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Banda burns

As Ambon's conflict spreads, fear breeds hatred of 'others' in the beautiful and remote Banda Islands

Phillip Winn

Burned-out houses with slogans on their walls: 'anti-Jesus', 'this house eats pork'. There had been little hint that such animosities existed in the Banda Islands. Only 18 months before I had spent nearly two years researching aspects of local identity in a Muslim community.

The Banda archipelago is a group of eleven small islands in Central Maluku, six to seven hours from the provincial capital Ambon by the fastest passenger ship. The huge province of Maluku consists of islands scattered between Sulawesi and Irian.

Clashes between Christian and Muslim neighbours occurred over the evening of 19-20 April. As elsewhere in Maluku, it related to events in Ambon, where unprecedented inter-communal violence has continued since 19 January 1999. As I write at the end of July, renewed unrest in the Poka and Galala areas just outside Ambon city adds more casualties and property damage to the toll.

The initial episode in Ambon began with an argument between a mini-bus driver and his passenger. It led to a conflict between their respective settlements Batu Merah (largely Christian) and Mardika (Muslim). This was not in itself exceptional, but the conflict spread quickly, initially between groups of Muslim migrants from southern Sulawesi and Christian Ambonese, then embracing Islamic and Christian communities of all kinds throughout Ambon, and throughout the province. Reports of 'ethnic clashes' rapidly changed to 'religious violence' as indigenous Muslims and indigenous Christians, once belonging to single communities, fought it out.

News quickly reached Banda. Local Muslims heard while calling relatives in Ambon to celebrate Lebaran, the end of the fasting month. Within a month, a formal 'peace accord' was signed between Muslim and Christian leaders in Banda Neira, district capital of the Banda Islands. But three months later conflict broke out here too, quite late when compared to the rapid spread in other areas. I want to focus on a single community, Lonthoir on the island of Banda Besar, to illustrate what happened.

The timing of the first clash, during the busiest of Islamic holy days, was sufficient to convince Lonthoir residents that Muslims were the victims. Prayer sessions for Ambon-based relatives were organised at the Lonthoir mosque two nights each week. They continue to the present day. In the week following Lebaran, refugees from Ambon began to arrive in the Bandas, carrying with them stories, fears and rumours. Mosque attendance in Lonthoir rose sharply and remains high.

One persistent story suggested that boats carrying armed Christians were landing on deserted beaches near Muslim communities in order to launch surprise attacks. Lonthoir men organised night patrols as a result, guarding remote sections of coastline in order to raise the alarm. While this story declined after the first month, Lonthoir people still speak of secret plans to 'Christianise' Maluku.

Fear as much as anger seems to have been the initial response to the events in Ambon. People said they woke at any sound. A rumour predicted three days of 'darkness' (linked to the recent lunar eclipse?). Numerous kerosene lanterns were purchased in anticipation.

These fears are difficult to explain. In Ambon, the historical advantages of the Christian population have eroded. Christians have migrated out, Muslims, mostly from southern Sulawesi (Bugis, Makassar, Buton) have migrated in. From a large majority, Ambonese Christians are now around half the population. In the Banda Islands, similar changes had rather increased an existing Muslim majority. Nonetheless, even before the Ambon conflict, Banda's Muslims sometimes expressed the vulnerable sense of being an Islamic outpost in a Christian area. They feared 'outsiders' would act violently against them.


In the months leading up to the outbreak of violence in Banda, 3-4,000 refugees arrived, increasing the population of the islands by almost a third. Seven hundred settled in Lonthoir where the population was originally only 3,000. While the Bandas are more than 90 percent Muslim, the Christian minority forms a higher proportion of the population on the islands of Hatta and Ai, and in the administrative centre of Neira. Almost all the small number of Christian refugees settled in Hatta and Neira. Unlike Ai, the Christian population of Hatta has for some years sought marriage partners outside the Banda Islands, from areas now centrally involved in the events in Ambon in particular Saparua. Movement between Saparua and Hatta had been regular. It was here the Banda conflict would begin.

Christians in the Bandas have historically participated alongside Muslims in traditional rituals, despite the fact these ceremonies incorporate aspects of Islamic practice. This was less the case on Hatta, where the two population segments had become distinct, partly as a result of links to outside areas and also concerns with issues of orthodoxy within the Protestant Church of Maluku (GPM). Sporadic instances of stone throwing began to occur at night on Hatta. In Neira, despite the presence of a newly arrived contingent of riot police (Brimob), unidentified assailants killed a local Christian at night.

In Lonthoir, a small Christian settlement of immigrants from Southeast Maluku (present since the 1960s) sold their belongings and gardens and returned to that area. It appears they felt forced to relocate. A Christian teacher, also originally from elsewhere but living in Lonthoir for over twenty years, became a target of suspicion when he visited Christian friends on another island. His house was stoned on a several nights and he left the islands shortly after. Many Christians chose to leave Neira.

On the afternoon of April 19, a stone throwing incident on Hatta became open conflict, with a Muslim man killed and Christian houses destroyed by fire. As police reinforcements rushed to Hatta Island by speedboat, the small contingent left on Neira could not prevent a mob from attacking Christian houses as the news spread. Some were already empty, but numerous Christians were forced to shelter at a local hotel (owned by a Muslim), or with Muslim neighbours. Lonthoir people heard the news of Hatta at the same time as fire and smoke became visible in nearby Neira. It seemed the conflict they had feared was beginning.

While older men tried to stop them, a group of youths rushed to the coast to find transport to Neira Island. Some went to the nearby settlement of Waling, where a Christian family of mixed local and Dutch descent had already been attacked and five family members killed. The family's colonial-era plantation buildings were ablaze. Twenty-four men now await trial for these deaths. The Lonthoir men managed to find transport to Neira at Waling, while the remaining group back in Lonthoir destroyed a colonial-era church, originally built with the help of local Muslims. The empty homes of departed Southeast Malukan residents were also burned by Muslims living nearby.

At this point no Christians remained in Lonthoir or on Banda Besar Island as a whole. Two days later the navy arrived to evacuate the entire Christian population of the Banda Islands, with the exception of 15 or so households on Ai who refused to leave and remain there today.


In mid-July, I returned by passenger ship to the community of Lonthoir where I had lived. Refugees fleeing conflict had used this same form of transport. A number were now returning. A large group of southern Sulawesi Muslims were travelling back to Ambon, carrying their belongings and trade goods (this was several days before the new conflict in Poka and Galala). At the port of Banda sixteen armed Brimob personnel, weapons in hand, spread across the dock as people disembarked.

