I cannot believe that it has already been over a week since my last post. Life has been very hectic. There is so much to talk about. I guess the best place to start is where I left off. Last Friday afternoon Alex, Colin, Alia, Elizabeth, Amanda and I took a two and a half hour train ride through the countryside of Central Java to Bram and Sari’s village near Ngawi. Bram and Sari have a beautiful home, surrounded by vibrant organic rice fields. Their rice fields are located right next to inorganic rice fields that are supplemented with chemicals. The difference between organic and inorganic rice fields is incredible. The rice plants in the inorganic fields lack the vibrancy and greenness of the plants in the organic fields, and the soil of the inorganic fields looks very unhealthy.
Last Saturday might have been the highlight of my experience Indonesia thus far. We woke up early, around 4am and traveled to Mount Lawu, a volcano that has a lot of significance in Javanese culture. Its elevation is 3,265 meters, or 10,712 feet, above sea level. When you are about 15 minutes away from the peak there is a special water well, which if you bathe in, according to Bram and Javanese legends, you will become a distinguished person in society. The mountain is also populated with small “Jalak” birds with golden beaks. They are the protectors of the mountain and seeing them is considered a sign that the mountain has welcomed you. We began our hike a little after 6am and reached the peak around 11am. It was my first legitimate mountain hike, and it was a tremendous experience. The beauty of the mountain was overwhelming. The trail was steep and surrounded by beautiful, simple flowers, shrubs and small trees. Naturally when we reached the well, we all bathed in it. So perhaps one day we will all become distinguished individuals in society. Regardless of whether or not the myth of the well actually comes true, I was grateful to wash myself with its cool, refreshing water. My favorite part of the hike was simply reaching the summit. There was no better feeling that day than conquering the mountain. From the peak we could see two other mountains off in the distance peaking through the clouds. I do not know which mountains they were, but it was a sight that I will never forget.
We spent Sunday mostly recuperating from our adventure, and wandering through Sari and Bram’s beautiful rice fields with young children from the local community. Sari and Bram often invite the children to play and read at their house during the day. It is amazing how energetic young children are. I spent a fair amount of my Sunday afternoon swinging children in the air and chasing them around the rice fields. Overall, our weekend in Ngawi was incredibly relaxing and refreshing.
Early Monday morning we went back to Jogja. Our research presentations were on Thursday, so Laksmi and I spent much of our time on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday organizing our research for the presentation. Here is a quick summary of what we found:
Our main research questions are outlined in a post below, but basically we wanted to know whether or not the “democratic government” of Indonesia is promoting and protecting freedom of expression in society. We also wanted to know what impact (if any) the violence committed by hard-line Islamic organizations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the Indonesian Mujahedeen Council (MMI) has had on pluralism and freedom of expression in Indonesian society. We conducted 18 interviews over the last four weeks, eight of which were in English. So I spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday transcribing the English interviews. Our interviewees included artists, victims of religious violence, filmmakers, journalists, Indonesian academics, NGO activists, LGBT activists, devout Muslims, literary critics and college students.
We had to boil all of our research down to a ten-minute presentation. After sorting through all of our transcripts, Laksmi and I picked out some basic themes and ideas that came up constantly in our interviews. Many of the artists we spoke with referred to hard-line organizations as “thugs” who are using Islam as a “mask” to protect their criminal acts. Articles published on Insideindonesia.org, like this one, confirm that some Indonesians are trying to use religion as justification for corrupt behavior. Another theme that became apparent based on our conversations with three Indonesian academics is that a “silent majority” exists in Indonesia, which opposes the militant acts of a vocal minority. However, the majority of Indonesians who oppose this violence are divided about a number of issues, and sometimes, different sections of the majority are co-opted by the smaller hard-line organizations about moral issues, like pornography for example. One academic also suggested that the Indonesian central government is a “democracy in name only,” and that it is “toothless.” He pointed to recent events in West Java, where the mayor of a city has refused to allow the building of a church despite a ruling from the Indonesian Supreme Court that the Church is legal. The central government has yet to take action against the mayor. There are many other cases of violence or blatant disregard for the law that the Indonesian government has failed to stop or take action against.
While it appears that the Indonesian democratic government is weak, there are many signs that Indonesian society has become more free and pluralistic since the fall of Suharto. One example is the increase in “horizontal conflict” that many of our interviewees have witnessed over the past fifteen years. Conflicts in society are no longer between the government and the people, but rather the people and the people. Indonesian citizens are no longer afraid to express their beliefs and criticize the government. However, violence committed by hard-line organizations is certainly intimidating some members of society. One has to wonder why the Indonesian government has failed to stop the violence, or punish those who commit the violence. One theory I have is that the Indonesian government does not want to crackdown on violent organizations because it does not want to be compared to the Suharto regime. Other people we have interviewed suggest that many members of the hard-line organizations have infiltrated Indonesian government and are turning a blind eye towards the violence. Whatever the case may be, the Indonesian government needs to strike a balance between promoting freedom of speech and expression, and cracking down on violence.
I think that is enough about my research. There is a lot more to say, but I don’t want this post to turn into an essay about violence in the name of Islam and its relationship with pluralism in Indonesian society. Friday we had a day off to relax and pack our bags, and on Saturday we all split up and moved to different host families throughout Jogja. I am living with a Dentist named Agus and his two children: Bayu and Ratri. Bayu is an 11 year old boy and Ratri is a 13 year old girl. Earlier today Bayu had gamelan lessons with his friends, and I got to join in. Check out the Wikipedia link to learn more about gamelan, but basically it is a traditional collection of xylophones, gongs, and drums, which was first developed during the 200s AD by a God/King who coincidentally lived on Mt. Lawu and used the first gamelan to summon other Gods. Bayu also likes to play FIFA (a soccer video game). We’ve played a couple games, and I also played a few with his friend Rafi. I’d say the competition is a little stiffer back at Haverford. It has been fun so far to play and interact with my new brother and sister, especially because I have been able to practice my Bahasa Indonesia more. Bayu and Ratri are both learning English so our conversations are often an amalgamation of both Bahasa Indonesia and English.
Tomorrow I start my internship at Satunama. Laksmi has gone to work at Planned Parenthood with Alex (she is studying Medicine and Public Health), so I will be working with Britto, a history student from Sanata Dharma. He previously worked with Amanda during the research institute, studying patterns of educational discrimination against Papuan students in Jogja. Satunama is an NGO that works throughout all of Indonesia to empower marginalized members of Indonesian society. One potential project that I might be working on is a current conflict over water pollution on Mount Merapi, another volcano about 30 kilometers from Jogja. From my understanding of the conflict, it is illegal to mine the sands on the slope of Merapi, but many companies and villages choose to mine the sands anyways because the sands are very valuable. Some villages have been mining the sand near the top of Merapi, and have polluted the water supplies for villages that live at lower levels of the mountain. Despite the fact that mining is illegal, the government has refused to act because of the profit companies make off of sand mining (probably there is some lobbying from big corporations influencing the government’s behavior). Satunama is trying to give a voice to the villages whose water supply is being polluted. I do not know yet what other projects I will be working on with Satunama, but I am looking forward to my first day.
If you have made it to the end of this post, congratulations! I will try to report back more often over the next few weeks. We are starting a new stage of the program and I am very excited to begin my internship.