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A ride to heaven: Why Sumba loves the Sandalwood pony | Arts and Culture News



Sumba, Indonesia – Named after the scented trees that once covered the island, the Sandalwood pony of Sumba is the only breed of horse in Indonesia that is still intrinsic to the local economy, culture and religion.

A spirited and nimble animal with good stamina and a friendly disposition, the Sandalwood pony is also the only breed of horse in Indonesia that is exported overseas: as children’s ponies in Australia and racehorses in Singapore, Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia. They are also sought after by abattoirs in the Indonesian province of Sulawesi where horse meat is a delicacy.

But the proliferation of motorbikes coupled with perennial drought in Sumba, some 800km (497 miles) east of Bali, is forcing more people to migrate from rural to urban areas and some worry the pony is being left behind.

“Motorbikes are now more valuable than horses on this island,” says Claude Graves, an American hotelier and philanthropist who has lived on and off in Sumba for 40 years.

“The culture is dying. Only the Pasola has been keeping it going,” he added, referring to the annual festival held at the start of the rice-planting season at which mounted riders pelt spears at one another to ostensibly fertilise the soil with human blood. The spears are now blunted but fatalities of riders and spectators still occur.

Petrus Ledibani, assistant stable manager at Nihi Sumba, a luxury resort that offers a variety of horse-based activities, says when his father was young, every Sumbanese child could ride.

A Sandalwood pony gallops along the beach on Sumba [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

“But now many children have never even sat on a horse – only those whose families own horses or are involved with horse racing know how to ride,” he said.

Horse trading

One of eight official horse breeds gazetted in Indonesia, Sandalwood ponies have small ears, a short muscular neck and an unusually long back. Their lineage dates back to the eighth century when traders from China first visited Indonesia.

“They’re called Sandalwood ponies because the Chinese swapped Mongolian ponies for sandalwood with the locals,” Carol Sharpe, an expert in natural horsemanship from Australia who founded the stables at Nihi Sumba told Al Jazeera. “Later they were bred with Arabian horses brought by traders from the Middle East. The Arabian is naturally a very flighty horse while the Mongolian is also fast but stockier with more stamina, so it’s a very good mix. But they’re not good for labour because of their small stature, probably because of centuries of malnourishment. There’s lots of grass on the island but most of it is not nutritious.”

But the Sumbanese, who practise Catholicism or Islam peppered with animism, found plenty of other uses for the ponies: transport, status symbols, dowry payments, sacrifices for funerals and as vehicles to store wealth.

In the 1930s, Dutch colonists introduced circuit-style horse racing to the island.

A racehorse breeding industry that crosses Sandalwood ponies with Australian Thoroughbreds also emerged and is now dominated by Indonesians of Chinese heritage. But many breeders in Sumba have little concern for the welfare of their animals, according to Sharpe.

“The crossbreeds develop a lot of back problems due to being started racing too early. I’ve seen foals as young as 12 or 18 months on the track. They also interfere with them, inject steroids and feed them energy drinks or coffee before races,” she said.

The grass on offer in Sumba is not particularly nutritious and is thought to be one of the reasons for the Sandalwood ponies’ small size [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]

“More also let their horses run wild in the lean times to save money on feed. They don’t tend to last long. In 2019 we had a horrible drought. Horses were dropping like flies.”

Instagram sensation

Despite their general poor health, Sharpe recognises the larger-built Thoroughbred-Sandalwood crossbreeds are better suited for activities at the resort than Sandalwood ponies, and went about building a herd.

“They’d been trained to run by using fear tactics so at first they were uncontrollable. Anyone who tried to ride them would end up on the ground,” she said. “That’s where my work in natural horsemanship helped slow them down for sunset rides along the beach – skills I passed onto the stable boys.”

Sharpe learned new skills from her stable boys, too, specifically, how to wash the animals by taking them into the surf, sometimes with riders on their back. Over time the bathing ritual evolved into a dedicated activity at the resort.

When guests took photos and shared them online, the swimming horses went viral on Instagram.

“Sumba was always known in Indonesia as the land of horses,” said Jonathan Hani, a horse breeder in Sumba’s sleepy capital Waingapu. “But when guests at Nihi started swimming with horses and people saw the photos overseas, the exposure was very good for us. It put Sumba on the map. We got a lot more international tourists.”

Resort manager Madlen Ernest also credits the horses with keeping the property afloat during the coronavirus pandemic and putting food on the tables of more than 300 employees.

