Malaysia steps on Indonesia's toes in dance dispute

Wed Jun 27, 2012 7:37pm EDT
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By Neil Chatterjee

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Malaysia is separated from Indonesia's Sumatra island by just 40 miles of water, but an ocean has opened up between them over who owns a traditional dance, the latest in a series of disputes between the Southeast Asian neighbors.

The feud, one of many over issues as diverse as culture, pollution and borders in the region of 600 million people, adds to the difficulties leaders face in trying to turn Southeast Asia into a unified economic community by 2015.

Malaysian efforts to promote the Tor-tor folk dance and Gordang Sambilan drum performance - both with origins in Sumatra - as its own cultural heritage sparked protests this month in Jakarta, where a group torched Malaysia's flag and threw stones at its embassy. The violence was a sharp contrast to the Tor-tor itself - a gentle, traditional dance featuring a mix of subtle hand and leg movements.

Malaysia's government summoned Indonesia's acting ambassador for talks on Monday to express its concern over the violence.

Government officials on both sides have tried to calm the situation, saying it is a misunderstanding over plans to promote the culture of the Mandailing people, who live in both Sumatra and across the narrow Malacca Strait in mainland Malaysia.

Malaysia and Indonesia share deep Islamic and cultural ties that go back centuries. The Malay and Indonesian languages are mutually intelligible and historians say they originate from Indonesia's Riau islands, just south of Singapore. But subtle differences do exist and could be part of the reason for the latest row. The Malay word for heritage, "warisan", carries a stronger connotation of ownership in Indonesian.


The case has touched a raw nerve in Indonesia, which has previously argued with Malaysia over who claims the rights to folk music, batik textiles and spicy beef Rendang curry.   Continued...

Malaysians of the Mandailing ethnic group perform Gordang Sambilan or Nine Great Drums, in Banting outside Kuala Lumpur June 27, 2012. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad