Should Aceh’s Religious Leaders Demand an Apology from Serambi Too?

Today on facebook Aceh’s activist community had a good laugh sharing a picture of an advertisement that appeared on page 3 in today’s Serambi, Aceh’s oldest and most widely read provincial newspaper. The ad promotes a “late nite party” event tomorrow night (17 Feb 2010) at a karaoke and disco club in Medan, Sumatra’s largest city in the neighboring province of Sumatra Utara (North Sumatra). It shows a suggestive “come hither” close-up of scandal-monger artis Sarah Azhari, the headline entertainment at this party; the ad also promises supporting entertainment from go-go dancers and two female DJs (very trendy these days!).

Advertisement in Serambi, 16 Feb 2010, p.3

Advertisement in Serambi, 16 Feb 2010, p.3

The event sponsors evidently think it was a wise investment to place this ad in Serambi. In other words, they expect more than a few men of means in Aceh, with only one day’s notice, will drop everything and make the trip to Medan to attend this seductive bacchanal. Just for reference, a bus trip to Medan from Banda Aceh takes 12 hours, and from Langsa (Aceh’s closest metropolitan area from Medan) at least three hours. A flight from Banda takes a half hour but costs more, and perhaps already overbooked.

My Acehnese friends were chuckling today on facebook because the ad reveals part of the hypocrisy behind Aceh’s implementation of Islamic shariah law. How reassuring it must be to know that just across the border Medan is always happy to oblige Aceh’s unmet needs for those who can afford it. My friends conclude, correctly I believe, that shariah law in practice only applies to Aceh’s poor.

The layers of hypocrisy in Aceh’s legislated piety are easy to unravel, but I want to build upon today’s amusing example in Serambi with another, because just above the advertisement on the very same page of today’s newspaper was an article about the Banda Aceh Ulama’s Consultative Assembly’s [Majelis Permusyawaratan Ulama Kota Banda Aceh, or MPU] reaction to Aceh’s first transsexual beauty pageant that was held last Saturday night. The MPU demands that the Miss Transsexual Aceh 2010 pageant organizing committee submit a public apology in print and online to the people of Aceh for deceiving the MPU when they first sought permission to hold the event. The MPU were deceived, they claim, because the organizing committee claimed the pageant was a fundraising event for social and cultural awareness of Aceh. Never mind that technically a beauty pageant is not inherently at odds with the organizer’s stated goals to raise awareness of Aceh’s society and culture. In addition to an apology, the MPU expects that the committee will not send the pageant winner (Miss Aceh Utara! Yay!) to the national level pageant because it pollutes Aceh’s image in the eyes of all Indonesians. If there is no apology, the MPU threatens to convene a plenary session and take “further action,” whatever that means.

Contestants looking their finest in traditional dresses during the Social Cultural Transvestite Queen beauty pageant in Banda Aceh over the weekend. The Indonesian Ulema Council has said it would tolerate such contests as a form of entertainment, but would step in at the first sign of anything pornographic, especially contestants revealing too much skin. (AP Photo)

Transsexual Pageant All Right in Aceh as Long as Clothes Stay On: MUI

I should note here that the English language press in Indonesia and abroad has done an excellent job covering this courageous event in Aceh. In particular, I give credit to The Jakarta Globe for their coverage; each image on the left, in chronological order, links to the Globe’s three articles on this event. The  big ironic point documented in these articles is that the MPU originally gave their permission to hold this event, and it sure seems like they knew beforehand that it was a beauty pageant! But they seem to have backpedaled after it got so much press coverage, which they specifically complain about in the Serambi article.

Three transsexual contestants show off their outfits.

Under the Shadow of Shariah Law, Transsexuals Take to the Stage in Aceh in Rare Beauty Contest

Unlike the Jakarta Globe articles linked to the pageant pictures on the left, today’s Serambi article makes no effort to capture both sides of the story. There are no quotes from the pageant contestants nor from the pageant organizers, who all had a lot to say about Aceh’s society and culture, the position and challenges of transsexuals there, and their thoughts as Acehnese Muslims about the formal implementation of shariah law. Instead, Serambi‘s idea of cross-checking the MPU’s hastily convened press conference was to see what the Aceh Islamic Student Union (KAMMI) thought about the controversy. In case you were wondering, KAMMI supports the MPU’s official outrage at their own embarrassing press coverage.

Aceh Shariah Leaders Blast Transsexual Beauty Pageant

Aceh Shariah Leaders Blast Transsexual Beauty Pageant

Ah Serambi! We can always count on you to act as the one-sided mouthpiece for Islamic orthodoxy in Aceh. We know that in the past you have refused to publish the op-ed pieces of young Acehnese intellectuals who oppose shariah legislation in Aceh. We also know that your coverage of shariah law violations of the sexual variety implicitly endorses vigilante mob violence. None of this surprises us. But what about today’s advertisement promising “elegant love” tomorrow night in Medan featuring go-go dancers and sexy Sarah Azhari? Even as Serambi writes articles condemning PG-13 level entertainment in Banda Aceh previously endorsed by the MPU, on the same page they allow promotion of R-rated (with hopeful expectations of X-rated, no doubt) entertainment across the provincial border. I wonder what the MPU, HUDA, Dinas Shariah, WH, KAMMI and other religious institutions that support shariah law in Aceh have to say about that?  I wonder if the MPU, HUDA, Dinas Shariah, WH, or KAMMI will convene a press conference and demand that Serambi publicly retract the advertisement, return the advertising fee to the event sponsors, and issue a formal apology to the people of Aceh, in print and online, for tempting them away from their legislated path to piety?

