Categories
Aceh Conflict Indonesia

Notes on ICG’s Latest Indonesia Report: “GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections”

ICG Report Header:  "Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections"
ICG Report Header: "Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections"

A few days ago the International Crisis Group (ICG) issued their latest Asia Briefing titled “Indonesia: GAM vs GAM in the Aceh Elections.” ICG reports are always excellent and this one is no exception, featuring a clear review and honest assessment of the internal divisions within the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) since their peace agreement with Indonesia in 2005, and how those divisions are playing out leading up to the governor (provincial) and bupati (district) executive elections to be held on 14 November 2011. The report begins with the announcement in February—which I have written about HERE—that Partai Aceh (GAM’s local political party) would not nominate Aceh’s incumbent governor Irwandi Yusuf, also from GAM, for reelection. Instead they nominated Zaini Abdullah, a senior figure within GAM’s government in exile during the conflict, and Muzakir Manaf, former commander of GAM’s armed forces, as his running mate. They have since been cleverly dubbed the ZIKIR ticket. Irwandi, still a popular front-runner according to polls, intends to run for reelection anyway. The ICG report argues that if violent friction on the ground can be prevented, then GAM’s internal divisions may add healthy competition to the electoral process and “produce better policies and improved governance” for Aceh.

GAM vs GAM
GAM vs GAM

But that’s not how Partai Aceh sees it. The party has autocratic tendencies, backed up with thug tactics on the ground by KPA (Komite Peralihan Aceh, the Aceh Transitional Committee, representing the interests of GAM ex-combatants), which they are using to steamroll toward one-party rule in Aceh. The political issue at stake to ensure their ZIKIR ticket wins is whether independent candidates (without party nomination) may contest executive elections. If Irwandi cannot run as an independent candidate as he intends, then he effectively loses the election as nomination from one of the national parties would compromise his credibility as a former GAM leader, and there are no other local parties that could (or would) capably back him. In order to ensure this outcome, Partai Aceh leaders are arguing that independent candidates are not allowed under the terms of the peace agreement even though Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has clearly established the legality of independent candidates running for executive office across the country and specifically found this particular provision of the Aceh peace agreement unconstitutional. The irony here is that it was precisely GAM’s peace agreement with Indonesia that allowed independent candidates to run for the first time anywhere in Indonesia (thus enabling Irwandi’s first term), at least until local parties were formed. GAM’s own precedent paved the way for the Constitutional Court to allow independent candidates all across Indonesia, widely seen as a crucial democratic reform for the country. Now that Partai Aceh has a near monopoly over Aceh’s government, GAM is backtracking on its pioneering step for the country from which they no longer seek independence.

That’s a quick summary of the ICG report, which has a lot more detail about political maneuvers in Aceh, violent incidents that may be related to GAM’s electoral competition, and a refreshingly honest assessment of the emerging candidates for governor. I found two particular points in the report worth discussing further:  one is symptomatic of Partai Aceh’s poor governance, and the other is an amusing linguistic footnote.

Partai Aceh’s Delay Tactics as a Mode of Governance

Perhaps as a kind of face-saving measure to cover up their all-out effort to consolidate power, Partai Aceh has turned the issue of independent candidates into an ideological battle between Aceh and Jakarta. They claim that when the Constitutional Court struck down the article of Aceh’s autonomy law that awkwardly allows for independent candidates until local parties have been established (i.e. effectively for the 2006 executive elections only), it violated the peace agreement by interfering with Aceh’s autonomy. This is classic GAM ideology based on decades of rapacious and brutal intervention from Jakarta that understandably validate Acehnese suspicions of central government motives. If Partai Aceh allows the court to chip away at the powers granted under the autonomy law, their argument goes, then it’s just a matter of time before other aspects of Aceh’s autonomy law are revised, presumably toward Jakarta’s advantage (ICG, p.4).

But since assuming legislative office in 2009, Partai Aceh’s inability to legislate or resolve pressing issues has in many ways invited Jakarta’s intervention. Take for example the two controversial “last minute” laws—the Qanun Jinayat and the Qanun Wali Nanggroe—that the outgoing politicians from national parties passed in 2009 just before Partai Aceh legislators assumed office, widely criticized as cynical legislative gamesmanship. Both laws pertain to Aceh’s special autonomy but outgoing legislators framed them quite differently than what GAM intended when negotiating their autonomy provisions during the peace process. Irwandi refused to sign both laws, but then the new Partai Aceh legislators failed to take up either law for revision, leaving the central government to respond to related pressing matters in its own fashion.

The Qanun Jinayat legislates some of the more barbaric aspects of Islamic law such as the stoning of adulterers to death (Aceh is the only province that may legislate Islamic laws), and triggered a wave of embarrassing bad press and international scorn for Aceh. When Partai Aceh refused to revise the law, perhaps wary of alienating their Islamist constituents in Aceh, the discourse shifted to leaders  in  Jakarta  such  as  the  Chief  Justice  of  the Constitutional Court, the President’s spokesperson, the head of the Department of Internal Affairs, and leading national human rights activists, who all publicly speculated upon the legality of the law’s harsh punishments for adultery and other crimes against Islamic law. The debate is no longer whether Jakarta should intervene to repeal Aceh’s religious laws if they violate human rights, but how.

