By Nick Vacchio
Since the dawn of the genre in the 1970s, the tenets of the punk ethos have focused around the rejection of the status quo, the promotion of individual freedoms, equality for all and a strong opposition to injustice. Unknown to many in the West, Indonesia has one of the largest underground punk communities in the world. The local scene grew significantly in the mid 1990s as music from classic punk bands like The Ramones and The Dead Kennedys found an eager audience who were fed up with President Suharto’s 30 year dictatorship. Radical lyrics from Western and local bands lashed out against violent authoritarian government corruption and propelled citizens to take to the streets in open protest demanding change against Suharto’s regime. The protests were successful and in 1998, thanks in part as well to the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Suharto resigned from office. The punk community continued to flourish throughout the country with underground punk bands and art collectives hosting workshops to teach street kids how to sing, play the ukulele and screen print. It was here that the roots of the punk community were firmly established and they have refused to be eradicated since then, no matter the opposition.
On December 26, 2004 a 9.4 magnitude earthquake took place just 60 miles off the north-western tip of Sumatra generating tsunamis that resulted in the deaths of 280,000 people. The Indonesian province of Aceh felt the bulk of the devastation with 85 percent of the capital city of Banda Aceh decimated and the lives of 167,000 residents taken. To cope with such a devastating event, the government turned outward for assistance and inward toward faith, perpetuating cultural clashes in the ensuing years. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world but Aceh is the only province that practices Shari’a law thanks to an appeasement by the central government toward separatists in the region known as the Free Aceh Movement. The separatists protested against the central government from the 1970s until 2005 when a deal was reached that allowed Aceh to practice Shari’a law at the expense of demilitarizing their forces. In an area that historically has been so fierce in defending their independence against outside rule from the Dutch, Japanese, and even their own countrymen, it seems somewhat hypocritical that the Acehnese would not apply this principle to their own citizens.
Shari’a law has created a highly restrictive atmosphere in the province. Khalwat, close proximity between different sexes who are not connected through familial or spousal ties, is outlawed. Unmarried women are expected to be accompanied in public by a muhrim, or male relative, and are not allowed outside of the home after 11pm. Public displays of affection among couples are outlawed and the idea of homosexuality is repudiated. There is an increasing sense of boredom throughout the city due to the only cinema in the capital being recently shut down. Music is censored and hardly heard in public spaces unless it has religious associations. Concerts must be approved by the government and men and women are segregated in the audience to prohibit potential mischief. Shari’a police strictly enforce the rules throughout the city and often target social outcasts like unmarried women, Chinese immigrants, and the LGBT community. However, it is the Aceh punks who best embody the struggle against oppressive rule.
The punks of Banda Aceh most accurately represent the pain and confusion during the community’s rebuilding after the 2004 tsunami destroyed families, neighborhoods and livelihoods. Dressed in black and covered in tattoos, piercings and unorthodox hairstyles, they challenge the ever-increasing authoritarian grip slowly choking the city. The government and the majority of conservative Acehnese society view the punks as a “social disease” needing eradication due to their appearance, embrace of western ideals and assumed rejection of Islam. However, many of the punks continue to practice their faith. “We’re all Muslim. We go to the mosque too,” clarified a local punk who goes by Scooby. “When we pray, we take off our piercings and put on prayer garb. When we go back out, we put all of our piercings back in.” The social stigma attached to their unorthodox appearance makes their life a struggle on a daily basis.
This small, close-knit community of mostly teens and young adults made headlines around the world in late 2011 when 64 of them were rounded up in Banda Aceh by Shari’a police while hosting a concert to raise money for local orphanages. The youths had their mohawks and flamboyant hairstyles shaved off their heads and piercings removed. Their tattered black clothing was burned and they were forced to bathe in a lake for being morally unclean. They were also required to attend a ten day re-education camp in an attempt to put them back on the honest path. In response to this unprovoked assault, humanitarian organizations and punk communities around the world made donations and spread the news that their scene was under attack. Global activist punk icons, Propagandhi, stood in unity with their brethren overseas and issued a statement to address potential apathy from people around the world:
Let this be a reminder of what happens when society follows fundamentalists and allows ‘morals’ to be dictated. There are a lot of people in all our countries who would love to give the ‘spiritual cleansing’ treatment to punks as well as people of other religions, fans of Harry Potter, and countless other groups they may label as ‘deviants.’ If you believe in human dignity, autonomy, and the right for people to be able to make their own decisions, keep fighting for your rights and freedoms, as well as the rights and freedoms of others.
But Deputy Mayor of Banda Aceh, Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, demised the resistance from outside community borders. She and her council of Muslim scholars, or ulama, wish to outlaw the punk rock lifestyle completely through the passing of a specifically constructed holy law. She used her record of attacking the punk community to get re-elected, has the support of the community behind her, and claims that punks, “are out of sync with Islam. We don’t want it to spread to the next generation.” By stigmatizing the punks and using them as a scapegoat for social ills in the community, Djamal and her constituents remove attention from the rampant corruption that exists throughout the province. She has contributed to allowing entire tracts of forest to be cut down in exchange for personal profit.
With the community against them, the Aceh punks navigate their world the best they can. Banned from gathering in most public places around the city, the Aceh Tsunami Museum is one of the few places that offers them refuge. Their days are spent navigating around police, busking around the city singing songs with punk themes, and strumming along on their ukuleles. They squat in unoccupied buildings screen printing and making other types of art to sell to whoever will buy them. Concerts are held to support themselves financially and raise awareness for local issues. Even if the community doesn’t have the punk’s backs, the punks have theirs.
Fortunately, not everyone from the country agrees with Aceh’s conservative policies. I had the opportunity to interview Sherilyn Tjandra, a fellow student who left the Indonesian capital of Jakarta to study at UC San Diego. She disagrees with the practice of Shari’a law saying that it is, “unwelcoming and unfair, especially towards women. Lots of these laws are not in accordance with common sense and I don’t believe that they will make their followers better people.” She then told me, “Back home we, as a non-Muslim people, never complain because we understand that we are minorities and as long as their practices don’t harm us, we are willing to accept changes in rules and lifestyles.” Her sentiments are echoed by Scooby, one of the leading members of the punks in Banda Aceh interviewed in a documentary recently released in early 2016. “We only hope that we can be accepted, that’s enough. We can live in unity with others. After all, we’re also human. We’re the same, it’s only that we have a different way of thinking, different way of living.”
Despite the hardships, the punks of Banda Aceh continue to fight the good fight. Their struggle continues to gain international attention and they now have human rights lawyers working to defend them against injustice. There exists a colloquialism that states punk is dead, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. As Karli Munn summarizes, “Punk doesn’t lose its radicalism in times of stability and peace. By connecting to everyday struggles, punk remains a threat to established power because punk refuses to work within the system when the system isn’t working.” It is a long war. But it is a war that will be won. In solidarity, friends.
Image by Ikhlasul Amal