My presence was taken as a reassuring sign tourists have been absent from the islands since the violence in Ambon began. Officers assured me that the Bandas were calm now, peaceful. Yet the Christians I had known were gone, their houses destroyed, or occupied by refugees who write 'Muslim House' or 'Refugee' prominently on the outside. The security forces have proved fragile instruments of authority where mass violence is directed not at the state but at other sections of local societies.

Many Lonthoir people view the events of that single night with a mixture of regret and defensiveness. They say their youths did not participate in the events in Neira, Hatta or elsewhere in Banda Besar. This means their 'hands are not dirty'. But at the same time their 'name is not respected' by other Muslim communities, because they did not demonstrate support. They often point at refugees as the main instigators, although evidence suggests this is not so, since only a few refugees are among those arrested.

How do we make sense of these events? This was a prominent concern at the International Maluku Research Conference, held at the Northern Territory University in Darwin from the 14-16 July 1999. One significant element may have been the erosion of traditional forms of authority. Reforms of village government during the 1970s shifted power away from local leaders (Muslim and Christian) to Jakarta, and bound provincial elites more closely to the central government. Local customary or 'adat' regulation continues to have an ambiguous relation to state administration. Both the state and local adat may be associated with discipline and control, rather than a viable vision of the future that might inspire the young. Both appear to be suffering a profoundly diminished legitimacy.

Phillip Winn is a PhD student in anthropology at the Australian National University. A detailed account of the Ambon violence is in Human Rights Watch Asia, 'The violence in Ambon', Two non-government organisations doing useful non-sectarian humanitarian work are Tirus and Yayasan Baileo Maluku contact both at

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

What caused the Ambon violence?

Perhaps not religious hatred but a corrupt civil service sparked the bloodletting

Gerry van Klinken

Jefri was in the wrong place at the wrong time on 4 August. Walking around a shopping area in Ambon city he and his 21-year old friend Dominggus Hiraka were beaten by unknown men. Jefri later died of brain hemorrhage in a military hospital, while Dominggus was in a critical condition. At 4am on 27 July, Christian residents of Lateri near the city attacked the neighbouring Muslim village of Latta, leaving one dead. Latta residents sought refuge in Ambon’s Al-Fatah mosque, their story fuelling the anger of thousands of other refugees there fleeing similar incidents.

Ambon is in a state of simmering civil war. The latest outbreak in mid-July had by early August left dozens dead. Hundreds died in earlier fighting between Christians and Muslims from January till April 1999. Similar communal battles broke out in the remote fishing town of Tual, also in southern Maluku province, in April, again leaving hundreds dead. Many tens of thousands of refugees, mostly Muslim, have fled the conflict for South Sulawesi.

How do we explain such brutal violence between neighbours? Indonesia has seen so much violence lately, but this is the most difficult kind to understand. When it is committed by the state against the people, we can sympathise with the people. When, more rarely, it is committed by the people against the state, or even against privileged groups such as Chinese entrepreneurs, we might comfort ourselves with the thought that at least the people are standing up for their rights. But when it is neighbour against neighbour simply because they differ in religion or ethnicity, no such comfort is permissible. We can only think that this is a sick, bigoted society.

Certainly the view that Ambon shows us a society mysteriously disintegrating from within is widely shared. But is it accurate? In every other type of collective violence people seem to be driven by motives we can understand - to get a better deal for themselves, or to protect their interests. Why should religious strife be any different?

I’d like to suggest a better explanation than that such conflicts are triggered by pure bigotry. It is based on the idea that people often identify with a particular religious community for quite worldly reasons. In Ambon at least, joining the Protestant or the Muslim community means being part of a network that not only worships God in a certain way but does practical things for its members - provide access to friends in powerful places for example, or protection when things get tough. These networks extend up the social ladder to influential circles in Jakarta. And they extend downward to street level, where gangs of young men provide the protective muscle that an inefficient police force cannot provide.

Communal violence has been episodic in Indonesia. The previous largest cluster of events occurred in 1965-66, when a quarter to a half a million (or more) alleged communists were slaughtered mostly by their Muslim neighbours in the countrysides of Java, Bali and some other islands. This cluster was associated with the fall from power of long-serving President Sukarno, and the rise of General Suharto.


During the years of Suharto’s ascendancy, communal violence rarely broke out. However, it flared up again in various places at the end of 1996, just as metropolitan elites were beginning to feel serious concern about Suharto’s mortality. Several high profile corruption scandals showed us a picture of rival elite factions, some identified by religion, growing anxious about losing privileged access to money and power. For example Transport Minister Haryanto Dhanutirto, a member of the Islamic group Icmi, found himself the target of a bitter corruption allegation in late 1995, apparently launched against him by cabinet rivals.

Such conflict was not just a spat between a few people in Jakarta. Each faction had its hangers-on down the social ladder and out into the provinces. These provincial people were dependent on their patrons in Jakarta to get senior appointments in the public service, as well as business opportunities in the form of untendered government contracts. Call it corruption, it’s how things works when the law is weak.

Ambon’s urban population is rather heavily dependent on direct employment in the civil service: over a quarter by my crude calculations. Compare that with less than 10% in urban Java. More derive a living from contract work for the government. To get hold of that government money, you need connections. That’s where the religious networks come in.

Maluku’s Governor Mohamad Saleh Latuconsina himself said there were two main reasons for the violence in Ambon. One was local feeling against ‘newcomers’ from Sulawesi, who are aggressive small business entrepreneurs. The other, more important for our purpose, was a rumour in Ambon that Saleh Latuconsina had replaced ‘all 38’ top civil servants in the province with Muslims.

Latuconsina was referring to an anonymous pamphlet that circulated in Ambon in October 1998. It must have had quite an impact, for Latuconsina felt called to deny it vehemently and repeatedly, always affirming his belief in the importance of ‘balance’ between Protestant Christians and Muslims. The issue was given a boost when just after the outbreak of the conflict, and as an explanation for it, Nahdatul Ulama chairman Abdurrahman Wahid repeated the allegation contained in the pamphlet. Afterwards Wahid made repeated attacks on Latuconsina’s alleged Islamic nepotism.

There is a lingering perception outside Ambon that this is a predominantly Christian society. A strong local elite certainly define themselves that way. However, figures show that Muslims now enjoy a slim majority. Maluku has in fact had a local Muslim governor since 1992, when Jakarta appointed Akib Latuconsina, another member of the extended Latuconsina clan, to the peak provincial job.