The Qanun Wali Nanggroe establishes a royal leader for Aceh reminiscent of the Aceh sultanate prior to colonialism, and the outgoing legislators passed a version of the law that establishes merely a ceremonial figurehead, far from what GAM had in mind. While the Wali Nanggroe’s status remained ambiguous, in early 2010 the central government issued a routine government regulation that outlines the role and authority of governors across Indonesia and took the initiative to specifically include the Wali Nanggroe as a member of the Regional Leaders’ Forum (Musyawarah Pimpinan Daerah, MUSPIDA) for Aceh. The regulation states that the governor convenes and leads MUSPIDA, placing the Wali Nanggroe figure in a subordinate role, which accords with Jakarta’s understanding of the position. The regulation does not prevent Partai Aceh from enacting a revised law investing the Wali Nanggroe with more authority, but it does reinforce Jakarta’s normative understanding of the institution.*

When Aceh cannot get its legislative house in order, small discursive acts from Jakarta establish—in a piecemeal fashion and on an as-needed basis—precisely the kinds of regulatory precedents over Aceh’s autonomy provisions that Partai Aceh is worried about. The ICG report describes Partai Aceh’s second tactic to prevent Irwandi’s reelection bid (after disputing the Constitutional Court’s ruling), which is to delay issuing election regulations so that the clock will run out on Irwandi’s chances of mounting a campaign before his term ends (ICG, pp.4-5). This pattern of delay, whether strategic or merely incompetent, clearly invites intervention from Jakarta, most recently prompting the National Election Commission to instruct Aceh’s Independent Election Commission to follow the 2006 election law if the Partai Aceh led provincial assembly is unable to pass one for 2011. Partai Aceh only has itself to blame, and choosing now to pick an ideological battle with Jakarta reeks of hypocrisy given their inaction on other matters of importance to Aceh’s autonomy.

GAM & the Sacred Terms of Indonesian Statehood

I enjoyed a few LOLZ at Partai Aceh’s expense when the ICG report quotes senior party figure Adnan Beuransyah commenting on the Constitutional Court ruling. ICG correctly translates his statement as “rejection of the ruling is non-negotiable.” But in a footnote we learn that what he said in Bahasa Indonesia was “Menolak Mahkamah Konstitusi adalah harga mati,” where the phrase “harga mati” is translated as “non-negotiable.” For Bahasa Indonesia speakers, at least those who have spent a long time in Aceh, the kneejerk association with the rabidly nationalist and militaristic phrase “NKRI Harga Mati” is unavoidable. The acronym NKRI stands for Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia (The Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia), a state philosophy used as a bulwark against federalist frameworks (Republik Indonesia Serikat) that some argue would herald the disintegration of national unity. Pro-Indonesia groups in Aceh (especially national security forces) included this phrase in every statement and banner related to the conflict and subsequent peace process. While “non-negotiable” is a correct translation for “harga mati,” one may also infer more confrontational overtones because the phrase literally means “the price is death.” “Harga mati” conveys the sense of an aggressive line drawn in the sand.  (Meanwhile, Google Translate defines “harga mati” as “fixed price.” What.)

 "NKRI HARGA MATI" signs in Aceh (photo by Mercedes Chavez) "NKRI HARGA MATI" signs in Aceh

"NKRI HARGA MATI" signs in Aceh "NKRI HARGA MATI" signs in Aceh

Perhaps Adnan was deploying some satire with this turn of phrase, but the two times I met him in 2009 he had the sense of humor of a lamp post, so I’m guessing he spoke without a trace of irony. GAM has a habit of defining their struggle against Indonesia with sacred, thoroughly Indonesian, nationalist terms. Merdeka (as in Gerakan Aceh Merdeka), meaning “freedom” or “independence,” is an attenuated allusion to Indonesia’s revolutionary war for independence from the Dutch. On every Indonesian independence day, the word merdeka echoes across every village and city of the archipelago. Now Adnan Beuransyah defines his non-negotiable opposition to a court decision issued by Indonesia’s highest constitutional authority with similarly sacred nationalist grandiloquence. The ease with which pro-Aceh activists slip into rhetoric that evokes Indonesian nationalism has led some observers to emphasize the point that Acehnese and Indonesian identities were never mutually exclusive.** At a more prosaic level, other observers note the ease with which former GAM activists have slipped into a thoroughly Indonesian style of governance through patronage.*** And that’s what seems to be at stake here: Irwandi has not patronized Partai Aceh enough to earn their nomination. In order to consolidate their fiefdom, Partai Aceh will shamelessly try to cut Irwandi out of the electoral process in order to get what they want, but there are few left who are fooled by their stall tactics and appeals to a hollow “non-negotiable” ideological opposition to Jakarta.

* This discussion of Qanun Jinayat and Qanun Wali Nanggroe is paraphrased generously from the Syiah Kuala University’s Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies publication titled “Aceh Peace Monitoring Update September – December 2009” 

** Siegel, James T. “Possessed.” In The Rope of God. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

*** Aspinall, Edward. “Combatants to Contractors: The Political Economy of Peace in Aceh.” Indonesia, no. 87 (2009): 1-34.

Categories
Aceh Conflict Indonesia

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!

Categories
Aceh Indonesia Reflexive Status Updates

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

Categories
Aceh Indonesia

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?

Categories
Aceh Indonesia

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.