On arriving in Australia for a short break from my duties in Indonesia, some of my friends asked me about the situation with the punk community in Aceh. My surprise to the query was not because I underestimated my friends’ savvy and worldliness; on the contrary, despite the coverage that the international media afforded the issue, I thought that there were bigger fish to fry in the steamy kitchen shared by Australians and their Indonesian neighbours—sinking asylum seekers boats, dicey livestock hauling and national security concerns. But I did underestimate my friends understanding that the punk issue in Aceh is bigger than a bunch of seemingly unruly kids ruffling the feathers of the establishment.

The province of Aceh enjoys a special status in the Republic of Indonesia, and it is governed by a complex system comprising the Indonesian national legal system, Adat or traditional law and Sharia law; the latter, which applies only to Muslim people, dictates their life in varying degrees of moral codes, repressive regulations and prohibition.

The punk community in Aceh loosely follows some of the norms we have come to associate with punk culture; namely sculpted hairdos, black, tight jeans, big boots, unconventional hygiene standards and … homelessness (generally by choice). The young folks make their living by walking the restaurant strip at night, playing traditional songs on the ukulele and homemade pvc drums, collecting tips from bemused but friendly patrons.

In mid-December, the punk community organised an open air concert at a popular arts venue in Banda Aceh, with the intent of raising funds for a charitable cause. Despite having fulfilled all the mandatory requirements to host the events and obtaining a permit, the police raided the venue and arrested as many as 64 young people.

The detainees were taken to the Police State School in Seulawah Valley, 60 kilometres east of Banda Aceh, where they were ‘educated’ for 10 days to – “change their mind-set and direct their purpose in social life”, so said regional police chief inspector Gen. Iskandar Hasan.

As part of the re-education process their heads were shaven and they were dunked in water for purification purposes. Iskandar said that during this period the punks will be given training and an increased understanding of the religious sciences. “There will be self-renewal. We will also coordinate with relevant agencies and the military, which will safeguard the state, security and religious order in this vibrant city “, he added.

While a number of Acehnese youth belonging to the punk community filed a complaint to the authorities and the national Commission on Human Rights, accompanied by representatives from the Legal Aid Foundation, Tikar Pandan and other community groups, it beggars belief that less than 100 unkempt youths could cause the authorities to blush, or taint the reputation of this seemingly holy bastion of Islamic righteousness.

The punk community claims to not oppose Sharia law, despite defying some of its precepts, and while their appearance links them to deviant behaviours, they keep out of trouble, and above all, out of view of the hypocritical practices of the law enforcers.

So, what would justify the draconian approach the local Acehnese authorities have taken to restrain the activities of a small bunch of people who could be at best described as rebellious youths?

Aceh is in the midst of an electoral campaign; the on then off then on again elections are scheduled for February 2012. For the first time in the Acehnese political history people will elect the Governor, as well as the mayors and deputies for each district at the same time. The campaign has already being marked with assassination attempts, explosions and executions. In true political form the political parties squabble among themselves, and an array of ‘independent’ candidates have thrown their hats in the ring.

Whether the arrest and unlawful detention of the punk community has been politically motivated is hard to assess, suffice to say that it is easier to rid the streets of an uncouth bunch of young people than it is to clear the stench of corruption that permeates all aspects of political and public life in the province. And the card of law and social order has always been the joker in the hand of systems that protect their sanctuaries of power by instilling insecurity among their subjects.

However, like some of my friends have rightfully questioned, the issue is much bigger than the detention and ‘rehabilitation’ of a bunch of people who refuse to conform to conservative norms. At the core of this issue rests the unsettling reality that within a democratic country there exist systems of power that arbitrarily arrest and detain people without using lawful processes and in the process violate the rights of citizenship.

This is an issue that the authorities and the human rights groups will have to tackle head on to prevent the possible entrenchment of a course of action that will justify discrimination against groups or individuals that don’t fit the conservative mould of the echelons of power.

I caught up with a few of the punks who managed to escape the raid. In the brief encounter they described the situation as scary and precarious. Nonetheless, they carefully continued to play music to restaurant patrons for tips. Tatul, a young member of the punk community said that people still supported them with small change but made no comments on the current situation.

Apathy or fear?