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Book Club: A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java

Less than a few chapters into Andrew Beatty’s ethnographic travel memoir A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java the two Big Bads in the book emerge:  The State & Reformist Islam. Through efficient descriptive vignettes about the people in a mountainside village just outside of Banyuwangi in East Java where Beatty and his family lived for several years, these twin threats to village harmony are quickly boiled down to singular referents. To evoke state violence, Beatty needs only to mention the haunting specter of “1965,” while the ultimate symbol of intrusive Islamic orthodoxy is the blaring “megaphone” on village mosques and prayer houses.  It’s a tidy and effective narrative strategy, but troubling in its over-simplification.

In the mid-1990s when Beatty did his fieldwork, the memories of 1965 have sedimented, leaving its mark on village social organization, and ensuring at least a superficial stability. State violence has receded to an implicit threat, but remains no less effective as the primary instrument of governance at the height of Soeharto’s “benevolent” military dictatorship. All political ideologies were banned beneath the state ideology of Pancasila, and that included political Islam. Some historians and political scientists argue that the Soeharto regime’s increasing accommodation of Islam within the state apparatus signaled one of the first stages of its disintegration. Beatty doesn’t get into the national level macro-politics that preceded Soeharto’s fall, but that may partially explain the (authorized) emergence of a more strident and pious brand of Islam in “Bayu,” the pseudonymously named village where he did his research.

Book Cover for "A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java" by Andrew Beatty

Book Cover for "A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java" by Andrew Beatty

I’ve been living and working in Indonesia since 1989, so I know how this story ends, and it’s ugly. I cringed and winced as insults and threats accumulate against well-intentioned leaders and ordinary villagers in Bayu because I know that the climax here is the horrific so-called “ninja killings” of hundreds of suspected “sorcerers” throughout East Java in the late 1990s. In many ways, the twin figures of State Violence and Islamic Orthodoxy richly deserve Beatty’s partisan critique. (A fair criticism of Beatty’s bias against religious orthodoxy in this book can be found in Nicholas Herriman’s review, so I won’t dwell on this any further.) He unabashedly favors Bayu’s intensely local and tolerant continuum of religious practices so richly and warmly described in the book. Quite frankly, so do I. The stories from Bayu echo the experiences I had during my first year in Yogyakarta in 1989-1990, which have brought me back to Indonesia again and again.

I pursue anthropology and stand by its methods because the practice and writing of ethnography and the social theories that come out of it are capable of helping us better understand how and why these things happen. After reading Beatty’s book, I was reminded of two excellent examples. The first is Clifford Geertz’s A Social History of an Indonesian Town, which takes the more abstract and encyclopedic descriptions from his Religion of Java and shows how they play out socially and politically in an actual time and place: a small Javanese market town during Indonesia’s first experiment in representative party politics during the 1950s. Geertz identified internal rifts within loosely delineated social groups (the now overly-reified abangan, santri, and priyayi categories) driven by the post-colonial forces of nationalism, political organization, bureaucratization, and so on. Modernizing factions within each of these communities appeared increasingly organized along ideological platforms rather than the more traditional geographic and social bonds that typically served to smooth over political and religious differences. Formerly “simple indexes of received practice” became “emblems of consciously adopted and vigorously defended ideological positions.” Custom became doctrine, the concrete became abstract, the specific became general, and the unquestioned grew apologetic. The experiment was short-lived; Soekarno’s “Guided Democracy” and then Soeharto’s “New Order” governments justified their dictatorships on the premise that the masses couldn’t handle democracy and politics. Post-1965 Java submitted to the New Order’s version of Pancasila Democracy, and for 32 years that was the end of openly expressed political differences based on ideology.

The second example from anthropology comes from John Pemberton’s On the Subject of “Java.” If Geertz argued that an understanding of local culture is necessary to make sense of the seemingly chaotic events (such as a local election) unfolding in Java, then Pemberton’s book, in careful historiographic and ethnographic detail, reverses this assumption and instead discerns a “culture effect” wrought by history upon the Javanese people that goes back to Dutch colonialism but remains alive and well in Soeharto’s New Order Indonesia. European concepts such as “ritual,” “culture” and “tradition” have a discursive effect that royalty, bureaucrats, and villagers in Java internalize and reproduce eagerly to an extent that everyday practice assumes a customary reality. But New Order cultural discourse, in its relentless effort to recuperate and preserve traditional “Java,” is always and necessarily left with a residual trace or a fleeting sense of absence. Part of Pemberton’s description of the “culture effect” entails the abstraction of specific religious practices into an overarching set of Javanese traditions and rituals. When a village guardian spirit named Tangled Whiskers may once have been satisfied with an offering of gin and cigars, the cultural discourse on “Java” effaces intensely local idiosyncrasies. Villagers make general offerings in the name of “tradition” but remain uncertain of any outcome. It’s never enough, never quite satisfies.

