Latest Weekly Articles Sat, 22 Nov 2014 16:37:11 GMT FeedCreator 1.8.0-dev ( Photo essay: Positive is negative HIV/AIDS is posing an ever greater threat to the health and welfare of people in the highlands of Papua

Antoine Lemaire and Carole Reckinger

Across the more than 17,000 islands of Indonesia, more than 380,000 people have been tested HIV positive (with a population of over 242 million). The worst affected region is the two most easternmost provinces Papua and West Papua, where a generalised epidemic is underway. With only 1.5 per cent of Indonesia’s population, the two provinces account for over 15 per cent of all Indonesia's new HIV cases in 2011. The HIV prevalence rate is 11 times higher than the national average and has reached 3.5 per cent. In 2006, AusAid expected 3.61 per cent of the population in Papua to be HIV positive by 2025. In fact it has reached this level more than ten years earlier than predicted. The highlands of Papua is one of the worst affected regions. Due to lack of awareness, poor health services, stigma and misinformation, the number of undetected HIV cases is thought to be many times the 2700 detected cases that were already detected by January 2013.

Rubbish, contaminated needles, blood packs and other highly hazardous waste lie unchecked next to the public hospital vegetable garden in Wamena. The poor standards or complete lack of health services and education throughout the region not only facilitate the spread of the disease, they also severely impede any efficient response to the epidemic.

Magda (not her real name) (14) is lying in her hospital bed under her blanket. She has no appetite and sleeps most of the time. Every day she gets weaker. She died after nearly three months in hospital of AIDS related illnesses. A rising number of teenagers are infected with the virus.

An eight-year old girl brings the blood of her 15-year old brother, who is dying of AIDS related illnesses in the hospital, to the laboratory. By the time she got there, all the blood had spilled out. Awareness about the virus is still very limited and the seriousness of HIV seriously underestimated. A lack of knowledge about the modes of transmission, coupled with the long running political conflict and the climate of mistrust and fear it has borne, has led to many misconceptions and a number of conspiracy theories. The suspicion that HIV has been introduced specifically to decimate the indigenous population is widespread.

Benjamin (not his real name) tested HIV positive four years ago while studying outside Papua. He is taking his medicine regularly and is healthy. He is a valued member of the community, and has recently married. The couple are looking forward to having children. Apart from his parents, no one in the community, including his 18 year old wife are aware of his condition. Stigma is still very strong, in extreme cases taking forms such as threats and attempts to burn the patient alive. Some priests are also reluctant to conduct burial ceremonies for people who have died of AIDS, as they associate HIV infection with sin.

One of the rare shelters for people living with serious AIDS related illnesses. This particular shelter is run with the private money of three NGO workers. Many people live in rural areas only accessible by foot, light aircraft or helicopter, where no public services are available. Healthcare outposts have been built, but poor governance means staff are often absent. Rural inhabitants therefore have to walk, sometimes for days, to the closest hospital or rely on already overworked and underfunded local NGOs to provide helicopter transport. Many people who live far away from the city cannot afford to come to town every month to pick up their ARV medicine.

Lack of awareness about the disease means many infants are infected through childbirth or breastfeeding. There are currently 241 known cases of transmission from mother to child in both provinces.

When senior high school students were asked about HIV/AIDS modes of transmission during one of the rare awareness-raising workshop by a local NGO, a majority of them believed that the virus was transmitted through mosquitoes and were not aware that no cure for the disease has yet been found. A worrying amount of youngsters also believed that the virus could be transmitted through kissing and shaking hands.

A member of a local NGO demonstrates the use of a condom during an HIV and STD awareness raising campaign at a local market. These kind of campaigns are still very rare.

A woman's disfigured hands tell a long history of loss. Traditionally Dani women amputate a finger every time a close member of the family passes away. The fact that HIV infection is higher among ethnic Papuans is representative of socio-economic inequalities in the provinces. In order to decrease dissatisfaction with its rule, the Indonesian government has provided local governments in Papua with large amounts of money as part of ‘special autonomy’. Much of this money is spent on various programs without proper preliminary research or subsequent monitoring. The actual causes of the problem are rarely tackled. Although the provincial governments have made HIV testing and treatment free, many Papuans do not have access to health care or education and are not reached by awareness raising campaigns.

Carole Reckinger ( has been interested in Indonesian and Papuan social and political issues since first visiting the archipelago over a decade ago while studying Indonesian and Southeast Asian studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She has lived and worked in different parts of Indonesia, including Wamena and Jayapura.

Antoine Lemaire ( studied Social Anthropology at SOAS. He has lived and worked in different parts of Indonesia and Papua. He is particularly interested in the impact of capitalism on material culture in indigenous societies.

Also by these authors in this edition, see 'Lives endangered'.

Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}
]]> (Antoine Lemaire and Carole Reckinger 2) Fri, 16 Aug 2013 11:23:58 GMT
Strange bedfellows An unlikely alliance between former rebels and a former New Order tormentor will test the limits of Partai Aceh loyalty

Shane J. Barter

Barter 1Healthcare, Prabowo Style Elisabeth Pisani

The highly anticipated 2014 Indonesian national elections are fast approaching. For years, the big question has been what happens after the sitting president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), finishes his second and final term. SBY utterly failed to groom a successor within Partai Demokrat (PD), evident with his choice of the capable but colourless Boediono as his 2009 running mate. While Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo of the PDIP (Democratic Struggle Party) provides some excitement, the list of plausible candidates seems uninspiring. For many, the greatest fear is the candidature of Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s former son-in-law and one-time Kopassus (Special Forces) Commander widely thought to be responsible for scores of abuses against student protestors, ethnic Chinese, East Timorese, and Acehnese.

In the lead-up to the 2014 elections, Prabowo has formed a shocking alliance with Aceh’s former rebels. Thus far, Partai Aceh (PA) has dominated the province’s electoral landscape, winning district and provincial executive posts and securing majorities in district and provincial legislatures. In national contests, PA helped SBY and his party deepen their support in Aceh. Now, the former rebels are asking Acehnese voters to do the unthinkable: vote for a New Order stalwart and symbol of oppression. This represents an acid test of PA loyalty, and may propel changes in Acehnese politics.

A changing landscape

With the field of potential presidential candidates emerging, regional elites across Indonesia are already jockeying for allies, promising to deliver votes in exchange for access and promotion. One of the most interesting dynamics is unfolding in Aceh, the site of the 2004 tsunami and a long-standing secessionist conflict that was resolved in 2005, due in part to SBY’s efforts. The rebels laid down their weapons with the promise of forming a political party and competing in elections. Local parties are expressly forbidden in Indonesia for fear that they will serve narrow, parochial interests. An exception was made for Aceh, where the former Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels created Partai Aceh. The province has thus become a test case for sub-national parties in Indonesia. Of course, there were fears that PA would only care about local politics and serve ethnic Acehnese interests. Far from refusing to participate in national politics, PA has become deeply involved, but in unexpected ways.

While largely successful, Indonesia’s experiment with local parties in Aceh has hardly been perfect. Organised through the Aceh Transitional Committee  (KPA), the former rebels have come to dominate the local economy, with shady construction contracts fuelling the PA political machine. The International Crisis Group (ICG) has dubbed the KPA ‘the greatest scourge of post-conflict Aceh’, running mafia-like protection rackets and executing political rivals. Aceh has seen some political violence as PA intimidated local and national parties in the 2009 elections and factions within PA have become involved in turf wars. As expected, PA also uses exclusive ethnic cues, failing to reach out to Aceh’s numerous minorities.

PA has seen a quick turnover in leadership, with liberal elements muscled out by hardliners. While figures such as Irwandi Yusuf and Nurdin Rahman won early elections, former GAM guerilla commanders and elites close to the late Hasan di Tiro dashed their reelection bids. In 2012, a bitter conflict led to Zaini Abdullah, GAM’s former ‘Foreign Minister’ being elected Governor of Aceh. He was joined in the former head of GAM’s armed forces, Muzakkir Manaf, serving as his second-in-command. Their victory signaled a turn towards greater corruption, an increased use of ethnic cues, and greater endorsement for Aceh’s local syaria laws.

Since the 2006 elections for governor, the former rebels have dominated Aceh’s political landscape, a testament to their enduring popularity. This said, in the 2009 elections, PA support was concentrated in the north of the province, where they won district and provincial elections in landslide numbers. On the west coast and around the provincial capital support for GAM was less strong, ethnic minority districts voters supported national parties such as Golkar. Generally though, it can be said that PA dominates Aceh’s politics and remains genuinely popular, a legacy of GAM resistance to abusive Indonesian forces and a result of their appeal to a sense of Acehnese ethnic solidarity.

National elections have presented a more complex picture for PA leaders and Aceh’s voters. Local parties are allowed to run only for provincial and district legislative seats, which means that PA leaders are free to endorse national parties in contests for the People’s Representative Council (the DPR, Indonesia’s national parliament), if they choose, but they cannot run for such positions under their own party banner. They also have an open slate when it comes to endorsing presidential candidates.

In 2009, many voters in the north of the province voted informally by failing to correctly fill-out their ballots for the national election, while at the same time voting for former rebels in district and provincial contests. This partial boycott was a result of continued resentment of Indonesia, instructions from local PA personalities, and the absence of former rebel candidates in national races. This said, most of the province showed intense support for SBY’s Partai Demokrat in the national parliament vote, with percentages rivaling PA dominance in the provincial and district legislatures. PA leaders suggested that the success of SBY and PD was due to their endorsement—indeed, some PA politicians supported the PD in a personal capacity during the election.

Recognising that he would win the July 2009 presidential elections, former rebels supported SBY’s reelection. Then-governor Irwandi joined SBY’s campaign team, as did many PA politicians. Indeed, SBY won in a landslide, scoring 93 per cent of the vote in Aceh, and PA leaders took credit for his victory. ICG reported that ‘Partai Aceh in 2009 delivered more than 90 per cent of the vote in Aceh for the President.’ This seems questionable - PA sided with a candidate who was clearly going to win. It is not clear how much the support of PA and its political machine the KPA helped SBY in 2009.. Even so, as a result of district, provincial, and national executive and legislative elections, the former rebels feel unstoppable.

Strange bedfellows

The 2014 elections will provide a major test of PA political control and the loyalty of Acehnese voters. Unlike in 2009, when most Acehnese voters supported SBY because of the role he had played in the peace process, in 2014 PA wants Acehnese voters to support a national party and a presidential candidate they would be unlikely to choose on their own. The former rebels are aligned with none other than Prabowo and his Gerindra party. This is a remarkable development, surprising even for observers of Southeast Asian politics.

In 1990, fresh from a posting in East Timor, Prabowo led Kostrad (Army Strategic Reserve) forces into Aceh, ushering in a decade of intense human rights abuses. Prabowo’s unit burned-down the houses of suspected rebel supporters and terrorised residents of northern Aceh. Geoffrey Robinson, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), notes that Prabowo’s tenure in Aceh ‘coincided with the onset of the worst violence.’ Prabowo was more than an abusive officer, he was part of the Suharto family. As a military official, businessman, and former son-in-law of Suharto, Prabowo epitomises the worst of the New Order.

To suggest that Prabowo is unpopular in Aceh would be an understatement. Gerindra won less than three per cent of Aceh’s national legislative vote in 2009, and the Megawati-Prabowo ticket in the presidential elections that year came last, with 2.3 per cent. PA leaders are aware that their new allies are hated in Aceh. In order to reinforce their ethno-nationalist credentials prior to the election, and assist their new allies, they have embarked on highly contentious symbolic fights with Jakarta. Emblematically, the PA has been working to make the former rebel flag an official provincial symbol..

In 2009, PA support for PD and SBY was informal. In 2014 however, PA is officially aligned with Prabowo. Rumours have spread that Prabowo spent Rp.50 billion on behalf of the winning candidates in Aceh’s 2012 elections for governor. During the campaign, Prabowo allies in the local military command such as Sunarko, Djali Yusuf, and M. Yahya campaigned on behalf of the Zaini Abdullah PA ticket and then aligned with Gerindra. After the election, Gerindra donated three modern ambulances (plastered with Prabowo’s image) to the province in a highly publicised ceremony. Governor Zaini has publicly endorsed Prabowo, joining his presidential campaign team, while Prabowo has spoken of his ‘intimate’ relationship with PA. Prabowo is openly building a Gerindra stronghold in Aceh through the former rebels.

As the list of national legislative candidates has come out, it has become clear that former rebels are running for Gerindra in Aceh. In the Pidie Regency, the party’s legislative candidate is Fadhullah, a local PA secretary and Gerindra’s provincial treasurer whose ‘work experience’ entry at the Elections Commission reads ‘Head of GAM Commando Operations in Pidie Region.’ In Banda Aceh, Gerindra’s candidate is TA Khalid, another former GAM fighter, who serves as Gerindra’s provincial secretary. Other former rebels playing roles within Gerindra include chairman Maulisman Hanafiah, and deputy governor and KPA head, Muzakkir Manaf, who is serving as Gerindra’s official provincial ‘patron’.

The common cause found by PA and Prabowo is a remarkable development. It shows how money and power dominates in Aceh’s politics, rather than principles or ideology. It is also an important lesson about the potential role of local parties in Indonesia. Instead of PA promoting narrow parochial interests at the expense of the country, patronage represents a centrifugal force keeping the country together.

The Prabowo test

PA’s alliance with Prabowo and Gerindra poses serious challenges to supporters. On the one hand, unlike in 2009, GAM supporters will be able to vote for former rebels in the national parliamentary elections. On the other hand, it means they will be asked to support a party and a president representing the very worst of the Indonesia that GAM fought against. Will Acehnese voters follow PA and vote for former rebels under the Gerindra ticket in the April parliamentary elections, as well as vote for Prabowo in the July presidential elections? Or, will Acehnese voters finally diverge from the former rebels, selecting other candidates or simply failing to fill-in their ballots?

It may be easier to vote for Gerindra in the parliamentary elections, since this would mean sending former rebels to Jakarta, than it will be to vote for Prabowo for president. Of course, it depends on the final slate of candidates and their running mates. Former governor Irwandi may yet play an important role. After losing the tough 2012 contest for governor, Irwandi vowed to form a rival GAM party for the 2014 elections. His National Aceh Party (PNA) has not gained much traction, in part due to the murder of one of its local leaders. Irwandi has been outspoken in his criticism of the Prabowo alliance and remains popular throughout Aceh. If Irwandi threw his weight behind a rival national party, this could represent a major challenge to the PA-Gerindra alliance.

While early predictions are notoriously problematic in Indonesia, the PA-Gerindra alliance does allow for some guesses. In regional legislative races, Partai Aceh will continue to dominate in ethnically Acehnese areas of the province, although they will not so easily command votes in national races. This may represent the first setback Partai Aceh have faced at the ballot box, and strengthen the hand of Irwandi’s allies in the PNA. The northern districts will be the most interesting to watch. This region constituted the rebel heartland and suffered the most under the New Order. Are voters in districts like Bireuen, Pidie, and North Aceh more pro-PA or more anti-New Order?

Along the west coast, in the district of Aceh Besar, and perhaps in East Aceh, where GAM loyalty is less deep, Acehnese voters will be less conflicted supporting other parties. For ethnic minorities, who have long been at odds with ethnic Acehnese rebels, many officials are allied to Prabowo, who controls a 97,000-hectare forestry reserve in Central Aceh. Prabowo’s alliance with the former rebels puts minority leaders in an awkward place. This tension could open the way for Golkar to maintain and extend its traditional control over these areas, halting Gerindra’s inroads.

The 2014 elections have much riding on them. Indonesian democracy has been good news for Southeast Asia, a region which has proven a recalcitrant holdout in the worldwide democratisation wave, and for the Muslim world, whose experience with democracy has been even less inspiring. For Aceh, Prabowo and Gerindra represent an acid test for rebel loyalty. If Acehnese voters follow the former rebels and support Prabowo, this will indicate tremendous influence and enduring PA power. However defiance could weaken the stranglehold the former rebels currently enjoy over the province’s political affairs.

Shane J. Barter ( is associate director of the Pacific Basin Research Center and an assistant professor of comparative politics at Soka University of America in southern California.


Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}
]]> (Shane J. Barter) Sun, 25 Aug 2013 11:40:38 GMT
Caught between two happinesses Young Indonesian lesbians struggle with the pressure to marry

Kate Walton

walton1Celebrating the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) in Jakarta, May 2012.    Lily Sugianto

In Indonesia, where same-sex marriage is illegal and homosexuality generally frowned upon, a group of young lesbians are discussing whether marrying a gay man is the way to solve their marriage problems. The pressure to marry is intense, they say. Many explain that their parents won’t be able to live happily until their children are all married.

‘What if he wants sex?’ One girl ponders. ‘He says he’s gay, but what if he decides he wants to sleep with you anyway? Won’t that just make more problems?’ Another girl exclaims it would be like a time bomb waiting to explode. What about marrying a straight man? ‘There’s no guarantee that would work,’ one young lesbian says, shaking her head. ‘Marriage is an institution protected by law - there could be trouble if something goes wrong.’

Most young Indonesians admit to feeling pressure from their parents to get married, but for young lesbians, the issue is doubly complicated. Forced to make the impossible decision between making their parents happy and making themselves happy, today’s lesbians are confronted by a dilemma that will permanently alter their futures. Should they marry a man, remain single, or live in secret with their female partner?

The pressure to marry

In almost all societies, marriage is seen as an important rite of passage, the crucial step that must be made to enter adulthood. Indonesia is no different. In a country where de facto relationships are neither legally nor religiously recognised, marriage offers the only path for couples wishing to live together and have children. It is seen as the only arena in which sex is acceptable. Pre-marital sex, while increasingly common, remains socially taboo, and most couples who date ‘Western-style’ are presumed to be heading towards marriage.

Historically, Indonesian women generally married young - before 19 years of age - and had children soon afterwards. With culture changing in recent years, however, the increasing length of time between adolescence and fully-independent ‘adulthood’ (that is, marriage) means that a large number of young women now exist in a state of limbo, neither children nor adults. For lesbians, this leaves them stuck in a never-ending state of ‘childhood’ - unable to marry their female partner, and unwilling to marry a man.

‘Marriage looms as a troublesome prospect for many Indonesian lesbians’, writes anthropologist Evelyn Blackwood in her book, Falling into the Lesbi World (2010). Both Islam and traditional Indonesian values place significant emphasis on marriage, to the extent that marriage is expected for all and by all. Marital status reflects not only upon the individual but upon the family as well. If a young man or woman fails to marry, it shames the family and can be viewed as a sign of disrespect for the parents. One oft-repeated Indonesian proverb, Islamic in origin, declares that ‘heaven lies under your mother’s feet’. It is widely taken to mean that you must respect your parents if you intend to enter heaven, for their happiness is your happiness, and their sorrow is your sorrow.

‘If you don’t show your devotion and make your parents happy, you feel wrong, sinful,’ activist Poedjiati Tan explains. ‘One of the ways to show devotion to your parents is to get married.’ From conversations with her own and others’ parents, Poedjiati says that most want their child to marry because they see it as meaning that their job is done, that their responsibility to look after their child has shifted to their daughter’s husband.

Caught between two happinesses - their own and their parents’ - young Indonesian lesbians understandably find themselves struggling. For many lesbians, reconciling their sexuality with their desire to make their parents happy seems almost impossible.

Pretend marriages, pretend happiness

For members of the Jakarta-based lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LBT) group Ardhanary Institute (AI), the question of marriage recently provoked heated debate when one young lesbian asked for help in finding a gay man to marry. Writing that she wanted to marry so that she could be free to spend time with her girlfriend, she brought to light a hidden trend where ‘pretend’ marriages provide a potential solution for Indonesia’s lesbians.

‘Do you think it’s really as simple as that?’ one of AI’s leaders, Agustine, asks during a discussion. ‘That if they get married he could bring his boyfriend home and she could do the same with her girlfriend?’ Some of the group’s younger members laugh the suggestion off, saying they can't even imagine such a situation.

‘If a woman does not get married before she is 25,’ Agustine explains to me afterwards, ‘her family will feel ashamed, and society will start calling her perawan tua (literally ‘old virgin’). It’s different for men. They won’t be pressured into marriage until they’re at least 30 years old. So there’s a big difference between the pressures felt by men and women.’ For lesbians, it is even worse. ‘Many lesbians already feel guilty for being attracted to other women,’ Agustine continues. If they do not marry a man, they worry that they are failing to fulfil their role as dutiful daughters.

Some lesbians offer hopeful stories of ‘educating’ and helping their parents to come to understand that being gay is not a bad thing. While a few say they have been successful in changing their parents’ perception of their sexuality, the majority who have come out to their parents wish things had gone differently. Since coming out, some have lost all contact with their parents; others have been pressed into accepting an arranged marriage. Tales of physical abuse at their parents’ hands, too, are worryingly common.

Agustine’s own story is illustrative. After coming out to her parents at 17, she ran away from home after her family began physically abusing her. Only 15 years later did she begin communicating with them again. Likewise, when Nur’s* parents discovered she was lesbian, they were so upset that they beat her. She now says she is considering marrying a gay male friend. ‘I’ve even been bringing him home a lot, but what do I do now?’ She wonders. ‘My parents are so happy I’ve finally brought a boy home.’

As the discussion progresses, a number of lesbians come forward to admit to having seriously considered the idea of pernikahan pura-pura (pretend marriage). ‘I nearly did it,’ Kasmiati* acknowledges. ‘Not to make my parents happy, but so that I could have children. I made a promise with a gay friend, but when the time came to get married, I realised he was still sleeping with lots of men, so I was worried. Even though he said he used condoms, I couldn’t really be sure of his sexual history. In the end, we decided not to marry.’

A story of arranged marriage

22-year-old Mimy identifies as lesbian, but recently entered into an arranged marriage with a man after making a deal with her mother. ‘The biggest thing to think about is happiness,’ Mimy tells me. ‘Will it be your happiness or your parents’ happiness that gets sacrificed? Not all parents can be taught to understand.’

Mimy’s story began a few years ago, when she fell in love with a young tomboi (a masculine-presenting woman) named Fi*. Mimy and Fi dated for 8 months, but Mimy broke up because Fi was abusive. Mimy’s parents forbade her from seeing her again. Fi kept trying to contact Mimy, however. ‘I still loved her. It seemed as though she had changed,’ Mimy says wryly. ‘She invited me to move away with her, out of the city. I agreed, and said goodbye to my family. With a heavy heart, my mother let me go, but only after making me promise that if Fi ever hurt me again, I would have to come home and submit to my mother’s wishes.’ Mimy explains that in 2009, her mother had arranged a marriage for her, but that she had managed to avoid it. Her mother told her that if things didn’t work out with Fi this time, she would have to get married. Mimy felt so sure that she would be happy with Fi that she just agreed straightaway.

A few months after moving away with Fi, she started being abusive towards Mimy again. Her cousin saw the condition Mimy was in and told her mother. ‘My mum asked me to come home - she called in the deal we’d made,’ Mimy says. ‘So I had to go back to the city, and get ready for my wedding. I tried really hard to get out of it, but my mum refused, and I had to accept the consequences of my own stupidity.’

Mimy was married two months later, to the young man who had already been suggested to her before. ‘He knew I was a lesbian,’ Mimy says. ‘We made a deal, that we would split up later if I could give him a child.’ But even now, three months into their marriage, Mimy is not sure if she made the right decision. ‘I don’t want him to touch me, but if I don’t let him touch me, how can we have a child and separate?’

Mimy doesn’t have a girlfriend at the moment. She says she is still traumatised from her relationship with Fi, and although her husband is ‘nice enough’ to her, she feels stuck. ‘I always tell him how I feel. I think it’s his right to know, even if he doesn’t really understand it all. He always says, “I’ll always try to help you,”’ Mimy explains. ‘I’ve tried to sleep with him, but I can’t help but feel that it’s like being raped’. But Mimy says she will keep trying to make things work. ‘I have to, no matter how hard, if I want to break off our marriage later.’

No happiness without acceptance

Like Mimy, many of the young lesbians I spoke to are adamant that heterosexual marriage is not a good solution. They admit, however, that they are unsure how to resist the pressure to marry. They all want to make their parents happy, but at the same time, most question if they could really go so far as to marry a man and have children.

‘I would say to other lesbians, think 100, even 1,000 times about getting married to a man,’ Mimy advises. ‘Even if he’s gay. Even if he’s good to you, like my husband is to me, and never asks or forces you to have sex. Even if he’s like this, it doesn’t mean you’ll be happy, just because you’ve become someone’s wife. If you really are a lesbian, I am certain it will tire you out pretending to be someone else.’

And as for marrying with an agreement in place, like Mimy did herself? ‘It doesn’t free you from the expectations of how you should behave as a married woman,’ Mimy warns. ‘What I mean is that, for as long as you can, fight for your right to be your own person. Your future depends on it.’