Akib Latuconsina’s chief rival in 1992 was Freddy Latumahina, a Golkar national parliamentarian and senior party functionary, and a Christian. He had been an anti-Communist student activist in 1966. In 1997 Latumahina, now even more senior in the Golkar hierarchy, tried but failed again to win the governor’s post.

Saleh Latuconsina, the current governor, is by no means fanatically religious. He is aristocratic in his demeanour, and has a technical degree from Germany. But personal religiosity is of no account in these matters. When he appointed a non-Protestant deputy governor, and a non-Protestant provincial secretary, the Protestant elite felt frozen out of the three most powerful jobs.


In April 1999 the Jakarta news weekly Tajuk published information from what it said was a top military intelligence report on the Ambon crisis. It alleged there were links between Freddy Latumahina, prominent among the frustrated Protestant Ambon elite, and certain figures within the criminal underworld. An intermediary for these links, it said, was retired army colonel Dicky Wattimena, who had been mayor of Ambon in1983-88, and before that commander of Suharto’s presidential guard.

Indeed, other reports confirm that the Ambon conflict was triggered by rivalry between semi-criminal gangs that operated both in Ambon and in the nation’s capital Jakarta. Each gang appears to have a more or less religious identity - one Christian, the other Muslim. The Christian gang was known in Ambon, bizarrely, as Cowok Keristen, the Christian Boys, abbreviated Coker. It was known to conduct meetings in the main Protestant church in Ambon, Maranatha.

Coker’s Jakarta connection was with a man called Milton Matuanakota and his colleague Ongky Pieters. Milton and Ongky’s gang of Christian Ambonese thugs ‘controlled’ the shopping malls, parking, and gambling dens in northwestern Jakarta. The trouble in Ambon began when perhaps 200 of its members retreated to Ambon after they lost a gangland turf war in Ketapang, Jakarta, in November 1998.

The rather unsavoury picture on the Christian side, then, if we can believe the stories about it, is of a network motivated by material gain but clothed in the language of religion. Near its top we have the failed gubernurial aspirant Freddy Latumahina. Below him an array of local movers and shakers connected with semi-criminal gangs spanning the archipelago from Jakarta to Ambon. The gangs run protection rackets in the national capital, but in Ambon are found in church halls holding meetings preparing for conflict with local Muslims.

The network on the Muslim side is not as clearly delineated. Certainly there is a similar gang in Ambon on that side. Like Milton and Ongky’s boys they have connections with the national capital at its highest as well as is lowest level. But no one has suggested that Maluku’s governor, the urbane technocrat Saleh Latuconsina, is in any way dependent on them.

Leader of the Ambonese gang that rivalled Milton and Ongky’s in Jakarta was Ongen Sangaji, Jakarta coordinator of the Moluccan Muslim Student Movement. They were involved with the recruitment of the largely Islamic PAM Swakarsa, civilian guards to ‘protect’ the November 1998 special session of the super-parliament MPR from anti-government protesters.

The Ambon conflict erupted, as the Human Rights Watch Asia report so graphically describes, because these rival gangs were at the heart of two completely separate and increasingly anxious communication networks. The so-called ‘Reds’ were based at the Maranatha church, while the ‘Whites’ were at the Al-Fatah mosque. Each had prepared contingency plans for an attack from the other. When a trivial incident occurred at the city’s bus terminal, the word flew around each side that ‘it’ had started. From here on, events escalated as each side believed only its own version of events. Muslims spoke of halting the ‘christianisation’ drive. Christians spoke of Islamic ‘fanaticism’ in Jakarta, while some spoke nostalgically of the Christian-dominated South Maluku Republic breakaway movement of 1950.

It is not a pretty picture. But if it is correct, it suggests the solution to the Ambon conflict lies not so much in the inter-religious area (important as that is), as it does in reforming government. In particular, the pattern by which government goodies are only available to friends and connections needs to be replaced with a more accountable and transparent one.

Gerry van Klinken ( edits ‘Inside Indonesia’.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

Whisky friends

The armies of Indonesia and PNG are growing closer, causing turmoil on the border

Andrew Kilvert

Thirty years ago a band of Ndani villagers fled the early Abri military campaigns in the Baliem valley and walked through the icy mountains to the relative safety of Papua New Guinea. At about the same time the tribespeople from the border area whose lands stretch almost to Jayapura fled the military occupation and moved to their remaining lands in Bewani on the PNG side, where they established Schotio village and became PNG citizens.

Though poorly armed, these two groups formed the northern command of the OPM or Free Papua Organisation (Organisasi Papua Merdeka). They have been tolerated by the PNG army which until recently has (unofficially at least) put Melanesian solidarity before international pressure from Indonesia.

On May 5 this year a faction of this OPM led by Hans Bomay made an attack on Arso on the Indonesian side of the border. They killed 4 civilians with machetes and took a further 11 people hostage including seven women and four men all civilians. This action was met with outrage from West Papua independence and human rights groups inside Irian Jaya, who accused Hans Bomay of being supplied and sponsored by the Indonesian armed forces (still widely known as Abri despite a name change to TNI recently). The accusation was supported by accounts from the people who delivered the supplies of food and whisky to the gang, as well as by people from Arso who regularly see members of the Bomay gang driving around with Abri. It was also supported by a spokesman for the Bomay faction, Augustus Runtoboi, who admitted to having close ties with the Irian Jaya military commander Major General Sembiring.

The Bomay OPM members don't believe they've been compromised by Abri. Hans Bomay speaks of the Indonesians polluting his Melanesian race and talks of exterminating them all when the time comes. One OPM soldier said: 'The ones who give us supplies are good Koppasus ( Indonesian military elite). They want to be on our side when we have a free West Papua.' Certainly Indonesian whisky is so plentiful in some of these border villages it has become a form of local currency.

So why are Abri supporting these OPM guerrillas? According to West Papuan activists on the Indonesian side of the border, the Bomay gang are a useful propaganda tool. For Abri intelligence the bloody activities of the Bomay gang are a powerful tool in garnering support, both for their ongoing military activities and suppression of dissent within the province. Cenderawasih, the local Abri-controlled newspaper, uses the Bomay gang to justify security clamp-downs on nonviolent activists inside Jayapura. Last year the Bomay gang killed three people in Arso on June 26, just days before the nonviolent (on the part of the protesters at least) July 1 independence rallies throughout the province.

This year things went further. The Bomay gang became the bait to bring in the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF). On May 29 the PNGDF launched their first joint operation with the Indonesian military, called 'Operation Selamat'. After three days the hostages were freed. Two members of the OPM, Lego Jikwa and Max Tago, were in custody, having volunteered to stay behind with the hostages whilst the others escaped. Max Tago, an OPM noncombatant, had been part of the negotiation team trying to broker the release of the hostages.