Fast-forward now to mid-late 1990s when Beatty is doing his fieldwork. He laments the rise of Islamic orthodoxy and the majority of moderate villagers in Bayu who don’t like it but do nothing to stop it. Bayu’s own idiosyncratic guardian spirit is a were-tiger named Buyut that resides in the wild forests to the south. But as Beatty documents in the chapter titled “The Sanctuary,” a consultation with Buyut leaves one of the villagers with doubt, more questions than answers. At the moment when political Islam was authorized in the late New Order regime, suddenly there was an ideological alternative to the ossified Pancasila and its empty generic discourse on culture. Say what you like about political Islam, but if modern Islamic orthodoxy offers anything at all it’s certainty in an uncertain world. Relativistic and tolerant varieties of Javanese religion, drained of the local and idiosyncratic details that gave its practice meaning and its own kind of certainty, surrender in the face of such unwavering faith, firstly in the name of compromise and local harmony, and then perhaps secondly due to lack of any convincing alternatives. But make no mistake: when dogma trumps custom, the effects are disruptive… and deadly.

The book ends with a brief description of the ninja killings in East Java, and a mere suggestion of how state actors and radical Islamists may have come together to perpetrate riots, church burnings, and the massacre of hundreds of supposed “sorcerers” (many of whom were known to be mentally disabled village idiots). We learn that the religious fanatics in Bayu steal away at night to a distant location and study magic-inflected martial arts with a mysterious trainer. The village head has survived an attempted administrative coup against his leadership perpetrated by these same fanatics, but the once affable secular nationalist ends up a depressed and broken man after bearing witness to the changes in Bayu. It’s thoroughly depressing.

The other day I had a chat with another American friend of mine based here in Aceh (so far from Java!). He was feeling down about Indonesia and asked me why we keep coming back. What did we fall in love with in this country that brings us back to work here again and again? Bearing this book in mind, I recalled all those special things about my first few years coming to Indonesia. Most of that is gone; Indonesia has changed irrevocably (and to be fair, so have I). I think this book was so painful for me to read because it reminds me of all that is lost, yang sudah hilang. But that doesn’t mean I think Indonesia is worse off now than it was twenty years ago. Far from it. The undeniably horrific spasms of violence that wracked Indonesia in the years immediately after the fall of the New Order have subsided, and the Indonesia that emerged from the wreckage is now a semi-competent democracy with a resurgent economy. In retrospect, all those magical days and enchanting nights of my late teens and early twenties in places like Yogyakarta, Klaten, and Parangtritis now seem like rich mystifications, seductive “culture effects” encouraged and reinforced in broad strokes by an insufferably repressive regime.

Posted in Anthropology, Book Club, Indonesia, Reflexive | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Carter Center’s Observation Mission Report on Indonesia’s 2009 Legislative Elections

Just this week I heard from some work colleagues that last August (!!!) The Carter Center published its final report of their limited observation mission to Indonesia for the legislative elections that were held in April 2009. I am not one of the authors, but I was one of the Carter Center’s official Long Term Election Observers, from March until May 2009, based in Aceh, and much of the Aceh material comes from my field reports. I am chagrined and embarrassed that I didn’t know about this report five months ago.

The timing is otherwise pretty good, since at work I am reading through field reports and draft chapters from a much more detailed study of these same elections (in Aceh only) than what the Carter Center put together. While I was an election observer for the Carter Center, the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies (CPCRS) at Syiah Kuala University (where I work now), with significant technical and human resource support from the World Bank’s Conflict and Development Team, conducted several field trips to different parts of Aceh to study aspects of the election. In the next few weeks, I will be drafting the CPCRS final report.

Anticipating this enormous task, I’ve taken my photos from the election monitoring work I did, and uploaded them in bulk to my flickr.  You can see a thumbnail set of all 566+ images here, but I’m posting below three favorites:

Partai Demokrat Rally in Aceh Tamiang

Nenek is Confused by all the Ballots and Boxes, Bireuen

Newspaper Clipping

At the time of the mission, I had mixed feelings about working for the Carter Center (it’s a long story for another forum), but in retrospect I’m glad I did it. Just to start, the other observers I met were all so interesting (and so different from each other) and I learned a lot from them. Second, I met with people and had access to information in Aceh that few foreigners could reach at the time… the stories are rich! More than enough for a dissertation chapter. And finally, I got this job shortly after Obama’s euphoric inauguration and his call to service. As a volunteer election observer, I played a small part in Jimmy Carter’s mission to “wage peace” in the world, and I did it in a place where I was uniquely qualified to contribute to that mission.

So for now I can share Carter Center’s five month old report and some artifactual election photos, but this post serves notice that additional and deeper analysis of last year’s legislative elections in Aceh are on the way!