Despite increasing awareness and visibility, same-sex-attracted women in Indonesia are unlikely to be accepted as lesbians by their families in the near future. The challenge lies not only in building society’s tolerance of different sexualities, but also of different ways of living one’s life, including remaining single or choosing not to have children. Emphasis on the importance of marriage and children needs to be reduced for all women before lesbians can feel truly at home in Indonesia.

*Names have been changed.

Kate Walton ( is a writer, photographer and activist. She currently lives in Jakarta, where she works for a national women's organisation.


Related articles from the II archive
Dede Oetomo, 'Gay identities'
Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}
]]> (Kate Walton) Fri, 30 Aug 2013 13:07:00 GMT
Review: Taking a musical journey in Sumatra Margaret Kartomi’s life-long devotion to bringing Sumatran music to the world is revealed in her major contribution to analysing and preserving this musical heritage

Virginia Hooker

This is a delicious book – to be savoured, appreciated for its richness of detail and admired for its texture and cohesion. It made me greedy for more. I thought I could just dip in and read it over a week or so (it is a lengthy tome) but I was drawn into it from the first page of the Preface and just kept reading.

It is also an innovative work, of great significance for describing, categorising and analysing Indonesia’s traditional musical arts. It draws on four decades of Professor Margaret Kartomi’s research and field work into the music and dance forms of Indonesia, work for which she has received international recognition. Her contribution to the training of scholars from Indonesia and Australia who work on music and the traditional arts of island Southeast Asia is ongoing and remains unrivalled.

What makes this book so good? I will select just four features. Although this does not do full justice to the richness of the book it conveys a sense of the scope and character of the work.

First, the narrative is engaging. The following extracts from the Preface are personal and lyrical and express Margaret’s enjoyment of the time she and her husband, Hidris Kartomi, spent in various regions of Sumatra. She begins the Preface with these sentences: ‘Mas Kartomi and I have many warm memories of Sumatra. Our most moving experiences were of economically poor but culturally rich villagers everywhere who gave unstintingly of their warmth and hospitality…’

Describing the terrain they walked or travelled through, she remembers: ‘[there were] jagged ridges with white mist hanging over crater lakes; the fresh scented air after the rains while I walked along forest paths; the short, rocky streams that cascade down to the narrow plains of the west coast…’. She describes another memory, this time of a night voyage. ‘I vividly remember listening to local legends told and sung to us before we fell asleep under the stars on sacks of copra on our all-night voyage from Sibolga to the southern shore of the island of Nias, where we heard the soaring music of the powerful hoho choirs…’

These contexts of landscape, eco-systems, people, oral narratives and, of course, music, narrated in this natural and vivid style, are the elements which underpin the structure of the book.

Second, the book is extremely well organised, as a work of this size must be if it is to serve as a work of reference. Sumatra is a vast island of at least 44 million people who represent a richness of ethnic diversity perhaps matched only by the other large islands of Borneo and Papua New Guinea. To provide coherence for her Sumatra-wide approach, Margaret has devised an intersecting system or grid-like structure. The main frame of the grid is a vertical axis of musico-lingual groups (based on language usage), geographic area (based on topography of habitation – river, mountain slope, coast), and the administrative unit (province) in which the groups live. These coordinates situate the music makers in space and language group.

The horizontal axis draws on the disciplines of eco-geography, history, anthropology and musicology. Working with the information they provide, Margaret identifies and analyses the factors which have contributed to the forms of the traditional musical arts she observed in the 1970s and 1980s. She is able to place each example in the book in time and space, as well as its social and magico-religious or ritual context.

To illustrate the complexity of just one of the forms included in the book, I refer to the descriptions of tiger-capturing chants – accompanied and unaccompanied – as practised by highly skilled shamans in the 1970s. These chants are provided not only with their full musical notations and descriptions of the instruments used but also with their supernatural and spiritual contexts. These include notes about the psychological effects of the power-charged words and music on practitioners and observers (and also on the tigers).

Third, as well as the innovative nature of its structure, the book provides complete notations for important music and dance themes, ranging from songs and orchestral pieces to chants and incantations. This includes the new notational systems Margaret has devised for the complex body percussion movements, used in many Acehnese performance genres. Scholars of music will appreciate the transcriptions which record the interlocking rhythms of the huge range of drum ensembles that seem to be a special feature of Sumatran music.

Finally, the book achieves an admirable balance between examples of musical performances which are very public in nature, and those which are more private or reflective. An example of the first is the detailed description of the extended and complex rituals, accoutrements, music and movements which mark the Shi’a expressions of grief for the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandsons (in 680 CE). Margaret and Mas Kartomi witnessed these rituals in the early 1980s when they were still being performed without fear of reprisals by anti-Shi’a groups. Since August 2012 and continuing in early 2013 there have been attacks against small Shi’a communities forcing them to engage in many of their rituals discreetly and often behind closed doors. It is thus extremely valuable to have Margaret’s record of a full-blown public commemoration which captures its performance as well as its musical elements.

In contrast to the very public Shi’a rituals of the 1980s are the book’s descriptions of the musical traditions of reclusive, shy, forest-dwelling groups of interior Sumatra, who to quote Margaret, ‘want to live in as much isolation as possible from outsiders’. ‘Development’, increasing bureaucratic control, and declining areas of wilderness make it increasingly difficult for these forest dwellers to maintain their lifestyles supported by their musical and traditional cultures. Margaret’s recordings and notes serve as a cultural data bank for these small and threatened populations.

Musical Journeys in Sumatra is a book of great depth as well as breadth. The careful work contained in this book is a major contribution to the recording and analysis of the musical heritage of numerous ethnic groups of Sumatran Indonesians. The book establishes a baseline for traditional musical arts in their complex contexts. Thus it offers a strong model for others to adopt and adapt. The scholarly notes, appendices, diagrams and black and white photographs enhance the reader’s understanding and serve as valuable records of cultural points in time. A special website has been created in tandem with the book, where audio and audiovisual recordings of some of the performances described in the chapters can be heard and viewed. The book is thus also a conservation tool for practitioners and researchers wanting to know how works were performed in the 1970s and 1980s by masters of the art who have since passed away. Linguists, historians, anthropologists as well as musicologists will thank Professor Kartomi for her labour of love.

Margaret Kartomi, Musical Journeys in Sumatra, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, 2012.

Virginia Hooker ( is Emeritus Professor and Fellow in the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 112: Apr-Jun 2013{jcomments on}
]]> (Virginia Hooker) Sat, 07 Sep 2013 13:42:00 GMT
Review: Justice, victimhood and remembering the violence in East Timor Lia Kent’s study of East Timor’s attempts at transitional justice is an important contribution  

Vannessa Hearman

kent 1Since East Timor voted for independence from Indonesian rule in 1999, the country has wrestled with the best ways to account for past human rights abuses, in particular those that occurred during the Indonesian occupation from 1975 to 1999. In 1999 alone, over 1000 people died in the lead up to and following the UN-sponsored referendum to separate from Indonesia.

Approximately 400,000 people were displaced. East Timor’s experiments with trials and tribunals, the Truth, Reception and Reconciliation Commission (Comissão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliação, CAVR) and other commissions are in line with the promotion of ‘transitional justice’ mechanisms globally. In the past three decades, there have been 40 international courts and tribunals and more than 35 truth commissions around the world. These are the most popular forms of ‘transitional justice’ instruments. Coming to terms with the past however entails balancing political interests and deciding how to deal with abuses in ways that deliver justice and the ability for society to move on.

Lia Kent’s study of the interaction between the ‘international models and local realities’ in East Timor is an outstanding work that benefits from the writer’s in-depth knowledge of East Timor and her familiarity with the voluminous scholarship on transitional justice. This is an important addition to the field of transitional justice and Timorese studies.

A universal toolkit to truth and reconciliation?

Kent shows how prosecutions and truth commissions have become part of the toolkit promoted by international organisations and states to deal with past human rights abuses. Beyond the criticisms specific to these instruments that other scholars have provided, Kent goes further to argue that these instruments support the promotion of liberal values of the importance of individual rights and liberties. In some settings, such a focus on individual rights are at odds with local perceptions of justice, which might view justice as a broader social good.

The toolkit approach suggests that if followed closely, this model will promote the rule of law and democracy and achieve peace and stability. Kent questions if this is borne out in reality. In addition, she critiques approaches to transitional justice which suggest that there is both a clear starting point and also an end point, when victims are deemed to have received justice. While these clear-cut timelines might suit funding cycles and donor expectations, her field research in several parts of East Timor shows that justice occurs across a longer timespan and is based on locally embedded ‘conversations’.

Concepts of transitional justice promoted by international actors such as the UN and donor countries are, Kent argues, translated – 'vernacularised' – into local settings. In East Timor the victims’ groups that have sprung up in the absence of government action and an international tribunal take on board the globalised discourse on accounting for past rights abuses and apply the concepts to their campaigning and advocacy.

East Timor’s journey so far

For those seeking a systematic charting of East Timor’s transitional justice experiments, Kent’s book is a must-read. The Serious Crimes Process, a series of criminal prosecutions, falls under the umbrella of ‘retributive justice’. When the process was wound up in 2005, 95 indictments were brought against 391 individuals and 84 defendants had been convicted. However Indonesia’s refusal to cooperate with Serious Crimes prosecutors, particularly in the indictment of Indonesian military officers hindered the process’ ability to prosecute more than just low-ranking members of the Timorese militias.  Kent details other obstacles in the Serious Crimes Process, including the lack of resources and the prioritisation of cases that occurred in 1999 above others. She also discusses the work of the CAVR, which while having a broader mandate than the Serious Crimes Process was still constrained by a lack of resources and temporal limitations on its mandate.

Kent’s work is underpinned by the conviction that a good ‘model’ of transitional justice must include strategies for addressing structural injustice. Legacies of past violence in East Timor, such as poverty and marginalisation, arose from the long years of occupation and conflict. In this study, she brings this point out most effectively by relying on the voices of the victims, whose lives are marred by a lack of education and jobs as a result of having lost family members in the conflict. Kent also raises the claims made by others that the 2006 conflict in East Timor which began in the Armed Forces but then spilt into broader society, was related to social trauma and unmet needs. This is in-line with the contention that unmet demands for justice will lead to further conflict. The quest for justice, Kent argues, is therefore complicated by, and can feed into, post-independence power struggles.

Addressing the long-term needs of victims is an enormous challenge for any government, let alone one that has been left to rebuild a country physically destroyed by the Indonesian military and its militias. Debates about the desirability or otherwise of an international tribunal and the need to emphasise nation-building rhetoric instead have preoccupied Timorese leaders since 1999. 

Kent examines the motives behind the attitudes held by the main leaders such as Xanana Gusmao, Jose Ramos Horta and Mari Alkatiri and ultimately their acceptance of bodies like the Commission for Truth and Friendship (CTF), a body set up by the Indonesian and Timorese governments almost to rival the work of the CAVR.  In order to understand the repudiation by Timorese leaders of retributive justice models, the discussion in this book of the Timorese leadership’s narratives on reconciliation and the importance of forgiveness is very important.  

Kent shows how the frustration of the Timorese people with their leaders’ inaction has led to their increased organisation and mobilisation. Victims’ groups and local memorialisation practices have arisen and with them a ‘vernacularisation’ or the translation of international discourse and practice on transitional justice into local contexts, thereby imbuing them with new, local meanings. Through interviews with those involved in groups such as Mate Restu and Rate Laek, Kent gives voice to the ways victims see their situation and their wishes for the future.

Nonetheless, she also points out how their reliance on NGOs to keep the groups going financially and morally raises questions about the extent to which victims’ groups are self-sustaining. The competition over who can call themselves victims has given rise to a victimhood hierarchy dominated by male Falintil veterans, to the detriment of youth in the clandestine movement and women. It may be due to my own work relying heavily on oral history, but many times I wish that Kent would include more of her interviewees’ words throughout this book. Wherever these voices are incorporated, they add much poignancy to this study, highlighting that transitional justice is ultimately about people and meeting their needs beyond the violence, grief and trauma.

This sensitive, highly nuanced and considered study of transitional justice in East Timor is also useful for scholars and activists working on similar issues in Indonesia and other parts of the world.

Lia Kent, The Dynamics of Transitional Justice: International Models and Local Realities in East Timor. New York: Routledge; 2012.

Vannessa Hearman ( is a lecturer in Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney. She worked as an interpreter in East Timor during the UN administration (2000-2002) and completed a Masters thesis at the University of Melbourne about post-conflict reconstruction in East Timor. Her current research is related to responses to human rights abuses that occurred under the Suharto regime in Indonesia.


Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}
]]> (Vannessa Hearman) Sat, 07 Sep 2013 14:19:24 GMT
Longing for Suharto A visit to the former president’s memorial shows that some Indonesians prefer an uncomplicated vision of the past

Andy Fuller

Andy Fuller 1Wear with pride: Suharto memorabilia    Andy Fuller

Suharto’s portrait is commonly seen on the streets of Yogyakarta. It appears on the back of trucks, motorcycles and, less frequently, on private cars. Some people wear T-shirts with his portrait. Stalls along the iconic Jalan Malioboro sell a great variety of the pro-Suharto T-shirts. The T-shirts are not ironic: many people fondly remember the Suharto era, as, amongst other things, a time when goods and petrol were cheaper. At the same time, many people think the charms of the current reformasi period have long since faded. Corruption is daily news fodder. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has disappointed many. 

It is in this broad political context that a new Suharto memorial was opened in March this year. The former president’s family funds the memorial so its favourable portrayal of him is no surprise. Nonetheless, the memorial, with its small museum of Suharto’s greatest presidential moments, presents some insights into the contemporary political context.

The memorial, funded by Probosutedjo, a younger half-brother of Suharto, is in the village of Kemusuk – Suharto’s birthplace – about a 20-minute drive west of Yogyakarta. On the way to the memorial, one passes cement fences upon which the national emblem of the Garuda is affixed. There are lists of the five principles of the Pancasila, the national philosophy, and statements of the local kampung values: orderly, healthy and pious. The streets are wide and clean. Houses are set back from the street. The bitumen, unlike many nearby streets in Yogyakarta, is smooth. There are the typical views of paddy fields and distant hills. It’s a pleasant provincial Javanese scene.

In the car park, a man with an upright posture and a sophisticated, forceful whistling technique, directs private vehicles and buses into their appropriate places. It’s a large car park – no doubt many visitors are expected. There is a house on the corner and part of it is used as a barber shop. A couple with a young daughter sit in a doorway. At the back of the property a woman from Kemusuk sells T-shirts adorned with the late Suharto’s face for Rp.45,000 (about A$5). She doesn’t have much to say about the memorial itself. Nonetheless, her T-shirts are popular.

Andy Fuller 2Young visitors engage with a moving image that recreates the anti-PKI protests Andy Fuller 
Getting the image right

The entrance to the grounds is broad and there is a low fence. One can see inside easily. Visitors are greeted by a three-metre sculpture of Suharto as a general. He’s broad and commanding, serious and refined. Yet, the proportions seem wrong: his legs are too short. He carries a baton under his arm, a tool symbolic of command. To the left is a musholla (prayer room), striking in its transparency. The walls are glass and inside there are green prayer mats. No doubt it is air-conditioned. There are a couple of people praying. Further to the left is a small water feature - a pond with a bronze water buffalo in it. Two bronze boys are climbing over the buffalo, having fun. Simple, village-life pleasures. The memorial’s entrance articulates the primary references to Suharto his supporters cultivate: a very Javanese image that is both rural and sophisticated underpinned by a dominant military and a modest role for Islam.

Heavy-set, moustachioed men wearing batik shirts walk around the entrance, not doing much, with their walkie-talkies hanging from their belts. Behind the entrance is a Javanese pendopo (pavilion-style building). The roof is high and the air passes through slowly. Primary school children sit watching historical Indonesian films from the national archives. Mr Gatot Nugroho, who acts as both manager and occasional guide of the memorial, says that these films are from the perspective of the agents of history. These are the ‘real’ documents, he says, not like Arifin C Noer’s film on the aborted communist coup, which so heavily inculcated millions of school children during the New Order era. 

Mr Gatot says that on most days around 600 people come to the museum. On busy days, it’s as many as 800. School groups come from neighbouring towns and cities. Today there are many children playing around the pendopo while their mothers sit and chat with one other. It’s a pleasant atmosphere, seemingly far removed from the intensity of political debates and controversy surrounding Suharto’s heritage and New Order politics.

Andy Fuller 3Small plastic sculptures representing Suharto’s planning of the Irian Barat (now West Papua) offensive    Andy FullerA trip down memory lane

The museum of Suharto’s military and political life is on the western side of the pendopo. The museum is in a Javanese wooden house. The entrance of the indoor memorial involves walking through a tunnel in which the visitor is encircled by rolls of films in which Suharto is pictured in various scenes from his private and public life. The visitor walks along a carpeted floor onto which images of a paddy field are projected, emphasising his relatively humble origins. This is a rather hodge-podge mix of Suharto-ness: village-boy-cum-president. Suharto’s stiff body language and his scripted manner of speaking, however, sit uneasily with the informality and ruggedness of village life and paddy field labour.

The memorial, although relying heavily on the technology of the supposedly simple photograph, has a couple of exhibits in which digital technology is used. In the chronological display of images, there is a large video screen in which animated images of young men are shown jumping around and waving. This screen – several metres wide and a couple of metres tall – is placed at the end of the corridor, just beyond the sculptures of the murdered generals of 1965, curiously suspended in a plastic box. This exhibit, the guide says, allows the visitor to participate in the protests against the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party). Separately, in the pendopo, one can photograph oneself standing next to Sukarno as he declares Indonesia’s independence.

As visitors view the rudimentary, graphic representations of protestors, their images too are shown up on the screen, only looking a little more real, and of course, strangely passive. A group of children walk up to the exhibit thrilled at being shown on a screen. Of course, there is no screen where a visitor can get his or her image beamed into an animated scene of mass killing of suspected communists, or any of the other gruesome alternatives that Suharto’s history would offer. The reformasi protests against Suharto, the most intense mass movement over the last 30 years in Indonesia, are also absent.

At the back of the memorial grounds are the remains of the house in which the future president Suharto grew up. The foundations of the house remain amongst the well-cut grass lawn. On this lawn are small signs with quotations of Javanese philosophy. One states, ‘actions need to be considered and judged’. Another, ‘self-respect is found in one’s words and actions’. Mr Gatot says that these are poor translations of the Javanese statements and ‘someone in Jakarta’ made them. His contempt is evident.

Next to this lawn stands a grand Javanese house, with the typical frontwards sloping roof. Mr Gatot states that the Suharto family stays here when they visit Yogyakarta. On the porch are some elaborately designed chairs and tables. Around these a couple of women sell the increasingly popular T-shirts with the Javanese words, ‘piye kabare?? ... iseh penak jamanku to’, roughly translated as ‘how are things going? Is my era still wonderful?’ The presence of this informal trade in such structured and stilted circumstances is incongruous, but it’s all part of the growing Suharto nostalgia. Alongside the Suharto memorabilia, a woman also sells generic Yogyakarta T-shirts, but she doesn’t display them as proudly.

Andy Fuller 4The murdered generals of the 1965 aborted coup and a silhouette of Suharto    Andy FullerAn uncomplicated vision

The purpose of the memorial is singular: to celebrate Suharto as an unproblematic general and president who knew and did what was best for the nation. A failure of the reformasi movement has been its inability consistently to show the real and ideological violence of Suharto’s New Order government. And now, not only is there growing disenchantment with the progress of reformasi, there is increasing romanticisation of the Suharto era, at least among some people.

A longing for the past is mistaken when the past still remains in the present. New Order era politicians still remain unchallenged in positions of power. This memorial is yet another sign of a willingness and a concerted effort to forget. Mr Gatot states that a Suharto Centre will soon be built at the Hotel Tugu in central Yogyakarta, where lessons will be given in the history of the nation. Lessons of history that will no doubt omit bloody accounts of murders in East Timor, Aceh and Jakarta that should be so central to public memory about the Suharto era.

Andy Fuller ( is a researcher based at Kunci Cultural Studies Center in Yogyakarta.


Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}
]]> (Andy Fuller2) Sun, 15 Sep 2013 08:37:00 GMT
Ari’s audacity How can you be a straight cop when people just give you money?

Sharyn Graham Davies, Adrianus Meliala and John Buttle

Davies 1A police officer kindly guiding a motorist back to his bike after a licence check Sharyn Graham Davies

Early each morning in a small town on an island in Indonesia, anywhere from two to eight police officers gather in front of a small convenience store. They are kitted-out in thick uniforms, but they show no signs of sweat or discomfort, even when the humid heat reaches the high thirties. Each keeping their gun, if they have one, holstered, the officers sit casually on benches in the shade. They drink coffee, eat noodles, and smoke. While the store is a convenient place for these activities, arguably of greater importance is the fact that it is a prime location to spot traffic infringements.

The police are here from eight to 10am every morning: peak hours. There is no pattern to their activities once here, however. These regulars might spend the morning chatting and nothing more. Other times they might stand on the side of the road and pull commuters over. The police check that motorbike drivers (though not passengers) are wearing a helmet. There seems to be no regulation beyond having some kind of plastic hat on your head. Straps are often undone or non-existent and some helmets look like children’s toys. One helmet has been in such a bad accident that someone has stitched the three plastic fragments back together.

There is no limit on the number of people on a motorbike. It is not uncommon to see a family of five huddled together. Driver licence and registration papers are checked. For cars, seatbelts are checked too,,although only the driver is required by law to wear one. Many cars in Indonesia are built without rear seatbelts. Any infringement results in a fine, but there is little official paperwork.

One of these officers, let’s call him Gus, is over six feet tall. His trousers stop well above the ankles – police-issued uniforms seem not to cater to this length. His holster holds an old-style cowboy-type gun. On this particular morning at around 9am, he stops a man riding a nice motorcycle. Let’s call this man Ari. Ari presents the officer with his registration paper and licence, the latter being one of the new electronic cards rather than the older paper licence. The card, however, is completely defaced. Nothing can be discerned except for a “B” in the top right corner. The officer looks disgruntled. Ari pulls out what he says is a photocopy of his driver’s licence. The officer holds them up next to each other to compare. The only thing they have in common is the B in the top right corner – nothing else is visible on the card.

The officer is not satisfied. He pulls out his cell phone and calls, presumably, headquarters. No one answers. He calls again, and again. After about 10 minutes he gets through. Gus then tells Ari he really needs to see the original licence, not a copy or a defaced one. There is another problem: the number on the registration paper does not match that on the motorcycle’s plate. Ari responds, ‘Oh actually, I do have the original. I can get it. It is just over there in that building.’ The officer tells Ari to go and get it.

After waiting about five minutes the officer jumps up from the bench. He walks swiftly across the road. He stands in front of the building for a few minutes, and then goes inside. He is inside for about 10 minutes. Almost 30 minutes have now passed since Ari was pulled over. Eventually they both come out of the building and cross the road. Ari mounts his bike and rides off.

When Gus comes back to the gathering at the convenience store an informal traffic controller, a man in his early thirties, starts playfully to pat the officer down. The controller searches the officer’s pockets and runs his hands up and down his limbs. Someone else joins in. Everyone is laughing, including at first Gus. Then Gus starts getting annoyed. He tries to push the traffic controller away, saying, ‘what is this, are you the mafia?’ Finally the controller pulls a packet of cigarettes out of the officer’s trouser pocket. But on finding there is only one cigarette, he violently throws the packet away. The traffic controller, now quite angry, walks back into the middle of the road to direct traffic. Gus adjusts his holster, straightens his trousers, saunters across the road, mounts his bike, and rides off.

Davies 2Police conducting licence checks Sharyn Graham Davies

Whose problem?

So what happened here? Ari was randomly pulled over by during a regular police traffic stop. He knew he did not have proper documentation and that he would have to pay either the police officer or the court. He also knew that openly bribing the officer, especially in front of the traffic controller, would create trouble. Given his options, Ari audaciously proclaimed that his real licence and registration just happened to be in a random building on the other side of the road.

The officer knew that if money were passed on the spot he would have to pay the traffic controller a cut. He waited a sufficient amount of time to give the impression that it suddenly occurred to him the suspect may have done a runner. The transaction was then carried out in private. The officer put the money in his boot, or holster, or somewhere else the traffic controller would not search.

A formal traffic fine is usually around Rp.45,000 (about A$5) and requires the offender to attend court. Ari probably happily paid Gus Rp.50,000 to make the problem go away. When the officer returned, no one had any doubts he had been paid a bribe, hence the traffic controller patted him down and checked his pockets.

What can we learn about public-police relations from this scenario? Probably three things: public influence; money-motivated policing; and police-public complicity. First, lets look at how the public influences the police. When Ari was stopped by the officer, his demeanour showed no sign of apprehension. On the contrary, Ari confidently pulled out a defaced licence and a fake photocopy. When this failed to appease the officer, Ari boldly asserted that his original licence was in a neighbouring building.