On May 31, Major General Singirok, the commander of the PNG armed forces, interrogated 62-year old radio operator Max Tago at Schotio base camp. Singirok then left him in the custody of members of Charlie Company under the command of Captain Oksap. Later that evening the villagers in Schotio heard gunshots. They later found Max Tago's body partially exposed in a shallow grave near the Schotio base camp with several bullet wounds to the head. On the same evening the other OPM member, Lego Jikwa, was taken to the Sandaun Motel in Vanimo, where he claims he was held in room 10 and tortured with a live power cord.

Bob Namah, one of the PNG government negotiators during the hostage crisis, has called for a coronial inquiry into the death of Max Tago. 'If the PNGDF vommander did not give the orders to execute Max Tago, then who did?', he asked in a statement tendered to a PNG court.


The next day, June 1, the officers of the PNGDF as well as two PNG federal ministers and members of the Niugini Intelligence Organisation (NIO) went to Jayapura, where they were given a heroes' welcome by Abri. According to Sandaun Provincial Governor John Tekwie and Aitape MP Eddy Saweni, Abri's hospitality included the provision of 35 prostitutes. Moreover, members of both the PNGDF and Abri say that during the two day visit a high ranking officer in the PNGDF was given a reasonably large amount of cash in US dollars by Abri officials. Major General Singirok and his family were also treated to a holiday on Biak Island by Abri.

Certainly members of the PNGDF are expressing a new loyalty to Abri. In late June I was accused of espionage and interrogated by members of the Niugini Intelligence Organisation in Vanimo. At one point one of my captors shouted: 'We don't trust Australia, we're with Abri now.'

Singirok has now agreed to another joint operation against the border villages, this time in Bewani in the north and Kiunga in the south. Villagers and noncombatants will suffer. The last campaign left Bewani in turmoil, squeezed between two armies. The PNGDF had forced some young men from Schotio to give up the positions of the OPM camps, and the Schotio people were terrified of reprisals from the OPM. Their school was shut as a result of the operation, and they had no access to markets or to medical supplies.

The PNGDF's new love affair with Abri may benefit some of its members. But joint operations against border villages are merely going to further destabilise the area. Bob Namah said: 'This is the first time that a West Papua brother has been killed by his own brother on his brother's land.'

Andrew Kilvert ( is a journalist living in Darwin, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

Lost and Found

How did the world rediscover the ‘lost cause’ of East Timor?

Geoffrey Gunn

East Timor was for long viewed as an unfortunate lost cause. Despite remaining on the agenda of the UN Decolonisation Committee, it appeared to most of the world that Indonesia’s 1976 annexation of the territory was a fait accompli. Paradoxically, only East Timor’s sister colonies Mozambique, Cape Verde, and Angola stood behind the former colonial power Portugal to keep the issue flickering. The ‘law’ that says legal niceties are always subsumed to political realities worked to make Indonesia’s occupation an ‘irreversible’ case. As former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans once said about East Timor, ‘the world is a pretty unfair place’.

Yet today, in a remarkably short time, the pendulum has swung back more into line with international norms. On 5 May 1999 Portugal, Indonesia and the United Nations Secretary General hastily cobbled together a New York Agreement. This paved the way for UNAMET - the United Nations Mission in East Timor. Its task was to conduct a poll to ascertain the views of East Timorese on the question of whether they wished to stay with Indonesia under an autonomy agreement, or reject that option, thus leading to independence.

Even six months earlier such an outcome would have seemed improbable. How can we explain this turn-about in fortunes for supporters of East Timorese independence? Upon reflection, the Evans ‘closed case’ view is easier to explain than the current change in the tide of international opinion.

The West always conspired with Indonesia to cover up the brutalities of its bloody occupation. True, the method of Indonesia’s annexation was never condoned, and ‘excesses’ were criticised. But few challenged the shocking mythology Indonesia sold to its public, to some naive East Timorese and to ASEAN allies: that Jesuit Fretilin were about to turn East Timor into a Cuba-like People’s Republic. The views of the East Timorese on their own destiny were irrelevant.

From 1976 to 1989, the year when Suharto declared East Timor an ‘open province’, very few witnesses were allowed to verify first hand what transpired to be a bloodbath proportional to that then unfolding in communist Vietnam and Cambodia. Few academics or media practitioners, and especially Western media proprietors, thought self-determination for East Timor was anything other than unrealistic. The two major political parties in Australia simply closed ranks. East Timor was portrayed in mainstream discourse as a radical or fringe issue potentially damaging to the then emerging doctrine of Asia links.

For the Jakarta lobby which emerged under the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, lucrative business links, including the newly negotiated Timor Gap Treaty with Jakarta, could not be held hostage to even an embarrassing human rights crusade. Inside Indonesia and in most ASEAN countries, the media were simply gagged. Even while the stench emerging from the dictatorship became unbearable, Jakarta’s foreign backers in Tokyo, Washington, and Bonn did not flinch, indeed went into damage control covering up for their client. Only the Netherlands dropped out honourably.

Santa Cruz

The Dili (Santa Cruz) massacre of November 1991 galvanised international outrage at Indonesian human rights abuses to a new level. But the UN body made only pro forma protests. The grisly event brought no serious reproach to confront the legality or morality of Jakarta’s vice-like grip over the territory. Senator Evans unhelpfully described the event as an ‘aberration’.

The demonstration at Santa Cruz preceding the massacre exposed to the world the rekindling of Timorese nationalism by those actually schooled by Indonesia. Yet the capture in November 1992 and subsequent trial of armed resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, who had led the struggle from the mountains, appeared to be a public relations victory for Jakarta. The fall of the Berlin wall three years earlier may have been epochal, but for the Suhartos, the Mobutus, and the Ronald Reagans of the world, this was vindication of authoritarianism and the iron fist.

Nevertheless, disquiet grew at another level, or rather multiple levels of what might be called a new emerging international society. In Australia, the US, Europe and Japan, vociferous East Timor solidarity and advocacy groups mushroomed, some with church contacts. In Portugal, a mixture of guilt and saudade or longing for the East Timor tragedy welled up. It was symbolised in the heroic but doomed cruise to the Timor Sea of the Portuguese ship, Lusitania Express, in March 1992. Portugal also found new empowerment in European councils as a member of the European Union.

Inside Indonesia, meanwhile, the pro-reform forces that were to drive Suharto to resign on 21 May 1998 were incubating. They were abetted by the non-violent daring of East Timorese activists in Jakarta itself.