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Book Club: Conflict, Violence, and Displacement in Indonesia

Any book might have been a compelling jolt out of the academic ambivalence that precedes (and prevents) my dissertation, but it happened to be Conflict, Violence, and Displacement in Indonesia, published last year by the Cornell Southeast Asia Program, and edited by Eva-Lotta E. Hedman. I was surprised to find it at Aksara on my last trip to Jakarta so I picked it up, not least because I had dinner once with Eva-Lotta here in Banda Aceh a few years ago and should familiarize myself with her work. The cover has a terrific photograph that for me perfectly captures the inherent tension between structure and agency that animates so much anthropological debate. This woman IDP returning home to Halmahera from her displacement in Ternate in 2002 is decidedly *not* interested in the policeman’s direction, but she probably doesn’t have much choice or where else to go.

The back cover states the book’s mission: “This volume foregrounds the dynamics of displacement and the experiences of internal refugees uprooted by conflict and violence in Indonesia.” In doing so, Hedman hopes to achieve a threefold intervention, described in the last paragraph of the Introduction (p.27):

  1. Instead of a focus on explaining violence and conflict in Indonesia, which has the unfortunate–some might say unavoidable–byproduct of displacement, this book highlights displacement itself as an actual mode of governmentality. She invokes Agamben’s “state of exception” theory here.
  2. Instead of reducing Indonesia to one case study in a global comparative analysis of sectarian or communal violence, terrorism, or failed states, this book allows for a deeper and multi-layered analysis within Indonesia’s borders, which has more diverse comparative material on “conflict, violence, and displacement” than most other nation-states could claim.
  3. Instead of situating this book within discourses of the emergent and well-funded transnational humanitarian industry, concerned with describing the distribution of conflict and violence and prescribing solutions for it, an industry that arguably reflects and reproduces “a more pervasive/violence discourse, … this volume serves as a reminder that the very processes involved in the production of knowledge about displacement cannot, by definition, remain somehow outside or above politics.” (p.27)

Each “intervention” grips and excites me, but each in their own particular way. I’ll start with the second one, because that poses no disagreement. I’ve accepted that in some elite institutions regional studies may be unfashionable second tier academia, but I think of myself as an Indonesianist, so I enthusiastically support Hedman’s claim that a more fine-grained analysis of Indonesia at the nation-state and regional levels precedes, and supersedes, global comparison. Anthropologists, at least in a Boasian tradition, have the least problem with getting “intensely local,” multi-sited theoretical developments aside, so at least in my discipline I don’t have to apologize for putting regional and thematic issues on an equal footing. I love this book already because it’s all about Indonesia! It even has two chapters about Aceh!

The first “intervention” drags me back, kicking and screaming, to my anthropological training. I think I was assigned Agamben in at least two courses, and the “state of exception” (also a highlight in Walter Benjamin’s work) is a powerful analytic deployed frequently in contemporary ethnography. It’s not that I think it’s wrong; rather, my day-to-day work in Aceh over the years has not encouraged, broadly speaking, a discursive analytical framework. Foucault & friends do not come easy to begin with, and I have to flex the brain a few times to “get it.” When I first read Hedman’s Introduction, I thought her writing was strange, excessive, and strident… even as I found myself agreeing with her. Writing about late Soekarno-era military adventures along the nation’s borders, here is an excerpt that stands out:

The West New Guinea and Konfrontasi campaigns served, in distinct ways, to shape the social (re)production of state borders and national space in Indonesia through militarized conflict, violence, and displacement. In the case of the West New Guinea campaign… it prompted a creeping militarization of the long border with Papua New Guinea and the emergence of a growing and, eventual, so-called ‘protracted refugee situation’ across this border, thus anchoring Jakarta’s claims to the last remnants of the (former) Dutch East Indies colonial territory in new lived experiences of political boundaries and violent geographies on Indonesia’s easternmost frontier. … The undeclared border war known as Konfrontasi prompted a new consciousness of the border between Indonesia and Malaysia and the wider social and economic effects thereof, as ‘people from across the border came to be viewed as outsiders rather than relatives.’ (p.12)

Violence and displacement not only consolidate national boundaries but are also productive of national consciousness among displaced populations at Indonesia’s most distant frontiers. I get it. I’ve even written papers like this. It’s just been awhile. Like I said, any decent ethnography may have (re)oriented me (natch!) back to my discipline’s theoretical for-granteds, but I am grateful that this one did the job.

I take issue with the third “intervention,” and only partly because it kicks me where it counts. She writes: “The mobilization of a massive transnational ‘humanitarian’ machinery, with its own considerable complex of national and international, governmental and non-governmental, resources, networks, and discourses, has propelled an entire industry focused on ‘conflict and violence in Indonesia,’ including the so-called mapping of conflict and violence, the search for conflict intervention mechanisms, and the design of peace and conflict resolution programs.” Such efforts, she says, arguably reflect and reproduce “a more pervasive conflict/violence discourse ‘grounded in a set of institutions that promotes its persistence.'” (p.27) At the end of the line there she is quoting from a book I haven’t heard of before, by Paul Brass, titled Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence, published in 1997 by Princeton University Press. After a quick browse online, here is how the publisher describes the book, which is an ethnography of communal violence in northern India:  

Brass shows how, out of many possible interpretations applicable to these incidents, government and the media select those that support existing relations of power in state and society…some incidents remain localized while others are fit into broader frameworks of meaning, thereby becoming useful for upholders of dominant ideologies. Incessant talk about violence and its implications in these circumstances contributes to its persistence rather than its reduction. Such treatment serves in fact to mask the causes of violence, displace the victims from the center of attention, and divert society’s gaze from those responsible for its endemic character.

