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Sex, Lies, and Videotape — a Presage to Indonesia’s Upcoming Culture Wars
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent
Courtesy of singer Nazril Ariel and his super-model girlfriend, Luna Maya, Indonesia has finally offered the world something titillating enough to garner attention worthy of the moniker “international sex scandal.” Exploiting taboo is tabloid’s bread and butter, but beneath this veil of distraction exists a much deeper significance for those with a serious eye on the future of Indonesia.

First for the brouhaha: simply, “Ariel-Luna” is a straight-forward video sex scandal. It blazed into a tree-topping firestorm sweeping across Indonesia as purloined videos of the super couple having sex hit the internet in early June.

Though a similar episode occurred in Indonesia a couple of years ago involving an aging dangdut singer and smarmy low level politician, the Ariel-Luna fallout has been like nuclear winter.

The following is admittedly hyperbolic, but rings true as a resonating formant: In a country brazenly corrupt and transparently duplicitous as falsely claiming to practice a democracy that includes such vital ingredients as freedom of religion, grass root Indonesians until now could counter by pointing to its steadfast moral image as being one of modesty and social temperance. In a world where liberty is routinely hijacked by the libertine and freedom gives rise to taking license, those Indonesians who held out to the world their nature to be humble and God-fearing must be pretty ticked-off. It appears that the country’s reputation is now in league with the devil along with everyone else’s. With an ever-growing train of scandal trailing behind, 2010- the year not yet half spent- has been a travesty for the country’s “jiwa” (soul).

Predictable stirrings are being seen and heard in Jakarta, Indonesia’s cultural metropole. Certainly Indonesia’s militant FPI- or Islamic Defender’s Front- is on the vigilante warpath, or at least threatening. Demanding the entertainers retire from public view, Habib Salim, the controversial organization’s leader, threatened, “If the police cannot arrest Ariel and Luna within three days, we are going to raid places that sell porn videos in Jakarta;” and “Porn actors and actresses are another form of terrorism. This is moral terrorism. We have to save the citizens from any harm that will degrade our morality.”

Police have already summoned the country’s most infamous couple for interrogation. (It should be noted that Indonesia has no such enforcement equivalent to a district of attorney office. The national police both arrest, investigate, and prosecute charges against suspected law breakers.) A police spokesperson was quoted in The Jakarta Globe as saying the National Police security and transnational affairs unit would investigate Ariel in particular “on suspicion of having violated Article 4 of the anti-pornography law that prohibits producing, creating, reproducing, copying, distributing, broadcasting, importing, exporting, offering, trading, renting or otherwise making available pornography.”

Indonesia’s relatively new anti-pornography law bans making such sex videos for private enjoyment as well as public consumption. Appearing in such videos as a “model”, actor, or actress is also considered a crime under another provision of this same law.

So as a producer of pornography, Ariel could face up to 12 years in prison and fines up to 650,000 USD. One can only imagine the potential sentence if he were also found guilty of distribution- but everyone agrees so far that he never had such an intention. And Luna Maya, who “knowingly or consentingly became an object or model for pornographic content,” faces charges carrying up to ten years in jail and fines of up to 540,000 USD.

As alleged porno-producer, Ariel- the front man of the celebrated Jakarta-based pop group “Peterpan”- is drowning in the deepest water. His strained appearances on television belie the fact that his world has been turned upside down overnight. Moreover, he is rumored to have made tapes of himself having sex with thirty different women, including at least one who is married.

The married sex partner in question, Ariel’s former girlfriend Cut Tari, is a third party subject to prosecution here. Some allege she was married at the time her spicy video round with Ariel was produced. Adultery is against the law in Indonesia, and if Tari’s husband files charges, Tari could be slapped with multiple counts as relates to both pornography and adultery. She has yet to be the focus of Indonesia’s hyper-press coverage, but has spent at least one full day under intense police interrogation.

Of the rumored thirty women, only two have so far been seriously investigated because the two tapes distributed by internet revealed no others. It remains to be seen if the police- whose decisions to prosecute can appear unpredictable and capricious- will pursue Ariel’s harem in full.

The beleaguered couple of Ariel and Luna remained silent for several days, but when coming out complained to the Indonesian press of being victims of character assassination, claiming the tapes were doctored to make them appear as the bona fide participants when in truth look-alikes were used. Few are buying that ruse, including the police. Meanwhile, the release of Peter Pan’s new album has been delayed and Lux soap has abruptly cancelled Luna Maya’s contract that featured her face on nearly every bar of the Unilever’s brand of soap sold across Indonesia. The first casualty in such a circumstance is the truth, quickly followed by cancellations of celebrity endorsements.

Dubbed “Peterporn”, the scandal was set into motion by one or more unknown perpetrators who either had access to or stole Ariel’s laptop computer. The video files were distributed on the internet, uploaded to both YouTube and Facebook, insuring an instant and total exposure. Within a matter of twenty-four hours both sites censored and removed the videos, but the damage had been done.

Outside of the realms of Hollywood babylon, the seamy green rooms of backstage Rock ‘n’ Roll concerts, and the hypocritical halls of the U.S. Congress, Ariel’s appetite for self-reflection could be reasonably termed self-indulgent, but to take such risks in a country like Indonesia qualifies the singer as patently oblivious to the Indonesian take on truth and dare.

Granted, the clandestine distribution of two celebrities caught doing the fandango on home video fails in isolation to account for a troublesome trend of licentious sexual behavior and moral decay in Indonesia- or does it? The scandal’s most deleterious effect was unleashed by the viral spread of the video clips which quickly leapt as uploaded from the internet into thousands of private cell phones, many of them belonging to Indonesian junior and senior high schoolers whose technical ability to share digital media is on par with that of any youth group in the world.