Nothing in Ari’s actions or words suggested anxiety or fear of the police. Ari knew he was breaking the law, but he was confident he could get away with it through bribery. The subsequent jostling and body-search of the officer only confirmed society’s lack of respect for police. Despite the officer appearing to give the orders and obtaining money, it looked like Ari was in control of the transaction.

Second, this scene suggests police are primarily concerned with making money.  A likely reason that Ari was pulled over in the first place was that he was smartly dressed and drove a late-model motorbike. Even though Ari had an invalid licence and registration, no further check was carried out. What if the motorbike had been stolen? Ari was not compelled at any point to go and get a valid licence and registration. The law, and the public it should be protecting, seem to be of little concern to police in this instance.

Finally, the scenario indicates that the police and the traffic offenders they pull over are in this together. There were many levels of wrongful behaviour: Ari driving unlicensed; the police officer accepting a bribe; the disrespectful harassment of the officer by the traffic controller and other police. Indeed, we see how hard it is to be a straight cop when, in this instance, Gus was offered literally half a day’s wage for taking no further action. Yet, no one reported any of these incidents to a higher authority. Of course, reporting such incidents poses the problem of to whom should one report, what would the expected outcome be, and what kind of ill-treatment might the whistle-blower face? What this scenario shows is that reforming the police service is an uphill battle.

*During her ethnographic fieldwork in Indonesia, Sharyn spent many mornings hanging out with police officers during their morning patrol. This scene is taken from events that occurred on one such morning.

Sharyn Graham Davies ( is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

John Buttle ( is Senior Lecture in the Department of Social Sciences at Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

Adrianus Meliala ( is Professor of Criminology at the University of Indonesia and has recently been appointed a Commissioner of Police Complaints.

Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}
]]> (Sharyn Graham Davies, Adrianus Meliala and John Buttle) Sat, 21 Sep 2013 00:00:00 GMT
The failure of education in Papua’s highlands Special Autonomy is widely regarded as a failure, but its impact on Papua’s schools has been even worse than expected

Bobby Anderson

Anderson 1A student at the private Ob Anggen school, Bokondini, Tolikara. Bobby Anderson

Under Papua’s 2001 Special Autonomy Law, the majority of Papua’s natural resource wealth is returned to the province. The law was meant to address both the sources of political unrest in Papua, and the challenges ordinary Papuans experience on a daily basis. For example, it was meant to increase Papuan access to government jobs and economic opportunities, as well as to health and education services. A dozen years and billions of dollars later, most Papuans still live in misery: they have the highest malnutrition, tuberculosis and HIV rates in Indonesia; they are the poorest; and they have the lowest rate of life expectancy.

Special autonomy has failed. But the greatest failure has little to do with the aspects of special autonomy that were implemented by Jakarta. Rather, it is the parts of special autonomy that were handed over to provincial and district officials: health and education services.

The autonomy cash cow

Many local officials and elites no longer see special autonomy as a means of development. For them, it is a way to access greater national subsidies, which they can take for themselves or spread through their patronage networks. For the elite, affirmative action is no longer a means to redress the under-representation of Papuans in official positions; instead, it is another way of milking the system. ‘No-show’ jobs have proliferated. Papua now has more than double the number of civil servants that it actually requires. This is an obvious benefit for those who get the jobs, but it has little value for those still locked out.

The failings of special autonomy are enhanced by the uncontrolled creation of new districts, sub-districts and villages under the process known as ‘pemekaran’ (proliferation).. In theory, pemekaran intends to make smaller government entities more accountable. In reality, it simply allows local elites to access funds while pushing ordinary Papuans further away from the services that could improve their lives. Special autonomy has created a dividing line between Papuan elites who benefit directly from it, and the majority of Papuans, who receive a pittance.

In previous articles (Living without a state; The middle of nowhere; Land of ghosts), I have explored particular regions in Papua’s highlands and lowlands. I have tried to bring to light the struggles and concerns of the people who live there – struggles which are divorced from the political discourses that many outsiders mistakenly believe are paramount in the lives of most Papuans. Now I aim to explain how Papuan governments are dealing with their people’s most pressing concerns in the era of special autonomy. In this article, I will discuss how and why the educational system has collapsed in the highlands. I will look at similar failings in healthcare in a later article.

The death of a system

In Papua’s highlands, the interplay of misused special autonomy funding; pemekaran; flawed human resource management; and local understandings of the nature of education, have combined to break the educational system. Almost nobody acknowledges these problems. Instead, a pantomime occurs where many government officials blame the poor education system,  lack of infrastructure, or even highland children themselves. Because of this misunderstanding of the problem, the solutions offered are flawed.

Papua’s 2010/11 provincial development plan for basic and secondary education(RPDP) indicates that school enrolment for children aged between seven and 12 throughout the province is 73 per cent. In other words, at least 100,000 out of the 400,000 children in the province are not in school. Junior secondary enrolment is 55 per cent and senior secondary just 37 per cent.

A grimmer and more realistic picture of Papua’s failing educational system in remote areas can be found in Yahukimo, a pemekaran district in the highlands (profiled in my earlier articles, ‘Living without a state’ and ‘The middle of nowhere’). District Department of Education figures indicate that only 18 per cent of children complete primary school there. Worse still, completing primary school is no guarantor of literacy. The majority of highland high school graduates are barely literate.

Anderson 2A newly-constructed and locked up school in Nalca, Yahukimo. No children have ever been in this building.   Bobby Anderson

A brief history of highland education

Outside of towns and coastal areas like Sarmi, Biak, and Yapen, the failure of Papua’s education system is systemic. This is especially so in the highlands, but it was not always this way. The education system in the Papuan highlands has as its foundation literacy programs founded by various churches and missionary groups beginning in the 1950s. These missionaries studied tribal languages, adapted them to the roman alphabet, and translated the Bible into those languages. Literacy was a tool to spread the gospel, and missionaries took teaching it seriously.

The Dutch rulers of Papua recognised the inability of their colonial administration to provide education to highlanders and so they tasked the churches to do so. They paid teacher salaries on site through these bodies. These missionaries laid the foundations of educational traditions in some mission areas like Pyramid and Ninia, traditions that continue today. They established schools in Wamena and Sentani, which are nowadays some of the best schools in Papua. In these early schools, second-language instruction was in Dutch until 1962. After that Bahasa Indonesia was taught. To ensure standards across institutions, an education coordinating body, the Association of Christian Schools (YPPGI), was founded.

It is important to note that this church-led system never reached the majority of children and youth in rural and highland areas. These were a series of small, well-functioning schools scattered widely in rural areas, with disparate populations of the most remote areas unable to access such services. Most rural Papuans remained out of school. Many children started, but few finished school. Government statistics from 2006 indicate that 56 per cent of the indigenous Papuan provincial population had less than a primary-level education. Twenty-five per cent were illiterate.

After the Dutch departed, the Indonesian authorities kept this arrangement in place at first. In the 1980s, the state began to take over both the schools and the YPPGI. Teachers became government employees, and the schools adopted the national curriculum. At that time, the government also assumed control of the missionary-run health care systems. When the government assumed control of these systems, many in the church felt that they could simply focus on their ‘real’ job of preaching the gospel. However, the government never really took over anything. There was no real process to hand over these institutions. In the best-case scenario, services declined. In the worst case, they stopped. When the churches gave up their social role, their authority also declined.

The education system weakened further at the fall of the New Order regime in 1998, and the beginning of decentralisation. Responsibility was shifted from provincial to district officials, who were unprepared for such a shift. No proper handover occurred, except in titles. The system began to fail in the highlands in 2000, when dozens of killings of migrants in the region led to the flight of most migrant civil servants from the area – medical and school staff among them. The rapid ‘Papuanisation’ of the system under affirmative action was not based on credentials; unqualified persons were slotted into jobs on the basis of their clan affiliations rather than their skills. This was bad enough in existing districts. In new districts created under pemekaran, services collapsed.

Schools aren’t the problem: teachers are

When people speak about problems of education in Papua, they automatically assume that the problem is infrastructure: there must be no schools. This is a false assumption. Papua has an overabundance of schools. Primary school (SD) buildings have increased from 1895 in 2006 to 2179 in 2010; high school/vocational school (SMA/SMK) buildings increased from 159 in 2005 to 272 in 2011. With the exception of Sinokla (profiled in ‘The middle of nowhere’), every remote area I have visited has school buildings. Mostly they are brand new. And locked. Most special autonomy funds spent on education in rural and remote areas go firstly on salaries, and, then secondly on these new buildings. And yet politicians continue to promise to build schools in order to provide education.

With regard to administrative costs, Papua also officially has an abundance of teachers. Provincial records indicate that there are now 15,713 primary school teachers, 6188 junior high school teachers, 3410 senior high school teachers, and 1914 technical high school teachers on the payroll. According to official Papuan documents, the province has one teacher for every 23 students; this is not far from the national average of 18 students per teacher. In the highlands, however, most of these teachers do not show up for work. To say that ‘teacher absenteeism is a problem’ is to pretend that the system functions, albeit with an ‘absenteeism’ handicap. Outside of Papua, ‘absenteeism’ means a teacher might skip a Friday, or not turn up for a day or two within a fortnight’s teaching. In Papua, a teacher might skip a semester. In my research, and in the experience of my colleagues in Papua who work in a variety of state and non-state schools, our observations reveal that most students will attend class when the teacher is physically present. As a consequence, classes with actual teachers are overcrowded, with more than 50 students per class.

We automatically blame teacher absenteeism on the lack of support and facilities available to hired teachers. This is partly true, but the reasons are manifold and vary by area. Even so, some generalisations can be made. Firstly, teachers are not automatically assigned to their areas of origin or residence. Local people in their duty stations often look down upon teachers because they have different tribal or clan affiliations. This can make for an uncomfortable posting.

Secondly, teacher absenteeism does not result in sanctions. Indonesia’s national law on teachers and lecturers, Law No. 14 of 2005, article 30, states that teachers absent from their jobs for at least a month can be dismissed. But enforcement of this provision falls to district officials, who are uniformly unwilling to enforce it.

Third, teachers are not paid on site, nor are they provided with transportation costs reflective of the cost of transport in their assigned areas. They may be paid in a district capital that is an hour’s flight or five day’s walk from their posting. Fourth, their salaries are inadequate. This is often because a portion is siphoned off by the administration before they are paid (this varies by areas: in some areas, this does not occur, whilst in others, the majority of teachers’ wages are mislaid).

A fifth problem is that there are simply no additional support structures in place: a teacher who wants to teach may find himself or herself alone in a school, with no administrators,  other teachers or materials. Teachers assigned to remote areas often do not want to relocate their families because there is usually no healthcare in such locations (though there’s often a vicious cycle here: there might not be a functioning healthcare centre because the healthcare workers do not want to relocate because there is no functioning school).

A final problem is inadequate housing. Newly constructed houses for teachers generally disintegrate within a year or two (interestingly, the old missionary homes built in the 1950s still stand).

This litany of problems presents real obstacles. And yet, they cannot explain all of the problems in the education system. Many teachers are local hires, and for them accommodation, transportation, clan ties and separation from families are not issues. Yet many of these teachers are also not teaching. Further, district officials have the power, and the funding, to change this system. If they wanted to, they could hire local teachers, and they have the means at their disposal to pay on site and to fire teachers for absenteeism. They do not.

After wrestling with this issue for months, eventually I realised that the explanation was simple: the people who were given these positions are not actually expected to teach. As I described in ‘Land of ghosts’, local officials, especially in pemekaran areas, award teaching jobs to supporters and clan members. These are no-show jobs, and everybody knows it. The reason why difficulties in duty stations are not addressed is not that people are unaware of the problems. They are not addressed in order to provide people with plenty of excuses not to work. In many places, teachers and school administrators have drawn salaries for years - sometimes for a decade - without showing up for work. In the highlands, the majority of these civil servants who are missing from their remote postings can be found living comfortably in Wamena or the district capitals. Some of the teachers run private childcare centres there.

Seeking solutions

In some instances, governmental and civil society representatives have tried to repair this system. A local NGO offered the district governments of Jayawijaya and Yahukimo a system whereby they would monitor teacher attendance and control salary payments. The heads of both districts accepted the proposition, but then relented, so as not to lose the political and clan support these absentee workers offer. In another instance, the new Jayawijaya head of education stopped the salaries of chronically absent teachers - and those same teachers successfully petitioned the district head (bupati) to reinstate their salaries.

Missionary schools seem to be the only effective schools in the highlands. But they are not generally accredited by local government education authorities. This alternative system represents a threat to absent teachers and administrators within the area, a few of whom run private facilities and therefore sometimes attempt to close the missionary schools. In Bokondini, one absentee teacher runs a for-profit private school across the street from the government school where she is supposed to teach, but has not set foot in for years. Ironically, her own children are enrolled in the nearby missionary school set up by outsiders as an alternative to the failing system which she is a part of. This is good insurance for the missionary school; that same teacher once advocated the closure of the missionary school because she viewed it as competition to her for-profit business.

A flawed solution to tough conditions for teachers in the highlands can be found in boarding schools: a few in Wamena and Sentani offer superior education, and some missionaries and local officials advocate increasing the numbers of private institutions where children may be sent. But these entities are private institutions that provide high quality education for a minority of children whose parents can pay for it. Scaling up the schools would mean broadening the pupil base, which would require lower fees or state subsidies in the form of scholarships. This would require increased class sizes, more teachers, expanded facilities, and the agreement of private administrators who rightfully fear that ‘scaling up’ will result in a decline in the quality of services. Other private institutions would not offer anywhere near the quality of the original institutions. It is also unrealistic to expect the state to be able to create a new layer of elite schools, given the performance of existing, non-boarding schools.

In addition to boarding schools in the province, there are also institutions outside Papua. For example, Jakarta’s Surya Institute takes children from Tolikara and other areas of Papua and trains them intensively in maths and science. This approach has produced children who win at international mathematics competitions, helping to break the stereotypes that many outsiders have about Papuans. But it’s an approach that comes with a price. Encouraging Papuans to send their children away in their formative years breaks their connections with their families and communities.

More common than boarding schools is the practice of unaccompanied children trekking long distances to places with functioning schools. Wamena is full of ‘student hostels’, each owned by a church from a specific highland area, where children who have travelled to Wamena to enroll in school may stay. However, these hostels are generally used as flophouses for anyone from the area of origin. They are public health threats, with no supervision, open defecation on the grounds, and no running water. As well as being transmission centres for tuberculosis, they are unsafe for children, especially girls, and rapes commonly occur in them. Drug use, especially the inhalation of solvents, is also alarmingly common in such hostels.

Anderson 3The functioning school in Nalca, Yahukimo. Classes are taught in a church: teachers are unaccredited and unpaid. Bobby Anderson

Contextual curriculums?

Another flawed solution offered to fix problems of education in Papua can be found in the drive for ‘contextual curriculums’ (‘kurikulum kontekstual’ or ‘kurikulum khusus’) in Papuan schools. The need for such curriculums is frequently mentioned by state education officials, local NGOs and donors. Such curriculums have value when they focus on language. Indigenous Papuan children do not speak Indonesian at home, although they do tend to pick up plenty of Indonesian vocabulary before they first enter primary school. The first day of school in a functioning curriculum that uses only Bahasa Indonesia is a daunting one for indigenous children. They immediately find themselves at a disadvantage to the children of migrants who speak Indonesian at home.

One foundation in the Highlands, Yayasan Kristen Wamena (YKW), identified roughly 1000 Indonesian words that local children were familiar with and built a first and second-year curriculum in mathematics and Indonesian based upon these words. Some of this curriculum was also in Dani. This YKW curriculum was aligned to national standards, and the response of local children to it was extremely positive. They were less intimidated and advanced faster. This curriculum has since been adapted in numerous highland districts. But in remote areas, the books produced by YKW risk becoming food for silverfish, because the core problems of human resources remain.

Many proponents of a contextual curriculum take their argument too far. They say that the national curriculum does not account for the Papuan ‘context’, and that children cannot relate to what is being taught, and so they lose interest. It is as though images of ‘straight-haired’ children and unknown machines such as ships and trains are such a turn-off for Papuan children that they simply walk out of the classroom to go and play with rocks. Such an argument would be laughable if it did not have a disturbingly racist undertone. What’s even more disturbing is how often such arguments are made by Papuan teachers and administrators. By the same argument, one could eliminate from a curriculum everything not visible to the naked eye: planets, bacteria, even history beyond living memory. Highland children are like children the world over: innately curious sponges that absorb the information which fascinates them. The real issue is not their capability, but what they are being denied by a failing system.

A flawed understanding of education

In rural Papua, parents and children tolerate this system because all too many of them do not have an adequate concept of what classroom education is intended to impart. They have never seen a functioning state school. Of the older highlands generation, a majority did not have access to the limited church-led system. They are illiterate and had minimal or no schooling. For illiterate parents, education is not the acquisition of practical knowledge through systematic instruction. Instead, it is just one more supernatural key to advancement and wealth in an animistic belief system full of such devices. It is possessed by the teachers, and its acquisition is purchased from the teacher over time by means such as ceremonies and gift-giving, rather than by study.

This is how it looks to many parents in rural areas: Parents send their children to school. The children show up to a building once a week or less, at the appointed time. They then go home, more or less straight away. There are no classes: anyone who has spent time in the highlands marvels at the school grounds filled with kids in ratty uniforms playing football, with not a teacher in sight. Every so often a teacher issues a demand: ‘bring firewood’, or ‘bring cigarettes’. The parents provide the children with these items to take to school. At the end of the year, the state test is given. The teacher writes the answers on the board for the children to copy (I have peeked through the dusty, bird dropping-spattered windows of numerous rural highlands schools and seen the answers written on the board from the last tests administered; no one has been in the schools since), or the teachers fill out the exams themselves. The students then go on to the next year.

Finally, upon graduation they receive the diploma - a piece of paper certifying to parents and students that education has been transferred. The diploma is all-important: it allows the graduate to obtain a coveted civil service job, where, in the words of one young man in Bokondini, one ‘never has to work again’. People take the issuance of these diplomas very seriously. An attempt to fail a child is likely to result in threatening visits by that child’s parents.

This process ends with high school graduates who cannot read, write or perform basic mathematics. Universitas Cenderawasih (UNCEN, the best university in the Papua region) maintains a list of the worst schools in Papua, and refuses to consider anyone with a diploma from these schools for entry. Other post-secondary schools are not so discriminatory: this systemic fraud continues through technical and other post-secondary schooling. It then results in illiterate graduates who sometimes go on to become illiterate teachers and administrators.

Many post-secondary institutions report that, on average, young adults from rural areas entering their systems read at a primary school second to third-grade level. In other words, they have received the equivalent of three years schooling over a twelve-year period of education. A Christian teacher’s college (STKIP) outside of Wamena provides one and a half years of intensive remedial literacy and numeracy classes for every student before the real curriculum begins; all of them need it.

Another NGO working in Yahukimo recruits young Papuan adults to act as teachers’ assistants in rural schools with absentee teachers. These assistants, all volunteers, require basic instruction in mathematics and literacy. And yet they are so eager to learn that four weeks of intensive classes can advance them through four years of primary education. The intellectual hunger and passion for self betterment that these young people display flies in the face of the ‘Papua’ stereotype, and makes the failure of the education system all the more unforgivable.

Given most students (and their parents) are not aware they are being cheated out of an education, it can be a shock when they are confronted directly about their lack of educational achievements. And this does sometimes happen. Motivated teachers still enter this system. They attempt to teach, and in their classrooms, students who do not study face consequences. But when those teachers fail students, they are often threatened by parents angered by the violation of the assumed agreement of exchange. School buildings have been burned because of such failures.  Such idealistic teachers either surrender to the system, or they leave. Many of them go to work in the parallel private and missionary systems, where they are paid little. The irony of paid teachers not teaching while volunteers teach for a pittance, and sometimes nothing at all, is found all across the highlands.

In many parts of the highlands, alternative groups are fulfilling the demand for education. Yasumat, a local foundation that specialises in education, health, and governance, teaches in half of the sub-districts in Yahukimo. Narwastu, another NGO, is staffed by long-term volunteers from North Sulawesi. It provides the only education in Binime, Memberamo Tengah. Parents have become so enthusiastic about what their children are learning in this organisation’s schools that Narwastu has created evening classes for the parents. Ob Anggen, a school in Bokondini, Tolikara, offers an education that may be the best of its kind, not just in the province, but in all of eastern Indonesia. The success of these private institutions makes the failure of nearby state schools less tenable. Local parents, in Bokondini and elsewhere, are beginning to get angry at what they are slowly recognising to be fraud.

These foundations and church groups aren’t the only ones filling the education gap left by the state. In another lowland area outside of Jayapura, Holtekamp, the hardline Islamist group Hizbut Tahrir has established two schools. Their teachers are dutifully teaching over a hundred indigenous and migrant students every day.

Anderson 4Volunteer teachers in a Yasumat school, Ninia, Yahukimo.  Bobby Anderson


Fixing this broken system must involve an acknowledgement of what the real problems are. And there are no ‘quick fixes’ in the repair. Buildings are not needed. What is needed is teachers who teach, and district administrators who actually manage schools. The Law No. 24 provisions about teacher absenteeism need to be enforced, possibly retroactively. In the feudalistic structure erroneously called ‘decentralisation’, district heads are all-powerful. They need to be divested of the right to influence human resources in district schools. It’s one thing to award no-show jobs in the civilian bureaucracy, where the salaries of such people simply suck funds from the system, but no-show educators – and healthcare workers – do real harm. Such positions should be considered off-limits in local patronage games.

Contextual curriculums can be useful, but only with teachers to teach them. Anyone who continues to blame Papuan children for their lack of education must simply be ignored. Teachers who do this should be fired.

In 2012, Cenderawasih University and the provincial education office created a draft provincial regulation to clarify roles and responsibilities in the education sector. The draft includes scholarships for indigenous students; vocational and technical training opportunities; employment of local primary teaching assistants in remote areas; and additional support to teachers in remote areas.

This draft is a start, but it neglects to address the core cause of the failure of the educational system: ineffective management of human resources. It does not talk about criteria for hiring teachers; the need to dismiss teachers who are not teaching; and the consequences for administrators who do not act against absentee teachers. Until this issue is acknowledged, all other approaches to the problem will remain ineffective. And children and youth in these areas will continue to be cheated.

New teachers need to be hired, and paid, locally. Additional support for teachers in remote areas should only go to new teachers or ones who have a record of attending their schools. Providing teachers who have not taught with additional support in the hope that they will now teach is not a good idea. This broken system cannot be fixed if such persons remain within the system, and are bribed for their neglect rather than punished for it.

Local youth and adults with the ability to read and write at a higher functional level than usual in their area can be trained as assistant teachers. They can then be responsible for the education of primary students, and older students not yet functioning at the primary level. A six-month or one-year training course for such candidates would suffice. We need to leave computers and English and science for later, and start with the core foundation of education: reading, writing, and mathematics. Teaching must be in Indonesian and local languages, and utilise a linguistically contextual curriculum such as the one developed by YKW.

During an interim period of repair of the state system, one option for provincial and district authorities would be to formally recognise the parallel institutions that were created to address the education gap. In areas where state schools are not functioning, such private institutions need to be accredited (as long as they teach the national curriculum).The volunteers who usually teach in such systems could be put on the government payroll, but paid through the churches and other private institutions that run the systems.

It is important to remember that citizens are made in schools. Indonesians do not just learn reading, writing, and mathematics in school: they learn about Pancasila and what it means to be an Indonesian, the history of the state and the struggles of its founders. Such lessons are a counter to radicalism, whether it is of a religious or separatist variety. In a place where functioning schools are few and far between, and are usually private, is it any wonder that such a concept of citizenship is lacking?

Bobby Anderson ( works on health, education, and governance projects in Eastern Indonesia, and he travels frequently in Papua province. The next article in his series will focus on the failure of healthcare in the highlands.


Other articles by this author from the II archive

Living without a state, 110 (Oct-Dec 2012)

The middle of nowhere, 111 (Jan-Mar 2013)

Land of ghosts, 112 (Apr-Jun 2013)

No-take zones, 112 (Apr-Jun 2013)

Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}
]]> (Bobby Anderson6) Sun, 29 Sep 2013 09:18:21 GMT
Fantasising romance overseas Transgender Indonesian migrants are looking for romance and security in Europe, but nothing is easy 

Tanti Noor Said

noorsaid 1Studying during the day and working at night, this transgender migrant fights to fulfil her dreams of success. Meloza Bekinshell

In an era of anti-homophobia campaigns worldwide, Indonesian transgender born-males, known as banci or waria, still cannot live in peace. Their gender identity, romantic love and sexual fantasies about men are seen as sinful, ridiculous and a threat to the dominant norm of heterosexuality. Even though transgenderism is integrated within cultural tradition in rural areas, this does not make their position easier. In modern Indonesian society, transgender people challenge middle-class decency and are punished for it. They experience a hard time finding love, economic and social security in their home country, so migration to Europe seems an attractive proposition.