“Before the pandemic, nearly all of our guests were foreigners so when the international travel ban was introduced in April, we had to close,” she said.

“Four months later we reopened targeting the Indonesian market. At first we weren’t sure if it would work, but things picked much faster than expected because some of the Indonesian influencers who stayed here reposted photos of horses swimming on Instagram.”

A ride to heaven

The Sumba Foundation, a charity that provides potable water, healthcare, nutrition and education to about 35,000 people on the island, has also capitalised on tourists’ appreciation for horses on Sumba.

“We get kids from the villages to come down to the beach with their horses for races. Tourists buy tickets to place bets on their favourites and all the winning go towards specific projects,” said general manager Patrick Compau. “At our last race, we raised $4,400 for a little girl with a rare genetic defect in her intestines who needs surgery in Bali to save her life.”

Adds Claude Grave, the charity’s founder: “We’re seeing kids as young as eight turning up to compete, all proud. It’s great that we can raise money but for me, the kids’ races are all about preserving the culture.”

Despite the recent changes in Sumba life, horse breeder Hani believes the Sandalwood pony will always be part of the island’s culture.

“They’re no longer used by most people for transport because motorbikes are more convenient but they’re still used in every part of our culture,” he said. “When a boy wants to marry a girl, they have to give her parents horses. When someone dies, the family must sacrifice a horse because we believe it will take their soul to heaven.

“Horses are our best friends in Sumba, a part of the family,” he says. “Owning one is a symbol of pride. If a person has a horse, it means they are of good character.”

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‘Suddenly, she’s gone’: Mud and death in COVID-hit Indonesia | Coronavirus pandemic News




Jakarta/Kudus, Indonesia – It should have been a time of celebration for Puji Apriani’s family – she was pregnant with her second child, and just weeks away from giving birth.

But instead of welcoming a new life, her family is now in mourning.

“I miss her. She was healthy, her pregnancy was normal. And suddenly, she’s gone,” her younger sister Ery Jurniastuti said.

The family lives in Kudus, Central Java – one of the worst affected areas by Indonesia’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases.

“She felt out of breath, and she was coughing. She felt contractions in her stomach, too,” Ery said.

Home to almost 900,000 people, Kudus has recorded a 7,594 percent increase in cases since the beginning of this year.

Following a steep rise in cases this month, overwhelmed hospitals have been forced to turn patients away.

After being rejected by two hospitals, Puji was finally admitted, and her oxygen levels increased slightly.

But it was too late. Her condition deteriorated and she died in hospital.

“She died first, then they checked the heart of the baby. The baby is still inside, they didn’t take it out. It died there.”


Puji Apriani was pregnant and only a few weeks away from giving birth when she caught COVID-19. Now, instead of celebrating a new arrival, her family are morning the death of both Puji and her baby [Jamaah/Al Jazeera]

Doctors vs Delta

At the Loekmono Hadi General Hospital in Kudus, Dr Abdul Aziz Achyar said he was “surprised” by the ferocity of the surge, which has pushed bed occupancy rates in hospitals to more than 90 percent.

“During Ramadan, it was so quiet. We only had 18 patients. But then, when it started … I myself was also hospitalised,” he told Al Jazeera.

One hundred fifty-three of his colleagues also contracted the virus, and two of them died.

Indonesia’s capacity to track variants is limited, but doctors believe the current outbreak in Kudus is driven in part by the spread of the Delta variant, which was first detected in India.

“We sent cases from health centre [for genome sequencing]… from 72 samples, 62 were the new variant,” Dr Abdul said.

At Aisyiyah Kudus Hospital, Dr Najib Budhiwardoyo said his hospital is completely at capacity.

“We are full of COVID patients. This second wave started after Eid,” he said.

“All hospitals in Kudus are experiencing this problem … oxygen scarcity. We have to be selective; we can only use oxygen for patients with very low saturation.”

Swamp turned cemetery

It is not just the hospitals in Java that are close to capacity, but cemeteries too.

In the Indonesian capital, the designated COVID-19 burial sites, such as Pondok Rangon Cemetery, that were opened in the early months of the pandemic are already full.

Cemetery workers told Al Jazeera they are struggling to keep up with their workload.

“Before COVID, I used to dig 10 graves each day. But yesterday, we dug 46 graves. The day before, it was 51,” Darsiman, a gravedigger of 20 years, said.

“We are very tired. We work from morning until night.”