Indonesian television broadcast video reports which must have appeared as surreal to many older Indonesians- scenes of police raiding public schools and rousting out terrified pubescent-aged kids while searching their cell phones for evidence of the Ariel-Luna video contraband. In full view of a teeming press presence as allowed by school authorities to crowd into the school rooms set aside for interrogation, the terrified kids buried their heads in their hands, on desks, or covered their faces with articles of clothing and backpacks. Their fear and trembling was palpable.

The lurid details of the scandal are just so much fast food for much of the already fallen Western World; just one more example in the same category of a Pamela Anderson or Paris Hilton escapade. But in a morally conflicted, complex country like Indonesia, a whole other level of analysis awaits to be splayed wide open as a machete would a papaya.

The “what-ifs” are ripe for conjecture. What if the police do decide to prosecute two of the country’s most beloved celebrities? What will be the public reaction? Will Ariel in particular be punished severely in order to set an example to deter others? On the other hand, what if the couple is simply slapped on the wrist? These questions give rise to many social dynamics mutually in conflict. These include issues of public relations that bring culturally and politically powerful institutions such as the judicial system, the religious community, and Indonesia’s insular celebrity set into head-on collision. It is hard to imagine that some sort of violence won’t eventually spill over onto the streets.

Even greater are the possible consequences for Indonesia’s diminishing commitment to democratic values. Most worrisome to human rights advocates is the following: Have the conservative Muslim forces whose Sharia-based moral codes have already pushed through many recent forms of legislated media censorship just been given the fodder needed to pursue their unfulfilled goal of restricting many forms of internet content?

Minister of Information and Technology Tifatul Sembiring has already renewed calls for stricter content control. After the scandal broke, he deployed technical teams instructed to install firewalls for more than 2,000 Internet cafes around the country.

The power of celebrity as represents the tide of popular culture that has begun to uproot the country’s strict social conservatism has never been tested like this. By extension, is today’s popular youth movement that embraces free sex, drug use, stylish self-promotion, punk rock, freedom of lifestyle, Facebook, and American-style civil rights any match for Indonesia’s traditional bastions of power and authority, including civil, religious and familial? Conversely, is the Old Guard capable of contending with and suppressing the youth surge that in many cases thirsts for all things- both Eastern and Western?

Just for openers: As with many developing countries in the world, Indonesia’s youth make up a significant percentage of the population. Already Java’s population of some 135 million people is predominantly urbanized, and youth increasingly contribute to the growing consumer base that has made the world’s fourth largest country in the world a new economic powerhouse. Youth is equivalent to economic clout. Sound familiar?

If measured by demographic trends, there are both short and long term prognostications that could be made as applied to both urban and rural parts of the archipelago. What supersedes, though, is the urgent need for a non-standard style of discourse to so describe Indonesia’s swirling cultural mix whose eddies-in-flux defies analysis of reliable trajectory. The short and long of it seem to defy time itself, as they appear to converge on each other as traveling at light speed from opposing directions, and once in collision, fuse and split simultaneously. This is a picture of Indonesia as particle accelerator. The country appears to be in hyper-motion at warp speed, changing so rapidly in its urban areas that it is almost impossible to deny the power of the youthful tide and the values it expounds. This cultural tsunami tends to overwhelm the finer senses of a would-be prognosticator.

As young and beautiful cultural icons Ariel and Luna have yet to cross-over to the political arena, but they are unwitting signifiers of the political potential that lie in the hands of their legions of fans- that is, their peer group worshippers. That their escapades have offended judicial and religious authorities is without question, but it can be reasonably assumed their tremendous fan base is far less outraged. In fact, fans are enthralled by the spectacle of it all. Many members of that peer group are middle class and avid consumers of not only the material, but the New Cultural Cool. They may keep up appearances at home and at school, but they have secured their own place and time to play out a parallel- or rather, virtual- existence. Much of that social networking that feeds and nourishes the youth culture transacts online, and those who want to ban sites such as Facebook are not unaware.

It’s no stretch to project that many of these same young people will be Indonesia’s next generation of leaders. What is harder to predict is if the titillation and rush of hormones they vicariously experience vis-à-vis the Ariel-Luna sex tapes will actually translate into some kind of tectonic shift of values that they’ll carry with them into adulthood.

By these standards, the evolving nature of this political potential is still vague, however suggestive of a significant change to be seen in Indonesia just around the corner- or was it just yesterday? In any regard there is good reason to believe that Indonesian pop culture’s self-interest will increasingly butt heads with determined will against the reactionary forces that are already long established in Indonesian culture. It is sure to play out in all manner of future conflict, and might amount to a culture war reminiscent of that found in the United States. The Indonesian culture war of Old vs. New Morality will be added to the already well-worn divisions as found between ethnic and religious groups in this, one of the world’s most diverse and complicated countries. The next twenty-five years promises to be as yeasty as over-leavened dough.

Popular culture as a viable political force is rarely mentioned in the blizzard of government and NGO reports that fall about that researcher’s feet brave enough to open the book on present day Indonesia. As young Indonesians hold no political offices, own no land, and run few businesses, conventional methods of measure don’t readily apply. But as with the youth movement that grew up in the United States and Europe after World War II, the same signs exist: a growing demographic size, a heightened sense of identification to their age group, and a rapidly growing sub-cultural set of values that is in startling departure from any generation that has ever come before- up to and including Java Man.

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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as an Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls:






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