« Nahdlatul Ulama and the politics trap » by Greg Fealy, 11 July 2018, New Mandala
At first glance, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has never been in a stronger position. It has a record number of members in cabinet. It enjoys close relations with the president, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), has privileged access to the corridors of power and is the beneficiary of increasingly generous largesse from the state, all of which are boosting the range of services and opportunities that it can provide to its vast membership. NU’s president, Ma’ruf Amin, is also the chairman of the influential Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) and numerous other senior nahdliyyin (NU members) hold strategic positions in the bureaucracy, state-owned enterprises and the corporate sector. NU’s campaign to promote its “moderate”, culturally embedded Islam Nusantara (Archipelagic Islam) concept has won government endorsement and attracted international attention. In short, NU’s status as the pre-eminent Islamic organisation in Indonesia has never seemed more secure.
A closer look, however, suggests that the organisation’s position is more vulnerable and its future more uncertain than its current exuberant confidence might indicate. Indeed, NU is to an extent emblematic of some of the challenges facing Indonesia’s civil society more broadly. Among these are the increasing influence of conservative views at the grassroots, the hazards of engagement with party politics, and the increasingly blurred boundary between the state and civil society as the latter seeks to capture state resources, and governments seek to co-opt civic organisations such as NU to service their goals.
« Twenty years of Indonesian democracy—how many more? » by Edward Aspinall, 24 May 2018, New Mandala
When Indonesia’s New Order regime met its end in May 1998, I was a PhD student researching Indonesian opposition movements while teaching Indonesian language and politics at a university in Sydney. Along with other lecturers and students, I watched the live broadcast of Suharto’s resignation speech, listening to the words of one of our colleagues as she translated the president’s fateful words for Australian TV. Clustered around a television screen in a poky AV lab, everyone present felt awed by the immensity of what we were witnessing, relieved that a dangerous political impasse had been broken, and nervously hopeful about the future after so many long years of political stagnation.
The extraordinary achievements of political reform in the years that followed formed one of the great success stories of the so-called “third wave” of democratisation—the worldwide surge of regime change that began in Southern Europe in the mid-1970s and then spread through Latin America, Africa and Asia. The post-Suharto democracy has now lasted longer than did Indonesia’s earlier period of parliamentary democracy (1950–1957), and the subsequent Guided Democracy regime (1957–65). While it still has another dozen years to pass the record set by Suharto’s New Order, Indonesian democracy has proved that it has staying power.
What few would question, though, is that the quality of Indonesia’s democracy was a problem from the beginning—and that under President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) democratic quality has begun to slide dramatically.
Earlier this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit gave Indonesia its largest downgrading in its Democracy Index since scoring began in 2006. With a score of 6.39 out of a possible maximum of 10, the country is now bumping down toward the bottom of the index’s category of “flawed democracies”, on the verge—if it sinks just a little lower—of crossing into the category of “hybrid regime”. This downgrading of Indonesia’s position follows similar drops for the country in other democracy indices like the Freedom in the World survey compiled by Freedom House.
Indonesia’s trajectory is not bucking the global trend. Around the world, democracy is in retreat. Freedom House says democracy is facing “its most serious crisis in decades”, with 71 countries experiencing declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017 and only 35 registering gains, making 2017 the twelfth year in a row showing global democratic recession.
Unlike during an earlier era of military coups, today the primary source of democratic backsliding is elected politicians. Leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán undermine the rule of law, manipulate institutions for their own political advantage, and restrict the space for democratic opposition. Elected despotism is, increasingly, the order of the day. Indeed, as I argue here, the primary threat to Indonesia’s democratic system today comes not from actors outside the arena of formal politics, like the military or Islamic extremists, but the politicians that Indonesians themselves have chosen.