The fantasy of moving abroad to escape their harsh life becomes a reality for transgender people who develop relationships with western men. However, life in Europe can also be depressing. Migrants grapple with many obstacles, from getting a residency permit to finding a job, while feeling the pressure to meet the dual expectations of their western partners and their families back home. What’s more, while life in Europe confronts them with different challenges, being away does not entirely rescue them from the dominant norms in Indonesia.

Harsh realities, sweet fantasies

In Indonesia transgenderism is not officially recognised as a gender category. In rural areas, there are various local terms for transgenderism, which traditionally is often associated with holiness, magic and healing power. In the cities, people mostly associate male femininity with homosexual practice. Therefore, ‘gay’ is a term that is often used to refer to effeminate men, as well as banci and waria. In contrast to rural areas where femininity and masculinity are not rigidly categorised, gender ambiguity in the cities is considered much more problematic. This exposes banci and waria to the scorn of a largely homophobic society.

Homophobia appears to be increasing as the hegemony of heterosexuality and the influence of Islamic parties grow. People’s dismissal of homosexuality often turns into hatred and violence towards banci and waria. Even when not physically abused, they have to deal with verbal abuse. People, usually men, tease waria street singers from their cars. When a waria becomes upset, they quickly shut the window and drive off. At home, banci and waria have a hard time meeting the expectations of their parents who want them to behave as men. From a certain age, their parents still hope that they will marry a woman, start a family and have children. These expectations put a great deal of pressure on them. 

Living in an environment that does not accept their gender and sexual identity motivates them to escape to western countries, which they imagine to be paradise for non-heterosexual people. This image of the west intertwines with the romantic and sexual fantasies many banci and waria have of western men as white, muscular, wealthy and modern. Like many Indonesian women, they form this image from Hollywood movies, which may portray western men as romantic heroes who shower their lovers with dinners, flowers and wine. They also imagine that western men find Indonesian women and banci attractive and beautiful, because of their petite bodies and tanned skin. The fantasy of being adored by western men motivates them to migrate to countries like the Netherlands and Belgium in search of a better life.

Double lives and broken hearts

Rika graduated from university about ten years ago. She was raised in a middle-class Muslim family in Jakarta. Her family was aware of her tendency to dress up as a girl from childhood, when she liked to try on her sisters’ clothes. Rika’s parents tried to put her into a karate class and pushed her to play football with other boys. She did what they asked her to do. However, she continued to play secretly with her sisters’ dolls while her parents and siblings were not home. 

During her college years, Rika’s friends suspected she was gay. She spent a great deal of time hanging out with girls, rather than boys. She tried to dress in gender-neutral outfits and hated that she had to play-act at being masculine to avoid bullying.

While pretending to be ‘normal’ in daily life, Rika has been attracted to men since puberty. Like many banci, she had sex with Indonesian men. But her heart was broken constantly, because those men were only interested in sex. No Indonesian man wanted to start a romantic relationship with her. Due to the stigma and the pressure to have children, they choose to marry a woman while maintaining sexual relationships with banci.

Some banci are willing to accept this arrangement as long as they can keep the relationship with their boyfriends. But Rika could no longer bear living a lie. After graduating, she heard about the possibility of studying in the Netherlands. She obtained a scholarship to study Dutch and went to the city of Utrecht for one year. She met a Dutch man who was attracted to her and offered to be her sponsor, so that she could live in the Netherlands for longer. She took up that offer. Upon returning to Indonesia, she applied for a residency permit and now lives in the Netherlands.

noorsaid 2Performing at a Drag Queen Show in a gay café in Belgium. Meloza Bekinshell

New and old pressures

Once there, Rika and her friends faced a reality that proved to be dramatically different from what they had imagined. Instead of living their dream, they encountered racism and social inequality. No longer pressured by sexual stigma, they now had to deal with ethnic ostracism and the economic and social insecurity of living in a foreign country.

Rika lived with her Dutch boyfriend for several months. She never loved him. Having sex with him was a torture for her. She tried to swallow her pride so that she could stay in the Netherlands. After some time, she got fed up and told him that she did not love him. He got angry and slapped her, so she ran away and started to live alone.

After several months her residency permit expired and she became an illegal resident. Her banci friend, Dety, gave her a place to stay. They lived together in a humble studio apartment. Rika survived on instant noodles, cleaned houses and worked as a prostitute at night to support herself.

Dety had a relationship with a wealthy, older Dutch man. She comes from an impoverished peasant family in Java. Unlike Rika, Dety never had the opportunity to finish school. She also has very limited job skills, and does not speak Dutch as well as Rika. Her partner supports her family in Java financially. He sends large sums of money every month, so that her siblings can study at university. Dety does not love him. She stays with him for her family’s sake. She feels awful about having to sacrifice her own emotions.

The economic position of transgender migrants can have a major impact on their personal choices, including on their romantic and sexual lives. Banci from middle-class backgrounds are less likely to live with older men. During hard times, Rika also thought about starting a relationship with a rich, older man. But she has since decided that she will not live with a man for money or a residency permit. As a son from a middle class family, she does not feel a necessity to sacrifice her feelings. She can get money from her family if she asks. This gives her the freedom to avoid living with an older man purely for financial reasons.

But Rika also insists on living alone for another reason – to avoid gossip spreading back to her family in Indonesia. The one drawback of her middle-class background is that her family has a wide international network, which constrains her freedom, even in the Netherlands. Very often, Rika bumps into acquaintances of her siblings at Indonesian events in the Netherlands. Her family is highly respected by these people and holds prominent government and university positions, so Rika avoids speaking about her personal situation to new acquaintances to protect her family’s good name. Religion can be another pressure that extends from Indonesia to life abroad. Rika and two of her friends, Dona and Susy, are Muslims. Rika’s family is ethnically Minang from West Sumatra, an ethnic group known to be strict Muslims.

Rika says, ‘I am still Muslim. And I do not think God will be angry with me, because there is also a saying, ‘we should be grateful for the way God created us’. And this is how God has created me, to be banci, and I am grateful for that.’ But she knows her family will never accept it. ‘Not only because they are Muslim, but also because they are respected in society. My brother and sister have important positions in the government. I do not want to jeopardise their honour.’   Not all Muslim families are so strict. Dona’s family acknowledges her banci identity. They have known since she was in high school. At first they were shocked, but they have learned to accept it. Her family has also accepted her partner as a son-in-law and expect them to share a room whenever they come to visit in Sumatra.

Susy has had a more difficult time since her mother recently found out about her identity. Her mother has since hidden this information from her siblings to avoid their anger. On the other hand, she has made no effort to make Susy change. Like Dona, Susy supports her family. She has had breast implant surgery to obtain a job in the sex industry in the Netherlands.

noorsaid 3After studying very hard, she celebrates having obtained a Nursing certificate. Meloza Bekinshell

When I asked Rika about this, she answered, ‘Yes, it’s true. But their family depends on them, while mine does not.’ The combination of religious and economic background can put different pressures on the sexual practices of banci abroad – sometimes one outweighs the other.

Pursuing the fantasy

Regardless of their social or economic status, all banci also have their own sexual desires to consider. Despite the liberation and sexual freedom Dutch society offers them, many soon discover that there are limits to living their fantasy of romance with young white men. As many depend on an older partner, this limits their opportunities with other men. Moreover, they find that many young Dutch men are not as attracted to them as they had imagined, preferring Asian women and transgender people, or more muscular Asian men.

In an attempt to broaden their appeal, many attempt to transform their looks, becoming cross-dressing banci with dramatic feminine appearances. Rika taught her friends how to dress and put on make-up. This enhances their chances of attracting the young Dutch men they desire. Now they cross-dress regularly at night and have created a blog to promote their profile.

Rika admits that dressing up has changed things for her. ‘Many men desire me and I have a boyfriend now.’ Dona, on the other hand, is well aware that most of the men they meet in nightlife venues are only enjoying their sexual adventures with Asian transgender people and are hesitant to get romantically involved. She therefore never takes her sexual escapades with these men seriously. While cross-dressing occasionally, she still lives with her older partner, who takes care of her and loves her deeply.

Rika now has an office job and a relationship with a student several years younger. She explains that she does not want to be labelled as the stereotypical Asian lady-boy who works in prostitution. She often experiences low self-esteem due to working in poorly paid jobs and wonders sometimes whether she could have been more successful, like her siblings and college friends, if she had stayed in Indonesia. But she is happy now in the Netherlands, living her dream of love with her boyfriend, although she continues to grapple with the pressures from her family.

Tanti Noor Said ( obtained her Master’s in Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam in 2012. Her thesis is entitled, ‘Transnational love, migration and kinship: Gay and transgender Indonesian in the Netherlands and Belgium.’ All names have been changed.

Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}



]]> (Tanti Noor Said) Sat, 05 Oct 2013 14:22:00 GMT
Indonesia’s new anarchists Insurrectionary anarchists, with international connections, nihilist values and a penchant for arson, are moving to fill the vacuum on the left

Dominic Berger

Berger  1Billy and Eat in prison     Monica Dominguez,

On the night of 22 March 2011, bricks smashed the windows of a McDonald’s branch in Makassar. A note was left by the attackers: ‘We are aware of what you multinationals have done to the people of Kulon Progo, Takalar, Bima, and other places. We are angry and we’ll do more!’ Naming places where farmers have resisted large mining projects, the note and the smashed windows seemed to be an expression of local grievances. Three days later, police in Makassar found a note near a scorched ATM owned by BCA (Bank Central Asia): ‘We don’t want to hurt anyone, destruction of property is not violence! The state, the military, police and capitalists are the real terrorists!’ The note was signed by a group calling itself the ‘Got is Tot (sic) [God is Dead, in German] Insurrectionary Front’.

It seems likely that police investigators in Makassar missed the Nietzsche reference, but even without a grasp of anarchist philosophy, the radical political motivations of this direct action were not lost on the provincial police force. ‘The perpetrators set fire to the ATM to incite terror’, a police spokesperson was quoted as telling the media. ‘They broke into the ATM machine and left a letter carrying their message of terror’.

Two weeks later, another BCA ATM was burned in Manado, North Sulawesi. Notes were found in which the ‘International Conspiracy for Revenge’ claimed responsibility. ‘We have become sick and tired of all the standard methods that are never listened to. There is no more reason to remain passive and not counter-attack. This is WAR!’ Two months later, in June 2011, police found notes scattered near a torched BNI (Bank Negara Indonesia) ATM in Bandung, with an almost identical message to the Makassar and Manado attacks that concluded, ‘with this statement we claim to join the FAI [Informal Anarchist Federation], Indonesian Section.’ Insurrectionary anarchism had arrived in Indonesia.

Since the fall of the New Order, anarcho-punk collectives, such as Marjinal and Taring Babi, have become the public face of anarchism in Indonesia. Mostly poor, urban youths flock to these communities in cities like Jakarta, Bandung and Yogyakarta, and anarchist ideas are buried beneath the punk fashion, music and mild social activism they promote. However, for serious anarchists the Indonesian anarcho-punk scene has become far too mainstream. ‘Bandung is not like it used to be. The punk-scene became commercialised and everyone ‘sold out’’, complains one non-punk anarchist. Designing distro (independent label) shirts and throwing concerts in Bogor is simply not the kind of stuff that will bring down the system.

A new breed of Indonesian anarchists views the punk scene as little more than a harvesting ground ripe with angry youths partially socialised into anarchist ideas and symbols. As one such anarchist activist told me, ‘most punks are useless, but punk communities provide anarchism with a cultural base which Marxism has lacked since 1965’. While social stigma and an ongoing ban leave Marxism still too hot for the masses, to the rebellious punk-kid, Das Kapital is already stale, something belonging in the 1960s. Anarchism, on the other hand, is exciting, anti-authoritarian, and legal. Those who want to lose the mohawk and get serious about resistance to state and capital can find a guiding hand from more experienced anarchist ideologues who routinely exhibit tables full of alluring anarchist literature to crowds of anarcho-punks at concerts around Indonesia. But increasingly the ideological inspiration comes from further afield.

Indonesia arrives on the global scene

Insurrectionary anarchism arose out of Italy’s vibrant anarchist scene three decades ago. Cells sprang up around the Mediterranean during the early 1990s, and later globally, on the back of the anti-globalisation ‘black bloc’ movements. The designation ‘Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI)’ has been used since the early 2000s by autonomous cells throughout Europe to identify adherence to a particular form of anarchism that explicitly rejects classical anarchism and Marxist-inspired forms of resistance. But it was the financial crisis that hit Greece in 2008 that blew new life into the movement, all the way to Indonesia.

The FAI and similar groups consider any attempts at organisation, reform or movement-building as counter-productive. When Indonesians protested against the planned reduction of fuel subsidies in June 2013, an Indonesian cell of the FAI issued a communiqué stating that ‘we are not at all interested in becoming involved in the wave of mass protest against fuel price hikes.’ The group posted its statement on an Indonesian language anarchist blog, but within days it was translated into English and posted on the international counter-information blog The statement condemned as cowards ‘those who took to the streets carrying banners and shouting, performing repetitive and predictable actions, hiding in the terminology of “peaceful protest” to hide their inability to attack the oppressors.’

Instead of organisation, insurrectionary anarchists favour ‘direct action’ as their method, meaning arson, sabotage, and mailing letter bombs. Anarchists in Indonesia have so far been much tamer than their European counterparts, but events in recent years suggest that at least some of Indonesia’s anarchists are eager to lose their innocence.

Billy and Eat

The attention gained by the torching of ATMs in Makassar, Manado and Bandung, stirred into action two aspiring anarchists named Billy Augustian and Reyhard Rumbayan (known as Eat). In October 2011 the pair poured two bottles of petrol into a BRI (Bank Rakyat Indonesia) ATM in Yogyakarta’s Sleman district, setting it alight and destroying it completely. As one of them ran away from the scene, he dropped his wallet and a bag containing incriminating communiqués. Both were arrested within hours.

In court documents, Sleman’s public prosecutor argued that 30-year old Billy and his accomplice, Eat, decided to burn the ATM in Yogyakarta after they were inspired by how the Bandung ATM attacks had drawn attention to the human rights abuses, environmental destruction and capitalist exploitation in Kulon Progo, a land conflict site that has become a cause célèbre for anarchists. But the similarity between the notes left behind in Bandung and Makassar, and those found in Billy and Eat’s bags, along with the fact that Billy is a native of Bandung, suggest a closer connection than mere inspiration.

At first it seemed as if local grievances were the main motives of the series of ATM torchings. The notes Billy and Eat had prepared contained threats against PT Jogja Magaza Iron, a mining company active in Kulon Progo, a district west of Yogyakarta. Since 2005 the Paguyuban Petani Lahan Pentai Kulon Progo (Kulon Progo Seashore Peasant Collective) a self-described ‘informal collective’ of famers has, sometimes violently, opposed plans for a mining project in the region. The collective is hostile to all outside interference from NGOs and leftist organisations, including the high profile and widely-respected Legal Aid Institute (LBH). Their position papers circulating online are heavily tinged with anarchist vocabulary and since 2007 anarchist groups have openly worked in solidarity with the collective. It is possible that the ATM attacks were at least inspired by this collective, if not stemming directly out of its milieu.

Despite these local grievances, the insignia on Billy and Eat’s communiqué made it clear that they were linked to international anarchist networks. New FAI cells adopt names of fellow anarchists, usually of those in jail for their direct actions, as a sign of solidarity. In June 2011 Chilean anarchist Luciano Tortuga was jailed after he lost both his hands when a bomb he was placing near a bank exploded prematurely. Chilean anarchists put out a ‘call for solidarity’ that quickly spread around the anarchist blogosphere. FAI cells around the world sprang into action, smashing windows of a bank in Bristol, and destroying ATMs in Milan. But the greatest act of solidarity for Tortuga came from Indonesia, where Billy and Eat named their cell the ‘Long Live Luciano Tortuga’ Cell of the Informal Anarchist Federation-International Revolutionary (FAI/IRF). Their arrest was about to make them the poster-boys of the global community of insurrectionary anarchists.

Laying charges under the 2002 Anti-Terrorism Law, public prosecutors of Yogyakarta’s Sleman district defined the destroyed BRI ATM as a ‘strategic object’ and argued that by destroying it, Billy and Eat had ‘deliberately used violence with the intention of creating a sense of terror and widespread fear amongst the general public’. Eventually both were sentenced to a lesser charge of arson and jailed for one year and eight months, but the arrest and charges of terrorism had already catapulted Billy and Eat into the spotlight of the international anarchist scene.

In May 2012 the walls of the Indonesian embassy in Manila was splattered with black paint. Leaflets strewn in the area demanded ‘freedom to Eat and Billy, freedom to the victims of state repression, stop the environmental destruction, Indonesian state is the real terrorist’. In June 2012, Tortuga – the Chilean anarchist Billy and Eat had named their cell after – posted a note reflecting on his physical disfigurement and his imprisonment, thanking his ‘dear friend Reyhard Rumbayan (Eat), who with his noble gestures has brought me strength when I was weak’. By late 2012 a 27-page brochure profiling the two ‘urban guerrillas from Indonesia’ was circulating on blogs. It included letters of praise from other militant anarchist movements, trial updates, letters and poems written by Billy and Eat from prison, and details of solidarity attacks carried out internationally and in Indonesia.

berger 2A map showing the Indonesian FAI cell

Renewal in Sulawesi

But the ‘Long Live Luciano Tortuga’ cell was bigger than Eat and Billy. In August 2012, when the pair were in prison, a cell of that name was active in North Sulawesi. An incendiary device left behind by the cell failed to ignite at a power plant in Kotamobagu, around 100 kilometres from Manado. On the night of 31 August, the cell left another incendiary device at a local electricity station in the Manado suburb of Tuminting. In their communiqué, the cell sent their ‘greetings with the lights of fire from the streets to our two brothers in struggle, members of the Long Live Luciano Tortuga Cell FAI/IRF; Billy Augustan and Reyhard Rumbayan (Eat).’

Despite claims of solidarity, tensions and divisions can be read between the lines of the Sulawesi cell’s communiqué. The statement concluded that ‘these actions are also a manifestation of anger and disappointment. Impatience for those rebels who after attacks returned to run and hide.’ Eat and Billy expressed similar feelings of abandonment in an open letter to the global FAI movement, written from prison one month after they were caught in late 2011. ‘We are truly disappointed that some of our local comrades are inspired by fear and media sensationalism which make them retreat from the front line.’

From these and other blog-posts written by Eat, it appears not everyone in the anarchist community agrees with the methods of direct action. Even those who carry out arson attacks have in statements indicated a rejection of deadly violence. For example, on Guy Fawkes Night (5 November –the date when Guy Fawkes and other conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot had planned to blow up England’s parliament at the start of the seventeenth century, recently commemorated by some anarchists) in 2012 the Sulawesi cell placed an incendiary device amongst luxury cars parked at Manado’s Red Monkey Karaoke Bar, pointing out in a communiqué that the device was placed deliberately away from possible human casualties.

Although Indonesia’s anarchists are still shying away from deadly violence, Eat and Billy’s imprisonment has placed Indonesia literally on the map of international insurrectionary anarchism (see photo). By November 2012, an Indonesian cell even took the initiative to issue an ‘international call for direct action against all property and symbols of society, eco-destroyers, fascists, military and our enemies.’ Three days later, the same cell claimed responsibility for setting alight an elementary school in Paniki, Manado. By January 2013, a FAI cell in North Sulawesi was claiming responsibility for further attacks, but this time identifying itself as the ‘Argirou’ Cell. While it is possible that a new cell had arisen in North Sulawesi, it is more likely that the same cell was keen to rebrand itself by adopting the name of another international anarchist prisoner. The cell’s namesake, Panagiotis Argirou, is a Greek anarchist of the Conspiracy of Cells of Fire group, jailed in 2010 for sending letter bombs to politicians throughout Europe.

The Sulawesi cell was by now deeply socialised into international FAI discourse and with great enthusiasm participated in the ‘ongoing dialogue’ between global cells. A number of statements even entirely abandoned references to local grievances. For example, a communiqué in January 2013 contains no mention of Kulon Progo or Bima (another land dispute previously frequently mentioned by anarchists). Not even Billy and Eat get a mention, despite having been released from jail only weeks earlier, on 22 November and 14 December 2012 respectively. Rather than local grievances, the communiqué offers salutes to foreign comrades, and brags of it radical ideals. ‘Last night we did it once again. Direct action based on our revolutionary values, as nihilists, as individualists and as an expression of the hatred of this society.’

It is unlikely that Indonesia’s anarchists have travelled to Europe, Latin America, or even in the region. Indonesia’s FAI is a lonely outpost of anarchist insurrection in Southeast Asia. Even so, the Sulawesi cell’s words are full of warmth and praise for their fellow revolutionaries overseas. Indonesia’s insurrectionary anarchists are increasingly consuming and replicating ideological trends of their European comrades. Six months after issuing their communiqué under the new name, the Sulawesi cell’s hat-tip to Argirou got a reply. Posting a letter on another international counter-info blog in June 2013, Argirou himself wrote ‘I have a special place in my heart for the comrades of the International Conspiracy for Revenge-FAI/IRF who burned a private vehicle in Indonesia’.

Ideology and strategy after Eat and Billy

The arrest, trial and imprisonment of Eat and Billy – and the discussions and literature produced as a consequence of their international stardom – is likely to have exposed many more Indonesian anarchists to international movements. But unlike their European comrades who have a long history of engaging fascist groups in open street warfare, it will be a long time before anarchists in Indonesia have the numbers or the courage for such attacks. But in a June 2013 statement, an Indonesian cell at least opened the door to such conflict in the future, stating that ‘the paramilitaries who were built by the military and have the same attitudes and behaviours like military are enemies who deserve our attacks.’ A Greek FAI cell recently claimed responsibility for bombing an office of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party; attacks against groups like the Front Pembela Islam (FPI – Islamic Defenders Front) or Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth) by Indonesian cells would be a striking escalation of tactics.

berger 3Artwork produced in prison by Billy

The dearth of radical leftist groups in Indonesia robs anarchist groups of their natural anti-fascist allies. Yet at the same time, the absence of a thriving leftist scene grants Indonesia’s anarchists an unusually empty ideological space in which to thrive. Indonesian youths who feel alienated by urban life can find in anarchism a sophisticated and trendy critique of consumerism. For those who are more politically minded, anarchism offers a framework with which to critique oppressive state and social structures, from religious fundamentalism in Aceh, capitalist exploitation in Java, and military impunity in Papua. Anarchist ideas, in all their diversity and nuance, have much to offer Indonesia’s political and social activists, starved of ideology since the New Order regime tried to eradicate leftist ideas between the mid-1960s and late 1990s.

But their hostility to organisation might hamper them. Attempts at building mass followership, reads one Indonesian FAI communiqué, are ‘something which is inherited from the classical anarchist thought with a mixture of Marxism that is really disgusting’. Rather than bringing anarchism into the mainstream of radical politics, insurrectionary anarchism holds an inclination towards violence. The absolute rejection of movement building could even turn young Indonesians away from anarchism, stigmatise anarchism as a violent ideology, and trigger greater state repression against the wider anarchist community. While it seems that no injuries or deaths have been cause by insurrectionary anarchists in Indonesia so far, recent trends indicate that new cells are emerging and targets of arson attacks are diversifying.

On 31 March 2013 the FAI claimed responsibility for its first action in Aceh, where media reported that a ‘mysterious group’ burned down three buildings owned by Hamdan Sati, the head of Tamiang district. A communiqué described Aceh as ‘a region where religious fundamentalists in the past threw 64 punks into a rehabilitation camp’. But the statement went on to say that ‘we want to clarify that we aren’t Acehnese. We have no citizenship because we are borderless’. Between June and August 2013, cells claimed responsibility for fires at a karaoke bar in Jakarta, a clothing warehouse in West Jakarta and at a police school in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan. The claim of responsibility for the Balikpapan attack ends with a warning. ‘Our action is the direct revenge against pigs everywhere, not only in Greece. For every inch in your step that invades our freedom, we will hit you back more violent than before’.

Another sign that insurrectionary anarchism is growing in Indonesia is the appearance of entirely new groups. Between June and September 2013, the internationally active Earth Liberation Front (ELF) claimed responsibility for attacks on a car and shop belonging to the vice secretary of the Democratic Party in South Sumatra, arson attacks against ATMs in Makassar, sabotage of electricity stations in Jakarta, and setting fire to a factory in Bandung producing bullet proof vests. The communiqué states that ‘police must be attacked, as hard as possible’. Like the FAI, the ELF subscribes to an ‘anti-civilisation’ form of insurrectionary anarchism. On 20 August 2013, the ELF claimed responsibility for placing an incendiary device that burned out the third floor of the Institute Kesenian (Arts Institute) in the upscale central Jakarta suburb of Cikini, stating that artists are ‘the puppets of civilisation’.