OK now let’s compare Hedman’s words and her reference point with my current job. I work for World Bank Indonesia’s Conflict and Development team (read: massive transnational ‘humanitarian’ machinery…focused on ‘conflict and violence in Indonesia,’). My job is to support The Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies at Syiah Kuala University, which receives much of its funding from the World Bank (read: the search for conflict intervention mechanisms, and the design of peace and conflict resolution programs). Our signature product is the Aceh Peace Monitoring Update, which relies on a newspaper monitoring methodology to map conflict and violence in Aceh since early 2005 (read: including the so-called mapping of conflict and violence). In Hedman’s own chapter, “Back to the Barracks: Relokasi Pengungsi in Post-Tsunami Aceh,” she cites one of these monitoring updates (when it was still called the Aceh Conflict Monitoring Update, and still produced directly by the World Bank). It’s not unlikely that the critique in her Introduction is directed squarely at my employer and its publications. In a word: Ouch!

It’s not like she is the only one to make this critique. There is a blooming critical literature in the social sciences about humanitarianism, Mariella Pandolfi’s “mobile sovereign” and all that, wherein the state of exception figures heavily as well. The problem with this critique though is that it sets up a straw man figure of the (faceless) Humanitarian, and if that is your image, then The Bank is such an easy and obvious target. In that conversation, structure beats agency every time, with a knockout punch, except it’s rigged! I prefer the more productive tension illustrated on the book cover.

So in an effort to balance Hedman’s third intervention, I just want to say two things. The first is that these conversations and critiques also take place within the humanitarian industry itself. Humanitarians might possibly be the most reflexive professionals around, after anthropologists of course. The second is that humanitarians are not (only) cylon machinery. One could argue perhaps that some are more “interpellated by structures of power and domination” than, say, some critical anthropologists think that they’re not, but they’ve got agency in there somewhere (In Jakarta, for example, I choose Starbucks over Oh-La-La). Humanitarians also have lives, and frustrations, and lovers, and even moral commitments, and well, experience, that are ethnographically rich, and that is something still missing from this critical literature.

I should add, now that I’ve got that off my chest, that Hedman is partially right. My office does not have total neutrality and autonomy when it writes a peace monitoring update, but I think most of us are aware of that. There are subtle and blunt forces that shape the content, style, and language of those reports. The details of such forces are indeed ethnographically rich; I savor them actually (because the process is so fascinating), even as they frustrate and compel me/us to self-censor. The net effect favors, though hardly explicitly and certainly not intentionally, an assemblage of powerful interests. This is what draws me to the Paul Brass book, in due time; I don’t think I’ll find that one at Aksara.

There is so much more to write, to fill in the details of the previous two paragraphs just for example, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. Regarding this wonderful new book that got my head ticking again, I’ve only really addressed the Introduction, but there is a great collection of chapters, and so far I’ve read the two excellent Aceh chapters (Hedman wrote one about the early and decisive days for managing the tsunami IDPs, Ed Aspinall wrote the other one about three major waves of conflict IDPs between 1998 and 2005). I am really looking forward to the last chapter which is about ghosts with trauma and a haunting drakula in post-conflict North Maluku. But for now, I’ve got my own chapter to write, for another book, and I’m hoping this conversation here serves as an inspiration.

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

Aceh Peace Monitoring Update July – August 2009

At least three months late, today we at the Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies (CPCRS) finalized our July-August 2009 edition of the Aceh Peace Monitoring Update (Laporan Pemantauan Perdamaian Aceh). It was our first experience writing one of these from start to finish, so we had a steep and lengthy learning curve at every step in the process. Next time around should be more efficient, except now we are waiting for the CPCRS research staff to get new contracts before work on the next APMU can resume.

The English version is here:  Aceh Peace Monitoring Update July – August 2009

The Bahasa Indonesia version is here:  Laporan Pemantauan Perdamaian Aceh Juli – Augustus 2009

Summary:

In August 2009, upon the fourth anniversary of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesian government, violent incidents remained at their lowest sustained levels since 2006. Overall conflict figures (violent and non-violent) also remained at their lowest levels since early 2008.  On 8 July, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was reelected, winning more than 93% of the vote in Aceh, more than in any other province in Indonesia. His landslide victory in Aceh has been widely interpreted as a vote for peace, but his pro-poor development policies and an informal political alliance with leaders from Aceh’s ruling party Partai Aceh (PA) also appear to have contributed importantly to his victory. Through the legislative and presidential elections, GAM completed its transformation into a political force accountable to voters. The election results also strengthened a central government that supports the peace process, thereby delivering a favorable political configuration to sustain and consolidate peace in Aceh. Following the elections, provincial and district governments in Aceh face a dual challenge. On the one hand, they will need to maintain the broad coalition of supporters that brought them into political office. On the other hand, they must pursue governance reform. Before the new PA dominated parliament was sworn in at the end of September, outgoing legislators focused more of their attention than usual on a long list of administrative issues that highlight poor performance in the executive branch. Tensions between provincial parliament (DPRA) and the executive reached their peak in September when the DPRA rushed into law a new and controversial syariat-based criminal code, the Qanun Jinayat, which Governor Irwandi has refused to sign.