Another Chinese paper stamp in a Malay manuscript by Annabel Teh Gallop, 05/06/2018, Asian and African Studies Blog, British Library
A few years ago, I became intrigued by the red ink stamps of Chinese paper makers occasionally glimpsed on the pages of Malay and Javanese manuscripts in the British Library, and in a post on Malay manuscripts on Chinese paper illustrated all the examples encountered so far. Recently, another example has surfaced, in a fine illuminated copy of the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, copied by Muhammad Kasim in 1805. The manuscript was previously owned by John Leyden, and is therefore most likely to have been copied in Penang, where Leyden spent four months convalescing from late 1805 to early 1806. On the bottom left hand corner of f. 61 r is a red ink stamp of an animal, a rather rotund quadruped resembling a hippopotamus or rhinoceros.
Broad strokes : Indonesian art and 20 years of Reformasi by Erin Cook, 22/05/2018, The Interpreter, Lowy Institute
This month, Indonesia commemorates 20 years since the fall of strongman Suharto and two decades of the Reformasi era. Today, the strife of 1998 serves as inspiration for the country’s burgeoning contemporary arts.
Suharto’s New Order period was marked by mass-centralisation of powers in Jakarta, from which Indonesia’s cultural and artistic industries were not exempt. By the end of the Suharto era, any performance or exhibition needed the express permission of no less than four separate offices, including police and military, to go ahead. Cultural researcher Jennifer Lindsay has written that events at the time could be shut down “immediately if considered to have transgressed limits of tolerated political comment, or to have insulted ethnicity, religion, race, or inter-group relations”.
This environment, paired with the government control of all art schools in Indonesia, gave the Suharto administration immense control and influence over works of art produced during this period. Lindsay notes that this control also led to weariness among private citizens who would otherwise be strong patrons of the arts, leaving the country’s artists to navigate the minefield of acceptable subjects, or to look overseas for support.
Suharto’s demise not only freed the nation’s politics but also changed its art scene dramatically. Today, both Yogyakarta and Jakarta are developing reputations as contemporary art hubs in Asia, and Indonesia’s best artists are regularly showcased across the world. For the generation of artists who came of age in 1998 and are now reaching the top of their field, the days of the New Order continue provide ample inspiration, as well as cynicism.
Eko Nugroho is one of the leading artists of that generation. His bright, colourful sculptures, installations, wall art, and embroidery pieces deal with pertinent political issues, from corruption to the environment, and have been exhibited internationally. As a postgraduate student at Yogyakarta’s Indonesian Institute of the Arts in 1998, Nugroho’s work gradually became more political.
“The year was a starting point and a trigger to develop my works, so it was a kind of inspiration,” he told me.
I am part of the generation of artists post-Reformation, which means I am aware of the particular phenomena that took place in this country, and I can scrutinise their development. In those transition times, Indonesia chose democracy, but the Indonesian version of democracy … This idea of having our own version of democracy I find interesting and I often try to raise it in my works. We see and understand democracy through our society, our dynamics, and through the background of our political history, which have all shaped the current situation we are in.
The dark days of the 1965–66 anti-communist purges are a favourite subject for Indonesian artists. Pre-election promises from President Joko Widodo have failed to come to fruition, leaving the hard questions to be asked by practitioners such as Tintin Wulia, whose futuristic installation Not Alone reimagines the conflict 100 years in the future.
Questioning the legacy of the 1965 purges, talk of which was banned under Suharto, through art has become a lightning rod for conflict between the progressive community and conservative civil society groups and police. Yogyakarta, a city proud of its reputation as a place of tolerance, representative of the multiple identities found in Java, is a particular hotspot for protests, prompting an existential crisis.
Still, Nugroho never finds himself short of inspiration, echoing the oft-heard criticism of the Reformasi-era – how different is it really to before?
Even though Indonesia chose this new system, not many things have actually changed. The ways of thinking of those who run the country is still similar to [the New Order regime]. Twenty years is a short time. Those active in the New Order are still in power now.
That spectre influences the contemporary arts scene in Indonesia, Nugroho says. While Indonesian artists are less likely to be imprisoned for political works – a risk still faced by artists in neighbouring countries – there is a widespread and growing sense of self-censorship.
