The political economy of cultural heritage

Multiple layers of culture historically influence Indoneisa

Published on 25 January 2013

Author(s): Jakarta Post/Riwanto Tirtosudarmo

Type:  Feature

Last year we noticed greater attention being paid, both by the government and the public, to issues related to cultural heritage.

Having been nominated for several years, subak in Bali was finally accepted by UNESCO onto the World Cultural Heritage list. Reports in the media said Borobudur, on the World Heritage list since 1991, was not being sufficiently maintained and not of much benefit to the surrounding population.

Most controversial of all is perhaps the pyramid found in Gunung Padang, Cianjur, West Java. The controversy derived from the various opinions on the remains of what appears to be a megalithic place of worship with the President’s special staff claiming it to be a tomb older and bigger than the pyramids in Egypt.

At the national policy level we also saw the decision to return the culture department from the Tourism Ministry to the Education Ministry, and the appointment of a deputy minister to oversee cultural policy.

We are also informed that that a World Cultural Forum to be staged in Bali is planned by the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono government to be a showcase of the Indonesian government’s attention to the role of culture in global development. All in all culture seems to be on the rise and perceived as leverage at a time when the planet is becoming more globalized.

As the French historian Denys Lombard has noted, the Indonesian archipelago, particularly Java, has long been an area where multiple layers of culture historically influence its inhabitants. The indigenous cultures were Indianized through Hinduism and Buddhism, then Islamized through trading networks and finally westernized by Western colonization.

No wonder that Indonesia is in fact very rich in cultural heritage. Yet we observe that most of our cultural heritage is actually in danger as the government generally neglects supposedly priceless national treasures.

The seemingly confusing legal basis regarding the preservation and utilization of cultural heritage is another issue that also reflects the slow and non-committal attitude of the state to the policy of cultural heritage.

The regulations on cultural heritage rooted in colonial times were replaced by Law No. 5/1992. In 2010 new legislation was drawn up (Law No. 11) but until now the government regulation to implement this law has not yet been completed.

Political decentralization that provides for local autonomy in authorizing policies might also create a problem in relation to the management of cultural heritage sites. In some cases, like the Muaro Jambi archeological site, conflicting interests have already occurred as natural resources have been located underneath the site.

Local government and private mining companies might be the biggest threats to the preservation of the site as an item of cultural heritage.

Recognizing the significance of cultural heritage as the manifestation of collective memory for Indonesia as a young nation, the Research Center for Society and Culture at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences initiated a longitudinal study to investigate issues and problems concerning cultural heritage in Indonesia.

To start with, three important archeological sites were selected: Borobudur in Central Java, Trowulan in East Java and Banten-Lama in Banten. The three sites represented chronologically a Java-Buddhist civilization (ninth century), a Java-Hindu Kingdom (12-13th centuries) and the Islamic sultanate (16-17th centuries).

We are conducting the study over three years, from 2012 until 2014, and employ a political economy perspective to map out various stakeholders and their roles in the process of preserving as well as in utilizing cultural heritage. The study also pays particular attention to the societies surrounding the respective archeological sites as we believe that the local populations have a major stake in the success or failure of managing cultural heritage sites.

The result of our first year of study has shown the complex relationships among diverse stakeholders who are involved in every cultural heritage site. Compared to the others, Borobudur shows the most advanced achievement in terms of its successful restoration.

As we know, Borobudur has been a worldwide attraction since it was rediscovered by Sir Thomas Raffles, the British governor of the Indies in 1814.

In the 1970s and 1980s, foreign donors like Japan and UNESCO were involved in the restoration of this giant and beautiful monument. Trowulan, which is regarded as the Majapahit Empire’s ancient capital city and Banten-Lama as the site of the Islamic sultanate however continue to suffer from the government’s lack of attention.

These two historical sites are in an alarming condition, serious and concerted efforts need to be mobilized to restore and preserve these important historical sites.

The political economy perspective provides us with a tool to analyze the different interests of the various stakeholders who seek to obtain economic and political benefits from cultural heritage.

The result of conflict and cooperation between the state, the private sector, international organizations and society constitutes the measurement of the current condition as well as the likely future of our cultural heritage.

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