Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia


By Kevin W. Fogg, Oct 7 2017 01:12PM

Sunday night, 10 September 2017, I attended the UK premiere of director Garin Nugroho's silent film Setan Jawa, accompanied by a live gamelan orchestra. The event was sponsored by the Indonesian Embassy in London as part of the International Gamelan Festival.

The film was impressive not just for its tremendous artistic value (the film expert I was sitting with was in awe of the use of light in this black-and-white movie) but also for its historical echoes. I chaired a panel in the festival a day earlier in which Garin Nugroho spoke about his acute awareness of the early years of moving pictures in Indonesia. Where the first film actors were pulled from the Komedie Stambul stage tradition, Pak Garin also conscientiously wanted to bridge between stage acting and screen acting (this is even more apparent in his work Nyai / A Woman from Java). The black-and-white, silent film form was more than just a stylistic choice, it was also explicitly pushing the audience to think back to spiritual practices from a century ago, traditions now sidelined in Indonesia. The form effectively and pointedly furthered the director's goal of evoking the past into the present.

The incorporation of traditional arts was also beautiful. This was found, of course, in the live gamelan accompaniment, which was tremendous! I have been to lots of gamelan performances, shadow puppet plays, wayang wong, etc., but I don't think I had ever heard such a wonderful gamelan orchestra. On top of this, though, the actors in the film were also dancing in the classical Javanese tradition, and by the end of the movie (not to spoil it) the line between dance and non-dance-acting on screen was thoroughly blurred.

There is no doubt that this movie was aesthetically amazing. I would watch it again in a heartbeat. I am less convinced that it fulfilled the director's other mission, though, to challenge radicalism by showing other, more traditional spiritual forms on Java and demonstrate how conservative, Arabizing interpretations of Islam are new in the Javanese context. The story was thoroughly abstract, and (despite the director's own ideas as discussed in the previous day's panel) any connection with Islam was not just understated but unclear. I also was unable to grasp the connection of the "Prolog", which had a small boy punished by Dutch authorities, to the greater arc of the story.

Despite my own limitations when it comes to watching and understanding art films, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and would recommend it to others for its mesmerizing aesthetic power, above and beyond its more conteporary messages.

By Kevin W. Fogg, Sep 11 2017 02:22PM

One of the great privileges of teaching at Oxford is the opportunity to work with master’s students in the Europaeum programme, including one this year who wrote a dissertation on the international relations of the Indonesian struggle for recognition of its sovereignty in the 1940s (read Simon Boeke’s thesis here). Although his excellent project focused on Australia, it led us to discover together the tremendous resources available in the Frank Porter Graham papers for the study of Indonesian History in the 1940s.

Frank Porter Graham (1886-1972) was an academic, a US Senator (briefly), a United Nations official, and a president of the University of North Carolina (for which I can—barely—forgive him). Most accounts of his diplomatic career highlight his work in South Asia between India and Pakistan, but he also played an important role as the United States representative on the UN Committee of Good Offices assigned to mediate between the Dutch and the Indonesians during Indonesia’s war for independence. In this capacity, Dr Graham chaired discussions in the US, in Indonesia, and in Europe on the future of the archipelago, and he was crucial at forcing the Dutch to the negotiating table where they eventually acknowledged Indonesian sovereignty.

Dr Graham’s papers are held in the UNC library (again, despite being a Duke graduate, I can still see value in them). Many folders (#1980-#1984; #2089-#2098; #2156b-#2158b; #2196b; and #4955; among others) have materials related to Indonesia and/or collected during his time on the Committee of Good Offices, ranging from the very mundane (complaints among the different delegates about scheduling and accommodation) to the very serious (letters and reports from the Chinese community in Batavia about violence against them during the war). Many of the papers are reports that do not seem to be available elsewhere, either from US government officials or interested parties who submitted papers to Dr Graham, almost entirely in English. The collection also has ephemera from this period, such as Dr Graham’s passport, which can be so telling. On the visa pages, the stamp from the Indian representative in 1948 is already labelled as coming from the “Consulate General of India in Indonesia at Batavia”—a position that surprised me in its boldness to use “Indonesia” in formal diplomatic stamps when the country had not yet been officially recognized by India. A thorough examination of these papers would certainly find a lot of points of interest for Indonesian (and American!) diplomatic history in the 1940s, but probably also many points of historical interest about Indonesia in the 1940s more broadly.