As of September 2013, insurrectionary anarchists have claimed responsibility for arson attacks in Makassar, Bandung, Manado, Yogyakarta, Aceh, Balikpapan and Jakarta. But Indonesian police are increasingly determined to disrupt Indonesia-wide anarchist networks. In April 2012 four anarchists were arrested in Malang in possession of spray cans and solidarity posters for Billy and Eat. During interrogation lasting several days, police extracted information about which groups they belong to, their links to Billy and Eat, and how anarchist cells communicate with each other. Within days of these interrogations, an anarchist counter-information blog by the name of Memori Senja was taken offline.

But increasing harassment by police appears to have also led to a further radicalisation of a small group of insurrectionary anarchists. In an ‘open letter’ posted in September 2013, the Indonesian Section of the FAI revealed its most sophisticated and radical expression of ideology, goals and method. Billy and Eat’s arrest is described as ‘the starting point when everything became clearer for us’. In an escalation of rhetoric, the six-page text praises Indonesian Islamist groups for their the ‘brave choice’ in carrying out ‘violent jihad’, noting that forming informal cells of three to four people was key to the Islamists’ ‘success’. It passionately denounces the ‘social anarchists’ who reject violent methods, and it defines as legitimate targets ‘the human itself who stands at the side of the society’.

If insurrectionary anarchist cells keep multiplying, and violence leads to deaths or injuries, the police and media will start to pay much closer attention to anarchist ideology, and Indonesia’s harmless community of anarcho-punks could lose the relative freedom that they currently enjoy.

Dominic Berger ( is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University.


Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}




]]> (Dominic Berger) Sat, 12 Oct 2013 13:05:32 GMT
Stopping intolerance Government must act to halt growing discrimination against minorities

An interview with Zainal Abidin Bagir

abidin 1‘Relocation of the Sampang Shi’ites = Anti-Pancasila’. A protest in Jakarta. Abdul MalikQ: In your recent report on the state of religion in Indonesia, you worry about rising intolerance. How bad is it, and what forms does it take?

There are two critical issues, and they both involve bad regulations that lead to abuses against minorities. First, the 1965 law on the prevention of abuse and defamation of religion has encouraged certain religious groups to accuse minorities of ‘defaming’ their religion. Vigilante groups have organised violent protests against members of the ‘deviant’ Islamic sect Ahmadiyah in many places from 2005 onwards. The radical activist group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) is the best known among them. Mainstream Islamic figures agree that Ahmadiyah is deviant, but they have not supported these attacks.

Other groups have launched court cases against minority religious groups. After the Constitutional Court upheld the law in 2010, allegations of defamation and deviancy have increased significantly. There were 11 court cases last year alone, compared with less than ten over the entire period between 1965 and 1998. As the criteria for being ‘deviant’ (sesat) widen, the target has expanded from mystical Javanese sects in 1965 (kebatinan) to Islamic groups much closer to the mainstream, such as Ahmadiyah and now Shi’a. I’m afraid the next target will be unorthodox sufi groups, as is already happening in Aceh.

Second, strict permission procedures for the erection of houses of worship have been exploited by the same groups to harass minorities. In our last report we discussed issues with churches in Aceh Singkil district. Two church cases closer to Jakarta are still prominent in the news: GKI Taman Yasmin in Bogor, and HKBP Filadelfia in Bekasi. In each case a growing religious community needs a larger house of worship, but a local majority resists that. Organised groups from outside have turned these cases into national issues. Until a few years ago such attacks were restricted to a few areas. They have now spread to others. Now it is not only churches. Mosques in some Muslim-minority areas have also become a problem, although to a lesser extent. This is what happens when the government fails to solve the problem: it spreads. This is very worrying. Instead of strong political will, we have seen one excuse after another for not taking it seriously.

If law is expected to transform society, the use of legal language such as ‘defamation’ or ‘deviance’ transforms society badly. Similar violent incidents have happened repeatedly in recent years. Some drag on and become much more difficult to solve. More than 100 Ahmadis have sought refuge in Mataram since 2006. Hundreds of Shi’a Muslims in Sampang have faced the same fate since 2012. Other potential conflicts are also not being handled well and threaten to escalate.

However, let us keep it in perspective. Terrorism and large-scale communal violence have receded because the government acted effectively. So if it were not for the two problems of defamation and houses of worship, we would not feel the situation is particularly bad. Indonesia is still more or less religiously harmonious in many places, and democracy is working.

Q: All the incidents you mention took place in provincial towns. Why is that?

Yes, not all of Indonesia is affected by these problems uniformly. West Java has had many problems with these two issues (though recently the police have brought some perpetrators to justice for attacks against Ahmadiyah). In 2012 Aceh saw significant defamation issues, leading to three deaths, and there were more problems with churches.

Q: Acts of intimidation against minority religious groups started with reformasi. First it was small radical groups like the FPI, but now much larger groups agree minorities are a problem. Politicians become afraid to act. What causes this escalation? Smart tactics by FPI? Intolerance among the broader public? Local governments seeking popularity in democratic Indonesia?

All the factors you mention play a role, but the main problem lies with local and central governments. It is very misleading to say, as our minister of religious affairs has several times, that these problems are only administrative. Law enforcement does not work. When local governments and security officials do not act it emboldens hardliners. I don’t think they are afraid to act, because sometimes they do and then we don’t read about it in the newspaper. But there is not enough incentive for them to act boldly on these two issues. It is not important enough to them. I heard that all the recent candidates for district head in Sampang, Madura, held similar views on what they would do about the Shi’ites. If any of them had defended the Shi’a community they felt it would set them apart from other candidates negatively. Interestingly, the incumbent in Sampang had been the boldest in speaking out against the Shi’a community, and he lost the election. So such an issue doesn’t always sell. And they forget that there is also a political risk in inaction.

Decentralisation has made local mayors, district heads and governors so powerful that they sometimes go against the central government. In the case of GKI Taman Yasmin in Bogor, even the President basically said he could not constitutionally be involved. He left it to the local leaders. This is true in non-religious issues too. At the same time, national political leaders tend to consider such concerns to be relatively minor. Religious freedom is not a popular issue among any of the parties in parliament. Even the dramatic attacks on the Ahmadis in Cikeusik and Shi’ites in Sampang only stayed in the headlines for a few days. This was not like the large-scale communal violence of some years ago. It did reach international forums, but somehow the government always got away with merely a normative response.

The fact that religious issues are not always effective politically can actually be positive. Religion may leverage your position a few points in local elections, but if you are weak in other points, it will not save you.  The unlikely victory of Jokowi and his non-Muslim, ethnic Chinese running mate Ahok in the Jakarta governor’s election proved that. They beat the incumbent Fauzi Bowo, who was supported by FPI, Rhoma Irama and other Muslim organisations using religious arguments. They were too strong on other points, so the religious attacks ultimately were ineffective.

The main issue is not intolerance but what we call the ‘management of diversity’. This involves central and local government policy, conflict prevention and resolution, and law enforcement. It also means doing more to deal with potential or imminent conflict between groups. We recommend avoiding legal or rights-based approaches as much as possible. Religious grievances since reformasi are more frequently framed in legal terms: for example, building permits for churches and the religious defamation law. Yet we have big problems enforcing the law, from the police level up to the Supreme Court—and not only on religious matters.

Moreover, our regulations, especially on defamation, are poor. The defamation law is old and bad, yet it is being used more and more. The regulation concerning houses of worship was improved slightly in 2006 but it still makes life difficult for minorities. It created an instrument called the Forum for Religious Harmony (FKUB) to resolve problems. There are now around 500 of them. With the exception of a number of such forums at the district and provincial level, they have not performed well and have sometimes caused new problems. This has happened despite some progressive new laws and a constitutional amendment that should have improved religious freedoms.

Rather than rights-based approaches, we recommend mediation. This already happens a lot. Yet it is not always done well because too often the victims have to pay the biggest price. But there are also success stories. We can develop our ability to mediate. Of course I do not say we should forget law, but changing bad laws has been a priority for so long that we forgot to strengthen our society’s capacity for mediation.

Q: In your report you say government leaders often blame the victims of religious intimidation rather than the perpetrators. They urge minority groups to move elsewhere, as if they had no right to live where they do. This would have been unimaginable under the New Order. Why is government today so much weaker?

First, the New Order was not that good either. The harmony was on the surface. Suharto decided who would be the victims—at different points of time they were the alleged communists, Muslims, Christians, and other groups. Transmigration was also a policy of relocation, sometimes by force, though for different reasons.

In any case, second, just as in other democratising countries, the government tends to be weak, or even has to be weakened to give more space for people. Decentralisation weakens central government power, to an extent that is not always clear. Sometimes the president finds this convenient. On things that do not matter much to him, he can be seen to be making compromises. In this case, democracy is not the explanation for his inaction, but an excuse. In cases like this, which have deteriorated because local governments are unable or unwilling to act, the president himself surely has to act.

Even international human rights institutions, such as the United Nation Human Rights Council, cannot force the government to act. Only a few countries have pressed Indonesia on its treatment of minorities and their questions did not go very far. They consider Indonesia’s human rights record is not bad overall.

Q: Other fragile democracies treat their minorities badly too. Burma's Rohingya, Pakistan's Christians/ Hindus/ Ahmadis, Iraq's Sunnis, Egypt's Copts. Minorities are particularly vulnerable at election time. Is this the dark side of democracy?

This shows that democracy should not only be about elections and other institutions. It also means better protection of minorities. With time, I think our democracy will mature. Indonesia’s democracy is better and more stable than those you mention, especially Pakistan and Iraq. Indonesia is more like India, Turkey and Senegal, which all show the success of building a democracy in a religious society. Of course more incidents force us to be more cautious. It is difficult to say that religion should not play a public role in a country like Indonesia. It has done so throughout our history and in my opinion it can continue to play roles in a democracy. But we worry about religious expression that leads to violence and discrimination.

Q: Is there a democratic way to solve this in the short term?  All the democratic solutions you mention in your report seem to be inadequate. You mention mediation, but acknowledge that in practice this often involves blaming the victims. You hope the central government will show more spine, but you know they have shown none the last few years because they are afraid of the voters.

We are now at the point of no turning back. There’s no alternative to democratic solutions. I am still optimistic that most of this is temporary. The problems are not uniformly widespread; in some places leaders have acted tough and kept minorities safe, and police have also done well; in other places budding conflicts have been solved or mitigated. People are not stupid. Democracy can give them ways to punish bad leaders. Our civil society is strong. That is what has saved Indonesia so far. But of course civil society’s strength has limits. If the government, both local and central, does not act to solve these problems immediately, I’m afraid they will grow like a cancer, and our life in Indonesia will be much more difficult.


Zainal Abidin Bagir directs the postgraduate Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies, Gadjah Mada University. He is one of the authors of the ‘Annual Report on Religious Life in Indonesia 2012’ (‘Laporan Tahunan Kehidupan Beragama di Indonesia 2012’, He was interviewed by Gerry van Klinken.

Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013{jcomments on}


]]> (van Klinken) Sat, 02 Nov 2013 10:47:00 GMT
After justice What happens after three police officers are found guilty of manslaughter and torture?

Jacqui Baker

Baker 1Yeni has been forced to abandon her warung to search for information about her brother’s case Jacqui Baker

On 3 March of this year, in a Tangerang courtroom, a young warung (food stall) owner named Yeni raised her skinny fist in victory. Three police officers were convicted of the murder of her brother, Yusli bin Durahman. Yusli had been abducted from their family home in Rumpin by the three officers, who suspected him of stealing a motorbike. He was taken to a government complex at night, tied to the back of a police car and dragged across the bitumen. His ribs were broken. His heart was ripped from its arterial moorings. Finally, he was shot in the chest, presumably at close range given the exit wound in his back. The officers responsible claimed that Yusli had tried to snatch their weapon and pleaded self-defence. With no legal counsel, no money and having never graduated from primary school, Yeni fought and won the battle to bring her brother’s killers to trial. The victory came within a legal system deeply unwilling to prosecute one of its own.

But the five-month trial was a bewildering experience for Yeni. Although the public prosecutor was supposed to work in Yusli’s interests, it wasn’t always clear whose side he was on. Yeni didn’t find out the charges he’d pressed until the final verdict because the prosecutor said that they were a secret between him and the accused. Court sessions were held, cancelled or moved without Yeni being notified. One key witness from the University of Indonesia argued that evidence showed Yusli’s death was a planned execution. But most others, including the forensic pathologist, failed to turn up at all. They pleaded family illness or out-of-town travel. The testimonies of the accused blamed each other and were riddled with inconsistencies which neither the prosecutor nor the presiding judge followed up.

Then there was the expense. Having to close the warung; lost income; and the long hours spent travelling to and from the Tangerang courtroom on Rumpin’s broken roads. There were other unexpected costs too. In the trial, it seemed that courtroom showmanship was often more important than evidence to prove Yusli’s good character. On advice from her supporters, Yeni exhausted the family savings hiring the minibuses needed to transport neighbours and family from Rumpin to the trial. On the courthouse steps, the rabble of journalists stationed there said they weren’t interested in her case unless she made a scene. Was this a trial, she wondered, or a show of force?   So when the judge found the men guilty of manslaughter and torture, and handed down five-year and two-year sentences for the respective crimes, it felt like a triumph of justice. I made a documentary about Yeni for ABC Radio National. People always told me they cried when they heard about her improbable win. Surrounded by her mourning family and her warung customers, Yeni stood and shouted to the court: ‘Victims, we will never be silent! We will fight!’

In response, the courtroom exploded into a frenzy of shrieks and jeers. ‘You’re a family of motorcycle thieves!’ the police chanted.

‘Murderers!’ Yeni’s supporters screamed back.

The ghost of Petrus past

Though Yeni’s story is unique, that of her brother Yusli is not. Yusli’s torture and killing is just another case of state-sponsored violence against a citizen regarded as ‘criminal’. This kind of violence peaked in 1983 with the Petrus shootings, when thousands of alleged criminals were executed by the state in an organised campaign of ‘criminal cleansing’. Such killings became less frequent after 1985, but the reign of state terror over the lower class continues. Poor young men who have been accused of petty crimes are picked up by the police and then tortured and killed. The men are sometimes convicted criminals. But most have never been tried, and have simply come to the attention of the police as possible suspects.

The police come for a suspect after midnight, usually in groups of three or four. They do not wear their khaki uniforms. They grab him, beat him and bundle him into an unmarked car. Inside they kick him and burn him with cigarettes. They drive him around and around, sometimes for hours. ‘Eighty-six’, they say, ‘how about an 86’? Eighty-six is a euphemism for paying a bribe to escape or minimise the charge. ‘Let’s cut a deal’, they say. But he has no money. ‘Do you know any other criminals?’ they ask, ‘Someone with money?’ But he doesn’t know anyone except other retched street urchins like him, who subsist in the cracks of the labour market. So they beat a confession out of him. He begs and weeps but they do not listen. Sometimes they shoot him in the legs to teach him a lesson. Sometimes, like Yusli, they beat him so severely they have to shoot him dead and say that he tried to run.

The prevalence of torture is notoriously difficult to measure. Two surveys of prison inmates by the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation’s (YLBHI) Jakarta office and Jakarta Community Legal Aid (LBHM) indicate that over 80 per cent of convicted offenders have been subject to police torture during the arrest and detention period. The number of inmates claiming to have suffered direct physical violence comes to over 75 per cent. Figures of torture are even higher if instances of non-physical and sexual violence are included. Humiliating and degrading treatment often hurts victims the most.

Gathering these kinds of stories takes time and trust, both of which are difficult to obtain in survey-based research. I interviewed a young gay man who shook and wept when he spoke of the humiliation of being urinated on and forced to perform crude sexual acts. Other victims I met did not suffer direct physical abuse at all. One man recounted how his ailing mother was detained in a police station for the days leading up to a medical operation until he confessed to murder.

There is even less reliable data on extrajudicial executions. In 2011, Indonesian Police Watch (IPW) found that 18 people had been unlawfully shot dead over the course of the year. But they only considered a shooting ‘unlawful’ if a person was shot indiscriminately during public unrest or if a suspect shot in the course of arrest was considered to be ‘innocent’. IPW based their assessment of the latter on community opinion. Only if a community protested the police’s version of events with good reason was the shooting considered illegitimate.

Absent from this list, therefore, was the near daily death toll of criminal suspects shot during the course of arrest. These shootings are often reported in the media in glowing terms. In these reports, the police claim the shootings to be lawful and in accordance with procedure. Shooting a criminal is considered acceptable if the suspect was armed, attacked an officer, tried to grab his weapon or tried to run away. The shooting does not have to be justified to police oversight bodies. There is no independent police complaints board to listen to victims and their families. Journalists told me they were scared to question the official version of events.

Besides which, the public seems to like the tough stance on crime. When I asked the head of YLBHI, Alvon Palma, why he didn’t take a high profile approach to the problem of police shootings, he explained that with the institution’s limited resources, it was important to take on cases that would elicit empathy from the public. The fate of the police’s criminal suspects apparently does not.

I have kept a cursory count of police shootings every year since 2008, based on online newspaper reports, mainly from Indonesia’s districts. I log about 500 shooting incidents per year. Shooting reports tend to be of two kinds: reports where the suspect was shot in the legs, or shot dead. In April 2011, 24 suspected criminals were shot in the legs during their arrest. On top of that I counted 16 fatal shootings. This was in just one month of 2011, the year IPW reported eighteen deaths in total. Of course, these numbers are problematic. Few of the newspapers representing Indonesia’s 34 provinces and 500-odd districts are online. And the reports of police shootings do not include the men who are injured by police but do not die immediately.

Ping-pong justice

After years of stockpiling reports of unprosecuted police shootings I wanted Yeni’s story to end in that noisy courtroom, with a guilty verdict. But justice in Indonesia is not served simply with the knock of a gavel. Yeni’s problems after the trial started with small procedural snubs. The court would not give her a copy of the verdict and sent her to the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor protested that he did not have it and sent her scurrying back. Yeni calls this tactic ‘ping-pong’. Eventually, she settled for the prosecutor’s minutes as evidence of her victory. Then there was the problem of the police internal ethics unit. Yeni lodged a complaint with them two years ago, hoping for the officers’ dismissal. But despite promises, no hearing has ever eventuated. 

Seven months had passed since the guilty verdict in that Tangerang court. Despite Yeni’s weekly visits, the prosecutor said the date for the appeal remained undecided. Then she discovered by chance that the appeal hearing had already taken place. She requested a copy of the verdict from the court but they sent her back to the prosecutor’s office, where she waited four hours to see a prosecutor. He said he couldn’t find her file and the prosecutor who worked on the case has been transferred to another province. Frustrated, Yeni found herself back at the district police station where she initially fought for her case to be investigated. Then she saw one of the convicted officers in full police uniform, going about his daily job.

Back in Rumpin, Yeni’s warung sits shut. These past weeks she has been back on the job of fighting for justice for Yusli. Every day she ping-pongs between the courts and the prosecutor, since neither institution will admit that the appeal has been heard. Last week, staff from the Asian Human Rights Commission found the appeal decisions for the three officers after searching on Google. As part of a transparency drive back in 2007, the Supreme Court pledged to upload court documents online. But ordinary people like Yeni don’t know how to use computers so she never knew that the records were there all along. I felt embarrassed at my Canberra kitchen table as I opened up the file and read it aloud over Skype to Yeni. On appeal the judge had reduced the sentence of each of the convicted officers, and found all the officers not guilty of the more serious charges of torture.  The presiding judge noted that the officers were only doing their job. The public prosecutor didn't even turn up.

Yeni sobbed as we talked. For the marginalised within Indonesian society, justice is hard to win. It’s even harder to keep. 


Jacqui Baker ( is a visiting fellow and a lecturer in Indonesian Politics at the Department for Political and Social Change at the ANU. Yeni’s story was told as part of an ABC Radio National 360 Documentaries, produced by Dr Siobhan McHugh, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Wollongong, and can be heard at Eat, Pray, Mourn; Radio National, ABC.

Asian Human Rights Watch has launched an urgent appeal for Yusli’s case. You can read about it and submit an online letter to the Indonesian authorities:


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]]> (Jacqui Baker) Sat, 09 Nov 2013 10:30:28 GMT
Democratising culture Changes in the Indonesian arts parallel Inside Indonesia’s own evolution over a period of thirty years

Keith Foulcher and Barbara Hatley

II - Edition 2 1Cover of Inside Indonesia No. 2, May 1984

Recent articles by some of the founders of Inside Indonesia have reminded us that when the magazine was founded in 1983 it was part of a broadly-based movement working for political and social change. Its brief was to expose the negative impacts of developmentalism on the lives of the poor, and the denial of civil and political rights to the opponents of the New Order regime. The tone of the magazine was activist and alternative, and most of its articles were authored by non-Indonesians from NGO or academic circles in Australia with links to oppositionist groups ‘inside’ Indonesia itself.

From the start, reports on the Indonesian arts reflecting this orientation figured prominently in the magazine’s content. The second issue of Inside Indonesia, in May 1984, featured a cover design based on an image of the poet Rendra, with the caption, ‘Water will erode the stones Eight new poems by W.S. Rendra’. During the next thirty years, however, this orientation was to undergo a significant shift. Both reporting on the arts and culture in Inside Indonesia and the character of the magazine itself changed, in line with the dramatic transformations taking place in Indonesian social and political life at this time.

‘The People’s Culture’

A key emphasis in the early issues of Inside Indonesia was on the role of literature, performance and the visual arts as a forum for critiquing and attempting to undermine the power of the New Order regime. Articles like Krishna Sen’s ‘Sjuman Djaja, a film maker as social critic’ in December 1985 and Rosslyn von der Borch’s ‘Poets against silence: Two young Solo poets’ in October 1987 showed just how significant and widespread oppositionist and subversive expression was in the Indonesian arts at the height of New Order rule. Another theme in the articles of this period is the ability of artistic expression to represent, communicate with and empower ordinary people. Barbara Hatley’s ‘Women in popular Javanese theatre’ in April 1987, for example, reported on contemporary theatre groups in kampung neighbourhoods, describing their rehearsals and performances as participatory activities ‘through which people can express their views and help perpetuate their own culture’.

Both these understandings of the role of the arts – political opposition and representation of the lives of ordinary people – are encapsulated in the rubric for the cultural segment of Inside Indonesia during this period, ‘The People’s Culture’. This phrase has strong associations with the cultural politics of the late Sukarno era, and its use in Inside Indonesia up until the mid-1990s reflects the magazine’s links at this time with the legacy of the pre-1965 left. Victims of the post-1965 purge of left wing artists feature prominently among the writers whose poetry and short stories were translated in the pages of the magazine, and numerous articles highlighted the role of Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who had been released from prison in 1979 but was still being held under virtual house arrest in Jakarta when the magazine was in its early stages of development. Interviews with Pramoedya and his publishers on the banning of his books, the reasons why his historical novels challenged and disturbed the authorities, and his views on contemporary human rights, all featured prominently.

Taken as a whole, the first two decades of Inside Indonesia’s publication documented an important chapter in the cultural history of late twentieth century Indonesia. The articles on culture appearing in the magazine at this time remind us that from the early 1980s right up until the end of the New Order period, there was a vigorous current of anti-establishment and anti-regime expression in the Indonesian arts. This is an important corrective to some retrospective characterisations of the New Order as a totalitarian and all-embracing state system that exercised tight control over every aspect of Indonesian life. ‘The People’s Culture’ shows that in the arts, as in many other areas, this was never the case.

Diversity and inclusiveness

In the late 1990s, as opposition to the New Order broadened and intensified, Inside Indonesia began to diversify its reporting on Indonesian cultural expression. Positive-themed articles on topics like the presence of women in the traditional and popular arts, the burgeoning of a rebellious youth culture and an expanding pop music scene, began to supplant the more critical and political content of the articles of previous years. The alternative and oppositionist nature of much of this reporting remained, but the tone lightened, and the range of topics covered in the articles began to broaden. David Hill and Krishna Sen epitomised the change in their 1997 article on rock and pop music, with its view of popular music as ‘a gesture of generational opposition to [an] ageing regime, led by an old man’.