On 10 December 1996 two sons of East Timor were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This calculated move by the Norwegian Committee did more than any event since the Dili massacre to raise international consciousness of East Timor to a new level. Yet the Tokyo government snubbed one of the laureates, Jose Ramos-Horta, out of respect for the wishes of Suharto, whose regime continued to villify him. Handling of the other laureate was not so simple however, as portrayed in a recent book by his unofficial biographer Arnold Kohen entitled ‘From the place of the dead: The epic struggle of Bishop Belo of East Timor’. There is no doubt that the church in East Timor has played a staying hand through the Indonesian occupation.


The advent of the reformist Habibie regime in May 1998 created a new space for the East Timorese. Habibie acted in tandem with a new UN push on East Timor that had been unveiled by incoming UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in December 1996. Kofi Annan tasked Pakistani diplomat Jamsheed Marker to find consensus between Portugal and Indonesia. The UN viewed Habibie’s offer on 11 June 1998 to grant ‘wide ranging autonomy’ to the territory as the necessary breakthrough to extract compromises from both Indonesia and Portugal.

At the same time, however, in an event little reported in the Western media, East Timorese youths from July to September 1998 ran a free speech campaign in rallies across the territory that demonstrated in no uncertain terms to Indonesia and the UN their unequivocal rejection of ‘autonomy’. They called instead for a UN-supervised referendum.

There is no question that when he placed autonomy on the table, Habibie was answering international opinion. More importantly for his government, he was seeking international approval for desperately needed funds. IMF funding for his devastated economy had been halted because of the unrest that brought down his predecessor. He did the same thing even more dramatically on 27 January 1999, when he conceded a popular ‘ballot’ on the question of autonomy or independence for East Timor. He was at the time desperately formulating a national budget. For Portugal meanwhile, the UN ballot would mean an historic ‘foot-in-the-door’, since a rejection of Indonesia by the East Timorese would formally see the former colonial power working with the UN (and Indonesia) in a transitional administration.

Late in 1998 Prime Minister John Howard sent a letter to President Habibie indicating a rethink on the irreversibility of East Timor’s status. This letter might also have been an influencing factor. Canberra’s interest in abetting the gathering UN process may have been less out of morality than expediency. The looming possibility that Indonesia would simply dump East Timor or that a new economically vulnerable state would somehow emerge out of the chaos of an Indonesian departure, demanded a radical rethink of the situation by Canberra.

Meanwhile economic meltdown in Indonesia, the fear of instability or even secessionism across the archipelago, the ugly ethnic conflicts that beset Kupang and Ambon in late 1998, galvanised the defence establishment into making contingency plans. Chaos arising from a Timor ballot or, even more likely, post-ballot chaos weighs heavily in these considerations. The relocation of two rapid response battalions to Darwin underscores this concern.

However, it is difficult to imagine that Habibie could have conceded so much without the direct approval of his military. Doubtless implicit in the Wiranto-Habibie pact was the understanding that Jakarta could fix (influence if not determine) the outcome. At least subsequent events demonstrated as much. The full import of Indonesian concessions leading to the New York Agreement began to become apparent with the knowledge that sections of the military, even members of Habibie’s Cabinet, were backing murderous militia groups inside East Timor through money and arms, in a campaign to either derail the vote, win the vote through terror, or destabilise the outcome.

By mid-July 1999, with UNAMET fully in place, the Indonesian government, the militia leaders, and the UN appeared to be on a confrontational course. UN officials in New York (not to mention governments in Lisbon, Canberra, Washington and even Tokyo) were beginning to query Jakarta’s motives. UNAMET delayed the start of pre-ballot registration once, pleading inadequate security. But with most of the parties wishing the ballot to continue, registration commenced on 16 July. The flaws in the UNAMET mandate and mission were showing, namely the contradiction between holding a free ballot and leaving Indonesia in control of security.

Geoffrey C. Gunn ( teaches at Nagasaki University in Japan and is author of a 1997 book entitled East Timor and the United Nations: The case for intervention (Red Sea Press).

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

The sultan will be Dr Hasan Tiro

Vanessa Johanson

In the hills of Pidie district we were taken to meet Abdullah Syahfei, area commander of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) for the Pidie regency. After a secret rendezvous with GAM partisans at an abandoned petrol station, we had been escorted for an hour over a rough road into a remote village, where in the centre of a large clearing Aceh’s crescent-and-star flag flew high. Under the flag stood a handful of men in camouflage green with guns. As we entered the clearing, several hundred veiled women and children stared at us on our right, and several hundred men who looked like ordinary poor farmers on our left. The guards led us onto a platform to meet Syahfei.

‘Assalamu’alaikum! Welcome to the nation of Aceh’, was his solemn greeting. His gun remained by his arm as he talked, and before him was a dog-eared scrapbook of cuttings and documents - some very old - relating to the history and status of Aceh. The commander’s answers were long, angry and dogmatic. He constantly referred to the need for attention from and cooperation with the international community, both to force the Indonesian government to take responsibility for the ‘slaughter’ of Acehnese, and to recognise Aceh as a sovereign state. What follows is an edited version of the interview, which was conducted in Bahasa Indonesia.

What are GAM’s basic aims and program?

We are here to return the rights of the people of Aceh to the sovereignty stolen from them by the Dutch in 1873. Aceh has always been its own nation. We ask for the help of the international community to acknowledge this. Our nation has been attacked, oppressed, and raped by the Dutch and the Indonesians. We ask: is justice in this world only in the textbooks? We fight because we are in our own nation - we don’t want to fight with Jakarta, but we have to defend ourselves.

What is GAM’s attitude to the Indonesian general elections?

The election is simply propaganda to the outside world. The election is for Javanese colonialists, not for us. All colonial laws in the world have now been annulled and colonialism is taboo, but it still exists here.

What would constitute justice for Aceh?

Those who are wrong have to be punished. International law has to be enforced for us. Is our blood different from Yugoslav blood? From Kuwaiti blood? The international community must listen to us. That is why we are pleased to meet foreign journalists, to meet foreign friends.

What is GAM’s attitude towards a referendum [as proposed by some in Aceh, offering Acehnese the options of broad autonomy, federalism or independence]?

Why should we hold a referendum with Java? Javanese are colonialists. Who are they to hold a referendum? We want independence and only independence.

In your opinion who are the ‘provocateurs’ in Aceh?

GAM is a political not a military movement. We understand human rights. It is the army who are burning Acehnese schools and shooting people. All the rumours about the elections and GAM activity are lies by the Indonesian government. GAM would never kill an Acehnese or destroy Acehnese property. All Acehnese are our comrades and supporters.