Most of these files have now been digitized (indeed, my student and I arranged for the digitization of some of them) and are available for viewing on the UNC libraries website at the links above, so they are accessible to scholars in Europe, Indonesia and elsewhere who might find it difficult to travel to North Carolina. (This also makes them accessible to scholars like me who generally want to avoid being on the Chapel Hill campus.)

By Kevin W. Fogg, Feb 7 2017 05:00AM

On 3 February 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights put out a harrowing report on the violence happening against Muslims in northern Rakhine State, Myanmar. This was based on hundreds of interview conducted in January 2017 among refugee communities that had just crossed the border into Bangladesh. The report is disturbing, and is greater evidence that crimes against humanity are occurring.

The methodology appears careful and thorough. In addition to narrative testimony from recently arrived refugees, the investigators used photographs of physical injuries (only those photographs that they had taken themselves) which were examined by a team of medical professionals. The photographic and narrative evidence was found to line up, supporting allegations of horrendous abuse. Additionally, the report used comparisons of satellite photos from before and after October 2016 to demonstrate the burning or leveling of Muslim-majority villages.

Many of the findings of the report are too graphic and disturbing to be described again here, so I encourage those who are strong enough to read the original report. Some facts worth noting, though, are the 90,000 displaced people--just since October 2016, the 65% of the interviewees who reported killings, and 43% of the interviewees who reported rape on the part of Myanmar security forces. The report also acknowledges that these figures likely underreport the violence occurring, especially sexual violence. I also want to point out that the report states "Influential and respected members of the community, particularly teachers, imams, religious scholars and community leaders were reportedly specifically targeted." This suggests, by targeting religious functionaries, that the security forces were not only attacking the local population, but were specifically trying to undermine the Islamic religion. Additionally, the report found incidental evidence (this was outside its strict mandate) of further restrictions on religious practices, like prayer, wearing of beards, and burial of Muslim dead. Much like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia forcing Muslims to eat pork, this appears to be a flagrant sign of genocidal intent (my analysis--not the report's). Finally, the report concludes that "the recent level of violence is unprecedented."

In an interesting twist, there was also big news out of Rakhine today that a Buddhist monastery head in northern Rakhine has been caught with millions of methamphetamine pills. In Indonesia, everyone knows that there is a strong correlation between high levels of local governmental corruption and the local imposition of Islamically-inspired bylaws; might violence against non-Buddhists in Rakhine be a cover for other nefarious activities by non-Muslim leaders?

One of the most stunning things in this context is how ASEAN's Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights seems to be falling down on the job. There are no results when one searches their website for Rohingya or Rakhine. The events taking place are unambiguously in violation of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration adopted by all states (including Myanmar) in 2012. (Find downloadable versions of the Declaration in English and Burmese on the Commission's website.) The press release of the Commission's most recent meeting makes no statement about current events. Much more is needed. I cannot say I am surprised at ASEAN's non-interference, as this is a long-standing characteristic of the body, but I am disappointed. The crimes against humanity in Northern Rakhine seem to me to be a major test case for ASEAN's human rights aspirations. When a case is so flagrant, can the body bring itself to say something?

By Kevin W. Fogg, Jan 31 2017 11:00AM

Over the last week, I and so many others have been riven by policies of the new United States putting Muslims and minorities in jeopardy and, in the words of one federal judge, potentially causing “irreparable harm” to them. More concern arose when it became clear that a mosque in Quebec was the victim of an anti-Islamic terrorist attack.

In this same time span, though, there have been some concerning developments from Myanmar that should not fall off the radar screen, impacting religious minorities. Of course, the most beleaguered religious minority in the country is the Muslims, both Rohingya and otherwise. The Rohingya continue to be subject to ongoing oppression inside Burma’s borders. Now a large block of Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh are facing a blow to their safety and security as the government there has announced they will be moved to basically a sand bank in the ocean that is not yet big or permanent enough to appear on Google Earth. It is already hard for Rohingya to get out of Myanmar and into Bangladesh, but this news makes the recognized refugee populations who have crossed the border much more vulnerable as they continue to await international action.

