Jun 21, 2024 Last Updated 1:20 AM, Jun 20, 2024

Celebrate for peace

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Taufik Rahzen

When Herb Feith and I first met in 1984 I was reading a book on Gandhian non-violence by Rajni Kothari entitled A step into the future. Herb was astonished to find an Indonesian reading this. I found it in a flea market. That was the beginning of a long friendship. His ideas made us change the focus of the student discussion group I was leading then, from 'technology and philosophy' to 'peace'. This was the first group of its kind after the repression of 1978.

In 1985 we held a Peace Camp at Parangtritis Beach near Yogya. It was attended by students from all over Java. We wore black as a protest against the military. Very symbolic. Then we restarted the student press network, which the military had destroyed because of student protests against Suharto.

Then in February 1989 the Lampung massacre occurred, in which hundreds of Muslim villagers were shot in a military raid in rural southern Sumatra. We held a demonstration at Gadjah Mada University in protest. This was unheard of in those days and very dangerous. Actually it came out of an intense internal debate. Some students wanted to retaliate with violence. They spoke of urban guerrilla warfare. Others used the word 'non-violence'. Then I thought of the word 'anti-violence'. That became the theme of the protest, not just there but in other cities as well.

The Tien Anmien massacre happened in Beijing in the same year, and this led to 'anti-violence' protests around Indonesia. These did not just oppose violence by the military, but also violence used by big business, violence suffered by women, violence to impose the Pancasila ideology, or any kind of violence to resolve conflict. I was asked to write an Anti-Violence Manifesto, which was published in Inside Indonesia (July 1989).

Probably my most amazing experience was joining the Peace Camp in Iraq during the Gulf War early in 1991. There were 75 of us from many different countries, including three Indonesians, in tents in the desert on the border with Kuwait. Iraqi and US troops were visible on opposite sides. It was scary. I chickened out and went back to Baghdad. That was a bad choice. The first cruise missiles landed on government buildings right next to where we were camped! Herb Feith gave me travel money, but it was only enough for a one-way ticket. So I traveled travel back overland. I was a year on the road, learning how the Muslim world felt about the Gulf War and writing for the Indonesian media. That war destroyed all ideology for me.


The 1998 protests that brought down Suharto were another moment when anti-violence ideas were strong. However, I myself had moved on by that time. Already in our student discussion group of the mid-1980s we wondered why all ideological experiments in Indonesia seemed to end in violence. Religion was the same. Romo Mangunwijaya used to say that the Indonesian character was amuk, like a volcano, that is, to be calm on the surface but then suddenly to explode.

I have now lost all interest in ideology. The only thing that matters to me is how we can have a world without violence. How can people resolve their conflicts without discrimination, with complete respect for plurality and human potential?

Every society has a dominant pattern of change. Here in Indonesia it is not ideology or rational knowledge, but ritual. The ceremony is the crucial ingredient in everything, from weddings to corruption and the economy. Ritual takes place in a public space and in public time, which is an extraordinary time. It belongs to everyone. All leaders use ritual - Sukarno, Suharto, Gus Dur, and Megawati. Clifford Geertz once wrote a book about the 'theatre state' in Bali. Ritual binds people together, and is therefore a method of resolving conflict.

The regular sekaten celebration in Yogyakarta is a good example. The Balinese with their completely routine rituals are another. In Kutai, East Kalimantan, they have long had the Erau festival every September, to mark the moment when the sun is directly overhead. It is not just for Kutai Malays but for Dayak and Banjar people too.

The problem is that the Erau festival was recently taken over by the local government and turned into a huge tourist attraction. This has been the case with ritual everywhere in Indonesia. The state dominates almost all public space and public time. It is no longer public, but Republic space and time! For example President Suharto made 23 June National Family Day just because it was the Javanese birthday of his wife Bu Tien.


In order to recover the peace-making potential of ritual, we have to reclaim that public space and time. My friends and I do that by reviving old rituals and festivals and investing them with new meaning or, more often, by making new, multi-cultural festivals.

One of the best new festivals I became involved in was held in the traditional Balinese villages of Sidemen and Tirtagangga on 9/9/99. Four completely different groups came together here for a joint cultural performance. Besides the Sidemen Balinese, there were Papuans from Komoro, near the Freeport mine; Bissu, the transvestite priests from South Sulawesi; and people from Larantuka in Flores. The Balinese were Hindu, the Papuans Protestant, the Bissu Muslim, and the Florinese Catholic - not all of them equally orthodox mind you!

They all experienced culture shock getting there. The Papuans lost all their dancing paraphernalia during the flight except a priceless statue they carried in their laps. The Florinese came on a ferryboat that was full of traumatised East Timor refugees. The Bissu were marginalised in their own society, and had never been outside South Sulawesi. None of them were fluent in Indonesian. To get them talking, the Balinese took them around to the rice fields, to see what Balinese eat. It worked. That night they held the performance together. It was very moving. At the end, the Florinese gave a hand-woven cloth to the Balinese, while the Balinese gave a wonderful mask to the Papuans. The Papuans gave their statue to the Bissu (instead of to the organisers as they had planned), and the Bissu gave one of their cloths to the Florinese.

After the meeting, each group felt they were given fresh confidence to go home and do something creative. The Komoro dancers did a festival. The Bissu elected a new leader after letting it slip for thirty years!

Another dream I have is to make a Culture Ship that travels around the eastern archipelago. Buildings are too static and Java-centric. People come to ships to trade. That is a good moment for a meeting between people, and for a celebration.

Herb phoned me from the airport in Jakarta two days before he died. We shared our concern about the war in Afghanistan, and its implications for the Muslim world. 'Taufik', he said, 'we have to step into the future.'

Taufik Rahzen lives in Bandung and directs the Indonesian Festival Alliance (Aliansi Indonesia Festival, Alif). 

Inside Indonesia 70: Apr - Jun 2002

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