Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The War Over Batik: Score One for Indonesia

Taken from the original source: The New York Times

For Indonesians, it is a point scored in a long-running rivalry with their neighbor Malaysia: The United Nations has decided to recognize Indonesian batik as one of the world’s important cultural traditions.

A worker used a copper stamp to apply wax in finely detailed designs to batik fabric before it was dyed.

After a run of what Indonesian nationalists view as Malaysia’s poaching of its culture, the announcement last week that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization would add batik to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list at a ceremony at the end of this month was especially welcome. To celebrate, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has asked all Indonesians to wear batik on Oct. 2.

“It is so important that the world finally recognize and acknowledge batik as an Indonesian heritage,” said Obin, one of the country’s leading fashion designers. “It is a part of our soul.”

But bragging rights to batik, the process of creating intricate patterns on textiles with wax-resistant dyes, is only one of a slew of issues — cultural, social and political — that have bedeviled relations between Malaysia and Indonesia of late. In June, things had reached the point where Malaysia’s defense minister felt it necessary to declare that, contrary to appearances, the two countries were not on the brink of war.

Indonesia and Malaysia’s numerous commonalities have often sparked disputes. Their historically fluid borders gave rise to populations that share both the Islamic religion and very similar languages. The two countries fought a real war over territory on the island of Borneo in the 1960s, and several conflicts over small, but resource-rich, islands and coastal territories continue today.

The most recent cultural squabble, however, is mostly one-sided. Malaysians, responding to a torrent of letters in Indonesian newspapers, say they are mostly perplexed by Indonesians’ strong reactions to suspicions that they are being encroached upon by Malaysia. Some young Indonesians, who refer to their neighbor as “Maling-sia” — “maling” means “thief” in Indonesian — have pledged their readiness to fight should war become necessary.

It was in this context that Unesco was considering Indonesia’s claim that batik is part of its distinct cultural heritage and worth preserving.

Protecting batik, whether from cheaper printed imitations from China or efforts in Malaysia to copyright designs, became a national obsession.

Historians and non-Indonesian analysts question Indonesia’s claims.

“For Indonesians to claim that batik is solely Indonesian is to stretch the point,” Farish Noor, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyank Technological University in Singapore, wrote in a recent editorial in The Straits Times.

“The post-colonial histories of almost all Southeast Asian states tend to over-emphasize the nation-state and its borders,” Noor continued. “This ignores the fact that the people of the region have long moved across the archipelago with ease, bringing — and leaving — their languages, beliefs and cultures.”

See full story:
The New York Times