Crackdown on punks in Indonesia

Some who see punks as a welcome challenge to the conservative form of Islamic law in Aceh worry that the crackdown is working too well.

In his canary yellow t-shirt and skinny jeans Banu Prasdana looks like an ordinary Indonesian kid. But last year when he sported more than a dozen piercings and a Mohawk and wandered Banda Aceh's streets playing rock ballads on his guitar he had a canny ability to unnerve the local police, who considered him a menace to a social order governed by strict Islamic law.

Now he and a group of other 20-somethings have dialed back their image and spend Saturday nights in Aceh's provincial capital in a park trying to look inconspicuous. Some are jobless and without homes, some come to the park to chill with friends late into the night, a common practice here.

Officials say they drink, use drugs, and disturb others by not showering and appearing sloppy. They're just exploiting their freedom of expression and disrespecting Aceh province's conservative morals, says Police Chief Iskandar Hasan.

But Prasdana says the police misunderstand them. People need to see beyond the way they dress, he explains, referring to a recent charity concert they hosted to raise money for flood victims. Their aim is more about highlighting discrimination and social inequality.  “Being a punk is not about [just] freedom, but rebellion; a struggle against injustice.”   

But as the battle between the conservative authorities and Aceh’s punks has heated up, many of them have gone into hiding, which worries some who see the punks as a welcome challenge to the form of Islamic law adopted in Aceh. 

The danger of challenging conservativism

In a province where alcohol is outlawed, unmarried couples are not allowed alone together after dark and women’s dress is strictly dictated by law, being a punk has a much broader definition than it does in other places of the world. For many, it is a form of revolt against the government’s interpretation of sharia law, which they say is merely a means of restricting expression.

“People are not resisting sharia in a religious sense, but as a legal product,” says Reza Idria, a lecturer of Islamic political philosophy at Aceh’s Syiah Kuala University.

He was once a punk in the late 1990s, and still wears the smallest hint of a spike in his hair. The punk movement today is not unlike it was then, he says, estimating that there are around 200 punks broken into smaller groups that rival one another. 

What they share is the belief that sharia has become a political tool, used by the authorities to appeal to conservative voters. But to many in this conservative Islamic province, not accepting the terms of sharia means you are against your religion, says Idria. “So it’s difficult, it’s dangerous.”

That danger was made real last December, when sharia police arrested 65 punks during a charity concert for which they allegedly did not receive a permit. Prasdana, who had ditched his Mohawk shortly before the arrests, says several of his friends were among those caught in the dragnet and taken to a police “re-education camp.”

Over a 10-day period police forced the youths to shave their heads, bathe together in a lake and say daily prayers as part of what they called moral rehabilitation. Human rights groups cried foul over their treatment, which also drew criticism from international punk communities.

“I felt sorry when it happened,” says Prasdana, calling the arrests a misunderstanding. “Some people think we look naughty, or like bad boys. That’s why they can’t accept us.”

Authorities insist the punks often steal, drink liquor, or disturb people by appearing unkempt and threatening.

“They don’t just disturb society, they have no morals,” says Hasan, the police chief. That’s why they need discipline and “rebuilding.”

Sharia in Aceh

Aceh is the only province in Indonesia governed by Islamic law, or sharia, a concession it was first granted by Jakarta in 2001, in a central government effort to end a seperatist war.

Indonesia’s 200 million Muslims generally are happy to have the strictness of their adherence to their faith to be left up to personal choice, rather than government enforcement, but the people of Aceh are among the most strict in their approach to Islam in the country. Resident of the province proudly refer to their home as “the veranda of Mecca."

The province sits at the northern tip of Sumatra and guards the roads to the Strait of Malacca, through which trade between the Arab world and the Far East has passed for centuries. Islam set down some of its earliest Indonesia roots here, and with its greater proximity to Saudi Arabia, practice of the faith here has always had more of a Saudi flavor.

A special sharia police force sees that bylaws pertaining to an Islamic lifestyle are not violated, while an Islamic court doles out sentences that include public canings. Some say both institutions have become more powerful since Aceh achieved autonomy as part of a peace agreement signed in 2005.

Others say certain officials have adopted sharia law as a way of gaining popularity.

In the run up to local elections on April 9, Banda Aceh Deputy Mayor Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal oversaw a drive by the sharia police to crack down on vice, which includes drinking and fraternizing.

On April 20, the sharia police in a city southeast of Banda Aceh publicly caned a homeless punk couple caught having pre-marital sex in public. They were among 11 others, mostly gamblers, punished for immoral behavior.

More often, however, these vice squads crack down on more benign activities, such as women caught wearing pants (a bylaw in some areas prohibits this form of dress.)

“That makes the space for youth expression very secretive, very limited,” says Idria.

The arrests in December were unusual for their scale and for the fact that many of the punks came from other cities in Indonesia. Typical crackdowns include raids on cafes and parks, where punks often gather to play music. Hasan says the reason for December’s arrests was in part because of the permit, but also because the youths were up to no good.

“They brought hard liquor and marijuana,” he says.

Idria believes that is not an adequate explanation for why punks have been targeted, particularly since none of them were formally charged with a crime or prosecuted.

“It all started from stories that punk is a lifestyle from the West, that it’s anti-Islam and will damage Aceh,” he says.

Punks are still Muslims

The lifestyle may run counter to the government’s interpretation of sharia, says Idria, whose father is an Islamic leader, but punks in Aceh are still Muslims.

Prasdana says some punks do steal and vandalize, giving others a bad name. Among his group, however, the bond is like a brotherhood. “If we only have one cigarette, we share it between everyone,” he says.

Since the pre-election sweep in April many of the punks have been lying low, “This is just the beginning," says Idira. "We have to get involved and discuss these things. The punks have started to disappear.”

Still, Idria says the crackdown may have strengthened their resolve in the long run.

“Our style has changed, but it’s difficult to change our convictions,” says Prasdana.

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