Life Still Tough for Believers in Minority Faiths in Indonesia
Sunda Wiwitan leader Ugan Rahayu plays the rebab, a traditional Sundanese fiddle, as one of his students watches in the background, in Ciparay village on the industrial outskirts of Bandung. (JG Photo/Nivell Rayda)
Bandung, West Java. Java’s indigenous faith practitioners have faced hardship for generations and a visit to one of their enclaves confirms that not much has changed recently.
The morning mist started to disappear, revealing kilometers of green rice fields lit by the sun’s golden rays as scores of factory workers set off for work in motorcycles, rickshaws and horse-drawn carriages, clogging a tiny pot-holed road.
I took a turn off the beaten track, away from the town of Ciparay, in the industrial outskirts of the West Java capital of Bandung.
The traffic started to ease as I inched closer to my destination, a small hamlet named Pakutandang.
There my host, Ugan Rahayu, 64, a village elder and Sundanese musical maestro, awaited me sporting a white cotton garb and a headband made from a piece of brown batik cloth. He was sitting inside an unassuming building covered in teal green paint that the locals call Pasewakan.
The 17-by-17 meter building is a culture center, hosting a collection of intricately decorated gamelan instruments. It is a place where traditional dances, music and puppet shows are performed.
The Pasewakan is also known as a gathering place for practitioners of the Sunda Wiwitan, a belief system indigenous to West Java.
Ugan sat down at one end of the room surrounded by rows of bonangs (kettle gongs), sarons (Indonesian xylophones) and a set of kendang drums made from jackfruit wood.
He lit a clove cigarette sticking out of an old smoking pipe made from bone that had turned yellowed with age.
In a soft voice, Ugan related the building’s sinister history and how he was born in exile because the Wiwitan practitioners were on the run from gerombolan (the villainous bunch), militiamen from armed rebel group Darul Islam that aspired to establish an independent Islamic state. They were on the hunt for non-Muslims.
“By the time I reached 5, more and more Wiwitan practitioners came to Pakutandang,” Ugan said. “But the gerombolan eventually caught up with us.”
Under the cover of night the gerombolan came, armed with machetes, sickles and torches.
A group of Wiwitan practitioners who were reciting a traditional song called “Gunung Leutik” suddenly found themselves trapped and surrounded as the militiamen set fire to their homes and began attacking them.
Some 22 Wiwitan practitioners were massacred in the very room we were sitting in now nearly 60 years ago, he said.
Ugan and his parents survived, but an entire community had been reduced to rubble and ash.
Ugan’s grandmother was burned alive, his uncle had his throat cut while his older brother, 24 at the time, was fatally attacked with a sickle.
A new threat
Peace was eventually restored to West Java in the 1960s but it was to be shortlived. The Wiwitan community and believers in hundreds of other indigenous faiths were accused of being atheists, targeted in an anti-communist purge in 1965 that killed up to 2 million people nationwide.
Since then, practitioners of indigenous religions have found it hard to obtain jobs, have their marriages recognized by the government and overcome the deep stigma that comes with being perceived as animists and atheists.
For the first time, a proposed legislative amendment — to the national Criminal Code (KUHP) — threatens to penalize their way of life.
The draft of the revision was submitted by the government to the House of Representatives for deliberation in March.
For the first time the code includes harsh sanctions for couples living together outside of marriage, a crime carrying a maximum sentence of one year in prison. Also a first, those found guilty of adultery or witchcraft will face up to five years in jail.
But the one article practitioners of traditional faiths are most anxious about is the inclusion of propagating atheism as a criminal offense, punishable of up to four years imprisonment.
“The likelihood of practitioners of local religions being penalized under the new Criminal Code is great,” Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of religious freedom advocacy group the Setara Institute, told Jakarta Globe.
Article 354 warranted a maximum of four years in jail for “anyone who publicly, in any form or shape, urges others to abandon religions observed in Indonesia.” “This creates much ambiguity. The KUHP will be open to multiple interpretations,” he said.
“This makes [local faith practitioners] vulnerable to being accused of blasphemy or atheism.”
Bonar said the government had historically been reluctant to provide local faith practitioners with recognition and tended to favor majorities when they were in conflict with minority religious groups.