Darsiman, a gravedigger of 20 years, waits for Wahyudin to finish writing on a wooden headstone [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

In Rorotan, North Jakarta, a new burial site for those who have died from COVID-19 opened just weeks ago – and already, more than 800 people have been buried there.

As the death toll continues to rise, finding room for the dead in this densely packed city is becoming a challenge.

The land at Rorotan used to be an empty swamp – the families of the deceased have to trek through the mud, to pay respects to their loved ones.

“This is a new cemetery … the other locations are full. There are just so many COVID cases, so they have to bring them here,” Darsiman said.

“It’s been raining so it’s muddy. It’s very sad to see funerals here, even the ambulances get stuck trying to come in.”

Headstone writer Wahyudin said his workload has increased because of the pandemic – and working at the cemetery takes an emotional toll.

“I feel so sad seeing this many burials. Seeing those families cry, I think about my own family,” he said.

“Before COVID, I also made headstones but it’s busier now. So many people have died.”

Moments to rest are scarce – just as workers lower a plastic-wrapped coffin into the ground, more ambulances arrive, with more dead to bury.


‘India should be our lesson’

This week, Indonesia surpassed two million confirmed cases of coronavirus – and more than 55,000 confirmed deaths.

Dr Nadia Siti, the head of Infectious Diseases at the Ministry of Health, said the rise in cases is not surprising.

“We know that if there is a holiday or event, there is an increasing number of people moving and travelling from other cities,” she said.

The cemetery at Rorotan has been built on what was once a swamp in northern Jakarta [Fakhrur Roz/Al Jazeera]
The cemetery at Rorotan has only been open for a few weeks and more than 800 people have already been buried there [Jessica Washington/Al Jazeera]

“The government had restrictions on mudik, which is the tradition of Muslims to visit their hometown [during Eid Al Fitr]. Still, there are four to six million people who travelled.”

The situation in Kudus and capital are of particular concern to the Ministry of Health, where bed occupation rates are high and hospital workers are already overwhelmed by the crisis.

“In Jakarta, the bed occupation rate is almost 80 to 90 percent. We instruct hospitals to convert their beds into COVID-19 services, so they can be available for patients,” she said.

“The last strategy is to establish field hospitals with the coordination of the army or police.”

Long before the pandemic, Indonesia had a shortage of medical professionals – and there are concerns about how its stretched healthcare system will cope when infections are expected to peak in July.

“With the existing doctors, paramedics and nurses, it might not be enough. We might need an experienced doctor to supervise five or 10 new ones, who don’t have experience in taking care of patients,” Dr Nadia said.

“We do hope we won’t face the same situation like India. What happened in India should be our lesson.”

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Former Philippine president Benigno Aquino dies at age of 61 | Obituaries News




Aquino was the country’s 15th president from 2010 to 2016, and was succeeded by current president , Rodrigo Duterte.

Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III died early on Thursday, after a prolonged illness, according to several news reports.

Aquino, 61, served as the country’s 15th president from 2010 to 2016, and was succeeded in office by the incumbent, Rodrigo Duterte.

According to ABS-CBN News, he was hospitalised last Thursday.

But he has been undergoing dialysis for at least five months and had recently undergone a heart operation.

It was during Aquino’s administration that Manila took on China and filed a case before the Court of Arbitration at The Hague over the South China Sea dispute.

The Philippines later won that landmark case a month after Aquino left office in 2016.

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The scrappy Hong Kong tabloid that refused to bow to Beijing | Freedom of the Press News




Hong Kong, China – The last edition of the Apple Daily, the small scrappy Hong Kong tabloid that emerged as a champion of democracy and outspoken critic of China, has rolled off the presses, four days after the newspaper celebrated its 26th anniversary.

The paper had been raided by police twice during the past 10 months on suspicion of violating the National Security Law that was imposed by Beijing almost a year ago. Since the first raid last August, founder Jimmy Lai, 73, has been in jail awaiting trial under the law.

Last week’s raid saw five top executives, including its chief editor, arrested for alleged security offences as 500 police officers swooped in on Apple’s headquarters, with another staffer – the head editorial writer – apprehended on Wednesday morning.

The final nail in the coffin, however, was Hong Kong authorities’ freeze on the bank accounts of the media group that owns the paper. The move made it impossible for the paper to pay its staff and vendors, even as readers snapped up copies to show their support.

The decision was based on “employee safety and manpower considerations”, Apple Daily said as it announced its closure on Wednesday.
“Here we say goodbye. Take care of yourselves.”