You say GAM is a political movement. A political movement usually has dialogue with various other interests including its opponents - does GAM?

No. That’s the wrong way to go about politics. We only want to speak to our friends in the international community. Our leader in Sweden, Dr Hasan, he has many international friends.

What international organisations support you?

The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization… and others we can’t disclose.

What kind of government will you have if you gain independence?

We will return to our rightful status as a sultanate. The sultan will be Dr Hasan Tiro, who is now resident in Sweden. He will return to rule Aceh.

Will Aceh be a democracy then? Will it be ruled by Islamic law?

Aceh will be ruled by the command of the sultan and by international law. Survivors

After an hour with Syahfei we were given fresh coconuts to drink from, and he summoned several dozen from the hundreds of onlookers below up onto the platform. They were a quiet and serious crowd.

All of these people, Syahfei explained, were victims of abuses by the Indonesian military. He ushered two veiled women - one in her forties and the other a mere teenager - into a tiny dark room at the side of the platform. He then ushered the women in our party into the room with them and shut the door. ‘You ask what happened to them,’ he ordered us.

Embarrassed and nervous, we all sat on the floor and explained where we were from. My colleague and I were worried that questioning by foreigners would further traumatise the women. But almost immediately the older woman burst into tears. ‘Kami sengsara!,’ she cried. ‘We are tormented!’

In a combination of Acehnese and broken Indonesian, combined with agonising mime, the two women volunteered how they had been tortured and raped in their own village homes in front of their families by gangs of Indonesian soldiers accusing them of helping or being related to members of GAM. The younger woman had experienced this after the withdrawal in 1998 of the military occupation (DOM). Both women pulled off their veils and revealed scars of cuts and burns on their necks, breasts and legs.

Outside on the platform, our male colleague was being treated to testimonies - similarly painful but often told as tales of valour - from a crowd of men.

It felt alternately like we were being treated to a freak show with an ideological ringmaster; and that we were carrying out the vital task of listening to those whose stories desperately needed to be told.

Vanessa Johanson ( works in the Human Rights Office, in Melbourne, of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

Aceh's failed election

An Australian team finds no euphoria

Vanessa Johanson

The streets of Aceh's capital Banda Aceh seemed quiet as I strolled outside the grand white mosque at dusk on Sunday 6 June 1999. We had tried to do our duty that afternoon as official election observers, roaming town looking for polling booths. But we had only managed find one - in the same suburb as the office of the provincial election committee (PPD1). Other booths, its reticent staff told us, would be set up at the last minute for security reasons. As I stood admiring the mosque, a young man on a motorbike pulled up at the curb.

'You journalist,' he exclaimed in English. 'Tomorrow is going to be a big war in Aceh!' Bemused, I managed a half-smile at this alarmist cry. But he was in earnest, as if he'd been given a job to do and was determined to do it. 'You stay in hotel! Tomorrow is going to be war!' He sped away.

At the same moment, only a few hours drive from the capital, similar rumours were burning through the villages. Thousands of people were leaving their more isolated homes and heading for larger towns where they felt safer. The exodus continued early into the morning of election day, June 7, and by that afternoon was estimated to have reached 50,000 people near the border of Pidie and North Aceh regencies alone.

There appeared to be some to be evidence of impending conflict. The Indonesian military, determined to ensure that the elections were carried out, moved through the villages in tanks and trucks. This was a bad omen for ordinary people. In the months before, there had been several mass shootings by the military; dozens of 'mysterious shootings' of individual civilians and police; and a pattern of arson attacks targeting schools, government offices, inter-city buses, military vehicles, private vehicles, polling booths, ballot boxes, and private houses. Worst hit were the 'vulnerable' regions of Pidie, North and East Aceh, considered strongholds of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM).

The military's task was not easy, as proportionally less voters had registered to vote in Aceh than in any of Indonesia's 27 provinces, apparently due to a combination of fear, intimidation and fraud during the registration process, cynicism about the value of participating, and outright boycott of the process. Community reluctance sprang in part from disappointment in broken promises by Habibie and Wiranto to rectify the human rights situation. Voter boycott was fuelled by groups opposing Indonesia.

Aceh has never easily tolerated outside domination. Within living memory, Aceh has fought hard for Indonesian independence from the Dutch, and then for Acehnese independence from Indonesia. Many think incorporating what was the Sultanate of Aceh into Indonesia after independence was a mistake. After a period of conflict with the Indonesian army in the 1950s, Aceh received only minimal recognition for the special role it had played in the struggle for Indonesian independence, and for what it regards as its cultural uniqueness. This year 1999 marks the fortieth anniversary of the law which declares Aceh a 'special district' (daerah istimewa) with broad autonomy in religious, educational and customary matters.

In administrative matters Aceh is treated like other Indonesian provinces, including the proportion of local wealth it gets to keep. Through oil and agricultural exports, Aceh contributes 11% of foreign capital to Indonesian coffers, but only 4.6% of that remains in the province. These historical differences and modern inequities have kept alive the small armed Free Aceh Movement, which in turn provided the justification Indonesia's government gave for sending in the troops in 1989 to tackle the 'guerillas.' This military occupation area status (Daerah Operasi Militer, DOM) lasted almost ten years. It resulted in thousands of dead, disappeared, raped and tortured.

'Unknown men'

It was thus not altogether unbelievable that the election day climate of fear should have been created by the very troops sent in to secure it. Provocateurs and 'unknown men', who are said to abduct and shoot people and burn property, raising the GAM flag behind them, add to the fear and give the military justification for a heavier presence. Our interviews with local non-government organisations, media, political parties (including Golkar), police, and GAM representatives revealed a common view: these 'unknown men' were not - as claimed by the army - GAM, but in fact un-uniformed or decommissioned troops, including 200-300 Kopassus personnel.

Our sources proffered a number of reasons why 'provocateurs' would want to sabotage the elections, but could not explain their chain of command, nor their relationship with the regular military. Why would uniformed military want to secure the election while un-uniformed 'provocateurs' were simultaneously tasked with disrupting it? Is this an attempt to stimulate conflict in order to justify a continued military presence in Aceh so as to clamp down on 'separatists' and protect the plethora of military business interests including timber and marijuana?

Some claimed such an intention does indeed exist, and that other motives include these: to prevent progressive and possibly pro-independence candidates from the parties PPP and PAN from winning seats; to prevent a stable situation in which those guilty of human rights abuse could be prosecuted; and to eliminate witnesses to abuse during the DOM period.