Once home to princes, this West Java structure is now a cultural center of the Sunda Wiwitan. (JG Photo/Nivell Rayda)
A five-hour drive northeast of Ciparay is the village of Cigugur, home to a century-old building complex called the Paseban, which is two stories tall and made from wood and boulder rock with a tiled roof.
Inside, I met a Sundanese royal named Djati Kusumah, who sat on a red velvet sofa intricately decorated with gold leaf patterns in front of a wall bearing an image of his grandfather, Madrais, and a principality insignia painted in gray and black. Djati struck a commanding pose, his wrists resting on a dragon-headed walking cane.
Jailed twice by the national government, Djati, now 85, is living testament to how practitioners of indigenous religions are often attacked over perceived blasphemy, witchcraft and atheism.
He told a story of how Madrais, who began a revival of ancient traditional religion in 1908, was arrested by the Dutch because Sunda Wiwitan was seen as a symbol of Indonesian nationalism, and how his father Tedja Buana had to convert to Catholicism to escape persecution during the height of the anti-communist purge.
“My father once had a dream that in order for the Sunda Wiwitan people to survive they must shade themselves underneath a white pine tree, which he thought was a Christmas tree [in snow],” Djati said.
As a respected community leader, Tedja’s conversion led an entire community of Wiwitan practitioners in Cigugur to embrace Catholicism, including Djati.
“But for me, to rest underneath a Christmas tree is just temporary. So when peace was finally restored in the 1980s I renounced Catholicism,” he said.
“Word soon spread and people came up to me and told me that they too want to convert back to Wiwitan.”
This upset a local Catholic priest, and Djati was reported for blasphemy and arrested by the police.
Djati, earlier jailed for officiating the wedding of several Wiwitan couples, said police eventually let him go for lack of evidence, although the Wiwitan community was banned from practicing its annual thanksgiving celebration, the Seren Taun.
“For 17 years we have had to tone down celebrations and practice Seren Taun in secret,” he said. “Every year we would gather, but there would be heavily armed police and government officials ready to krack us down.”
Setara’s Bonar said the new code will legitimize oppression of practitioners of local religions much like the 2008 joint-ministerial decree on Ahmadiyah.
The decree banned only the Muslim minority from proselytizing, and paved the way to more attacks and harassment toward the group.
Rumadi, a professor in Shariah law at UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta (Jakarta Islamic State University), is also opposed to penalizing blasphemy and atheism.
“It is too naive to think that a law fashioned by men could be designed to protect something absolute and divine,” Rumadi said recently.
“The blasphemy section [of the code] is open to multiple interpretations. Judges will usually conform to the views observed by the majority so [the code] could lead to more oppression against non-mainstream religions.”
Eliyadi, a practitioner of the Kapribaden faith indigenous to East Java, Central Java and Yogyakarta, said his community had also been accused of atheism and witchcraft, with many of its members slaughtered during the 1965 purge as well as witch hunts in East and Central Java in 1997.
“As far as the people are concerned we pray using incense and meditation instead of going to church or praying in mosques so our religion must be mystical and wicked in nature,” he said.
Takmat Diningrat, who practices Bumi Segandu, a belief system found only in several small and isolated communities in the north coast of West Java, said his group was recently harassed by hardline Muslim groups for using Arabic characters in its scripture.
Deputy Minister for Justice and Human Rights Denny Indrayana hailed the KUHP amendment as a step forward, saying that for the first time in 49 years, Indonesians will have a penal code that reflects legal developments and Indonesian values.
“Every act deemed unacceptable by society will now be penalized,” the former legal activist said. “So this penal code is the embodiment and formalization of unwritten rules society has adopted.
But Eva Kusuma Sundari, a lawmaker from the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), called the new code “a step backward.”
“We are sad that this criminal code is not progressive. We are sad that the code penalizes acts that shouldn’t be penalized. What is at stake is the rights of minorities, freedom of religion and freedom of expression,” she told the Jakarta Globe.
“How can you criminalize an ideology? How is that hurting anyone? The code should just focus on crimes causing losses to someone, something tangible, easily proven by scientific methods, not by assumptions, opinions and loose interpretations.”
The new provisions came after prosecutors struggled to find charges to lay against famous pop singer Nazril Irham, known as Ariel who was arrested in June 2010 after several videos were posted online showing him having sex with his then girlfriend and also with a married woman.