Staff members of Apple Daily and its publisher Next Digital clap out the final edition of a paper that began publishing in 1995 and became a thorn in Beijing’s side [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework meant to guarantee rights and liberties absent in the mainland. For most of the past 20 years, the territory has remained a bastion of press freedom in a country where media is muzzled.

“The demise of Apple Daily negates ‘one country, two systems’ and sets the stage for ‘one country, one system,’” said Willy Lam, a longtime commentator on Chinese politics and a veteran newspaper editor.

Bold, brash

Founded just two years before the handover, Apple Daily was at once a gamble and a leap of faith.

“The paper wanted to have some impact not just on Hong Kong but also to support the liberalisation of China,” Lam told Al Jazeera. “But as China has become less open to Western values, the paper has focused on defending Hong Kong values and holding Beijing to account.”

In its inaugural editorial, Apple Daily said it aimed to be a paper for the Hong Kong people.

Lai, its founder and funder, a devout Catholic who had made a fortune in the fashion business, named the paper after the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. Its rhyming couplet jingle – “An Apple a day, no liars can hold sway” – caught the attention of Hong Kong readers used to more staid offerings.

It was loud. It was bold, It was flashy.

The paper grabbed attention when it splashed a surreptitiously shot photo of Deng Xiaoping – China’s then-paramount leader died in February at the age of 92 – on his deathbed on the front page.

Brashness was its selling point.

Its reporters frequently skewered public officials and needled the comfortable.

“It speaks truth to power and finds a way to do profitably,” said Lokman Tsui, assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Jimmy Lai, standing by one of the printing presses in 2009, created a hugely popular paper that supported democracy, was unafraid to speak truth to power and critical of the Communist Party in Beijing [File: Alex Hofford/EPA]
Apple Daily’s founder and funder, Jimmy Lai, was arrested in August under the national security law and the paper’s headquarters raided. He has now been jailed [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

The paper catered to high brow and low. Colourful spreads of scantily-clad female models appeared in the same section of the paper as erudite columns featuring quotes in Latin and Classical Chinese. With a couple of exceptions, its ranks of columnists were the who’s who of the territory’s pro-democracy circle.

Giving people what they want

Launched at the dawn of the internet age, the daily was quick to adapt to the digital world. Its website pioneered animated news – a mix of stills, short clips and clever graphics with narration dripping with sour sarcasm. Its lifestyle channel on YouTube built a fervent following.

A decade in, the paper’s circulation peaked at 500,000 in a city of approximately six million people with a dozen dailies.

Apple Daily’s brand of advocacy journalism would soon make the paper a thorn in the side of the Chinese Communist Party. But to Lai, a rags-to-riches maverick millionaire now named Public Enemy No. 1 by Beijing, it was all about giving his customers what they would buy, even down to protest poster inserts.

In the summer of 2019, amid popular opposition to legislation that would send Hong Kong residents for trial in mainland China, the paper shorthanded “extradition to China” into the homophonic colloquial Cantonese expression of seeing someone to the grave. The expression immediately caught on and became a rallying cry in the protest movement.

“At times, we might have gone overboard but everything we did fell within the bounds of the law,” said Robert Chan, 45, who has covered mainland China for the paper for the past three years.

That is until the passage of the security law, which punishes what the authorities deem subversion, sedition, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life sentences.

Prosecutors have used Lai’s frequent meetings with US officials in recent years, from the then-vice president on down, as “evidence” of his alleged “collusion with foreign powers”.

Staff from Apple Daily and its publisher Next Digital work on the final edition of their newspaper on June 23. In its first-ever editorial, the paper said it wanted to be a publication of the Hong Kong people. It printed a million copies of its final edition [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Early last month, rumours started to circulate that Beijing wanted to see the paper be shuttered in time for the Communist Party’s centenary celebrations on July 1.

Technology reporter for a decade, Alex Tang, 37, said like most of his colleagues he had become conditioned to taking unsubstantiated gossip with a grain of salt – until the second raid and the company asset freeze.

During the past few days, some of the 800 reporters at the paper were frustrated by the lack of a definitive answer on the last publishing date and severance.

“Management said they’d hang on till the bitter end, and they’ve kept their word,” said Tang. “The company has done its best.”

Apple Daily will live on as a website on the self-governing island of Taiwan, where it ceased paper publication last month.

But in Hong Kong, China news reporter Chan said he will mourn the loss of far more than his livelihood.

“With the paper gone, so would the values it represents: pursuit of freedom and democracy,” he said.

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