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Indonesia youth lift up a peaceful tradition

Indonesia youth lift up a peaceful tradition

Published: December 12, 2011

Indonesia is one of the world’s most vibrant and diverse democracies. As part of AFSC’s continuing work to support education and peace building in Indonesia,  AFSC’s Youth for Peace program is using cultural performances, art, tutoring, discussions and direct activism by youth and for youth to build peace and community.

“With young people as the drivers, we help youth around the country mobilize to celebrate and protect Indonesia’s heritage of diversity and tolerance,” says Jiway Tung, who directs AFSC’s Indonesia office. 

Activities range from a unique collaboration around traditional dance, to a giant exhibition space in Yogyakarta’s landmark Malioboro street to a Peace Torch parade.

With over 300 ethnic groups in a country of 300 million, youth engaged with AFSC come from literally every direction. Some are from Aceh, Indonesia’s western tip, which is governed by syariah law. Others hail from predominately Protestant West Timor located at the eastern end. And still others are from Yogyakarta and Ambon, both multiethnic and religiously diverse cities. While Yogyakarta is unofficially Indonesia’s pluralism capital, Ambon has been continually racked by interreligious violence since the late 1990s.

Interreligious and interethnic violence exploded in the years immediately following the Suharto dictatorship. Although since then Indonesia has rightfully been praised for its efforts in building democracy, unresolved questions about Indonesia’s collective identity continue.  

Recently this situation has been exploited by hardline Islamic movements using intimidation and violence to persecute religious minorities and limit their right to worship. These groups target both fellow Muslims and non-Muslims, seeking to impose a brand of Islam in Indonesia which is rooted in extremist and intolerant interpretations from abroad.  Indonesia’s future as a tolerant and inclusive society hangs in the balance. Will Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country (80 percent of Indonesians are Muslim) retain its historical openness, or will it be taken over by a minority fringe? Answering this challenge with youth leadership and activism is AFSC’s focus.

In this difficult context, the youth program has promoted cultural art forms like traditional drama and dance which still resonate powerfully with people of all ages and walks of life.

The Balija dance festival combined traditional Javanese horse trance dancing and Chinese lion and dragon dancing.  It brought together not only ethnic Javanese and Chinese but also street youth and transgender street performers and their performance portrayed conflict and its resolution between these groups. The Guyub Kampung or “Harmonious Village” project used Kethoprak, a traditional Javanese drama to also tell a story of conflict resolution and in addition addressed difficult topics such as land use, pollution, pregnancy outside wedlock, sexual preference and the differently abled.

Both activities used, but also reinterpreted, traditional art forms to engage nontraditional performers and address sensitive topics before thousands of spectators. “It is remarkable how youth are engaged and united in a space where differences fall away and they can reinterpret and proudly assert a collective identity,” says Jiway.

The Youth for Peace program also has focused on high school student organizing. As public or “secular” space is increasingly contested by Muslim extremists, institutions such as public schools have been targeted. Peace journalism, mural making, and cultural arts focusing on pluralism have been used to bring together high school students from diverse schools to learn about their fellow students.

More recently students from nine high schools outside Yogyakarta learned about the challenges of physical disability, and shared what they learned through writing, discussions, and events involving all nine schools.  Deo, one of the participants, said, “Previously I looked at [disabled] negatively, I thought they were unlucky and difficult. Now I see them as the same as us. We don’t need to pity them; we just need to give them a chance.”

Moving forward the youth program will be working with these students to collectively advocate on issues affecting them all such as fighting and the spread of radicalism.  In addition, students will seek to engage stakeholders and decision makers such as the Department of Education, local government, and religious and community leaders. “This program is a fine example of AFSC’s strategy to help youth combine personal change with social engagement,” says Patricia DeBoer, AFSC’s Asia Regional Director.

In Aceh, the youth program has pushed partners to reach out to ethnic minorities and also promote dialogue around what kind of Islam and syariah law is appropriate for Aceh.  Young religious leaders and intellectuals have held coffee house discussions about Islam, peace, and tolerance and also taken these discussions to villages to engage rural youth.

Youth in West Timor have been involved in initiating two activities which have started to unite all the youth program partners and activities. After participating in an AFSC organized youth pluralism workshop, and concerned by increasing religious tensions and the threat of violence, Protestant youth organized an interfaith youth group to head the annual Easter parade bearing the Peace Torch as a symbol of peace and diversity.

Tens of thousands regularly participate and attend the parade. The youth’s successful interfaith outreach even drew Muslim attendees out in large numbers, evoking emotional declarations of support. Inspired by the positive responses, the youth have created an active nonviolence curriculum (ANV)  addressing conflict resolution and advocacy which is currently being piloted in West Timor.

Also in West Timor, university students and journalists have worked with incarcerated youth on a series of activities including performances for families and the general public and most recently involving peace journalism.

Jemrius Fortuna, chairperson of the Kupang Independent Journalists Alliance, said that the participants “have a strong desire to change from not knowing to knowing, from being illiterate to literate [and that their common motivation] is to be an actor for peace, not a promoter of violence.”

At the request of the governor, the peace torch has gone on to Manado, Sulawesi, and recently brought to Yogyakarta for a warm up event where hundreds of villagers witnessed cultural performances including a cameo from Balija performers. Youth program leaders came from West Timor, Manado, and Aceh to share their diverse experiences and hopes for peace.

As the peace torch and ANV travel across Indonesia picking up momentum, youth leaders are discussing how their collective local efforts and cumulative momentum can be used to make a powerful statement at the national level that peace and diversity are integral to Indonesia’s identity.