Nugroho believes this is because successive governments have been focused on the economic and political development of Indonesia, leaving fringe elements of civil society to rise unchecked. Younger artists in Indonesia were only children at the time of the upheaval in the late 1990s, and a division between them and artists of older generations has emerged.
Past fears are still brought up by senior artists, while the younger ones use political messages in more obvious ways. But the threats actually come from around us, from the society itself.
Nugroho points to extremist groups such as Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, a local affiliate of the Islamic State, as the “real censors”. Attacks such as those this month in Surabaya “create terror, fear, and anxiety”, and in turn give the government more scope to intervene in the name of security.
While that in itself is not unique to Indonesia, the relative newness of the country’s democracy creates pressure. Nugroho says:
[In Indonesia] everyone is still euphoric about being able to speak out, to criticise, or comment. Everyone talks, but it doesn’t mean they are ready for criticism. Everyone closes their ears. They want their own version of truth. We minimise research and data, and express our ego and personal opinions.
These teething pains have come to define much of Nugroho’s work and Indonesia’s global reputation in recent years.
This sort of democracy becomes interesting for me to observe, translated in my series of works with masks, although not in an obvious way. My works represent the stories I create which I wish the public can understand in their own ways and connect with what they’ve personally experienced, or with events they know.
Ward Berenschot, « The Political Economy of Clientelism: A Comparative Study of Indonesia’s Patronage Democracy », 19/03/2018, Comparative Political Studies
What kind of economic development curtails clientelistic politics? Most of the literature addressing this relationship focuses narrowly on vote buying, resulting in theories that emphasize the importance of declining poverty rates and a growing middle class. This article employs a combination of ethnographic fieldwork and an expert survey to engage in a first-ever, more comprehensive comparative study of within-country variation of clientelistic politics. I find a pattern that poorly matches these dominant theories: Clientelism is perceived to be less intense in rural, poverty-prone Java, while scores are high in relatively wealthy yet state-dependent provincial capitals. On the basis of these findings, I develop an alternative perspective on the relationship between economic development and clientelism. Emphasizing the importance of societal constraints, I argue that the concentration of control over economic activities fosters clientelism because it stifles the public sphere and inhibits effective scrutiny and disciplining of politico-business elites.
Photomicrograph is from a ‘Dong Son drum’ ( SEALIP/TH/KS/2) showing equi-axed cored microstructure, image courtesy of Pira Venunan.The article demonstrates Upper Thai-Malay Peninsula’s Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea interaction spheres. The analysis of copper-base artifacts also contributes to defining the political and economic organization of the early trading-polities that emerged during the first millennium BC.
« Rebranding Thailand: why is junta so obsessed with wordplay? » by Kornkritch Somjittranukit, 04/02/2018, Prachatai (English)
During the past four years, the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has added many terms to the dictionary of Thai politics. At the beginning of their regime, the NCPO coined the term “Returning Happiness”, which later became the name of a weekly TV programme that junta leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha uses as a channel to communicate with the Thai people.
In 2016, the NCPO launched the “Pracharat” campaign, directly translated as “people-state,” as part of its attempt to form a political coalition among the military, the private sector, the bureaucracy and civil society. The most recent term is “Thai-ism democracy” which was invented after Prayut showed an intention to participate in the upcoming election.
Prachatai talked to Petra Desatova, a PhD student from Leeds University, who pointed out that these terms are not merely a play on words, but rather a systematic attempt to strengthen its authoritarian regime. An advisee of Prof Duncan McCargo, Desatova conducted research which examines the phenomenon of nation branding in the context of post-coup Thailand. It focuses on the period from the 22 May 2014 coup until 1 December 2016, when King Vajiralongkorn officially ascended the Thai throne.
Why is nation branding so important for the junta?