However, much has changed in Aceh. Human rights problems here came to national - and to some extent international - attention in the middle of 1998, shortly after President Suharto stepped aside. Journalists flooded in, as did NGOs, human rights organisations and representatives of the National Human Rights Commission (Komnasham). Mass graves were exhumed, and survivors were interviewed. The new openness regarding these abuses - and eyewitness reports that they had largely been perpetrated by Indonesian soldiers - was accompanied by diplomatic protest and student demonstrations. All of this led Defence Minister Wiranto to 'unconditionally withdraw' the decade-long military operation (DOM) in the province on 7 August 1998, and to apologise for the DOM policy and military brutality.

Local NGOs which had previously been gagged began more thoroughly to investigate human rights violations of the previous decade.

At the same time, Aceh's intellectuals, NGOs and party activists continued to discuss ways in which Aceh could recover from the past, as well as ways of changing its relationship with Jakarta. Suggestions included forming independent commissions to hear human rights cases and prosecute those responsible, and inviting international human rights investigators into Aceh.

When President Habibie visited Aceh on 26 March 1999 he signed several commitments, among them to help rebury the dead and bring greater economic equity to Aceh including building new port and rail facilities. The Indonesian government plans to open a branch of the National Human Rights Commission in Aceh this month. New laws on regional government and financial equity between the centre and the regions are being designed.

However, as of March 1999 only five soldiers had been prosecuted for killing civilians during the DOM period. Prosecutions were based on investigations by the military police, and trials were held in military courts which are not considered impartial. And the abuses go on.

According to police, those killed in political violence in May and June 1999 in Aceh include: 69 civilians; 29 army and police personnel; 8 members of GAM. On 2 July Wiranto blamed the killings and burnings on GAM, and declared that their activity had reached the level of an 'insurgency'. His proposed solution is to establish a new military command in Banda Aceh.


A new government under Megawati's PDI-P looks unlikely at this point to be willing to reign in the military or to allow any more loosening of the centralist government leash. However, Amien Rais' party PAN which won less than 8% of seats nation-wide has shown much concern for Aceh and is prepared to discuss a federal government model. The winner in Aceh is the Islamic party PPP. It also has members willing to offer a more decentralised approach, and certainly to address the human rights problems there. But if it forms a coalition at the national level with Golkar, it is less likely that Acehnese aspirations will be championed.

Early on the morning of June 7 our two carloads of local and Australian election monitors and a German journalist seemed to be the only vehicles plying the road from Banda Aceh into Pidie regency. Both police and GAM had stated there should be no buses on that day, and nobody else seemed willing to risk their vehicle on the road. Dawn vistas across deep green mountains, and even sightings of wild elephants and monkeys, did little to cheer us.

In Pidie, however, we found no war. In fact Pidie's usually bustling little capital Sigli was shut down. At 9 o'clock in the morning political party representatives had hastily erected a few booths - the required non-partisan volunteer committees having fled or never been formed. The few dozen voters were panicky and anxious to get it over with.

We found out later that in Pidie only 13 booths had opened out of an intended 858. Similarly small numbers had opened in North and East Aceh. Half of Aceh's four million citizens had no opportunity to cast their ballot.

There was no feeling, as there was in many parts of Indonesia, of euphoria, or that this was really 'the people's election'. But there was also no real evidence that GAM and the military intended a violent showdown to settle things in Aceh, as had been rumoured. The rumours all seemed like a very dirty game played with the people of Aceh. Several days later a member of PPD1 in Banda Aceh said that he thought things would calm down now that 'they have achieved what they wanted' to disrupt the elections. One of the hardest tasks for the new government will be to deal with whoever 'they' are, not only in Aceh but also in East Timor, Kalimantan, Ambon, and the dozens of other areas across the archipelago where 'provocateurs' and 'unknown men' roam free.

Vanessa Johanson ( works in the Human Rights Office, in Melbourne, of the Australian Council for Overseas Aid.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

50 years ago

Damien Kingsbury

The Dutch photographer Julius Timmerman was based in what his people still called Batavia. On 27 December 1949 he was commissioned by the Dutch Government Information Service to record the internationally recognised handover of political authority from the Dutch colonial government to the (then) Republic of the United States of Indonesia. The day ended four years of fighting.

This photo has never been published before. Tens of thousands of joyful citizens overwhelmed Indonesian soldiers trying to keep the way free for dignitaries arriving at the governor-general's palace. Welcoming Sukarno in the picture were home affairs minister Anak Agung Gde Agung and armed forces chief of staff Colonel Simatupang. On the left, a Dutch policeman carries away a fainted Indonesian woman. A moment later Sukarno turned at the top of the palace steps, lifted his arms and shouted to the crowd: 'Alhamdulillah thank God, we are free!'. Inside, speeches were made and hands were shaken. Then the Dutch flag was lowered and the red-and-white raised in its stead. The palace, still located on Jakarta's huge Freedom Square, was that day renamed Freedom Palace.

Damien Kingsbury ( is executive officer of the Monash Asia Institute and author of The politics of Indonesia (1998). The photo is part of a collection in the possession of Julius Timmerman's family, who now live in Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

Sex, money, power

Amidst screaming headlines, the tabloids are recreating political culture

John Olle

Politics always comes to us mediated, transformed, and interpreted through the mass media. It is not unusual that the media should be partisan. Under the New Order, 'reading between the lines' was an essential skill to understand anything approximating reality as most people saw it. This skill is even more necessary in the euphoria of press freedom since the fall of Suharto. If previously the skill needed was to fill in the gaps for yourself, now you need a healthy scepticism and access to a variety of media in order to estimate what to discount and what to pay attention to.

One of the most striking aspects of the current wave of press freedom has been the growth in the number of new publications. Since Suharto's resignation, the Ministry of Information has approved almost 1000 new permits. This is in addition to the 200-300 existing ones under the New Order. Much of this press explosion consists of politically oriented tabloids produced weekly, available at a cheap price and with a mass distribution network (often supported by an existing daily). Such tabloids often claim to report the 'news behind the news', full of 'scenarios', conspiracy theories, sensational language, accusations and counter-accusations.

The first to appear in the early post-Suharto days was DeTak. This was in fact a reappearance, being a reincarnation of DeTik closed down by the New Order in 1994 together with Tempo and Editor. Although its circulation is now smaller than newer, cheaper and more sensational tabloids, DeTak relies on a reputation for quality journalism. Competition is intense and tabloids without an established reputation, a captive market, or some kind of special characteristic ('ciri khas') have little hope of surviving.

