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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Freedom of Jeneponto

Harry Bhaskara was recently invited to visit the School of Democracy in the southern Sulawesi regency of Jeneponto. The school is one of five run by the Jakarta-based Indonesian Commission for Democracy (KID). Below is his report of the visit. Jeneponto regency in the province of South Sulawesi is home to a militant Muslim community. It is a public secret that Christians are not allowed to build churches there and Chinese Indonesians as well as Javanese are barred from conducting business, local activists say. In the last two years, however, the secret has made its way into school discussions for the first time.

“The discussions, both frank and candid, were an eye-opener to the Jeneponto community. They were first held in a classroom setting within the school and later openly in a public broadcast conducted by a local radio broadcaster, with ‘talk-back’ discussions from the community,” said Idrus Taba of Melania Foundation, a research and education NGO based in Makassar.

The foundation is KID’s local partner in the Jeneponto School of Democracy, funded by the Netherlands-based Institute for Multiparty Democracy. Aside from Jeneponto, KID also runs four other schools in Banyuasin (South Sumatra), Malang (East Java), Tangerang (Banten) and Lembata (East Nusa Tenggara).

The unique social characteristics of Jeneponto were one of the reasons why KID, led by noted sociologist Dr. Ignas Kleden, chose the area as a site for the school in 2006, when it also set up the other four schools.

Public discussions are part of the school’s curriculum, which runs for a year, taking 30 students annually. Classroom sessions are held twice a month on Saturdays and Sundays.

“Community members in this remote town marveled at the opportunity to rub shoulders with local and national luminaries who led discussions, whose names they only learned from the newspaper,” said Idrus, who is also a lecturer at Hasanuddin University.

The school shuns the traditional classroom setting and emphasizes active student participation in classes, he said.

Lecturers at the school include scholars, bureaucrats, politicians, parliamentarians, NGO activists, businesspeople, feminists, religious leaders and journalists.

Opening the school in this exclusive community has proven problematic, he added.

“Initially it was extremely difficult. It was seen as a Western product and local people, being staunchly Muslim, rejected the school outright, especially when they learned the school was funded by a Western country.”

Idrus’s colleague at Melania Foundation, Mohd. Sabri, said Jeneponto people believed there was an ulterior motive in the foundation of the school.

“They were suspicious that we wanted to convert them to Christianity,” Sabri said.

Unperturbed, Idrus and Sabri approached fellow members of the Muhammadiyah socio-religious organization, their former student colleagues of Hasanuddin University as well as local community elders, and eventually their determination and diplomatic finesse gained them entry into the community.

Once the school took off, it did not take long to win the hearts of the locals.

“Especially when students are presented with examples from their own community, they start to understand democracy is something they really need to know,” said Sabri, who lectures on philosophy at the University of Islam in Makassar.

Subjects in the curriculum include democracy, social analysis, intellectual history of democracy, political and government systems, public policies, democracy and business, law and human rights and conflict resolution.

Students of the school said the lessons they learned from the school have been a boon.

“We put accounting and budgeting records on the wall for everybody to see. This is a lesson on accountability and transparency. I learned about the importance of making decisions through majority votes,” said NGO activist Suryani Hajar Gaptur, a student in 2007.

Takdir Alfiat, a student in 2006, said there was widespread interest in joining the school. Each year more than 200 people apply for a place, but it has only 30 seats,” Takdir said.

Mohd. Isra, a Muslim who once vehemently opposed the school, said he ended up taking part regularly at the public discussions it held.

“In the end there are good things that we can learn from the discussions,” Isra said,

Isra is not a student of the school, but like other Jeneponto residents, he is welcome to join public discussions and the numerous radio talk shows and film showings.

Jeneponto is not alone in its exclusive character, said Sabri. Many regencies in the province, he said, are either anti-Christian or anti-outside-traders.

“But I don’t think these characteristics are rooted in ancient Jeneponto tradition. I am still researching the origin of these sentiments. For the time being I believe they are more the result of competing interests arising after our 1945 independence,” he said.

Dr. Deddy Tikson, a professor of political science at Hasanuddin University, said alumni of the school were better off in understanding democracy than college students.

“We are talking about traders or farmers who attend the school. The South Sulawesi government should adopt the school. The local parliamentarians should apply for funding to finance such a school,” said Deddy, who also lectures at the school.

The school has a very positive impact on the Jeneponto community, he said.

“It is like a movement, a reformation movement, since it is free of any kind of indoctrination. The students are free to discuss democracy as they see it in their own community or the western liberal democracy,” said Deddy.

Another lecturer at Hasanuddin University said his students had asked him to implement the curriculum of the School of Democracy at their university.

“They found the curriculum ingenious,” Alwi Rachman said.

Sabri summed up the impact of the school by quoting a local saying: “I dedicated my whole body to you, my King, but not my badik (dagger)”. Jeneponto is used to be part of the legendary Kingdom of Gowa, in the area north of Makassar.

Increasingly, the Jeneponto people are ridding themselves of their daggers, said Sabri.

“Today the saying has been modified into ‘dedicated myself to you my Regent, but not my intellectual capacity.’”

It means that astuteness has taken the place of the weapon, he said.

Or in other words, Sabri said, “I may have respect for you as my elder and leader but I will rely on myself when it comes to the way I look at things in this world.”

Source : Planet Mole


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