The solution that nation branding offers is in the ‘correction’ of people’s attitudes and behaviours towards the nation, and its socio-economic and political systems instead of changing the country’s economic, social and political conditions. It is about creating expectations, ‘selling’ attractive visions, making people feel proud of their nation, and encouraging particular behaviours while setting boundaries to others. This is exactly what the NCPO needed following the 2014 coup. They needed to re-engage the Thai people with the old elite’s vision of a creatively modernising yet socially traditional Thailand consisting of people that will reject the Shinawatras once and for all, abandon their provincial identities and democratic and social aspirations in exchange for a semi-authoritarian rule modeled on the military regimes from the early 1960’s (Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat) to the late 1980’s (General Prem Tinsulanonda).
« Ownership and control in 21st century Malaysia » by Charles Brophy, 17/01/2018, New Mandala
In a series of public lectures beginning in 2016, Professor Terence Gomez began to distil the findings of his latest research into corporate governance in Malaysia. The first finding was a marked reduction in the holding of private directorships by members of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. The second was a major growth in the influence and power of Government Linked Companies (GLCs; individual state-owned enterprises) and Government Linked Investment Companies (GLICs; state-owned investment vehicles) over the Malaysian economy.
What such findings did was to challenge typical understandings of “money politics”, and the relationship between politics and business, in Malaysia. The data pointed not towards the direct influence of the political class over private enterprise, but rather a growing centralisation of economic and political power in the Office of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance (an office which is today held concurrently), and the influence of the state over the economy through the GLCs and seven large GLICs. The resulting book, Minister of Finance Incorporated: Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia, written alongside Gomez’s team of research assistants, has brought into the spotlight not only problems of political centralisation and GLC/GLIC governance reform, but also the effect of the very structure of the Malaysian economy on the country’s continuing prospects for development. (Disclosure: the author works for Gerakbudaya, the Malaysia/Singapore publisher of Prof Gomez’s book, but writes here in a personal capacity.)
« Power Plays in Indonesian Waters : Transforming Indonesia into a Global Maritime Power is a Complicated Game » by Muhamad Arif, 01/02/2018, Asia and the Pacific Policy Society
The new Maritime Security Agency has only heightened competition in the Navy-dominated governance of Indonesian maritime security, Muhamad Arif writes.
When Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed the presidential regulation on the establishment of the country’s Maritime Security Agency (Badan Keamanan Laut or BAKAMLA) on 8 December 2014, the mood among interested observers was bright. The complicated management of Indonesian maritime security – for which no less than 12 national agencies had responsibility – would finally be settled. The country would soon have a dedicated coastguard to carry out most of the law enforcement functions in Indonesian maritime jurisdictions.
The vision for BAKAMLA was that it would work alongside the Indonesian Navy, which could finally focus on building its much-needed war-fighting capability amidst the increasingly volatile geopolitics of the region. This optimism was justified since the regulation was among the first signed by a president who came to power with a vision to build the geographically strategic country as a prominent maritime power. Or so it was thought.
Three years after the establishment of BAKAMLA, the reality is still a far cry from the original vision. Indonesian maritime security governance is still complicated by well-known problems such as inter-agency competition, overlapping legal frameworks, separate information and intelligence management systems, as well as limited and scattered resources.
In the last couple of years, the number of security violations in Indonesian waters and jurisdictions has decreased substantially. But this outcome is actually a result of sporadic, sub-efficient and, in some cases, conflicting policy directions. Indonesia’s pioneering National Maritime Policy with its attached Action Plan, released by the government in 2016, have not done much to tackle the problems on the ground.
« A multitude of sins: the revised criminal code » by Naila Rizqi Zakiah, 30/01/2018, Indonesia at Melbourne
Over the last two weeks, the bitter debate over whether lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Indonesians should be criminalised has reached new heights of acrimony. The never-ending argument about LGBT rights was revived following the decision of the Constitutional Court to reject the Family Love Alliance (AILA) petition that sought to extend the scope of articles in the Criminal Code (KUHP) on same sex relations and sex outside marriage.