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

Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies – Syiah Kuala University:  http://cpcrs-usk.or.id/

Posted in Aceh, Conflict, Indonesia, Publications | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Book Club: Women in Acehnese Society

Today I had the pleasure of attending a luncheon launch for a book in which I was indirectly involved. In my previous post, I wrote about the ARTI (Aceh Research Training Institute) scholars who attended a seminar in Yogyakarta. This book is also an ARTI project, a compilation of recent research on women in Acehnese society titled Perempuan Dalam Masyarakat Aceh: Memahami Beberapa Persoalan Kekinian. Two out of the ten chapters were written by ARTI researchers that I advised, so the publication of this book is a moment of pride and celebration.

The title of the book in translation is simply Women in Acehnese Society: Understanding Some Contemporary Issues. In most academic environments it would be nearly impossible to publish a volume with such a broad and banal theme, but the desperate need for any research about women in Aceh based on real data allows the editors and publisher to get away with it this time. After a thorough review of the sparse social science literature on women in Aceh (less than seven pages!), name-checking the international heavyweights (Snouck Hurgronje, James T. Siegel, Jackie Siapno, Anthony Reid) and mentioning many others I have not read yet, the editors introduce the book with two basic and convincing premises that justify its publication:

  1. Women in Aceh are often cited for their strength and leadership, and this “social fact” tends to justify a light hand when it comes to investments in women’s empowerment or gender mainstreaming. The major problem with this, however, is that all the citations of women’s strength and leadership precede the consolidation of Dutch colonial power more than 100 years ago.  Yes, there were sultanas who ruled Aceh. Yes, there were high-ranking military women leading the charge against the Dutch during the war. But any post-colonial analysis of women’s strength and leadership in Aceh is wholly confined to the domestic sphere (home ownership and management… po rumoh, and so on).
  2. The obvious follow-up point to the first is that the roles and status of women in any society change over time. And Aceh, in particular, is undergoing one of the most amazing historical transformations right now! These years of post-tsunami and post-conflict recovery present women (and everyone else) with radically different risks and opportunities. So now more than ever is not the time to rely upon static truisms that glorify Acehnese women of the past and allow policy-makers to ignore their current needs; not when a recent history of war crimes systematically perpetrated against women goes without truth and reconciliation, and not when fervent advocates of Islamic law seize their opportunity to restrict women’s role in politics and pass laws forbidding women from wearing jeans.

That said, the research findings in this book have a modest agenda. This is hardly a feminist manifesto. These are small projects on a limited budget for young scholars without significant social science methods training. For example my two advisees, Cut Aja Fauziah and Dr. Sarah Firdausa, both studied topics of women’s reproductive health, but from two very different methodological perspectives. Aja studied local myths about women and pregnancy in a few villages in Aceh Barat, and in the style of an old-school ethnography she catalogues the taboos and other customs that pregnant women in Aceh typically follow and how they feel about it. (“Perempuan dan Mitos Kehamilan: Studi Kasus di Kecamatan Meureubo Aceh Barat” pp.53-76) Sarah did a questionnaire-based cross-sectional study about the sexual health knowledge, attitudes, and practices of middle-school girls who attend traditional and modern religious boarding schools in Aceh Besar. (“Kesehatan Reproduksi dalam Perspektif Santriwati Pesantren Modern dan Tradisional di Aceh” pp.77-100) Both finished their fieldwork with fascinating and occasionally shocking results, but neither translate their findings into a gender-based polemic (although both could have easily done that). Instead, they suggest mundane but imperative changes in health policy and health education.

Other topics covered in this book include domestic and sexual violence, marriage law, women’s leadership in higher education and in religious schools, gender roles in a rice-farming village, and (my favorite —>) the gendered spaces of post-tsunami reconstruction housing units. My friend Azwar from Logica ensured the funding was available to get this book published. Another friend Sehat (what a terrific name!) from IAIN Ar-Raniry copy-edited the book, and Aceh’s foremost gender scholar, Eka Srimulyani, also from IAIN, along with her colleague Inayatillah co-edited the book. Today they emphasized the celebratory aspect of this book’s publication, and they should be proud and gratified with the results, but I am looking ahead, and hoping that this kind of scholarship opens up the field and raises the standard for future research in Aceh not just about women, but also about men, from a gender perspective.