When the Reform Era exploded with such force in May 1998, Inside Indonesia was soon documenting the new opportunities for creativity and the expression of identity that had been opened up by political reform and a freer social climate. Freed from fear of retribution, Indonesian authors writing under their own names became more prominent among the magazine’s contributors. For example, Indonesians with connections to the film industry began writing about new, independent films, and brought the existence of films dealing with real-life and often controversial social issues like same-sex relationships and religious divisions to the attention of the magazine’s growing number of subscribers. The flourishing of women’s artistic activities, particularly the new wave of fiction writing dealing frankly with sexual issues, also made its presence felt. Reports on new work by women visual artists and theatre productions by women directors and female actors voicing women’s concerns, foregrounded the role of women in Indonesian cultural activity at a time of political reform.

A special issue on culture in 2000 highlighted the participatory, socially-involving character of the Indonesian arts in the early Reform Era. It contained articles on, among other things, the building of community identity through an arts forum in Makassar, the role of underground music in providing a sense of belonging for young people, and the way the Central Java arts collective, Taring Padi, was using the new social freedoms to create lively community networks. The tone of these articles is celebratory and optimistic, reflecting the hopes for a better future that were ushered in by the fall of Suharto and the New Order regime. The Indonesian arts of this period were testing their new freedoms and Inside Indonesia opened its pages to their experiments. In many cases cultural activity shifted to the grassroots and became more playful, and Inside Indonesia followed suit. The cheeky title to an article by Marshall Clark and Giora Eliraz in 2002, ‘Reformasi killed the poetry superstars’ captures the mood of the times.

Amid the euphoria, however, Inside Indonesia never lost its critical edge. In the 2000 special issue on culture that celebrated the new freedom of artistic expression, Lauren Bain expressed some disquiet about the ‘loss of direction’ which the more outspoken currents in Indonesian theatre seemed to have undergone with the demise of their New Order targets. And by the end of the first decade of the Reform Era, the magazine was reporting on new political pressures being experienced by the arts and arts practitioners in many regional areas of Indonesia. A 2008 article by Jennifer Lindsay questioned the reality of the climate of freedom in the arts, citing the ongoing need for performance permits in some regions and vigilante attacks on artists, especially in areas where militant Islamists were exercising unofficial censorship of artistic expression. Yet at the same time, reports continued to appear on the positive contribution of particular arts activities to their local social environment. More than ever before, Inside Indonesia was representing the world of the Indonesian arts in all its diversity and complexity.

Looking back

In the three decades since Inside Indonesia’s inception in 1983, Indonesia has moved from a politics of authoritarianism and repression of dissent to one of democratisation, with its own complexities and tensions. As part of this process, political opposition through expression in the arts has given way to a more broadly-based conception of the role of the arts in mediating the imaginative lives of communities and individuals and their social, cultural and political identities. At the same time, Inside Indonesia has itself moved from being an activist magazine dedicated to the struggle for political change to a channel for information on issues related to human rights, the environment, and the many political and social challenges to the wellbeing of Indonesia and its people. Times change and so does culture. Inside Indonesia has been both a reflection of that change and an active participant in it.


Barbara Hatley ( is Professor Emerita of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania. Keith Foulcher ( is an Honorary Associate of the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney. Both have been contributors to Inside Indonesia and members of its editorial collective since its inception.

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]]> (Keith Foulcher and Barbara Hatley) Sun, 17 Nov 2013 09:13:29 GMT
A bandwagon for everyone Indonesian political parties are using the Australian spying scandal to score points with voters, both at Australia and President Yudhoyono’s expense

Elisabeth Kramer

kramer1Political parties in Indonesia are exploiting the Australian spying scandal to win over voters, Isabel Esterman (Flickr)

American whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, revealed that Australian intelligence agencies had been tapping the phones of Indonesia’s president, the first lady and a slew of high-level cabinet minister. The incident, which had occurred four years earlier – and politicians reactions to it – was front-page news in both countries.

When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa demanded an apology from Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott issued a statement of ‘regret’ of any embarrassment caused to Indonesia but stopped short of an official apology. His reasoning: that phone-tapping was standard intelligence procedure, and that any apology would be insincere. Unconvinced, Indonesia withdrew its ambassador to Australia, temporarily halted military ties and suspended cooperation on people smuggling issues.

Media commentary has focused mainly on the political tit-for-tat between Jakarta and Canberra. But there’s another whole layer to this dispute. Indonesia is due to hold national elections in 2014, and candidates are falling over each other to demonstrate their nationalist credentials. The Australian spy scandal provided a perfect opportunity for these parties to blast Australia and Yudhoyono in one fell swoop, whilst also airing their own opinions on the damage done to Indonesia’s reputation – a reputation that must, of course, be maintained at all costs.

Making the most of a bad situation?

Far from keeping the phone-tapping incident under wraps, the Indonesian government decided to milk it for all it was worth. Not only Marty Natalegawa gave numerous media interviews on the issue, but Yudhoyono himself took to twitter to condemn Abbott.

Such an open and forceful airing of opinions on the Australian government’s handling of the affair seemed out of character for Yudhoyono, who had often been critiqued in the past for his reluctance to speak out about difficult issues. However, given the sensitivity that Yudhoyono has demonstrated in when personally affronted or when his family has been criticised, the reaction does seem more typical.

Also, given the nature in which the information was revealed, it was impossible for Yudhoyono not to respond in this way. And with the pressure to respond also came the opportunity to benefit. Arguments that Indonesia’s sovereignty had been violated, outrage that the first lady – who does not herself hold political office – had been spied upon, and claims that Indonesia would never themselves engage in eavesdropping gave Yudhoyono the moral authority to put Australia firmly on the spot.

Indonesia did not just press for an apology; the incident provided leverage for other requests that are perhaps not immediately apparent. The temporary cessation of military ties and of Indonesia’s agreement to accept asylum seeker boats turned back by Australian maritime vessels put the responsibility to compensate Indonesia for the loss of trust firmly in the hands of the Australian government. It also provided Yudhoyono with a much-needed opportunity to appear tough on something, with little potential for domestic backlash.

Plenty of room on the bandwagon

Yudhoyono and his cabinet are far from the only ones to be taking advantage of the situation. Those within opposition parties have taken different tacks in their approach to the scandal, reflecting the individualistic nature of campaigning for office in Indonesia, where candidates are generally responsible for building their own public profile. But, overall, the responses fell largely into two camps: those criticising Yudhoyono for over-reacting and those criticising his delayed/inadequate response. For both camps, it’s not necessarily Tony Abbott (or Australia) that is the prime target; it’s the president himself.

2014 presidential hopeful, Prabowo Subianto, from Gerindra, led the charge against Yudhoyono’s over-reaction. He claimed that spying on government officials is commonplace and that the responsibility lies with government officials not to say anything important over the phone. In a curious twist on the issue, Prabowo levelled criticism at the government for not only making a fuss, but also for jeopardising the national interest through their indiscretion. To paraphrase one of his public statements: Yudhoyono needed to apologise to the Indonesian people for not guarding Indonesia's secrets more carefully, and Australia can't be blamed for its actions because if someone steals something from you, it's your fault for not looking after it more carefully.

The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) and the National Democratic Party (Nasdem) have all condemned the government for not acting forcefully enough. PDI-P claimed that Yudhoyono’s actions do not go far enough, urging that the Australian ambassador to Indonesia be thrown out. Nasdem issued a statement soon after the Indonesian ambassador to Australia was recalled, stating that it was too little too late. It also accused Australia of maintaining an unbalanced power relationship with Indonesia, particularly in pressuring the government to assist with its ‘stop the boats’ policy. Hanura, which is led by former General Wiranto, also called on the government to stop all cooperation on people smuggling activities, stating that Indonesia has much to gain from making it easier for asylum seekers to get to Australia. One Hanura MP not only said that the asylum seeker issue could be useful leverage for demanding an apology from Abbott, but accused Australia of using asylum seekers to gather intelligence in Indonesia.

The general consensus (apart from Prabowo), meanwhile, is that spying on the President is unacceptable and the situation warrants the use of all influence possible to elicit an apology. Opposition parties are aware of Australia’s interest in ensuring close bilateral ties with the country and have no qualms about using to improve their own political standing. Being able to invoke a foreign threat while also criticising a domestic political opponent is like hitting the political campaign jackpot. The opposition have nothing to lose and everything to gain from jumping on the bandwagon and riding it for as long as they possibly can.

Elisabeth Kramer ( is a PhD candidate in the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on the political discourse of anti-corruption amongst emerging parties in the lead up to the 2014 Indonesian national legislative elections.

Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013
]]> (Elisabeth Kramer) Sun, 24 Nov 2013 02:13:55 GMT
Review: A tale of survival and resilience in modern Surabaya Robbie Peters' new book brings the poor urban kampungs of Surabaya to life

This is a brilliant book, a must read for anybody wanting to understand the Asian city. In Indonesia, kampung dwellers make up over half of the urban population. Peters sees Surabaya from the alleyways of Dinoyo, a poor inner-city kampung.

Waves of settlement and displacement have followed one another in rapid succession as the rural poor have surged in to secure incomes and a place to live. The remarkable quality of the kampung is its ability to absorb newcomers at ever-higher density. For its part, the municipal government has tried to control, limit and then push such newcomers out.

Reading Peters takes you into the chaos and unpredictability of the kampung dwellers' lives and the rapidly transforming city.  The book conveys an atmosphere of fear, violence and criminality. His description of this complex story, with its many competing and contradictory forces  – the military, Islam, Communist Party (PKI) and kampung dwellers – is done without criticism or judgement.

Peters seamlessly weaves the lives of the kampung dwellers into the history of Surabaya and Indonesia.  We begin to follow the lives of the people of Dinoyo near the end of the colonial era when Surabaya was a major port city. We witness the Japanese occupation and Indonesia's struggle for independence when the older men of Dinoyo served as 'freedom fighters'.

In the 1950s, most kampung dwellers in Dinoyo supported the PKI because its members came into their communities to provide food, training and the promise of land and housing rights. Left-leaning trade unions defended the factory workers against oppression by management.

This all changed in 1965-66 when the army ruthlessly purged the kampung after the so-called communist coup. We experience the terror and intimidation of kampung dwellers as the military and Islamic forces hunt them down. Peters' vignettes are presented within the framework of what the local papers reported at the time.

In the 1970s, one of Surabaya's leading architects, Johan Silas, who lived beside Dinoyo, encouraged the municipal government to provide land tenure and rehabilitate the city's kampungs instead of razing them. He argued that legalised kampungs would provide tax revenue, housing and jobs for the poor. The Kampung Improvement Program provided residents with a semblance of housing security, though some resented state intrusion.

By the 1990s the industrial estate across the bridge from Dinoyo was replaced by multi-story malls, office blocks, plazas and luxury hotels. Regular jobs in factories were lost and opportunities in petty trade, becak driving, public transport and traditional markets were also shrinking.  Some new service sector jobs emerged for attractive young salesgirls, sex workers, guards and chauffeurs.  Kampung dwellers saw themselves as being transformed into silent, uniformed, low-paid wage slaves.

A decade later, the new mayor of Surabaya (called the 'saboteur' by the kampung dwellers) accelerated the transformation of the city into a place of beautiful parks and gardens, international hotels, shopping malls and squatter-free riverbanks. The largest traditional market in eastern Indonesia was destroyed by fire. Pigeon racing and associated income-generating activities were eliminated. Motorcycles overwhelmed the once-quiet kampung pathways, which had been places of socialising, trade and festivities.

Amidst all these pressures, the selematan feast for the dead holds the community of Dinoyo together. This inclusive celebration reaffirms people's links to one another and to their community. It integrates newcomers into the community - the very people the city government is determined to keep out.

Each chapter shows how governments have sought to monitor, regulate and control the population. No matter how much the city government tries to map and document people in the kampungs of Surabaya, its statistics are notorious inaccurate. No matter how much the city administration tries to define, limit and spy upon people in the kampungs, they resist by trying to keep the state at a distance.

I wonder what happens to the kampung dwellers as they are pushed aside by modern Surabaya. Peters tells us that many lose their jobs, incomes, become malnourished, contract lung disease or go insane and die. Many are constantly on the move, trying to avoid detection by the city authorities. Others move out of the city. Do some, like those who run boarding houses for the many newcomers in Dinoyo, move up into the lower-middle class? For most, however, poverty and dystopia seem to remain a part of everyday life.

From one perspective it is a universal story showing the rise of capitalism, growing ties between the military, police, big business and middle class and increasing inequality and oppression of the poor. It shows how the poor are disempowered by a ruling elite and forced to eke out a living from ever shrinking space and opportunities, resulting in class warfare and growing inequality.

However, unlike Katherine Boo's study of one poor community in Mumbai, where the poor pull one another down and the government and police reinforce this downward spiral (Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity), the kampung dwellers of Dinoyo get a foothold and manage to hold on. In Surabaya, unlike in Mumbai, there is more social integration and cooperation among the poor. This is consistent with my findings from Jakarta over twenty years ago (The Wheel of Fortune).

But Peters goes much further and has written what I believe is the best study of any Indonesian kampung. Few scholars have managed to do such close and complex ethnographic and oral history research - gaining the trust of people from the lowest to the highest levels of a seemingly chaotic urban society. He provides more breadth and depth than previous studies, especially of the political and criminal underworld. By looking deeply into the pathological underbelly of Surabaya, Peters fills out and brings to life Howard Dick's broader work (Surabaya City of Work: A Socioeconomic History, 1900-2000).

Peters was fortunate to arrive in Dinoyo in 1997, when the Suharto regime was falling apart and people at all levels of society were becoming more open and critical of what had occurred during the 32 years of the New Order regime. His book reflects this openness and honesty.

Robbie Peters, Surabaya, 1945-2010: Neighbourhood, State and Economy in Indonesia's City of Struggle, ASAA Southeast Asia Publication Series. Singapore: NUS Press, 2013.

 Lea Jellinek ( is a researcher at the Monash Asia Institute, Monash University and a regular contributor to Inside Indonesia on Indonesia's poor.

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]]> (Lea Jellinek) Mon, 25 Nov 2013 13:01:53 GMT
Review: Julia’s jihad The provocative Julia Suryakusuma on the rampage

coppelIf Australia has been blessed with excellent cartoonists, Indonesia has been similarly blessed with excellent columnists. Thanks to Jennifer Lindsay’s translations, English-speaking readers outside Indonesia can appreciate Goenawan Mohamad’s ‘Catatan Pinggir’ (Sidelines) columns from Tempo magazine.

Julia Suryakusuma, well-known as Indonesia’s most provocative columnist, needs no translator. Julia’s Jihad is a selection of more than a hundred of her columns published between 2006 and 2013. Most made their first appearance as her Wednesday column in the English-language The Jakarta Post (‘Julia’s WC’). Others come from the English language edition of the weekly Tempo.

Sri Astari’s marvellous painting, ‘Flying Chair’, on the cover beautifully matches the iconoclasm of the author. It portrays a female version of the wayang figure Petruk brandishing a folding wooden chair, poised to overturn it or hurl it at her target of the day. Julia identifies herself with this feisty incarnation of the punakawan who is licensed to criticise the powers that be in an entertaining way.

While on the subject of illustration, we should note that the book is graced by 30 cartoons drawn by Julia’s Australian husband Tim Lindsey, who also makes a cameo appearance in several of her columns.

The title of the book is itself a provocation both to Islamist extremists and Islamophobes. The author is a liberal feminist Muslim who has chosen this title with serious purpose - not just for alliteration. She wants to recover the meaning of the word jihad from prevalent connotations of armed warfare and terrorism. For her, the original meaning of jihad in Islam is ‘spiritual struggle’ in its widest sense. It gives her and fellow Muslims not just the freedom but the obligation to seek justice and truth and to try to create a better society that is free of poverty, injustice and corruption. An Islamic praxis, so to speak.

There is nothing pompous or stuffy in the way she goes about it. Take what may be the world’s longest book subtitle: ‘Tales of the Politically, Sexually and Religiously Incorrect: Living in the Chaos of the Biggest Muslim Democracy’. We have been warned, and there is never any doubt where she is coming from. She is a democrat, a feminist, and a Muslim. She is also funny.

There is much to enjoy in this collection. For a sampling of columns taken from the daily or weekly press, it is remarkably free from ephemera that require contextualisation. Historians will nevertheless appreciate the chronological organisation of the book and the provision of the date and place of original publication of each column.

It is, of course, a book to sample and savour, rather than to read right through in one sitting. The columns run the gamut from the quiddity of everyday life in Jakarta to biting criticism of corruption by those in power. Non-Muslims will learn much from this intelligent and broad-minded Muslim woman about Islam and life in general. Indonesian and foreigner alike can enjoy her mixture of irreverence and political intent.

Different readers will necessarily have their own favourites. One of mine is ‘My Big Fat Jakarta Wedding’ (The Jakarta Post, 4 October 2006, but mistakenly labelled 6 September 2006 in the book). She opens by saying ‘When Tim and I were married in October last year, we decided on a small wedding – the smallest we could possibly have, in fact, with just seven close family members and three friends’. The decision drew outrage from uninvited friends and relatives in Jakarta where big weddings are the norm in elite circles. This leads her to a splendid rant about the recent obscenely ostentatious wedding of actress Lulu Luciana Tobing to Suharto’s grandson Danny Bimo Hendro Utomo Rukmana. She notes that the former president was well enough to attend the family nuptials but deemed too sick to face up to the court on corruption charges. In another sideswipe she deplores the timing of the wedding celebrations, because they were so close to the anniversary of 30 September 1965, and ‘the start of the killings that Soeharto rode to power and which became the basis for the regime’s continued repression, abrogation of democratic principles, ignoring of human rights and abuse of power in general’.

No topic is taboo for Julia. Take her spirited critique of the use of toilet paper and defence of the Indonesian practice of cebok—the use of water in ablution (‘Papering over the Cracks: a Cheeky Column’, The Jakarta Post, 30 January 2008). The sweep of topics covered in her columns is much too broad to attempt to summarise in a short review like this. Buy the book and enjoy it: there is something there for everyone.

Julia Suryakusuma, Julia’s Jihad: Tales of the Politically, Sexually and Religiously Incorrect: Living in the Chaos of the Biggest Muslim Democracy, Depok: Komunitas Bambu, 2013.

Charles A. Coppel ( is a Principal Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, Senior Associate in the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society and an Associate in the Asian Law Centre at the University of Melbourne.

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]]> (Charles A. Coppel) Wed, 27 Nov 2013 13:37:40 GMT
A nation of dunces? Bureaucrats and politicians have created an education system that is shockingly bad

Elizabeth Pisani

Pisani 1

I’m sitting at a warung in Central Sulawesi, waiting to pay for my coffee. Two coffees, in fact, and two cakes. The warung owner whips out a calculator and starts to punch numbers into it: 2000 + 2000 + 1000 + 1000 = 6000. I gave him a 10,000 rupiah note. ‘Clear’, he punches. Then 10,000 - 6000 = 4000, and he counts out two 2000 rupiah notes and gives me my change. Meanwhile, other clients wait for their coffee. Is it really possible that he can’t do these sums in his head?

On 3 December, the results of the latest round of internationally-standardised tests of maths, science and reading skills among 15 year-old students were released. Of the 65 countries that participated in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests, Indonesia ranked 60th in reading skills, and 64th in maths and science. What was really shocking was how very, very low Indonesian students’ skills are. Fully 42 per cent of 15 year-olds did not even make the bottom skills level in maths, and three out of four students – 76 per cent to be exact – sat at level one or less (of six levels). That compares with just 14.2 per cent at or below level one in Vietnam, 8.3 per cent in Singapore and 3.8 per cent in Shanghai.

But it’s not the international comparisons that really matter. What matters is that three quarters of those Indonesians who are still in school at age 15 don’t have the basic maths skills that they need to function in society. Two thirds don’t have enough science to get by effectively in the modern world, and one in five can’t read well enough to perform basic tasks in the workplace.

And yet Indonesia spends relatively more on education than many other countries. Indeed it is constitutionally obliged to spend a fifth of the public budget on education, at both the national and the local levels. Class sizes are among the smallest of any middle income country; in primary school there’s a teacher for every 16 pupils (better than the UK), in secondary schools the ratio is one to 12 (better than the US). So why aren’t Indonesian children learning much?

A view from the trenches

I got an insight a few months ago, when I was staying with a fisherman and his family in the Banggai islands, in Central Sulawesi. Pak Zunaidi’s wife had mentioned that she was a primary school teacher, one of ten teachers for a school with 120 children.

At about 6.30 in the morning, this woman stood over a vat of hot oil frying up breakfast when her youngest son came in wearing his primary school uniform. She told him not to be late; all over Indonesia, primary school starts at seven. Then a neighbour came in to complain that their proposal for funding for a nursery school had not been accepted. The teacher put some more plantains in the oil, made another cup of coffee. By now it was 10 to seven, and still she hadn’t bathed or dressed.

At about 7.15, I asked what time school started around here. She looked rather sheepish, gestured at me, the neighbour, the fried plantains. ‘It’s OK. Everyone knows I’ve got guests.’ It dawned on me that it was my fault that she wasn’t at work. I asked if I could come with her to school; perhaps I could help with the English classes? She looked hugely relieved; she bathed and washed in record time and by 7.30 we were at school.

It was mayhem. A hundred and twenty children were running around, screaming with joyous abandon. Half an hour after the start of the five-hour school day, there was not a single teacher to be seen. I ended up teaching English to Classes Four and Six. Ibu taught her own class, Class One. Classes Two, Three and Five – children aged seven, eight and 10 respectively, were instructed to go into their classrooms and work through their textbooks ‘until your teachers come’. ‘Don’t make a racket!’ she warned.

I was faced with about 30 kids under the age of 12, crammed into half a classroom (there aren’t enough rooms in the school for all six classes so they use plywood dividers to make rooms). ‘Good morning everyone!’ A lusty response: ‘Good morning, miss!’ ‘My name is Eliz; what is your name?’ I addressed the question to one of the older boys who was sitting close to me. He had been learning English for three years. He was stunned to have been asked something as an individual, rather than as part of a scripted chorus. Indeed he was speechless. The other kids quickly averted their eyes, lest I pick on them. I was grateful when one girl raised her hand. ‘What is his name?’ I asked her, pointing elaborately to the boy in the front row. ‘My name is Fifi!’ she declared, triumphant.

None of the other teachers made an appearance at school that day.

Too many teachers, too little teaching

The World Bank has written several interesting reports about schooling in Indonesia. Almost all of them conclude that there are too many teachers, that the country can’t really afford the wage bill. The Bank says Indonesia needs to shed some teachers and redistribute others. But its calculations are based on the number of teachers on the wage bill, not the number of teachers in the classroom. The two are quite different.

Many local governments now pay incentives to persuade teachers to work in the remoter areas of Indonesia. Often, these incentives double a teacher’s salary – without them, teachers sometimes spend more getting to school than they make for being there. But it doesn’t seem to be enough. Even with the incentives, teachers in remote areas are less likely to go to work than teachers in other parts. And school heads, the highest paid of all, are the ones least likely to show up for work.

In a study in the highlands of Indonesian Papua, seven out of ten school heads were not at work when researchers visited, while half of ordinary teachers had not put in an appearance that day. In fact, about a quarter of all teachers had not set foot in school for months. In areas classified as ‘remote’ in other islands – including the more inaccessible areas of super-crowded Java – around one teacher in five is absent on any given day. That’s in part because many of the people who have jobs as teachers don’t want to teach.

Once upon a time, teaching was an honourable profession in Indonesia. Then came the economic crisis of the late 1950s. Hyper-inflation wiped out salaries and people wanted a government job, any government job, because it came with rations. The easiest way to squeeze into the coveted beige uniform of the civil servant was to become a teacher. The profession was invaded by people who had no interest in education. Suharto’s New Order, which treated teachers first as agents of the state and only second as educators, entrenched the bureaucratic mindset.

Though there’s now a whole slew of new rules and standards about teacher training, local governments continue to hire ‘guru honorer’ – locally-appointed contract teachers – more or less as they please. These underpaid individuals, around a million of them nationwide (a third of the teaching workforce) are exempted from the new standards. They take the job, wait for one of the periodic mass promotions, and get bumped up to full civil servant status.

For the district head or mayor, creating teaching posts is a way of thanking people who helped with the election or who otherwise deserved a small-to-medium-sized favour. The standards on school staffing also provide an excuse to get around a centrally-imposed moratorium on hiring more civil servants. And the more civil servants a local government manages to hire, the more money it gets from the central government.

In short, the schools are stuffed with people whose goal is to be a bureaucrat, not an educator. And they behave just like many other bureaucrats in Indonesia: though they know they are supposed to teach a minimum of 26 hours a week, they also know these rules won’t be enforced. Like many other bureaucrats, they see working hours as a moveable feast and take time off more or less at will. And like those other bureaucrats, they justify this by pointing to their low salaries: we’re paid so little that we have to do other jobs on the side. What else can you expect?

Those who do come to school are often unmotivated: I’ve seen teachers sitting smoking, chatting and drinking toxic orange fizz in the principal’s office during lesson time. When I asked about their teaching commitments, they said they had given the kids work to get on with. In the classrooms, seven and eight year-olds were diligently copying multiple choice questions from their text books into their notepads, incorrect answers and all.

