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mosque-243186There was recently a small story in the Australian media on a public punishments in accordance with Islamic law in the Indonesian province of Aceh, on the far northwest tip of Indonesian Sumatra. Those interested in the full story can access it here, but my thoughts were drawn to the central figure in the report, 18-year-old female, Kiranti. Kiranti, found guilty of ‘lustful conduct’ for simply being caught alone in her own room with her boyfriend (and absolutely nothing more), was publicly given nine painful strokes of the cane. I bow to no-one in my affection for Indonesia, but brutal, inhuman and primitive nature of the ritual left me with a terrible feeling of sadness and despair. I can’t help but agree with the sentiments of a clever young Indonesian writer on another blog who, in the context of Indonesia’s cultural indifference, and even hostility, towards for gay rights, asked “…what is the point of doing what your religion told you if that means you are losing your humanity?” Indeed.

On the same day another story in the Australian media reported on the imminent opening of a sparkling new terminal at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. Already the busiest airport in Southeast Asia, the airport has its sights set on rivalling Singapore and Kuala Lumpur as a transport hub. Nothing but good news now and amazing glories ahead for passengers, freight and corporate profits…anyway, you get the general idea.

How are these developments related? Well, from my perspective these two stories are further evidence of the Indonesian state still struggling to accommodate splintering expectations among the population on what their future should be.

These are not simple geographic divisions, although they can appear that way. In this case the two stories reflect a fundamental disagreement over whether Indonesians should share a future moving backwards, in embracing inflexible laws with proud disregard for social progress, or forwards, towards a society that values and builds airports to welcome tolerance and diversity. In simplified terms this may be, as the young writer unintentionally identified, a choice between religion and humanity.

The long held nightmare for Indonesia is that the conclusion reached among large segments of the population, particularly at the peripheries of the Indonesian archipelago, is that their futures are best not shared with the rest of Indonesia. For decades the Indonesian government has desperately struggled to starve these separatist sentiments of political oxygen that, in Aceh’s case, has led to Jakarta’s ongoing reluctance to tackle Islamic law in the province.

Confronted with the stark reality of choosing between abundant canings and abundant deaths in a renewed insurgency in Aceh the Indonesian government’s position may be understandable, and it isn’t my place to tell Indonesia what it should do.

That said, an unwillingness to act decisively in unifying the Indonesian state in embracing shared values will only increase the diversity of the Indonesian world, a shift these two media reports indicate is happening right now. And this approach will probably keep the peace, at the expense of the humanity, right up to the moment enough Indonesians accept that any world, Indonesian or otherwise, without shared values is founded on international relations.

History keeps edging to movement in the Southeast Asian world.