Categories
Anthropology Indonesia Reflexive Ruins

Puncak in Ruins, Part 4: Return to Villa Kota Gardenia

This post is the fourth of five in a series.

The first is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 1: Arrival Scene”

The second is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 2: Lost Detour”

The third is “Puncak in Ruins, Part 3: The Year of Living Dangerously”

What happened at Villa Gardenia?

In my previous two posts, I wrote about the haunting and nostalgic associations that ruins inspire when portrayed in popular film. I chose the artifactual remains of the Dharma Initiative on the TV show Lost and the old Dutch villa in The Year of Living Dangerously because the broken housing development that I visited up in Puncak earlier this year strongly reminded me of them. The once grand but now crumbling and overgrown entrance of Villa Kota Gardenia (VKG) in Cianjur has rusted abandoned buildings and a fetid stagnant swimming pool that tweaked my mass media memories:

This mess was just the main entrance, at the bottom of a hill, just off of Puncak Pass. A treeline blocked our line of sight up into the residential area (VKG’s so-called villas), which is why upon arrival we thought we had the wrong location because there was nothing to suggest that these damaged buildings were part of a functioning development. After confirming that we were at the right place, we cautiously pulled into the entrance and drove up the hill.

Road Collapse at VKG
Road Collapse at VKG

Past the trees and around a bend we discovered that the main artery of the housing development had been almost completely washed out by landslides. Emergency embankments were temporarily preventing more of the road, and also the villas, from falling into a constricted river. I use the word “constricted” because it appears that the developers had originally built a deep but narrow channel to direct the flow of a mountain stream (a tributary of the Ciherang River, coming down the slopes of the volcano Gunung Gede) that passes through the VKG complex. The cement conduit used to be a lane divider for VKG’s main residential boulevard, now a minor ravine after the landslide. We got lost on a lattice of emergency roads that were built around fallen sections of the road that cut off access to the houses further up the hill.

no access
No Access

We settled into the house where we would spend the weekend and I explored the neighborhood. Puncak is typically mobbed with visitors on weekends but VKG was nearly empty. Many of the houses had small “for sale” signs posted on their fences, and indeed I discovered later that if you browse for “Villa Kota Gardenia” on Google, the majority of listings are real estate sales (“dijual MURAH!!”). Toward the bottom of the hill, the dangling power lines were hanging dangerously low over the stream, while someone had resourcefully turned the banks of the landslide into a small terraced garden.

Electric Garden
Electric Garden

When I got back to Jakarta, some further Google reconnaissance quickly revealed the broad contours of what happened. A screenshot from Google Maps reveals a picture of VKG before its destruction, when it was still under development (a different annotated version of the same map is available here on wikimapia):

annotated map of VKG development in Cianjur
Annotated map of VKG development in Cianjur

According to local news sources archived online (links in the next paragraph), on at least two occasions in early 2010 (4 January & 10 March), the Ciherang River sent flash mudslides through the VKG complex. Boulders and other large debris from above clogged up the narrow drainage channel. The massive volume of mud spilled out of the drain and over the landscape, taking out the main road of the VKG complex and then completely covering the main entrance down below with so much mud and rocks that VKG residents were unable to reach the main road (Puncak Pass). The floods also damaged at least five houses beneath VKG across the road.

Resentment

While the Pikiran Rakyat article from January 2010 reports just-the-facts of the flood and damage, the March 2010 article in Pelita after the second flood strikes a more activist tone and speculates broadly on the causes.* After describing VKG as “luxury housing” owned by people with “deep pockets,” the Pelita piece relays an eyewitness account from one of the VKG security guards who asked that his name not be published but is qualified to speak about Ciherang flash floods since he was witness to the Ciherang ash mudslides after Gunung Gede erupted a few decades ago. The article suggests that a number of unlicensed developments up above VKG may be responsible for the floods due to the environmental degradation they caused, but sources from VKG management refused to join in on such speculation. Uncontrolled development projects disregard both local and national environmental regulations, the article states, and somehow avoid the required impact assessments. The Pelita journalist gives a brief historical summary:  since roughly 1984 rampant development of tourism infrastructure and real estate have radically transformed the Puncak landscape and destroyed the region’s ecological functions as watershed and buffer zone. My favorite sentence from the article verges on the poetic:

The hills and valleys, the farm fields, have been transformed into steel-reinforced concrete gardens with glowing neon lights.