The government’s stab at addressing low quality teaching is to make all in-school bureaucrats take a teaching certification test. For most, that involves a 90 hour crash-course, then a test. Anyone that passes gets their salary doubled right away. The test results for over 90 per cent of the teachers classified them as ‘very incompetent’ on teaching skills. More than half of primary and around a third of junior high school teachers were judged to be very incompetent in their subject matter. But everyone who has ever taken the course has ‘passed’ the test and been given their raise, which they keep even if they go back to being absent four days out of five.

Promotions in the school and state university systems, just like those in the bureaucracy, are based on time served. There is as yet no system for rewarding people who work harder, who teach better, who inspire kids to think, to explore, to develop their potential.

Too big to fail

Like their teachers, Indonesian students seem always to pass their exams, no matter how limited their skills. According to the education ministry over 99.5 per cent pass the national exams that every child takes at the end of primary school, for example. It’s only in carefully supervised, internationally standardised tests such as PISA that their skills are ever truly tested.

If newspaper reports are anything to go by, plenty of kids pass the national exams by cheating. Every year, the papers are filled with reports of printers leaking exam questions, of brokers selling answer templates, of teachers passing out results with the exam papers, or even, in remote schools, writing the answers up on the board. Google ‘how to cheat in national exams’ in Indonesian, and you get hundreds of ‘tips and tricks’ pages.

Pisani 2Search for ‘how to cheat’ in the British GCSE or American SAT exams and you’ll get lots of hits too. But most coverage of cheating in such countries is of the breathless ‘how a small minority gets away with murder’ type. Typical Indonesian headlines include: ‘When collective cheating becomes a tradition in the national exams’ and ‘Cheating as Academic Culture.’

Reading the paper one day last year, I noticed an article about a new initiative to stop cheating in schools. Under the banner ‘Berani jujur, hebat!’, which translates roughly as ‘Dare to be honest, that’s cool!’ a group of organisations was touring Indonesian schools, introducing the idea that cheating was not inevitable. The organisers of the campaign, including the Anti-Corruption Commission, Indonesia Corruption Watch and Transparency International, said students who did not admit to cheating were vanishingly rare. They accepted that most students wouldn’t be able to give up cheating just like that. They tried to encourage them to develop time-bound plans to wean themselves off their dishonesty.

A high-school headmaster in upland West Sumatra told me that the cheating situation had grown much worse since decentralisation. We were sitting chatting in his office, under portraits of the district head and his deputy, who wore the statutory white uniforms and sailors’ caps that make all such officials in Indonesia look like ageing leaders of the high school marching band.

I asked if decentralisation had made any difference to his job. ‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘Oooooooh yeeeeess!’ There are always plusses and minuses with something like decentralisation, he said. There was a long pause. ‘Plusses and minuses,’ he repeated. Another pause. ‘Actually, from the point of view of educating children, there’s no plus,’ he said finally. He sat back, deflated.

Decentralisation has greatly increased the pressure to ‘teach to the test’ because district heads like to make promises about education in their districts, and because school heads are appointed directly by the district head. ‘So school heads will do anything to give the district head what he wants. Really, anything.’ He told me stories of a headmaster dismissed a decade earlier when the inspectorate found the school accounts leaked like a sieve. ‘Then we got local democracy, and he became a star of the TimSes’. The head teacher put the phrase – a contraction of ‘Tim Sukses’ or campaign team – between apostrophes with his fingers, half amused, half disgusted. ‘And now he’s head of High School [X]. Then there’s the guy over at High School [Y], he was fired for gambling with school money but he sucked up to the district head and he’s back in his job.’ He sighed, resigned. ‘Such a good example for the kids.’

Thinking forward

Obviously it’s a challenge in a country as massive and diverse as Indonesia to come up with a single curriculum and with a model of school management that meets all needs. Recognising this, the government has recently introduced a system that gives individual schools (supposedly in consultation with parents) a fair bit of control over how they spend their own funds: one school might choose to build a laboratory, another to buy computers, another to organise transport for children who find it hard to get to school, and so on.

But on the issue of the curriculum, there is less flexibility. Local education authorities are allowed to choose two subjects to teach in addition to the core curriculum. Sometimes they choose wisely, sometimes not. In a large pesantren (Islamic boarding school) not far from the growing tourist industry hub of Senggigi in western Lombok, I found a headmistress in despair. The local education department had ordered her to take her choice of subject, English, out of the timetable and substitute the local language, Sasak. ‘For kids around here, the best hope of a job is in a hotel. And I’m not allowed to teach them English.’

At the national level, curriculum development seems just as irrational.

This year’s PISA test results are nothing new. Indonesian 15 year-olds have been at the bottom of the international league tables for maths and science since the country began participating in the tests in 2003. Education authorities in Jakarta decided that this was because Indonesian students have too many subjects in school, so they never learn anything in any depth. But their response was a curious one: in the new curriculum, which made its debut in 2013, they reduced the number of subjects by removing science, of all things, from the primary school curriculum. Geography and history were excised, too. The extra time this created was given over to more teaching of religion, citizenship and maths.

Cynics may say that it’s in the government’s interest to keep people stupid; it makes them more governable. That certainly worked for the Dutch colonists in the Netherlands East Indies for centuries. At the turn of the twentieth century, a full century after the VOC trading company had been taken over by the Dutch state, there were just 25 ‘natives’ in secondary school; by the end of the 1930s a total of just 6,500 soon-to-be Indonesians had any secondary education. Many believe the policy of keeping people ill-educated was deliberately pursued in the Suharto era, also. The bureaucrat-teachers who force fed children the anti-communist foundation myths of that time may certainly be accused of keeping critical thinking at bay. But I don’t think that most people in government now have a secret agenda to keep people stupid.

As a nation, indeed, Indonesia has every interest in getting more good brains working well, because decentralisation has scattered decision-making to the winds. In a highly centralised system, you can get away with having only a small group of super-smart people; good decisions at the top will cascade down. The high economic growth of the Suharto years, for example, was engineered by a handful of US-trained economists known as the Berkley Mafia. But now, over 500 separate mini-governments are making substantial decisions about education, health, investment and much else, independently of whoever may be sitting in Jakarta. Indonesia needs thousands more people with exceptional problem-solving skills, and it needs them in every corner of the land.

The people who now control many of those mini-governments are themselves the gossamer-thin layer of better-educated people in remoter areas. Some of them are pouring money into scholarships for locals – putra putri daerah, ‘sons and daughters of the regions’ – deliberately trying to increase the human capital in their areas. Many others, however, see little reason to increase the competition for jobs that they and their families now control.

Whether or not they are being deliberately obstructive, those who are making decisions now are products of the very system that so desperately needs to be changed. Centuries of underinvestment in education, decades of treating schools like an extension of the bureaucracy, years, for every child, of rote learning – the vast majority of Indonesians from university lecturers to teachers to parents are a product of this system. It’s a system which stifles curiosity, undermines critical thinking and entrenches low expectations.

Doing OK, on paper

As I mentioned, one of the government’s approaches to increasing the skills of teachers (and, as it happens, civil servants, the police force, and the military) is to require them to acquire more ‘qualifications’ themselves. Besides the 90-hour boot camp, from 2015, all teachers are supposed to have a four year college education under their belt. Indonesia’s Open University has done especially well out of that; of the half-million students who are currently doing on-line degrees, over three quarters work as teachers, many in places with no internet access.

That ought, perhaps, to be worrying. But there is no real expectation that a ‘qualification’ – an ‘ijazah’, usually a piece of paper emblazoned with the word ‘Diploma’ in mock-gothic script – actually qualifies anyone to do anything in particular. As a Javanese engineer with a PhD said to me: ‘For most Indonesians, education is about getting a diploma, not about learning anything. So really, why stress about quality?’

Many people go one step further: they don’t stress about the education bit at all. They just find an internet cafe and order their ijazah. One company which charges four million rupiah for a high school certificate and twice that for a university degree, declares that its offerings are: SAFE, LEGAL, REGISTERED AT UNIVERSITY/ COLLEGE, CAN BE USED FOR ENTRY (CIVIL SERVICE, ARMY, POLICE, STATE COMPANY, PRIVATE SECTOR). On their website, these purveyors of instant education remind customers that: ‘Nb: All people have a right to work and a decent education, regardless of whether they are upper, middle or working class. That’s why we are here for those of you who need certificates.’

The National Electoral Commission reports that the single most common complaint they receive about candidates for district head, mayor and MP is that they don’t actually meet the minimum educational requirements for their post; their ijazah are fake.

People who just buy their diplomas off the shelf at least get what they pay for. But many Indonesian families are making huge sacrifices so that children can become graduates, and they are getting far less than they deserve. Many send their children to private ‘les’, or tutoring, often from the same teachers who are supposed to be teaching their children in classrooms. Parents seem to think their kids will get better quality schooling if they pay extra for it, but the evidence does not support this. An international comparison found that private tutoring did indeed increase children’s performance in every country studied except Indonesia, where it made no difference. There’s a circularity here: the products of a poor system don’t always have the skills to expect, let alone to demand, better for the next generation.

But what about the middle class parents, the ones who went to the expensive private schools staffed by educators not bureaucrats, the ones who went to the better state universities, the ones who studied abroad, even? Why are they not railing against the appalling state of education in Indonesia, why are they not up in arms at the prospect of schools that don’t teach science?

To be fair, there was enough of a protest in 2012 that the ministry of education scaled back its plans; instead of foisting the science-free curriculum on over 100,000 schools all at once, they are rolling it out more slowly, starting with around 6000 schools. After that small compromise, the protests went quiet.

Most Indonesians who realise how bad the national school system is simply don’t engage with it. Like well-educated, well-heeled people the world over, they send their children to private schools. Though that in itself is no guarantee of a better education. Indeed the newly-released PISA results show that students in Indonesia’s state schools score better than those in private schools. (More detailed studies suggest that the exception is Christian private schools, which consistently achieve the best results).

Higher education

Nothing is more ubiquitous on the walls of Indonesian houses these days than photographs of young people in caps and gowns. Even kindergartens are staging graduation ceremonies, but most of the photos so proudly displayed are of children clutching diplomas from high school, or of ‘sarjana’, college graduates. I’m not talking about middle class homes. I’ve recently stayed with three or four Indonesian couples who are themselves illiterate: all had photos of their graduate children on their walls.

Poor parents often work very hard to allow their children to finish school. But where does all their investment lead? Six million Indonesians who have graduated from high school currently have no job. The government considers graduates of high schools and vocational schools to be ‘skilled’, but employers beg to differ. Eight out of ten employers say they struggle to fill managerial jobs. Close to half of the ‘skilled’ workers they do hire, even for the less demanding posts, don’t have the critical thinking, computing or English language skills they need to do their jobs well, employers say. Most big companies retrain almost everyone who walks in the door.

Some years ago, when German trained engineer and subsequent interim president B. J. Habibie was influential in government, there was a national debate about increasing technical and vocational training in Indonesia. Habibie favoured refocusing the education system; he was shouted down by old school academics who objected that this amounted to turning Indonesians into nothing more than labourers. As a result, there has been a vast expansion of courses in traditional cap-and-gown subjects, while employers are left without welders or engineers.

Access to higher education has expanded massively in Indonesia in recent years; the number of young people in higher education grew by 60 per cent between 1999 and 2010, to over 4.3 million. But again, quality is a concern. Of the roughly 3500 universities and colleges registered with Indonesia’s Ministry of Education, (this excludes the Islamic schools administered by the Ministry of Religion), fewer than 100 are state run. Supervision of private institutions is all but non-existent. Standards are slipping even at the ‘top five’, the best state universities which are Indonesia's equivalent of Oxbridge or the Ivy League. Not one of the country’s top five universities made the Times Higher Education Supplement’s ranking of the 400 top universities in the world in 2012, and none made it to the Asian top 100 either.

This is in part because the partial privatisation of state universities has led them to auction places off to the highest bidder: students with indifferent grades can get a place to study medicine at a top university if they pay some 250 million rupiah before fees. And it is in part because university professors are promoted simply on the basis of seniority, with little or no attention paid to innovation in research or excellence in teaching (though this, too, is supposed to be changing).

On paper, Indonesians are certainly getting more schooled. But until they start to demand more of their educational institutions, it seems unlikely that they will get any more skilled.

Elizabeth Pisani’s book Indonesia Etc., Exploring the Improbable Nation will be published by Granta, WW Norton and Lontar in June 2014. Contacts and commentary at

Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013
]]> (Elizabeth Pisani) Sat, 07 Dec 2013 21:14:48 GMT
Blaming Papuans Education is a mess in Papua’s highlands, but fault doesn’t lie with the Papuans alone

Jenny Munro

munro 1No Papuan heroes: Schoolchildren parade with pictures of Indonesian nationalist heroes in Wamena  Jenny Munro

A recent Inside Indonesia article by Bobby Anderson argues that the greatest failures of special autonomy in Papua are not those elements implemented by Jakarta, but health and education services turned over to provincial and district authorities. Anderson is right that special autonomy is a boon for the powerful and a disaster for the majority, including school children. But at every turn, he finds a way to blame Papuans, ignoring a broader context of historical mistreatment, state repression, and power dynamics that implicate state and corporate actors.

Rather than find fault with indigenous teachers, parents and district officials in remote areas, I suggest in this article that we need to look at the ways by which Indonesian policies are promoting movement from remote rural areas, rather than investment in local capacities, and thus contributing to the evisceration of rural services. I question core assumptions that Anderson and other commentators have about the so-called Papuanisation of the civil service. It’s also much too easy to blame a local indigenous ‘elite’, forgetting that this elite does not operate in isolation from powerful Indonesian and corporate interests. While Papuans may be the easy target in attempts to diagnose Papua’s contemporary ills, Jakarta persists in a colonial tradition of rolling out development policies without regard for local wisdom or critique. We should never forget that.

Education in historical perspective

Anderson claims that the failure of the education system in the highlands is systemic now, but that it was not always this way and that things were much better when the missionaries were in charge. I question whether there was ever a functioning education system in the highlands.

The problems Anderson describes are hardly new and long pre-date the transfer of authority to the province that came with special autonomy. His depiction of missionary education as the pinnacle of schooling in the highlands is particularly misplaced, unless the primary goal of education is spreading the gospel, moralising about indigenous customs, promoting cultural assimilation, and organising activities such as building bridges and raising rabbits. Perhaps Anderson’s nostalgia for missionary education reflects the views of a particular set of informants – other people certainly have very different interpretations.

The Indonesian national education system has been an extension of missionary efforts to ‘civilise’ highlanders and to promote mainstream Indonesian values, lifestyles and beliefs. Ever since Papua became part of Indonesia, schooling has always been primarily aimed at inculcating Indonesian identity and spreading national messages, rather than advancing literacy, mathematics or other basic skills.

There is, however, no question that school enrolment levels are very low, have been for a long time, and are possibly getting worse. High mobility of children and families, their intermittent education experiences and poor record-keeping make it difficult to get an accurate picture of school participation in the highlands. I have heard complaints in Papua about the quality of literacy achievements among high school and university graduates but I would dispute the validity of Anderson’s blanket statement that ‘the majority of highland high school graduates are barely literate’. My own research suggests that for highlanders entering high school indicates a serious commitment to studies, including an aspiration to pursue higher education, and that high school graduates are literate.

Anderson claims problems with the education services are ‘systemic’ and appears to blame the Wamena Incident in 2000 for the destruction of education services. This blame seems ill-placed. Migrants did leave, some never to return, but new migrants arrived, and indigenous teachers make up a large proportion of the workforce. The violence that shapes everyday life in the highlands is more often produced by the security sector, which has a more sustained impact on education participation and quality than any single historical event.

The blame game

Anderson attributes the ‘death’ of the education system to flawed human resource management and local understandings of education, among other factors. He argues that schools are not the problem, teachers are. I concur that the Indonesian government, spurred by international development agencies, has built many school buildings in Papua. But the problem isn’t necessarily that there is a superfluity of schools. Many schools are in the wrong place. A 2009 World Bank study found that in Jayawijaya there were just four primary schools per 1000 school-age children, which is roughly half the national average. Around 60 per cent of all villages in Jayawijaya did not have a primary school, and the average distance from these villages to the nearest school was seven kilometres. The average distance from these villages to a secondary school ranged from 23 to 32 kilometres, in areas where public transport is almost nonexistent. Before we argue that new schools are not needed in Papua, it would be worthwhile to investigate this issue more thoroughly.

Anderson argues that the Papuanisation of the civil service under special autonomy has led to a flood of unqualified indigenous teachers who are causing the education system to fail. Anderson’s claim that unqualified persons are being slotted into jobs on the basis of their clan affiliations rather than their skills echoes the sort of stereotyping that is common in Papua. For years, people have been saying that Papuan highlanders possess no skills or capabilities and exemplify poor quality human resources. It follows, if we believe Anderson’s logic, that the only way highlanders could have increased their numbers in the civil service so rapidly under special autonomy is through nepotism.

But there is a broader context here too: the history of employing unqualified non-indigenous in Papua. This practice was a reflection of racial judgments and the logistics of colonial administration. During the Dutch era, non-Papuans were chosen as teachers because authorities thought they would have a civilising effect on the indigenous population, due to their ethnic heritage, not their qualifications. Under Indonesian rule, Papua has emerged as a land of opportunity for migrants in many types of employment, regardless of their credentials or skills. Just a few decades ago, a primary school diploma from Java could get you a top-level job in the Papuan civil service.

There is currently no evidence to back up assertions about the ‘Papuanisation’ of the civil service, or whether an ostensible increase in numbers means anything in terms of greater authority or empowerment of indigenous Papuans. In 2009, I analysed newspaper announcements pertaining to the acceptance of new recruits into the Jayawijaya district civil service. Local indigenous people accounted for 112 of 275 new recruits (41 per cent), while 163 of the new employees (59 per cent) were from outside the central highlands. I also considered the types of employment gained by local indigenous recruits. Most of the local indigenous candidates, 58 of 112 (52 per cent), were accepted as teachers in primary and secondary schools, but even in this field they were outnumbered by 99 non-indigenous recruits. Papuans were not getting the senior positions.

There is also no evidence that indigenous entrants to the civil service, including teachers, are lacking credentials, or that Papuans who gain employment through nepotistic means do so more frequently than non-indigenous persons. I know men and women in the central highlands who possess a diploma, and have passed the entrance exam several times, but were forced to bribe the district head in order to acquire a job. A friend, Marta, one of the first high school graduates from her village, was assigned to street cleaning duties. In the village where I work, most of the new indigenous civil servants occupy these sorts of jobs, leading me to question what Papuanisation really means, and if it reflects any of the principles of empowerment and opportunity that its supporters claim.

Anderson finds indigenous teachers at the heart of the ‘no-show’ jobs problem, but lack of productivity among civil servants goes back far beyond special autonomy. Even today, the ‘no-show’ phenomenon is most notable among migrants who occupy most of the mid-to-top echelon civil service positions.

Is Papuan-oriented curriculum a ‘flawed solution’?

According to Anderson, a Papuan-oriented curriculum for school children won’t improve the education system. He cites extreme views allegedly held by some proponents of a special curriculum, namely that Papuan children are only interested in Papuan content, as evidence of racist thinking that flies in the face of his own view that children everywhere in the world are the same. But this is a red herring. The real issue is that the existing curriculum lacks recognisable content that can affirm that Papuan faces, languages, cultural formations and experiences have a place in the nation, in the education system and in modernising Papua. Papua-related content is a much-needed corrective to the stream of ideas and images that have been flowing in from outside for decades, which implicitly tell Papuan children that they have no place and no value in contemporary society.

What takes place in schools has the power to validate or invalidate indigenous lifestyles, to affirm or deny cultural belonging. Surely the use of Papuan languages and cultural content in schools is a small but positive step in the direction of rectifying decades of cultural denial and denigration. It is not a silver bullet but engaging, locally-appropriate curriculum has been shown to improve school participation in other contexts where foreign and colonial agendas first defined the nature and content of schooling.

Stereotyping Papuan parents

Finally, after teachers and curriculum, Anderson blames rural Papuan parents for having a flawed understanding of education. He argues that rural Papuans view education as a ‘supernatural key to advancement and wealth in an animistic belief system.’ Highlanders have explained to me different ways of looking at education: as a way of developing future independence, a way out of subsistence agriculture, a way of recovering power taken by the Indonesian state, a way of outsmarting migrants, and a way of participating in development and in the nation-state. The spirit world never came up in these discussions.

What Anderson calls ceremonial exchange and acts of gift-giving in the acquisition of education, my informants describe in less dramatic terms as small amounts of money given to teachers for school reports. Everyone acknowledges this is a hassle, but it hardly registers in the grand scheme of highlands exchange relationships.

Regardless of their level of literacy, I have always found that parents are ardent supporters of school and keen critics of the education system and their family’s particular challenges with it. Representations of illiterate highlands parents as naïve and ignorant, or as engaging the education system primarily through traditional beliefs and economies, is entirely misleading.

Who are ‘local elites’?

Anderson makes strong claims about ‘local elites’ who control the flow of special autonomy funds and channel what he calls no-show jobs to their clan affiliates. This category is conveniently vague, merging important questions of class and ethnicity in the highlands. If we mean local indigenous elites, in the highlands we are mainly talking about the district head (bupati) and allies who are part of his ‘success team’ (‘tim sukses’), the team formed formed to help him design and win an election campaign. In Jayawijaya, the elite might also include indigenous members of parliament who live in nicer houses and have a reputation for drinking and promiscuity.

Apart from this tiny group, an ‘upper class’ indigenous family in Wamena lives in a wooden house in the city, owns a television, can afford food and schooling costs, and has a few pigs in the backyard for funerals or weddings. But that’s it. Such people might be religious leaders (ministers or preachers) or civil servants, with multiple families or generations living together to pool resources. People who maintain ties to land in a rural community might lease this land or use exchange relationships and agricultural activities to raise money for urban expenditures. Cultural norms in the highlands make it difficult to accumulate wealth beyond the basics, and financial circumstances can destabilise quickly. Families who are not struggling to pay for food and school costs are in the minority.

Anderson’s analysis ignores another more common and more obvious type of local elite: non-indigenous migrants who live in fancy houses, own stores and other business ventures, and fly in their new sport utility vehicles to drive around town. These are the people who have real money in the highlands.

Moreover, if someone at the apex of the indigenous elite – the head of Jayawijaya district for example - is benefiting from special autonomy funds this comes mainly via construction contracts that he gives his own companies. Such a person is enabled by political support from migrants, by corruption in the electoral commission, and by Jakarta’s laissez-faire attitude about anything that doesn’t openly speak the word ‘merdeka’ (independence) in Papua. Corruption and maladministration are tolerated, even encouraged, by the powers that be in Indonesia as part of their strategy of political control.

Before we let Jakarta off the hook by blaming locals for failing to implement special autonomy, it is worth noting that Papuan commentators predicted that special autonomy and similar funding schemes would be a nightmare to implement, adding to social disruption and economic hardship, not to mention violence and the HIV epidemic. They were ignored by Jakarta. It hardly seems fair to blame local government officials for failing to implement an agenda they never supported or agreed to in the first place.

munro 2New power and old power: a district official at the Baliem Valley festival   Jenny Munro

The bigger picture?

Anderson spells out some of the logistical dynamics that make being a teacher, a student, or a parent complicated in the highlands, but there are broader conditions at play that affect the state of the education system. He points to local corruption, lack of expectations regarding work performance, and poor human resource management. But what may appear as local failures are best understood in relation to the region’s political history, and the policy environment created by Jakarta. Entrenched ethnic, cultural, and political tensions affect local engagements with, and the provision of, education services.

Accusations of indigenous inferiority position urban or Indonesian-occupied sites in the highlands as places of success, modernity, and safety. The town of Wamena, not far from the massive Freeport McMoran copper mine, exemplifies Indonesian modernity; whatever struggles and bloodshed the city has gone through in the past it is now largely acquiescent to the Indonesian state and its security sector. It is no wonder that civil servants, including teachers, educated individuals, professionals, and those with resources (or even a taxi fare), are drawn to the city, while remote areas become overrun with security personnel.

Anderson’s critique accepts on principle Jakarta’s view that pemekaran (the policy of breaking up districts and other administrative units to make more, smaller units) and special autonomy are intended to extend governance and development to remote areas, and to enhance the participation of Papuans, even only elite Papuans, in those processes. But there is another way of looking at these policies: as part of the grand scheme of Indonesian government development initiatives, and just the latest among many such initiatives rolled out over the years in Papua. The reality of these policies show us that development is not really aimed at improving the lives of Papuans in remote, rural spaces but rather at shifting them to regional centres and cities where they can be better managed by the state, leaving remote areas open to resource exploitation. From this perspective it is no surprise that education services do not function in remote areas of the highlands.

