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Indonesian porn law threatens Papua traditions

Kurulu, December 8, 2008 - Wearing nothing but feathers and a long, tapering gourd jutting from his groin, Papuan tribesman Suroba says the Indonesian government cannot force him to wear pants.

Suroba, who estimates his age in his sixties, remembers the last time the government launched a campaign to eradicate the penis gourd, known here as a koteka, in the 1970s. It was a dismal failure.

"Back then we were wearing our traditional clothes, like the koteka, and we're still wearing them now," he said.

The latest threat to the koteka, and traditions like it, is a new anti-pornography law passed in October by mostly Muslim lawmakers in the capital Jakarta, 3,500 kilometres (2,000 miles) away.

The law, which criminalises all works and "bodily movements" deemed obscene and capable of violating public morality, was pushed through by Islamic parties despite stiff opposition and years of rancorous debate.

Opponents of the law say its definition of pornography is too broad and could threaten local traditions, from nude temple carvings on Hindu-majority Bali island to tribal dances and phallic totems on Papua, a vast territory of untouched forests and mountains on the western end of New Guinea island.

The law, which is expected to be signed soon by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, contains provisions protecting local cultures, but opponents say they would do nothing to prevent a crackdown.

Thousands of peopole on Bali have protested, and activists and politicians from Indonesia's far-flung non-Muslim regions, such as mainly Christian and animist Papua, have begun murmuring of civil disobedience.

In Kurulu, the koteka is an old tradition. The village sits in the remote Baliem valley, a fertile bowl carved out of the mountains running down Papua's spine that had no contact with the outside world until after World War II.

The 370-year-old smoke-blackened mummy of one ancestor, Wimintok Mabel, which squats in the grass-roofed hut where the village men sleep, wears nothing but the remnants of a headdress, a necklace and a shattered koteka.

But traditions here are slowly giving ground to modernity. Children and younger adults already wear Western clothes, and Suroba conceded he sometimes wears pants on cold nights.

But it's the suggestion that outsiders can force locals to abandon their culture that raises hackles.

Papua's highlands are a hotbed of anti-Indonesia sentiment. Many Papuans see Jakarta's sovereignty over the region -- gained in a widely discredited 1969 UN-backed vote of select tribal heads -- as an occupation.

Thousands of Indonesian troops guard against a low-level insurgency that still simmers in Papua's forests, and AFP was only granted rare access to the region with an escort from the state intelligence agency.

"The anti-pornography law is definitely a threat, because it runs against our cultural values," said Lemok Mabel, a member of the local Customary Council.

"There will definitely be opposition because it's not what the people want. It's something that violates locals' rights as indigenous people."

Another member of the council, Dominikus Sorabut, said news of the law had not yet reached the highland villages, where modern communications are a rarity and education is basic.

However, a long history of tension, slights and rights abuses means any crackdown on local traditions will prompt an angry reaction.

"They'll know later when the effects are felt, if the police come down and start arresting people and force people to stop wearing penis gourds," Sorabut said.

"The potential for conflict is big," he said.

The central question is whether police will try to enforce the anti-porn law. Indonesia has no shortage of grand-sounding laws that go unenforced due to political compromise, inertia or corruption.

Abdul Azis, the head of police in the highland region, known as Jayawijaya, said he was still weighing up whether or not to enforce the law given local sensitivities.

"We don't know yet, we have to look at the conditions first. Up to now there are pros and cons for enforcing it," Azis said.

"I don't think it's likely because the people here are still primitive. They don't see it as pornography, but as their clothing," he said.

Opposition lawmaker Eva Sundari, who voted against the law in parliament, said it could have its greatest impact outside of Papua in areas where Muslims predominate.

With its much-criticised clause allowing civilian groups to enforce public decency, its real purpose was to allow Islamic hardliners to act as "moral police," she said.

"The goal of this law is to become a legal umbrella for groups pushing for sharia (Islamic law)," she said.

But however it is enforced, many say the law has already damaged inter-communal bonds that have held together a diverse country that spans thousands of islands.

"The law has already wrecked the feeling of togetherness," Sundari said.

* * * * *


Published on 1/3/09

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