), she thought Darussalam would be an ideal environment to raise a family, but she doesn’t feel that way anymore. The formal implementation of Islamic law in Aceh has empowered religious student groups to patrol the campus for immoral behavior. In her critique of media representations of Islamic law violations, Sarah Newman begins with a description of how the laws have changed the atmosphere in Darussalam. Mob vigilantism, while technically illegal, is the normative mode of “justice” meted out to unmarried couples caught in the act of romance. I agree with my colleague; as a parent I would not want to raise children under this kind of surveillance with the implicit threat of gender-based violence.

"Dilarang Keras Khalwat Disini!"

"Dilarang Keras Khalwat Disini!"

This is the setting into which we have moved, not just for work, but now to live. Our new neighbors don’t quite know what to make of the foreigner (and that guy from Jakarta who stays part time) now living in their community, and the feeling is mutual. When we were moving in, the first thing one of our neighbors told Dez was that I should buy him a motorbike because all foreigners are rich and so I must surely be able to afford one for him. The day after that, another neighbor took it upon himself to tell us that we don’t need a daytime housekeeper–who comes to cook and clean three times a week–because she is a woman coming to work in a single man’s house, and that presents an unacceptable risk. He told us we don’t need her to cook because there are plenty of rice stalls to choose from less than a block away. Never mind that I prefer vegetarian food, and that the food for sale is mostly disgusting (and that the management of my household is none of his damned business…yes I was furious!). The misplaced assumptions in these first encounters speak volumes about what they must think of us. Welcome to the neighborhood…WTF!

Lest I finish this post on a sour note, I should end my first impressions of living in Darussalam by mentioning one more thing that I love about this town and noticed right away. Most homes really enjoy having greenery, and in particular I like that there is not a lot of focus on highly manicured landscaping… the greenery just surrounds and grows in all kinds of ways. I will try to take more pictures of household greenery in the future because there are so many kinds of creatively chaotic arrangements, but for now this is all I could get:

Note: An earlier version of this post appears at http://fotofoto.livejournal.com/209225.html

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