Rather than accept Jakarta’s view, it’s better to think critically about how the results of special autonomy align with a modernisation agenda that pleases Jakarta. As remote populations move to regional centres, we can see the penetration into those populations, or at least their elites, of understandings of Indonesian modernity. Local people start to measure their successes and failures in terms of how they and other Papuans perform in terms of Indonesian standards of educational attainment, bureaucratic performance, leadership qualities, and all the rest. They may view rural agricultural lifestyles as backward and hopeless, and cultural traditions as irrelevant baggage.

Shifts in perspective have tangible outcomes. If we think we have poverty and famine in highlands Papua now, just wait until the indigenous population has abandoned agriculture and moved to the city expecting to live off a cash income. As Anderson’s analysis demonstrates well, the implementation of special autonomy creates a local blame game, amplifying ethnic, clan, and class divisions. People start to direct discord internally, at their fellow Papuans, rather than collectively outward towards Jakarta and the Indonesian state.

If nothing else, the state should take some responsibility for ignoring, indeed, furthering undemocratic conditions that hamper the proper delivery of services in the new climate of decentralisation. In Jayawijaya, for example, Jakarta enables a district head whose priorities are profit and infrastructure development by whatever means, in part because he cooperates with a deputy head of North Sulawesi heritage, an intelligence officer who recently retired from the army. The district head is also backed by political supporters who are not just clan affiliates, as Anderson assumes, but also Indonesian elites with corporate interests.

The sort of local accountability that decentralised services require in order to function well is unlikely to be possible in an atmosphere of repression, such as that which prevails in the highlands. In my experience, members of the public would like to publicly criticise their local governments and collectively show their discontent about the poor education, health and other services they receive. But both the security forces and the local government disapprove of public gatherings and critical speech. Because of past and present security sector violence, people are nervous about getting involved in the sort of political activism that might generate greater accountability.

Special autonomy in the ‘kingdom system’

None of this is to deny that corrupt local officials are beneficiaries of and participants in dysfunctional governance. As an example, the head of Jayawijaya district recently held elections to have himself re-elected (he got 91 per cent of the vote) in defiance of a directive from Jakarta to postpone the election due to irregularities in the democratic process. The district head allegedly had the local electoral commission dismiss all the popular opposing candidates on the grounds that they failed to correctly complete candidacy paperwork.

And despite the complaints from Jakarta, nothing was done when the election went ahead. Local people referred to this outcome as evidence of a ‘kingdom system’ (‘sistem kerajaan’) that now operates in the district. In the kingdom system, credentials are established through force and demonstrated by material wealth. The rule of law is subverted in order to further personal ambitions. An entourage of silent supporters benefits from corruption and hierarchical relationships. The nation-state asserts due process, promises development, and then looks away.

Anderson’s analysis of such situations in the highlands stops at the actions of the indigenous government official. But what we need to do is to adopt a view that also includes the actions and agency of powerful allies in the Indonesian state as well as corporate interests and non-indigenous supporters. Election politics in the highlands, and beyond, are expensive. Between campaign funds, transportation costs, and vote-buying, the average candidate will say they need about 500 million rupiah (about US$41,000) to have any chance at winning. The only individuals with access to that kind of money are Indonesian businesspeople and security sector figures.

In recent years, the Jayawijaya district leaders have secured such financial support by carrying on with an ‘open for business’ policy. There is, locals say, no chance of a district head being elected who doesn’t support (and finance) in-migration, urbanisation, and construction projects that primarily employ migrant labour. Indigenous government officials openly refer to this set of circumstances as being ‘inside the system’ – to hold a position of authority an indigenous person must be thoroughly entangled in a pre-established web of power, and aligned with the interests of the Indonesian state.

It is not the condition of the school, the teacher, or the curriculum per se that determines the state of education in highlands Papua. Rather, it is the condition of everyday life. The problems of education can hardly be reduced to human resource management, as Anderson argues. It is not possible to seek solutions solely by judging individual schools as either superior or inferior, individual teachers as either good or bad, or even individual government officials as either corrupt or upstanding.

All the problems besetting education in Papua’s highlands must be viewed in a broader context of policy and security conditions that promote urbanisation and neglect rural areas, inter-ethnic and corporate alliances that aim to strip Papua of its natural resources, and empty promises of prosperity and empowerment that ask Papuans to wait for government handouts while the real opportunities are offered to others. None of these conditions has arisen solely as a result of special autonomy, they are all part of a long-standing experience of marginalisation and inequality. To neglect this broader context is to reproduce a long history of discourses that blame Papuans for problems primarily created by others.

Jenny Munro ( is a research fellow at the Australian National University and has been working on projects related to education, youth, migration, and HIV/AIDS in Papua and West Papua provinces since 2006.

Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013{jcomments on}


]]> (Jenny Munro) Sat, 14 Dec 2013 21:09:00 GMT
Review: Voices from the unheard Leila S. Chudori’s novel Pulang is an important addition to a growing literature examining the events of 1965-66 and its aftermath


Pam Allen

In a recent Tempo article, Goenawan Mohamad described 1965 as ‘a kind of code … for a catastrophic occurrence – and because of this, always simplified.’ He went on to observe that 2012 seemed to be a year of remembering, or imagining, 1965.

One of the most significant manifestations of that remembering was the special September 2012 edition of Tempo that featured interviews with people who had taken part in murdering communists or suspected communists in 1965-1966. In response to this and to the government-appointed Human Rights Commission report on the conduct of the killings, young people in particular have expressed their shock at discovering an aspect of Indonesia’s past of which they had no previous knowledge.

A similar broadening of the discourse on 1965 can be seen in works of fiction reimagining the events of 1965–1966. Such fiction was formerly the domain of authors who had personally lived through the events, such as Umar Kayam and Ahmad Tohari. Now, however, stories on this theme are fictional recollections of an imagined past.

The phenomenon of imagining 1965, alluded to by Goenawan Mohamad, has resulted in a flurry of creative output – fiction, theatre, film – over the last 18 months. Examples include the novels Cerita Cinta Enrico by Ayu Utami (2012), Amba by Laksmi Pamuntjak (2012), Candik Ala 1965 by Tinuk Yampolsky (2011) and Ayu Manda by I Made Darmawan (2010).

Chudori's Pulang

A very important contribution to this literary phenomenon was the publication in December 2012 of Leila Chudori's novel Pulang (Going Home). Greeted with much acclaim by literary critics in Indonesia, this is Chudori's antidote to the 'official history of 1965', which was her diet as a school student growing up under the Suharto regime.

Like many Indonesians too young to remember the events of 1965, but kept in the dark about them, Chudori sought answers about what she calls the 'black hole' of Indonesian history. Because history books did not provide the answers, and because her parents' generation would not speak of the events, she sought to explore and imagine the answers through creative writing – in her case, a novel drawing on years of meticulous research based on real-life characters.

As Chuori describes in her article here, her first encounter with the 'black hole' was her discovery of Restaurant Indonesia in Paris. Founded as a cooperative in 1982, it has always been more than just a restaurant. Its original purpose was to provide employment for Indonesian political refugees, including Umar Said and Sobron Aidit, who were unable to return to Indonesia after the 1965 attempted coup. .

As well as promoting Indonesian culture through exhibitions, dance and performances, it has provided a forum for intense political and philosophical discussions. The key protagonists of Pulang – Dimas Suryo, Nugroho Dewantoro, Tjai Sin Soe and Ristjaf – are loosely based on those unlikely restaurateurs.

While the tumultuous events of 1965 are the backdrop of the story, this is not a novel about ideology or political power. It is about the impact of 1965 and its aftermath on the daily lives of the exiles, their families and friends, including those left behind in Indonesia. Inevitably this includes stories of love, lust and betrayal. It describes the constant low-level intimidation faced by the restaurant owners, regarded by the Indonesian authorities as dangerous on account of their political persuasions. It includes Dimas not being present when his mother dies in Indonesia.

But it also includes laughter, adventure and food – especially food. The completely inexperienced restaurateurs devise mouth-watering menus and prove adept at producing Indonesian dishes guaranteed to win the hearts of the diaspora in Paris and educate the French about Indonesian cuisine.

Notwithstanding several flashbacks to the 1950s, the action of Pulang begins in 1965 and ends in 1998: sandwiched between two cataclysmic events of modern Indonesian history. Dimas Suryo and his colleagues are attending a conference of journalists in Santiago, Chile, at the time of the attempted coup. As suspected communist sympathisers, their passports are revoked and they cannot return home. Moving from Chile to Cuba to China over the ensuing years, they eventually end up in Paris where they open their restaurant. Despite that enforced distance from their homeland, their yearning for and connection with Indonesia is the key thread of the novel.

Despite having a girlfriend back in Indonesia, Dimas marries a French girl during the 1968 revolution in Paris. They give their daughter an Indonesian name – Lintang Utara – that reflects the father's longing to go home. It is not until much later, as a young undergraduate student, that Lintang finally has the opportunity to visit the country of her father's birth, only to arrive in Jakarta on the eve of the chaotic 1998 demonstrations that eventually lead to the downfall of President Suharto.

As she has done in her other writing (see for example the stories in The Longest Kiss, her recently published translated short story anthology), Chudori manages to make Indonesia a constant presence on the pages of this novel without having to make repeated reference to it. It is, of course, an imagined Indonesia for the protagonists - a country symbolised for Dimas by the big glass jars of cloves and saffron in his kitchen. (Chudori has spoken of President Abdurrahman's visit to Paris when he asked what could be done for the exiles. Their poignant response: all they wanted was their green Indonesian passports.) For the next generation, Lintang Utara, Indonesia is 'a blood relationship that I do not know.'

In Chudori's own words, she wanted to explore in this novel the mindsets of Dimas and his colleagues who, although they had lived in Paris for most of their adult lives, 'still felt they were a part of Indonesia, no matter what kind of passports they were issued, and no matter how their government treated them.' Equally, she is exploring the worldview and sentiments of that younger generation of Indonesians who seek a definition of what she terms I-N-D-O-N-E-S-I-A (a deliberately disjointed visual representation of the word, indicating its unfinished status).

Currently being translated by John McGlynn, we can expect the English version of the novel in 2014. (See an excerpt from the English translation)

Leila S. Chudori, Pulang, a Novel, Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2013.

Pam Allen ( teaches Indonesian and Asian Studies in the School of Asian Languages and Studies at the University of Tasmania.


Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013
]]> (Pam Allen) Sat, 04 Jan 2014 10:06:00 GMT
Seeking identity, seeking Indonesia Pulang's author reflects on writing the stories of those unseen and unheard

Leila S. Chudori

chudori 1For Indonesia, 1965 is a year which remains shrouded in darkness. To use Goenawan Mohamad’s term, is a titimangsa; a ‘black hole’ which symbolises the establishment of the power of Suharto’s New Order, the beginning of a period which spelled the end of the ongoing political chaos. According to the New Order’s official version of history, 1965 is synonymous with the successful eradication of an unwanted ideology.

As part of the generation born in the 1960s, I initially knew it as the 30 September 1965 incident, which the New Order government called the G30S/PKI. Our generation only knew the official history, which for 32 years was promulgated in Indonesian history books, school curricula, statues, museums, film and in government ‘white’ books (official statements) distributed to the media to be reported on.

No-one dared or was able to question this one-sided version of history – that is, if they were concerned about their personal safety. Everything that was considered to be leftist, left-leaning, Communist-leaning, or ‘Red’ could only be spoken of in hushed tones. One felt that if anyone spoke about these things in a loud voice the country would suddenly be swallowed by the earth.

Shining a light into the black hole

The official ban on the works of some of the famous literary figures – at that time the government dubbed it ‘the spreading of Marxism’ – made people of my generation want to know more. I was 19 years old and home for the summer break after a year living and studying in Canada when I learned about the tetralogy by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. I made a secretive purchase at Pasar Senen. It was like a scene from a thriller. We had to place an order with someone, meet at a certain place to make the exchange of cash for the book wrapped in newspaper, which I took to Canada and read on campus.

The idea to write the novel Pulang did not come on its own. It came little by little, as answers to parts of my questions about that black hole. The big names, important events and monumental years are always a part of Indonesian history. However, among those major figures, between the events which must be committed to the memories of school students in their history lessons or by university history majors, and among the dates considered to be historical, there were thousands if not millions of names which were nowhere to be found.

Restoran Indonesia

I first came across the Restoran Indonesia, on the Rue de Vaugirard in central Paris, when I was on a trip around Europe with my friends from North America and Europe to celebrate finishing my education in Canada. I had been a scholarship student, so money was tight and, with no certainty about ever travelling overseas again, I felt this was my one and only opportunity to touch Europe before going home and entering the ‘real world’ filled with responsibilities. I never imagined that my first experience with that Indonesian restaurant in Paris would be my first encounter with black hole known as Indonesian History.

Even though it was only in passing, it was the first time I directly knew about Indonesian political exile in Europe, although I knew a little about the plight of the political prisoners who continued to live under pressure from the New Order government. Through my late father, who worked as an Antara News Agency reporter, I had had the chance to meet several political prisoners from Buru Island. When I joined Tempo Magazine in 1989, that black hole felt even deeper. I knew Pak Amarzan Loebis, an artist who was held on Buru Island for eleven years, who at that time had to use an alias. I also knew some children of political prisoners who worked at major media outlets in Indonesia, Tempo included, who had to change their names or intentionally avoid using their family name.

It was then that I first became aware of an incredibly absurd concept called Bersih Diri, Personally Clean and Bersih Lingkungan, Associatively Clear, which was issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs. This policy banned people who were not Personally Clean (political prisoners, members of the Indonesian Communist Party or PKI, or similar organisations) or not Associatively Clean (the families of political prisoners) from becoming members of the Indonesian military (TNI) or national police, teachers, priests, or entering professions which could influence the public. Because of this regulation, discrimination was not only directed against former political prisoners of the 1965 tragedy, but also towards their grandchildren. In order to ensure that this system persisted, former political prisoners had the code ET (Ex-Political Prisoner) on their national identity cards. To check that they were ‘Clear of Association’ a prospective employee would be subject to a Special Investigation.

My days as a Tempo reporter during the New Order period were strange and absurd. It was a stressful and interesting time for someone like me, who was still young. I say strange because we were trained to become reporters with integrity, but at the same time we knew - back then - that we could not write freely and extensively about, let’s say, the businesses of the president’s family; nor to mention or criticise or come out against government policies which benefited his cronies. This was especially true about questioning matters connected with the events of 30 September 1965. Once, Tempo dared to skirt danger by touching upon the behavior of the president’s family. Afterwards we had to ‘lay low’ for a few weeks before daring to try anything similar.

I began to feel that there were some Indonesians who had become invisible. They were Indonesian citizens but their rights were denied by the government and in turn by the public, who for decades had been brainwashed that anything associated with communism was denying God. For me, who grew up and became an adult during the New Order period, I was conscious of a historical and political absurdity. I saw how Indonesia had the same president and many different vice presidents during that time. I witnessed the impotence of the legal system, legislature and judiciary. Everything emanated from just one person. I also remember how my father, as a reporter, as well as my seniors, including the Editor-in-Chief, Goenawan Mohamad, were upset on various occasions by warnings and insinuations made by the Ministry of Information – warnings issued on the basis that some media offices continued to employ family members of political prisoners.

Tempo was finally banned by the government in June 1994, for a cover story about the purchase of used warships from East Germany. That story criticised the policy of the Minister of Research and Technology, BJ Habibie, but President Suharto took it personally. Some of my friends and I are still bitter about this incident. We felt the source of our productivity was suddenly taken away. It was no surprise if we were among the tens of millions of Indonesians who were brimming with hope when university students occupied the House of Representatives (DPR) building in mid-May 1998, demanding that President Suharto step down. For me, the black hole named ‘The History of Indonesia’ found a ray of light when President Suharto resigned on 21 May 1998.

Writing Pulang

The novel Pulang commences at the beginning of 1965 – with several flashbacks to the 1950s – and ends in the year 1998. I had determined that I wanted to tell the story of two generations, the generation of the father (represented by Dimas Suryo) through the events of September 1965 and the generation of his daughter, Lintang Utara, who comes back to Indonesia to find meaning in being an Indonesian and finding out what Indonesia really means.

I was interested to tell the story of political exiles who could not return home. I wanted to dig into their psyche; delve into the minds of those who lived far from their homeland but still felt they were a part of Indonesia, no matter what kind of passports they were issued and no matter how the government treated them.

I became acquainted with Oemar Said, Sobron Aidit and their friends in Paris, as a group of Indonesian political exiles who had decided to establish Restoran Indonesia as a part of their resistance. I used them, and especially Oemar Said, as the ‘model’ in the novel for a group of political exiles, consisting of Dimas Suryo, Nugroho Dewantoro, Tjai Sin Soe and Mohammad Risjaf. In Pulang, the story goes that while they were on a trip as reporters, to Santiago, Chile, the bloody 30 September 1965 incident took place back home. Their passports were revoked, after which they had to move from country to country, until finally settling in Paris and establishing their restaurant.

Of course the real lives of the founders of Restoran Indonesia in Paris are far more complex and difficult. Their journey from one country to another was a harrowing one. It is important to remember that Pulang is fiction, not a history book, memoir, or a biography. Even so, for six years I have researched and written – in the midst of my work as a journalist of Tempo and as a mother – I visited Paris twice and corresponded through email and even met Pak Sobron in Jakarta. The exiles and prisoners agreed to and supported my desire to write a novel.

What I have taken from their stories are the feelings and psyche of a political exile. Through Dimas Suryo’s character, I hoped to convey a sense of how Indonesia remained in the hearts and souls of these exiles during their time in Paris. How they demonstrated their deep concern for Indonesia in a manner which was so sincere, like the character Ekalaya from the Mahabharata plays who loved and respected his teacher, Arjuna, unconditionally. So much so, that he sacrificed his own passion for archery and ambition, so that his teacher could remain the greatest archer.

Despite Dimas’ love for Indonesia his citizenship was denied by the Indonesian government. His passport was revoked and after he was granted asylum by the French government his visa request to enter Indonesia was always rejected. The existential dilemma faced by Dimas was one theme which greatly drew my attention. I remembered when President Abdurrahman Wahid visited Europe, and asked if anything could be done for those who had been exiled. They replied that they simply wanted (standard) green Indonesian passports.

For me, who read about this on the front page of the Kompas newspaper, this was an important and moving question. Even though they had already received asylum and had passports from European nations, they still wanted to feel that they were a part of Indonesia. This is why in the novel I stressed the strong desire of the Dimas character to define himself as an Indonesian who wanted to return to Indonesia to live and die, but who was unable to reach his homeland. Each year Dimas applies for a visa in order to be able to enter Indonesia, but he fails time and time again.

I chose to make it a family drama. Besides the political prisoners and exiles, those who suffered most were their families. I decided to make Pulang a story about Dimas and his family, with all of the little details in the daily lives of the families of political exiles including Dimas’ political prisoner friends and their families living in Jakarta. I was not interested in portraying the major events, such as political disputes among elite military circles.

I also intentionally did not pay a much attention to the authorities. The reason for doing so is simple enough, even though it would easily become a point of criticism. I felt that for 32 years the rulers had given their version of history so long that it had become the entrenched version. The New Order government had sufficiently spoken and dominated their view of Indonesian history. Now it was my turn to try and listen and understand those who had lived life as shadows. They existed, but they were non-entities. They had physical form, but they were not treated as complete human beings. For me, as the storyteller, I wanted to listen and (possibly) retell their stories, albeit as a work of fiction.

That is why I am interested in exploring what frolicked in the soul and minds of figures like Dimas Suryo in Santiago, in Havana, in Beijing, as well as in Paris. I am interested in the friendships and betrayals that exist in every relationship: romance and partings; joy and sadness, everything that exists in every family, though this particular life is far from that of a normal Indonesian family.

Beginning in 2005, each year Tempo magazine produced a special edition marking 30 September. In this first edition, prompted by Goenawan Mohamad’s suggestions, we included long features on ex-political prisoners and their families. The team of journalists, including myself, learnt of the difficulties endured by the families of political prisoners during Suharto’s regime. Again, what I portrayed in the novel was nothing compared to what the family experienced in real life.

From the outset I had decided that Pulang was not going to be a passionate novel about ideology. I did not want to put on any pretenses of wanting to join the political discussion. For me, that is not a novelist’s job. A novelist is a storyteller, not a historian or a politician who unleashes propaganda. The story is about the characters, the figures. I am just the medium.

I felt I owed it to myself to find out about that black hole which had been covered up for 32 years by the New Order, the story of the suffering of those whose ‘voices may not be heard’, and ‘whose bodies may not be seen‘, who are not recorded in history. It was well-said by Bagus Takwin, a lecturer in the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Indonesia in a discussion last January at Salihara, that this novel is about ‘those who were not counted in the collective known as Indonesia’.

Lintang and the next generation

These 'voices from the unheard' became the focus of attention in the final academic task of the Lintang Utara character, when she decided to go to Indonesia. Lintang Utara, Segara Alam and Bimo Nugroho are from the second generation in this novel, representing a generation that – as Goenawan Mohamad said in the work Catatan Pinggir – actively and consciously ‘wants to change Indonesia’. The youths who ‘took over the story want a different republic, one with the liberty their fathers and mothers never got to enjoy’.

Nothing is more pleasing for a writer if the intensity of the characters they create can be understood by the readers. For me, Lintang represents many youths of her generation, myself included, who intentionally make efforts to define what 'Indonesia’ is all about.

I always refer to a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi, from the Fantastic Stories of Persia: ‘Have you ever known a name without a nature? Or can you pick a rose from a “rose”?’ This verse forces me to see and understand everything more deeply. Lintang knows Indonesia, a part of Indonesia, from her father’s stories that actually have become a figure of history. Ironically, he is a part of Indonesia’s history that is not written.

For that, Lintang needs and wants to go to Indonesia to seek and swim in ’the blood relationship which I do not know called Indonesia’. Ever since she was a child Lintang has been well-acquainted with this chaotic politics and history. She knew why her father was in Paris: not for education; not an excursion; and not for work. She watched how the restaurant, where her father and his friends made their living, was terrorised. However, these are the only splashes and fragments she is experiencing. It is far lighter than what the families of prisoners’ experience in Indonesia. With that realisation, Lintang faces her professor, and says ‘I think I will not make myself a victim’.

In Indonesia, Lintang meets with children of her father’s friends, Segara Alam, the son of Hananto, and Bimo Nugroho, the son of Nugroho Dewantoro. From these two new friends Lintang feels that the life of advocacy taken up by those two activists is a way of life which is similar to her own direction: searching for a new definition of Indonesia.

Lintang also realises that she is facing a situation where she must define herself vis-à-vis the New Order establishment, something she rarely experienced while in Paris. She sees the Lubang Buaya Museum, which is a symbol and foundation of New Order power. She meets Bimo’s stepfather, an army general who married Nugroho Dewantoro’s ex-wife.

In a dinner scene that I have long prepared, Lintang must choose whether to reveal herself and the history of her family in front of the Priasmoro family who insults ‘that Commie restaurant’. Dinner time is a moment which, for some reason, always draws my attention, because this a time – in western and Indonesian families – when there are always moments where family members insult or belittle one another. The family dinner, in every culture, always becomes a stage for displaying power or frailty, or the cowardice or hypocrisy of family members. I like moments like these, because the truth is often revealed when someone who feels pressured has a psychological eruption.

Dinner in the Priamsoro house becomes a catastrophe, yet it reveals a truth. It becomes a source of pride and gives Lintang a definition about Indonesia and Indonesians. In Jakarta, too, Lintang sees Indonesia as it is. She sees daily protests and the terror her new friends face, before finally facing the May riots, which end with the resignation of President Suharto. That time was later seen as the downfall of (a part of) the New Order establishment.

I am not going to give a justification as to why I want to remain optimistic after 1998, especially since the country is still a mess. However, the end of this novel represents my optimism. When Lintang hears the sound of the university students occupying the DPR building she remarks, ‘the sound of those university students sounds so beautiful, much more powerful than a Ravel composition’.

I still feel the same way about hope for the future of my country. It is not nationalism or blind love, but a desire to do simple work. The use of the word ‘pulang’ (home) in this novel does not only represent Dimas Suryo or Lintang Utara, or even all of those who are not a part of the historical record. It represents all of us who want to take a step, however small, for Indonesia.


Leila S. Chudori ( is a novelist and journalist at Tempo magazine. She is also the author of 9 dari Nadira, Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2009. In December 2013, Pulang received the Khatulistiwa Literary Award for a work of outstanding literature.

Read Pam Allen's review of Pulang in this issue

Inside Indonesia 114: Oct-Dec 2013
]]> (Leila S. Chudori) Sat, 04 Jan 2014 13:43:00 GMT