To be fair, VKG did not strike me as a “luxury” development for the super-rich. The villas are densely packed, modestly sized, and few (if any) have remarkable views. Each house on the hillside struck me as an “I made it!” status symbol, a weekend getaway retreat for upwardly mobile Jakartans that are newly able to afford it. But collectively the VKG development is a recklessly engineered pox on the Puncak landscape. A critical development failure occurred here, and the wreckage all around VKG suggested to me that one year after the mudslides no one had been held accountable. In fact, a sign at the foot of the hill announced that road and drain repairs are paid for by VKG resident contributions. With so many “for sale” signs across the complex, and no doubt a collapse (along with the road) in the value of their VKG investments, it’s no wonder that the community hasn’t raised enough money to repair the damage. Where has the developer disappeared to? What do local officials who allowed VKG to be built on such shabby foundations think of this ruinous outcome? Are the VKG property owners really wholly accountable for cleaning up this mess?

"perbaikan jalan & saluran dibiayi oleh sumbangan warga villa gardenia"
"perbaikan jalan & saluran dibiayi oleh sumbangan warga villa gardenia"

Ruination:  Disenchantment, Disavowal, and Disenfranchisement

As I thought through these questions, that precious enchantment I first felt upon arrival at VKG’s desolate entrance increasingly gave way to a combined sense of disgust and outrage. As a part-time resident of Jakarta for several years now, I have heard the abstract accusations lobbed up at overdeveloped Puncak for causing the floods that regularly plague us. But it doesn’t make all that much sense to frame the question in terms of antagonistic geographies when the rapacious appetites that have destroyed Puncak are indistinguishable from (if not have their origins in) business-as-usual in Jakarta.

These are the corrosive forces that ruin, i.e. “inflict or bring great and irretrievable disaster upon; destroy agency; reduce to a state of poverty; demoralize completely” (Concise Oxford Dictionary). The ruins I described in the prior three posts are objects, trace metaphors of decay that inspire introspective contemplation, but I agree with the anthropologist and historian Ann Stoler who argues that an account of the ruin-as-object remains incomplete without a complementary account of the ruin-as-process.** We must traverse and explore the inherent tensions between “two poles of decay,” both the evocative metaphors and violent degradations.

By definition ruination is an ambiguous term; both an act of ruining, a condition of being ruined, and a cause of loss… These three senses may overlap in effect but they are not the same. Each has its own temporality. Each identifies different durations and moments of exposure to a range of violences and degradations that may be immediate or delayed, subcutaneous or visible, prolonged or instant, diffuse or direct.**

Villa Kota Gardenia in Ruins

The catastrophic mudslides at VKG in early 2010 do not signal the beginning of ruination in Puncak. Pelita suggests 1984, and I might even go further and look at Puncak’s history as a hill station retreat for Dutch colonials in Batavia and Bandung. But the recent floods are a good place to start not just because the event is a relatively contained illustrative example of a larger problem, but also because the disaster and its immediate aftermath are a great point of entry. Disasters momentarily disturb everyday business-as-usual and in turn render ordinarily opaque (and unequal) social relations suddenly visible. Setting aside for now its journalistic merits, I enjoyed reading the Pelita article because it inadvertently reveals a lot about local dynamics in Puncak. Readers know why the security guard does not want his name given, just as we can probably guess why VKG management refused to comment on the allegations that rampant unlicensed development caused the disaster. The journalist ascribes more authority to local knowledge—the security guard who witnessed Ciherang River ash floods decades ago—than any developer that refuses to conduct an environmental impact assessment before building touristic agribusiness ventures and densely-packed villas. The total absence of any government officials from the account is as telling as it is troubling. Pelita’s accusations and sympathies are implicit and disorganized, but unambiguous.

