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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”

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Indonesia Status Updates Travel

Krakatau Day Trip

Krakatau Islands (circa 2000)
Krakatau Islands (circa 2000)

This past weekend my friends Chloe, Simon, Rob and I learned that if you’re willing to hit the road at 5am then it is possible to have a complete, unhurried, outstanding day trip to the Kraktau volcano islands! I’ve been wanting to do this for years, especially after I read Simon Winchester’s history of the Krakatau explosion in 1883 and its aftermath (including the birth of Anak Krakatau island in 1927).

Book Cover:  Krakatoa by Simon WinchesterWe took the toll road west all the way out to the Krakatau Steel Industrial Wastelands Park, and then caught a Banten provincial road along Java’s west coast, arriving in the sad beach resort town of Carita at 8:30AM. At a roadside warung beside a river, we drank a quick coffee and bought some durians, then hopped onto a speedboat that our guide chartered for us (more on our excellent guide below).

The boat trip to the Krakatau islands out in the middle of the Sunda Straits took another hour and a half.   The weather was just hazy enough that we couldn’t see Krakatau from Carita, and once the islands emerged on the horizon we could no longer see the mountains and shoreline of western Java.

Foolhardy Pine Trees
Foolhardy Pine Trees

A small grove of pioneering tree species and other plants has grown on the black sand eastern shore of Anak Krakatau island. That’s where we landed and registered our visit with the park rangers posted there. Just a few meters down a leafy path, and the ascent quickly begins in earnest. The only growth on the slopes are the foolhardy pine trees, impressively sturdy, but there were probably more dead tree stands than living, as they die en masse with each major eruption that blows hot gas and lava their way. The hike up did not take more than 30 minutes, and we enjoyed stunning views that set the steep dark gray slopes against scorched trees, green lowlands, blue ocean, and the neighboring islands. In front of us, Anak Krakatau’s cone towered above like a pyramid.

Anak Krakatau's volcano cone (looking up from "Level One")
Anak Krakatau's volcano cone

Anak Krakatau is currently active, so we were not allowed to climb up to the top, but there is an older caldera rim that our guide called “Level One,” and that was actually a perfect place to stop, rest, take pictures, and then explore.

In the gully between the older caldera rim and the huge cone there are sulfur deposits that look like light patches of snow. We walked down “Sulfur Avenue,” littered with steam vents and lava rocks that could only have been hurled out from the newer caldera way up above us during eruptions. Simon observed that many of the rocks were fresh arrivals because we could still see the crater-like dents where they landed or the tracks they left in the ash as they rolled to their current positions.

the big rock at the upper right rolled around a bit before arriving at its spot

These pictures here are all from our walk down “Sulfur Avenue.” (Complete set of pictures, including some of Rob’s and Chloe’s pictures, are collected HERE at my flickr site.)

Big Lava Rock (Chloe's photo)

Big Lava Rock Detail

Sulfur Crystal Detail Dead Tree

Burning Descent (Chloe's photo)
Burning Descent (Chloe's photo)

After exploring around for another half hour or so, we started back down the hot slope. My feet burned as the black sand sifted through my sandals; the faster I tried to slide down the slope the worse my feet were burning (ow! ouch! Oh no no OUCH! OMG OW ADUH GANTENGNYA PACARKU AUW!!!!11!), and for a few scary moments I thought I might get stuck until I realized that a slow step-by-step descent kept the sand *beneath* my sandals instead of in them.

Back on the boat, we circled around Anak Krakatau, and saw the barren landscape across the vast majority of the island. Rocky lava shores encircle nearly the entire island except where we first arrived.

Signs of Life western slope of Anak Krakatau

After circling around, we took the boat over to Rakata Island, which was part of the original large Krakatau Island before it exploded out of existence in 1883. We parked on a small beach where some fishermen had made their camp and ate our boxed lunches. During lunch we had the unsettling experience of getting harassed by a monitor lizard (biawak). Every time we chased it away, it came back, and when we poked it with sticks and rocks it would thrash its huge tail as if trying to betch slap us. Another first in a long day of surprises… every other time I’ve seen monitor lizards they would scramble away from people, but this one must have been familiar with the tour lunch routine, regularly getting leftover scraps.

Biawak (monitor lizard) on Rakata Island
Biawak (monitor lizard) on Rakata Island

After lunch, we went snorkeling near where we ate, but I was actually more interested in the floating sheets of pumice rocks that surrounded us while we were swimming (another first!), and I collected some to bring home as my Krakatau volcano souvenir. Less appealing was the floating plastic trash, which even got caught in our boat engine on the ride home. Our guide said it comes from Lampung province at the southern tip of Sumatra.

Anak Krakatau Eruption (Chloe's photo)
Anak Krakatau Eruption (Chloe's photo)

On the boat ride home, we saw dolphins! And then, while I was jotting some notes from the day into my phone, Chloe grabbed me to point back at Anak Krakatau, fading away into the haze, and we saw a huge belch of volcanic ash shooting up into the sky. Eruption! We missed it by just an hour or so… good thing it didn’t happen while we were at the Level One caldera poking around the sulfur crystals, “moon rocks” and steam vents.

I think we all agreed that the whole day was a smashing success by any standard. I am grateful to Chloe who found our tour guide and planned the trip for the rest of us. The tour operator Chloe found is based at Jalan Jaksa in Central Jakarta, called Krakatau Holiday. The owner of the company, Thommy Samba, who grew up in the Carita area and speaks excellent English, was our capable guide. He packed our meals and lots of cold drinks, chartered our car and boat, handled the park visitation permit, and took us up to the volcano. Krakatau Holiday also organizes tours to Ujung Kulon National Park (and more!) just south of Krakatau, another big to-do on my Indonesia travel list. If you can get a group of friends together to share the cost of one of these all inclusive tours, Krakatau Holiday has my recommendation!

LINK TO FULL FLICKR PHOTO ALBUM: KRAKATAU ISLANDS TOUR

Southeast view of Anak Krakatau (as we headed toward Rakata for lunch)
Southeast view of Anak Krakatau (as we headed toward Rakata for lunch)
Categories
Anthropology Book Club Indonesia Reflexive

Book Club: A Shadow Falls in the Heart of Java

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.