The speaker of the Constitutional People’s Assembly (MPR), Zulkifli Hasan, added fuel to the fire when he made unsubstantiated claims that the People’s Representative Council (DPR) was discussing a bill on LGBT and same-sex marriage and five political parties were attempting to legalise LGBT behaviour. In reaction, politicians are now expediting efforts to pass long discussed reforms to the KUHP, including provisions that would criminalise same sex relations.
But while the media and the public have focused on the criminalisation of homosexuality, the proposed revisions to the KUHP are much broader, and seek to criminalise all extramarital sex, regardless of gender. The anti-LGBT propaganda has obscured the threat the revisions pose to the privacy and human rights of all Indonesians. There is a real danger that society will support increasing criminalisation based on moral and religious arguments without knowing or thinking about the consequences.
As is stands, the KUHP already criminalises adultery (zina). But the provision on adultery applies to sex between a married person and a person who is not their spouse, and is a complaint offence (delik aduan). This means it is only considered a crime if a party who feels they have suffered from the act reports it to the police. Article 484 of the revised criminal code, however, converts zina where one of the parties is married into a ‘normal offence’ (not based on a complaint or report), meaning that anyone can report cases to police.
Most concerning is that Article 484 extends the definition of zina to all extramarital sex. If a man and woman who are not bound by a “legitimate marriage” have sexual intercourse, they could face up to five years in prison. Article 484(2) explains that this type of adultery between two unmarried people based on complaints of spouses, or any concerned third party. The article doesn’t contain a clear definition of third party, which could be interpreted loosely. Can society claim to be a third party? A neighbour? Or the police? The revised code could pave the way for anyone in society to interfere in their fellow citizens’ affairs, essentially providing the legal basis for the persecution of people who engage in extramarital sex.
« Tales of the Malay World » by Annabel Teh Gallop, 22/01/2018, Asian and African Library Blog (British Library)
If you are in Singapore – or anywhere near – grab the opportunity to visit the exhibition Tales of the Malay World, at the National Library of Singapore, before it ends on 25 February 2018. The biggest international exhibition of Malay manuscripts ever held, the display of over a hundred Malay manuscripts and early printed books includes 16 manuscripts from the British Library, as well as 17 loans from the Royal Asiatic Society and 18 from Leiden University Library, which are being shown alongside treasures from the National Library of Singapore’s own collections.
This was not the only time that Malay books from the British Library have been exhibited in Southeast Asia. The first occasion was in Malaysia in 1990, when 22 early Malay printed books were loaned to the exhibition Early Printing in Malay (Pameran Percetakan Awal dalam Bahasa Melayu) held at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Kuala Lumpur, from 4-9 June 1990. The following year, 25 manuscript letters and books in Malay, Javanese, Balinese, Bugis and Batak travelled to Indonesia for the exhibition Golden Letters: Writing Traditions of Indonesia (Surat Emas: Budaya Tulis di Indonesia), held at the National Library of Indonesia in Jakarta and at the Palace (Kraton) of Yogyakarta in September 1991. In October 1995 five Malay manuscripts were loaned to the International Exhibition of Malay Manuscripts (Pameran Manuskrip Melayu Antarabangsa) at the National Library of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, including the beautifully illuminated Taj al-Salatin and the Hikayat Pelanduk Jenaka currently on display in Singapore. But apart from the two latter books, for the 14 other Malay manuscripts from the British Library featured in Tales of the Malay World, it is the first time that they have travelled back to the ‘lands below the winds’ since sailing westwards in the 19th century.
As suggested by the title, the exhibition celebrates the rich seam of Malay literature, and in the judicious hands of curator Tan Huism, deftly draws out some interesting threads.
« For Myanmar’s Army, Ethnic Bloodletting Is Key to Power and Riches » by Richard C. Paddock, 27/01/2018, The New York Times
For Myanmar’s army, the campaign of atrocity it has waged to drive hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims out of the country is no innovation. The force was born in blood 76 years ago and has been shedding it ever since.