In the wake of the Sidoarjo mud lava catastrophe in East Java, we can well imagine that the destruction at VKG was simply written off as a “natural disaster,” allowing the conspicuously absent voices from Pelita’s account to continue their destructive business-as-usual without accountability. Meanwhile VKG lies in ruins and life goes on there, albeit more quietly and at a much lower net worth, despite so much damage and loss to VKG investors and the surrounding community. Stoler’s call to ask “how people live with and in ruins” snaps us out of the melancholic gaze upon the leftovers and redirects our engagement with ruins toward processes of ruination, and their attendant disavowals and disenfranchisements.** Along the way we begin to understand not just the mechanisms by which ruination occurs with impunity, but also how resentment sediments almost imperceptibly into the lives of the ruined. The Pelita article only begins to hint at festering resentments in the community around VKG.

To be concluded:

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 5:  The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins”

* Note that the two newspaper articles use the names “Bukit Harmoni” and “Villa Kota Gardenia” interchangeably, or in some combination of the two. Perhaps VKG replaced the original BH name for the development at some point.

** Stoler, A.L., 2008, “Imperial Debris:  Reflections on Ruins and Ruination” Cultural Anthropology, 23(2), pp. 191-219.

Categories
Anthropology Film Club Indonesia Ruins

Puncak in Ruins, Part 3: The Year of Living Dangerously

This post is the third of five in a series.
The first is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 1: Arrival Scene”
The second is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 2: Lost Detour”

The Year of Living Dangerously (movie poster)
Movie Poster

In the middle of Peter Weir’s 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously, a war romance set in 1965 Indonesia, there is a five minute scene set in Puncak, the mountain resort area just a few hours outside of Jakarta. A young pre-asshole Mel Gibson portrays a naive but ambitious Australian journalist named Guy Hamilton. After he has ruffled feathers in the diplomatic community, pissed off his girlfriend and his photographer, and put himself into danger all for the sake of an espionage scoop, Guy’s only reliable ally left in Indonesia is his driver-assistant Kumar (Filipino actor Bembol Roco). While driving through Puncak Pass, Kumar insists they stop for a late afternoon rest at an old Dutch villa. (Scroll to the bottom of this post to watch the scene in its entirety on youtube)

Tiger Lily stands in the door of the old Dutch villa (screenshot from The Year of Living Dangerously)
Screen Shot: Tiger Lily is a Friend
Screen Shot:  Old Java Now
Screen Shot: Old Java Now
Screen Shot:  Verboden
Screen Shot: Verboden
Screen Shot: Tiger Lily Dives In
Screen Shot: Tiger Lily Dives In

Set against magnificent mountain scenery, the villa itself is dusty and dilapidated, surrounded by dry overgrown weeds. The paint has peeled from the shutters and doors, and the walls are faded and blotchy with cracked plaster patches. Kumar keeps his eyes on Guy who, suddenly suspicious, takes a cautious sip of the cold drink that has just been served. Kumar then leaves him on the terrace: “I’ll see you after siesta… You’re in Old Java now, boss.” Guy looks over to the derelict swimming pool, and Tiger Lily, Kumar’s gorgeous colleague (played by Filipina pop diva Kuh Ledesma), is wearing a bathing suit and standing at the pool’s edge, using an old Dutch sign with the word “Verboden” (forbidden, prohibition, taboo) written on it to gently skim dead leaves off the water. The camera pans out, revealing the entire pool and a backdrop of mountains… Tiger Lily has cleared just enough space from the pool’s littered surface to dive in to what otherwise appears to be filthy water. The contrast between natural and feminine beauty on the one hand, faded and filthy disrepair on the other, is unsettling. When Tiger Lily dives into the pool, we have entered Mary Douglas territory, mixing symbols of purity and danger, pollution and taboo. Guy’s ordinarily helpful assistants in Jakarta, Kumar and Tiger Lily, are suddenly suspect and mysterious, maybe not so trustworthy, in the lonely isolation (for Guy) of “Old Java Now.”

Guy takes his siesta in a guest room so dark and stuffy we can almost smell the rank musty air trapped in the room with him while his body perspires completely. In a potentially erotic dream that turns into a terrifying nightmare, Tiger Lily drowns Guy in the dirty water of the old swimming pool. He wakes up seized with horror, and understands that Kumar and Tiger Lily are actually undercover members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), perhaps collecting intelligence on Guy for the party, which may (or may not) be plotting a coup against the Indonesian army in order to take over Soekarno’s government. When Guy confronts him, Kumar does not deny it, but it turns out that he brought Guy up to Puncak in order to safely warn him to stop investigating rumors about an incoming arms shipment, because Guy’s name is already on the PKI’s hit list.