Law enforcers also struggled to prosecute Alexander Aan, a civil servant from West Sumatra who was sentenced to more than two years for posting “God does not exist” on Facebook.
Ahmad Yani, a lawmaker from the conservative United Development Party (PPP), backed the provisions on blasphemy, atheism, adultery and cohabiting, saying they protected “the Indonesian way of life”
“This code is based on the norms accepted by society. The new Criminal Code unifies other laws into one, particularly laws passed after the code was last revised,” he said.
Next month all nine factions in the House of Representatives are scheduled to present their alternative drafts of the KUHP. Eva said her PDI-P has prepared an inventory of problems with the government’s version.
Djati Kusumah, the leader of the Sunda Wiwitan community in Cigugur, West Java. (JG Photo/Nivell Rayda)
Battle for recognition
The government officially recognizes just six religions: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
But in the 2010 census, 270,000 Indonesians listed their religion as “other.” Many struggle to get marriages recognized by the state or have their children considered legitimate.
Followers of minority faiths and observers say their actual number adds up to several million.
Although not a native of West Java, Okky Satrio is an avid observer of Wiwitan. For 11 years he struggled to get his marriage to Djati’s daughter Dewi Kanti recognized by the state.
Okky said that when he and Dewi decided to get married in 2002, they insisted on doing it according to their faith but witnessed and blessed by a Muslim cleric as well as Catholic, Protestant, Hindu and Buddhist priests.
But when the couple registered their marriage with local authorities, they were denied, and for the 11 years since they have been legally considered single.
“The priests were all ready to issue a written letter officiating our marriage, and according to authorities all we had to do was choose which religion our wedding would be recognized by,” he said.
“But for us this is like bowing to an act of oppression.”
Article 458 of the new code is set to penalize cohabiting. But the article does not provide explanations as to what constitutes as cohabition saying only that “anyone who lives together as husbands and wives out of a legal wedlock are punishable.”
For Engkus Ruswana of the Budidaya tradition and chairman of the Coordinating Body for Indigenous Faith Organizations (BKOK), which groups more than 100 indigenous religions in Indonesia, the only thing that can save local faith practitioners from being penalized is the government recognizing their religions officially.
“The government’s position on traditional faiths is odd. We are recognized only by the Tourism Ministry, as if our faith is some kind of tourist attraction,” he said.
Rapidly vanishing community
It seems hard for Wiwitan and other indigenous religions to survive, let alone thrive.
The young choose to abandon the old faiths, considering them backward, rural and outdated, while the rest find it hard to obtain jobs, which is why today the faith is associated with peasants and villagers, intensifying prejudice.
For the Wiwitan in Ciparay, music provides a clear escape from poverty. With children being taught to play the gamelan and perform traditional dances since they are 4, most end up as accomplished Sunda music maestros like Ugan.
“Get your friends here,” Ugan shouted to the children who had peeped through the dirty windows of the Pasewakan during our meeting.
One by one the children took their place in the gamelan set, picking up wooden beaters to hit the bonangs and the sarons while Ugan picked up the rebab, a two-stringed Sundanese fiddle.
Ugan and his pupils played song after song but there was one song Ugan refused to recite, “Gunung Leutik,” the last song the fallen Wiwitan played the night they were massacred.
Since that fateful night, the song is only played once a year, according to the Sundanese lunar calendar, in a ceremony to honor the dead.
For the Ciparay community, a chance to honor the dead, practice their faith and receive government recognition are enough; they are not seeking justice for the perpetrators of the brutal massacre nor any restitution.
In Cigugur the community has become a model for tolerance, with the village seemingly the only heterogeneous community in West Java, which has survived waves of intolerance, conservatism and calls to implement the Shariah law.
Cigugur is home to a large Catholic, Muslim and Wiwitan community and Djati’s eight children all observed different faiths. Djati is convinced indigenous religions will not meet their demise.
“No, I don’t believe we will fade away,” he said with a penetrating stare, his right hand gripping his walking cane tightly.
He broke his stare, gazing out the brightly lit windows across the Paseban’s vast hall as if contemplating a challenge to his previous statement.
“We have gone through such adversities in the past, decades of oppression.
“And yet,” he said after a long pause, “here we are.”