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Perceptions of Aceh in Yogyakarta

For the past three years, the Aceh Research Training Institute (ARTI), has trained young scholars from academia, government, and the non-profit sector in social science research methods. After two selective short courses, ARTI awards small 6-month research grants to the most promising proposals. I have had the great pleasure of mentoring four women in the program. As ARTI concludes its program (for now), the Australian director of the program together with the Director of Gadjah Mada University’s (UGM) Graduate School (Sekolah Pascasarjana) decided to showcase this year’s ARTI researchers together with some UGM students at a day-long seminar at UGM’s grad school campus in Yogyakarta. The seminar preceded UGM’s first ever graduate student conference, and some of the ARTI researchers presented there as well. Altogether, it was three full days of Indonesian academic discourse for young and emerging scholars in the social sciences, with maximum attendance and plenty of interesting research content. ARTI supported eight researchers from Aceh to come to Yogya and take part in these events. Their research covered a range of topics such as:

  • Participation of Women Candidates in Provincial and District Level Legislative Elections in Aceh
  • The 2009 Legislative Elections in Post-Conflict Aceh
  • Child Abuse During and After the Conflict at an Orphanage in Aceh Utara District
  • Perceptions of Exclusive Breast Feeding Among First-time Mothers in a Suburban Village on the Outskirts of Lhokseumawe, Aceh
  • College Students in Banda Aceh and Their Efforts to Quit Smoking
  • The Politics Behind the Khalwat Legislation in Aceh
  • New Urban Sufism Practices and Institutions in Banda Aceh

Their presentations were great, as good if not better than the other researchers from Yogya and other parts of Indonesia. I advised three of the presenters and felt especially proud of their performance and the way they handled both positive feedback and constructive criticism during the Q&A.

The questions from the audience unwittingly revealed, one after another, the peculiar stereotypes and misperceptions that non-Acehnese Indonesians still hold about Acehnese society five years after the tsunami, and more than four years after the peace agreement that ended 30 years of separatist conflict against the Indonesian state. Here are three examples:

  1. Two presentations on the same panel covered aspects of GAM’s transformation from armed insurgency into a political machine that, following recent elections, now dominates the provincial government and many district governments. This prompted a woman in the audience to share her concern and ask whether GAM has a hidden agenda to resume their struggle for independence though internationalization. Indeed, the Acehnese diaspora did a terrific job of lobbying the international community, promoting GAM’s struggle, during the conflict. Furthermore, it was no small victory for GAM to hold the peace talks in Helsinki instead of in Indonesia. She worried that GAM still employs this strategy and her evidence was the provincial government’s international scholarship program for dozens (if not hundreds) of Acehnese to pursue graduate studies abroad. Never mind that the scholarship program began before Partai Aceh (GAM’s local political party) was even established let alone won any elections. Never mind that the program is a smart investment in Aceh’s future now that the provincial government finally enjoys access to revenue from its natural resources (thanks to the peace agreement). Never mind that such investments are necessary after the conflict kept Acehnese society closed to the world of ideas for at least a generation. And never mind that investing in education is all the more urgent after the tsunami killed thousands upon thousands of Aceh’s most productive and skilled citizens in Banda Aceh and other urban centers along the coast. Her question about the scholarship program had nothing to do with the elections, the main subject of the presentations. Concerned Indonesian nationalists do wonder if Partai Aceh will pursue independence for Aceh through the political process now that they run the provincial government, but that’s not what she asked. She thinks GAM is sending out Acehnese missionaries to schools around the world to promote Aceh’s independence and she told us this after two talks about the elections. What.
  2. After a fascinating and deeply concerning presentation about the stack of problems that first-time mothers face in exclusively breastfeeding their babies during the first six months after childbirth, a woman asked whether Arab influence (arabisasi) is responsible for the decrease in breastfeeding mothers. The presenter already covered the far more proximate and convincing roles played by midwives, nurses, families, Acehnese beliefs about women and childbirth, postpartum diet, the baby milk formula and advertising industries, and basic health education. This woman felt that the Arabisation of Aceh should be added to the list, because, well, she once heard that Arab culture is not supportive of women and childbirth. Ya Allahhh (read: OMG)… OK, to be fair, the Arabisation of Indonesian society at large has been a subject of contentious public debate for at least the past ten years. And Aceh, after all, is known as “Mecca’s Verandah” (Serambi Mekkah), and was Islam’s point of entry into the Malay archipelago so many centuries ago. More recently, the formal implementation of Islamic law in Aceh this decade is held up as one of Indonesia’s most troubling examples of Arabisation. The woman who asked the question is tapping into the widely accepted notion that Aceh is full of Islamic fanatics and therefore must be prone to Arab influence, paving the way for the rest of Indonesia to follow suit. Arabisasi in Indonesia is a debatable phenomenon to begin with, a catch-all term to name the rapid changes in Islamic practice in Indonesia that feel inconsistent with local practice, even more so in Java than in Sumatra. But even if we accept Arabisation at face value, I wonder if she would ask the same question if the case study on breastfeeding was conducted in a suburban village on the outskirts of Yogya instead of Lhokseumawe? Let’s be clear: Indonesians think Acehnese are fanatics because Snouck Hurgronje said they were, 100 years ago! Post-colonial Jakarta inherited and perfected Batavia’s convenient othering artifice that first justified Dutch and then Indonesian military oppression in Aceh. I could go on and on about this, but the point here is that young Acehnese mothers have so much more to worry about when trying to breastfeed their babies than the Arabs.
  3. In Aceh, the word qanun means regional laws (peraturan daerah or perda in other provinces). There are a few qanun in Aceh that define a provincial-wide criminal code based on Islamic law. One of the presentations told the history of the khalwat qanun and the political and religious interests that surrounded it. I’m no expert in Islamic law, but the khalwat law forbids various sexual and other kinds of vice, and defines the corporal punishments for breaking the law which include caning with a rattan whip. After this presentation, a man asked the presenter whether or not “qanun” in Aceh (by which I think he meant various Islamic laws ratified and implemented in Aceh and not qanun in general) can survive when ganja farming and ganja use are such a huge problem in Aceh. Huh what? I guess he was implying that Acehnese society would never by pious enough to live by Islamic law if everyone in Aceh smokes ganja. To my knowledge, there are qanun based on Islamic law that deal with alcohol consumption, but I’m not sure if they cover ganja use. Anyway, setting aside ganja for the moment, many Acehnese still drink alcohol, gamble, cheat on their spouses, and enjoy pre-marital sex… and these are all clear breaches of Islamic law codified in qanun. This guy thinks that real world vice practices are actually a threat to qanun on the books. He even thinks that real world practices possibly not even covered in qanun will also threaten the qanun’s existence. Or maybe he just wanted to remind the presenter and everyone in the seminar room that Aceh has a well established, but illegal, ganja production and trade industry, and that reflects poorly on the people of Aceh and puts a stain on Indonesia’s reputation. Ganja has been a cooking ingredient in Aceh for generations, and the seeds are often crushed and used as a kind of “natural MSG” as well. I don’t believe this actually makes anyone high, but people like to joke that it does. Since the crop has always been a part of the local agriculture, it was exploited, especially as a source of black market revenue during the conflict, and developed into a lucrative industry, supplying the demand for ganja throughout Indonesia and possibly throughout Southeast Asia (I’m no expert on this either). These are real issues, but to call ganja a threat to the very survival of qanun based on Islamic law is quite imaginary.