What a terrific idea it was for the screenwriters to stage this revelation amidst colonial ruins, where traces of “Old Java now” create an uncanny atmosphere of creepy horror for the likes of Guy Hamilton. Removed from his familiar clique of expatriate journalists and diplomats in Jakarta, where they socialize in the safe spaces of five-star hotel bars, embassy formals, and social clubs, Guy is suddenly vulnerable up in Puncak, in an old Dutch villa that ironically now serves as a safe space for PKI operatives. The broken remains of Dutch empire, at least 25 years old in 1965 Indonesia, ought to remind Guy and his expatriate friends in Jakarta of what’s at stake if war breaks out. If PKI were to stage a successful coup, their lavish modern lifestyles in Jakarta would surely meet the same fate as this formerly grand old villa at the top of a mountain. [To clarify, the depiction of 1965 Indonesia historical events in The Year of Living Dangerously is generously revised at best, but I’m writing here within parameters set by the story.]

The original novel and the subsequent film were written, directed and produced by Australians. Their story focuses on expatriate journalists and diplomats (mostly Australian and British) in Jakarta; Kumar and Tiger Lily are minor characters. As such, our view of Indonesia in this story is from the privileged expatriate perspective, and that includes our view of the spooky old Dutch villa up in the enchanted Puncak highlands. We’re spooked because the villa in disrepair reminds postcolonial expatriates about what they have lost. From their perspective, postcolonial Indonesians have mismanaged their inheritance, letting a magnificent house fall into such ugly (and, by way of Guy’s nightmare, potentially deadly) disrepair.

Apart from some stylized wayang metaphors, an artifice used only to elevate the expatriate heroes and their epic dilemmas, we don’t get much Indonesian perspective in The Year of Living Dangerously. The best we get is from Kumar, still at the villa, when he explains his involvement in the PKI to Guy:  “My country suffers under a great weight of poverty and corruption. Is it wrong to want to change that?” We also learn from Tiger Lily that Kumar’s family business suffers under extortion pressure from the military. And yet there are thousands of “Indonesians” (it was filmed in the Philippines) portrayed throughout the film:  in markets, riots, slums, airports, bars, red light districts, and even at the old Dutch villa where there appears to be a complete household staff. But just as historical events are merely a backdrop, so too are these Indonesian extras in the film. They’re just part of the chaotic postcolonial scenery.

Screen Shot:  Part of the Scenery
Screen Shot: Part of the Scenery

The sublime and ominous qualities of the old Dutch villa depend on keeping the Indonesian people that live and work there silent and in the background. If we learn any details about how Tiger Lily, Kumar and Tiger Lily’s “friend” (the owner) use the villa and support the household staff who maintain it, much less about the staff themselves and the neighbors who pass their days there, then the enchanting spell that surrounds the villa ends because it is no longer a ruin of the past. Instead it becomes a living testament to the present, almost certainly with another kind of history that Guy and his gang would prefer not to acknowledge. Guy’s eerie discomfort rests upon this lack of acknowledgement, the suppression of history, sedimented as remnant traces in the crumbling architecture.

The Puncak scene from The Year of Living Dangerously in its entirety begins at 1:13:


.

To be continued:

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 4: Return to Villa Kota Gardenia”

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 5: The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins”

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
Indonesia

Does Egypt 2011 = Indonesia 1998 ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madeleine Albright on The Rachel Maddow Show, 3 February 2011
Madeleine Albright on The Rachel Maddow Show, 3 February 2011

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

Categories
Aceh Anthropology Book Club Indonesia Reflexive

Book Club: A Certain Age

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

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

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

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

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

More than likely... a misunderstanding.
More than likely... a misunderstanding.

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

Categories
Film Club Indonesia

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

Book Cover for "Obama Anak Menteng"
Book Cover for "Obama Anak Menteng"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Barry Statue in Menteng, Jakarta

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

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

The Right Hands...
The Right Hands...

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

"Mohon Tidak Disentuh..."
"Mohon Tidak Disentuh..."

Categories
Aceh Conflict Indonesia Publications

Aceh Peace Monitoring Update September – December 2009

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

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

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

Summary:

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

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

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

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.