Its founders, known as the Thirty Comrades, established the army in 1941 with a ghoulish ceremony in Bangkok, where they drew each other’s blood with a single syringe, mixed it in a silver bowl and drank it to seal their vow of loyalty.
The army that they formed led the nation to independence in 1948. But except for a brief, initial period of peace, it has spent the last seven decades warring with its own people.
The army, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power from the civilian government in Burma, as the country is also known, in 1962. The military killed thousands of protesters to keep power in 1988 and suppressed another popular uprising, the Saffron Revolution, in 2007.
In constant fighting with ethnic minorities, the Tatmadaw has displaced millions of people while taking billions of dollars in profit from jade mines, teak forests and other natural resources. Its strategy has been to fight ethnic rebels to a standstill, manage the conflicts through cease-fires and enrich its officers.
“There has never been any sense of needing to win hearts and minds,” said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington. “The Tatmadaw’s doctrine is based on total submission by the population through fear. And to that end, there is little they will not do.”
Though it holds itself up as the protector of Myanmar’s people, the military has a long history of murdering civilians, torturing and executing prisoners, committing rape, conscripting child soldiers, impressing convicts as porters and making civilians walk ahead of its troops to trip land mines.
« Religious extremism poses threat to ASEAN’s growth » by Gwen Robinson and Simon Roughneen, 14/12/2017, Nikkei Asian Review
Aided by social media, hardliners gain mainstream support
The Dec. 2 event marked a year since an estimated half-million people clamored in the rain for the arrest of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the then-governor of Jakarta. Since then, Purnama, a Protestant of Chinese descent nicknamed Ahok, lost the gubernatorial election and was sentenced to two years in jail on the same blasphemy charges that brought massive crowds onto Jakarta’s streets late last year.
The episode raised concerns around the world that Indonesia’s relatively tolerant variant of Islam — and its secular democracy — was under attack. And it was a startling display of the strength of Islamist groups in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population. Among the organizers were the Islamic Defenders Front, known as FPI, and the Islamic Ummah Forum.
Those groups do not claim affiliation with the al-Qaida-linked militants who killed 202 people in Bali in 2002, nor the estimated 1,150 Indonesians who traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the so-called Islamic State. But the government has been sufficiently alarmed to ban the local wing of Hizbut Tahrir, another Islamist movement involved in the anti-Ahok protests — and which hopes to establish a caliphate.
Across Asia, the rise of hard-line religious movements is fueling a macho form of nationalism and creating dangerous new fault lines in communities. Beyond Indonesia with its numerous Islamist groups are Myanmar’s zealous Buddhist organizations, which have stoked anti-Muslim sentiment to deadly effect. Bangladesh has seen the rise of Islamic fundamentalists including Hefazat-e-Islam, while Sri Lanka has Bodu Bala Sena, a radical Sinhalese Buddhist group.
Such groups number in the dozens across Asia — fundamentalist Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus who are adding new fuel on what are sometimes ancient ethnic conflicts. Some boast memberships that run into the hundreds of thousands, powered by zealous social media campaigns, community support programs and effective fundraising operations. The donations, often tiny amounts collected from poor followers, become a source of support for hard-line leaders.
Analysts warn that such ethno-religious chauvinism represents the biggest threat to the economic growth the region has enjoyed in recent years — and to the dream of greater cohesion over trade and economic issues. « Rapid economic growth over the past three decades has raised standards of living across much of Asia, but left marginal areas, like Mindanao in the Philippines and Rakhine State in Myanmar, untouched and therefore comparatively worse off, » said Michael Vatikiotis, Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. « It is perhaps no coincidence that these areas are afflicted by violent conflict. »
Kim Văn Kiều, or the Tale of Kiều, by Nguyễn Du (1765-1820), is a jewel in the crown of Vietnamese classical writing. In Vietnam, as Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen (2003: 18) points out, the Tale of Kiều has been embraced by the general public, who see it as a romance,…