To the credit of the presenters, none of them even bothered to answer these three questions. The questions were so fantastically disconnected from the content of each presentation that the presenters probably didn’t even know how to begin a much more fundamental and complicated conversation that breaks down the assumptions and stereotypes that non-Acehnese Indonesians still hold against Aceh. Like the questions themselves, such a conversation is off-topic from the research findings they came to discuss. At a graduate conference, full of graduate students (and their professors), at least three people in this educated group couldn’t let go of their bias and fear, and sadly allowed themselves to ask foolish questions.

On the flip-side, an Acehnese graduate student (not from our ARTI group, thank goodness!) from Nagan Raya district stood up and embarrassed himself as well. Following a presentation about women’s participation in local politics in Aceh Utara and Lhokseumawe delivered by a very smart and articulate woman from Malikusaleh University, this guy from Nagan Raya told her that she really should have checked the election results from Nagan Raya in 2004, when he was on the elections oversight board (panwaslu) there, because a lot of women won in his district. He embodied the worst in Aceh gender dynamics, challenging the presenter more rudely than he would have if the presenter was a man. Again, he was off-topic, as she had clearly demarcated her research to the 2009 elections in Aceh Utara and Lhokseumawe, completely on the opposite coast of Aceh from Nagan Raya. The panel moderator had told the audience very strictly and clearly that each person could ask only one question, but this dude wanted to ask four! A friend of mine who was sitting next to where he was standing reached over and turned off the microphone because everyone in the auditorium was protesting the number and length of his questions. Our Aceh delegation from ARTI was pretty embarrassed, because as the above examples illustrate, Acehnese have enough negative perceptions stacked against them. This Acehnese guy from Nagan Raya spoke publicly at UGM in a way that confirms and diminishes other Indonesians’ image of Aceh.

Since I started working in Aceh in 2005 I have become familiar with many of the assumptions and stereotypes that people in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia (in Java and Bali especially, where the majority of Indonesians live anyway) hold against Aceh, but this conference demonstrated many of them in concentrated and instructive form. Their assumptions interfered and prevented them from carefully listening to the young scholars from ARTI and understanding local dynamics in Aceh as they were reflected in the ARTI scholars’ presentations. Beyond this seminar, the ways that powerful people in Jakarta and in Indonesia’s most distinguished halls of academia like UGM misperceive Aceh has more sinister consequences. My advisor has had the surreal experience of presenting findings at UGM from our research about levels of violence and psychological disabilities in conflict-affected communities in Aceh. The numbers are powerful and scary, and there is an implicit message about Java’s complicity in the violence that occurred there. Reactions from the audience vary, but a common response is a somber “we never knew.” Such ignorance may be largely attributed to an orchestrated disinformation and obfuscation campaign by the government, but such an effort is so much easier when you can rely on century-old discourses about Aceh that always and already make sure that you never wanted to know in the first place.

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