Perhaps the loudest news from Myanmar over the weekend was the assassination of one of the country’s most prominent constitutional lawyers, a leader who happened to have been Muslim, U Ko Ni. (U is his honorific; some news reports give his name without this title.) U Ko Ni was a well-known activist dating back to the 1988 Student Movement, a prominent advisor to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy, and a loud voice for equal protection under the law. He was shot in broad daylight, in cold blood, at the arrivals terminal of Yangon airport-- incidentally just having returned from a visit to Indonesia on official business-- while holding a toddler (his grandson) in his arms. Taxi drivers at the airport heroically chased down the assassin, but one among them was shot dead, leaving behind a wife and three children, including an infant only 45 days old. This attack appears to have been planned and coordinated; the attacker knew when the U Ko Ni was due back in the country, and traveled far from his reported home in Mandalay to commit this violence. Although the assassination severely heightens tensions, it has also brought some shows of solidarity across religious and ethnic lines, as the funeral was attended by a broad cross-section of society, including Buddhist monks.

Finally, although not so eye-catching, last week brought a development for two Kachin Baptist pastors in the north of the country, who will go on trial for their involvement in documenting and passing on to reporters information of a November attack on a Catholic church. The pastors have been missing and unreachable for over a month, but now the government has (under pressure) announced it was holding them and will be charging them with unlawful association with an armed ethnic insurgency. The bombing of the Catholic church building was originally claimed by the Burmese military-- with an accusation that the building had been storing munitions for ethnic fighters-- before they later denied any involvement and blamed the insurgents for the attack. Christians from across the spectrum have rejected the army’s new story, but the whole case is definitely putting a dark cloud over Christian activities.

I think it is useful to put the fates of Muslim and Christian minorities in Myanmar side-by-side, because they face similar challenges being simultaneously ethnic and religious minorities and very often opposing the still-powerful Burmese military. The only silver lining here might be that the discriminatory and possibly unconstitutional new policy in the US does give priority to refugees who are persecuted in their home countries for following a minority religion, so maybe Trump’s administration will allow in more Muslims and Christians from Burma?

By Kevin W. Fogg, Jan 23 2017 02:25PM

Today’s front-page, lead article in Republika, the country’s Islamic-leaning national daily paper, is entitled: “Trump to Jokowi: I have Plenty of Friends in Indonesia.” The gist of the article is that Jokowi and Trump spoke by phone as the Indonesian president offered his congratulations on the inauguration of a new American counterpart, and that they believe American-Indoneisan relations can be stronger than ever.

A particular phrase in the second paragraph sticks out, though: “according to Jokowi, Trump also has business interests in the homeland (i.e., Indonesia). Because of this, Jokowi is confident that Trump will not do anything that could disadvantage Indonesia.” * In some versions, as in Indopos, Jokowi reports that Trump literally told him over the phone "I have many business interests in Indonesia," therefore our national relations will be good. Similar lines were reported in Kompas, MetroTV, and the Jakarta Post. Trump's old friend and campaign prop, Setya Novanto, was even more bald-faced in saying that relations would be good because Trump would see Indonesia as an investment opportunity for his personal enrichment.

It will surprise no one that I am all about having lots of friends in Indonesia. On my good days, I count myself among the Americans who has a fair number of friends in this country. However, the idea that Trump will not do anything that could be detrimental to Indonesia because he has business interests here (that, implicitly, would be hit extra hard if there were any negative consequences to spread around) sounds exactly like the kind of violation of the Emoluments Clause that the drafters of the American Constitution feared.

Even if this is just how foreign leaders perceive the new American president, as subject to their influence because of his overseas business interests and vulnerability to foreign governments' policies, then it will be a foreign policy moment unlike those we have experienced before. If we believe what Indonesia's leaders are saying, this is indeed how Trump wants foreign leaders to perceive him, which is more serious.

*The article as printed in the paper version of Republika does not seem to be online, so here is the Indonesian original: "Selain itu, menurut Jokowi, Trump juga memiliki urusan bisnis di Tnaah Air. Dengan hal tersebut, Jokowi yakin Trump tidak akan melakukan sesuatu yang dapat merugikan Indonesia." If I find a link in the future, I'll be happy to post it. In the meanwhile, I have a photo if anyone wants to see the whole thing.

The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent the Oxord Centre for Islamic Studies, nor any other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

RSS Feed



The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.