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Ethnic stereotyping by politicians

Published: Jul 26, 2007

Kendra Clegg

The end of President Suharto’s New Order government and its authoritarian cultural policies has meant greater freedom of cultural expression for many ethnic and religious groups in Indonesia. However, for the people of Ampenan, Lombok, who practice a version of Sasak culture different from elsewhere on the island, cultural politics under regional autonomy resembles that of the New Order. The Ampenan Sasak community find themselves marginalised as local political elites present a single view of Sasak culture.

Praying at a gravesite in Bintaro cemetery on the outskirts of Ampenan, a devout Sasak pilgrim (peziarah), pours water over the grave, sprinkling flowers, betel leaf, and lime powder. The ceremony, known as Lebaran Topat, is held in the seven days after the Muslim celebrations to mark the end of the fasting month (Idul Fitri). This uniquely Sasak tradition is said to bring good luck and health to those who take part and is celebrated by many Sasak living in West Lombok. Since regional autonomy, the local government, keen to promote this ceremony as an example of Sasak culture, has provided financial and other support for it. Yet for the people of Ampenan itself, who also identify as Sasak, Lebaran Topat is regarded as non-Islamic and has never been a part of their traditions.

In addition to supporting the Lebaran Topat, the government has promoted musical ‘gendang beliq’ (literally ‘big drum’) performances and competitions, stick fighting, and old Sasak poetry reading competitions. These activities are normally held on national days or for special events and resemble the types of exhibitions supported by the New Order. Until now, the Ampenan Sasak people have simply chosen not to partake in activities that they see as un-Islamic, and which they believe do not truly represent Sasak culture.

Returning to the New Order?

Regional autonomy has opened up new avenues for political decision-making at the local level. In the Mataram municipality, the politically dominant Sasak have gained greatest access to administrative power, providing this one group with the means of controlling public expressions of the local culture.

New Order cultural policies focused on controlling cultural differences and perceptions of ethnic identities. Under the New Order, the central government determined the ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional’ culture of every region as well as how to present local cultures to the outside world. Under this policy, the nationally recognised symbol of Lombok and of Sasak culture was the lumbung, a distinctive rice barn found in rural areas of the island. This symbol was used extensively in government publications, and tourism brochures used images of the lumbung as emblematic of Lombok. Ironically, it was only after these images were disseminated in this way that urban Sasaks began to think that the lumbung might be relevant to them.

Local governments in the post-New Order era have also recognised the power of symbols and ritual and the need to control them. With regional autonomy, local governments are now able to allocate funding to promote traditional and religious cultures without presenting them for approval at the provincial or central levels of government. With its new powers, the municipality of Mataram has given higher priority to, and allocated more funding for, local ceremonies like the Lebaran Topat. Despite some inclusion of other prominent ethnic groups — namely, Balinese and Chinese — most activities relate to Sasak customs.

Ampenan’s minority culture

Sasak communities are happy that their culture is being promoted. But has it occurred at the expense of minority cultures also falling under the banner of ‘Sasak’? Definitions of Sasak identity are diverse and perceptions of what constitutes ‘Sasak’ in Ampenan differ from those in neighbouring districts.

The Sasak are generally recognised across Indonesia for being particularly devout Muslims. Of the two million people who call themselves Sasak, however, there are also several thousand —the Sasak Bodha — who are Buddhists. Moreover, throughout Lombok, aséects of Sasak culture that are unrelated to Islam form the basis of the region’s identity. Herein lies the problem. For the devoutly Islamic people of Ampenan, Sasak culture is synonymous with purely Islamic culture and tradition.

Ampenan is a city in the western sub-district of Mataram. The population of this area, according to the Ampenan bureau of statistics 2000 census, is 42, 515 people. Its urban identity is distinct from the neighbouring sub-districts of Mataram and Cakranegara, although all three have multi-cultural and multi-religious populations. The historical role of Ampenan as a trading centre has shaped the city’s character. Through centuries of foreign control, followed by the nationalist movement and local political transitions, the dominant Sasak ethnic culture in Ampenan has experienced a shift away from the traditional forms of the culture practiced in rural Lombok and in neighbouring cities.

The government’s eagerness to reinvent Sasak culture has been largely ignored in Ampenan. Here Sasak customs are increasingly represented as Islamic tradition. An example of these differences in perception occurred at a local government sponsored ‘traditional fisherman ceremony’ where a cow was sacrificed to the sea. One prominent Sasak member of the Ampenan community, Pak Haji Nur, was dressed in typical Muslim prayer costume. He explained his choice of clothing, saying ‘the invitation requested we specifically wear adat (customary) clothing – so I’m wearing hajio(pilgrimage) clothing’. With that he threw his hands in front of him in a demonstration of the Muslim prayer.

Most residents in Ampenan’s housing districts do not own Sasak adat clothing. Instead, as the situation requires it, people like Pak Haji Nur simply wear what is for them the closest thing, Muslim clothing.

Cultural politics

Regional autonomy allows local communities to strengthen their cultures and identities. However it may also marginalise minority groups. Politicising Sasak identity has meant the promotion of a single cultural identity, which disguises the great diversity of understandings of ‘Sasak’.

The cultural policies carried out in this district since regional autonomy, like those of the New Order, are seeking to promote a single, unified notion of culture. The difference is, this time it is serving a distinctly local, rather than a national agenda.

Kendra Clegg ( Kendra Clegg is researching a Ph.D. at Deakin University in the Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific. Her fieldwork was carried out over 23 months between September 1999 and November 2002 in Ampenan, Lombok.

Inside Indonesia 78: Apr - Jun 2004

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