A major 'special effect' is to be as sensational as possible. This tendency is prominent in the cheaper tabloids such as Oposisi and Bangkit, which appeared respectively in August and October 1998. Bangkit, entering the market at only Rp1000, became an immediate hit with its prominent white on black background headlines announcing such things as: 'WATCH OUT - THE NEXT 40 DAYS RIOTS EVERYWHERE' ('AWAS 40 HARI INI RUSUH DI MANA-MANA'), or 'RAPED... and for heaven's sake... their livers EATEN RAW' ('DIPERKOSA dan astaga... hati mereka DIMAKAN MENTAH-MENTAH'). Bangkit is part of the Kompas media group. Through its regional newspaper network, the Kompas group has also established several regional political tabloids including Kontras (Aceh), Demo (Palembang), Bebas (Banjarmasin), and Vokal (Yogyakarta). The latter is aimed largely at students and takes a more educated approach.

Oposisi, from the rival Jawa Pos group, appears to be more conscious of its mission ('critical and on the side of truth' is its slogan) rather than just chasing sensation for the sake of it. Judging from its circulation figures, which are always sensitive to price rises, Oposisi is probably the most popular political tabloid at the moment.

Other political tabloids with a national scope include Realitas (associated with Surya Paloh's Media Indonesia group), Tokoh (mostly interviews with public figures), Siaga (established by Golkar figure Eki Syachrudin), Berita Keadilan (focussing on the law and published by the same company that produces the PDI-P tabloid Demokrat ) and Perspektif. Many others have national pretensions but are really only regional in scope. This includes Format and Mimbar Demokrasi from Semarang, Gaung Demokrasi in Jakarta and West Java, Penta (Jakarta), Asasi (Aceh), and Opini (Solo). There are no doubt many more.

Although political tabloids flood the market, and more seem to appear every day, the public is gradually becoming bored with a diet of pure politics. The established tabloids are diversifying into other fields such as crime, mysticism, entertainment, and sex in order to maintain sales.

Bangkit and Oposisi have not been averse to including fortune telling (ramalan) and mystical stories, especially if a political connection can be found. Posmo (also Jawa Pos) combines politics, alternative medicine, and mysticism. Selling at the rather high price of Rp1500 it remains the most popular of the politically related tabloids in Yogyakarta. No one seems concerned whether the predictions of future bloodletting come true or not (most don't). The main factor in their popularity is their entertainment value.

The Jawa Pos group also produces Gugat, which focusses on politics and sex-related crime. It will soon give birth to another more 'specific' tabloid provisionally named Karmasutra. SkandaL, another new tabloid more distantly related to the Jawa Pos group, has the slogan 'sex, money, power'.


Other tabloids have a more 'Islamic' slant. Adil was originally resuscitated by the ICMI newspaper Republika. It is now independent and fairly objective in its approach. Not so the newer Republika tabloid Tekad, which seems to have a great deal of trouble in its approach to reformasi, unable to decide whether it should be attacking or defending the governing party Golkar and the military. Along with the smaller Islamic party tabloids, Tekad now prefers to focus its attention on the disagreeable aspects of Megawati's PDI-Perjuangan.

The range and diversity of tabloids available indicates the great diversity of political opinion and cultural orientation previously hidden but never extinguished under the monolithic New Order. These differences are more clearly seen in the tabloid press than in the dailies.

During the election campaign the tabloids gave a clear picture of the battle between different political discourses in Indonesia. The battle mainly revolves around the definition of the words 'reformasi' and 'Islam'. On the one hand, the more popular, business-oriented and less ideological mainstream tabloids still promote the struggle of 'reformasi versus status-quo', terms promoted by the opposition parties PAN, PKB and PDI-P in order to defeat Golkar.

The trouble is that the meaning of reformasi or status quo has never been clearly stated even by the opposition parties. The 'reformist' party with the largest vote, Megawati's PDI-P, has not emphasised opposition to the military's involvement in politics, nor does it clearly support amendments to the constitution or bringing Suharto to justice, all demands of the reformasi movement that brought down Suharto. Besides that, all the supposedly reformist parties (particularly PDI-P) have within them many major ex-New Order figures, not all of whom have a record of opposing Suharto and the New Order.

On the other hand, Tekad and the smaller Islamic tabloids promote a long running and previously 'underground' discourse of 'Islam versus sekular'. At the present time this discourse has the political implication of supporting Habibie as a 'representative of Islam', in distinction to Megawati and the PDI-P who are accused variously of promoting secularism, syncretism, Christianisation or communism.

The problem here is that the word 'Islam' is also in contention. Both Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation Nahdatul Ulama, and Amien Rais, the leader of Muhammadiyah (and of the reformist party PAN) are both 'pro-reformasi' and opposed to Habibie. It is also clear that Megawati's PDI-P received many more Muslim votes than any other party. Many saw the 'Islam vs sekular' discourse as simply promoting the interests of Habibie. In any case, who can really hope to represent 'Islam' when even the representative organisations can not often agree, as shown by the conflict over whether a woman may become president?

Most voters accept the reformasi/ status quo division rather than the Islam/ secular division. But there will be an on-going battle over the meaning of reformasi and the extent of 'openness'. As the tabloids not only 'open up' politics but also publish what is interpreted in Indonesia as 'pornography', protest over the trend has arisen.


Does reformasi mean a more public acceptance of 'Islamic values', or does it mean an acceptance of other supposedly 'western' values besides democracy, human rights, and so on? Or something in between? Or neither? It would be misleading to see this as simply a battle between Islam and a 'western style' reformasi. When the tabloid press depicts the extremes of discourse it is not only chasing sales but is engaged in a process of defining the limits of a post-Suharto field of politics and culture. In following the media principle that negative stories have greater news value, they succeed in 'stretching' the discourse in different and often conflicting directions to see how far it will go. It is no accident that the largest selling tabloids are those that emphasise conflict, use the most sensational language or provide the most graphic photos.

Although New Order press laws are still officially in force, real control seems to be left to the media proprietors themselves, or to the community. In this respect Indonesia is beginning to resemble other democratic countries. It remains to be seen whether the new discourses will serve to maintain that democratic environment or not.

John Olle ( is a PhD student at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999

On the mend

In Jakarta and Yogyakarta, the election brought renewing hope

Laine Berman

From a distance we heard the deafening roar of scooters, shouting voices, the honking of horns and blaring music, all under the pale yellow-grey blanket of exhaust emissions which already hung heavily in Jakarta's morning sky. We approached Jalan Thamrin with apprehension, caused by terrifying memories of previous election campaigns. In 1992 in Yogya I witnessed the naked violence and widespread fear of Indonesian street campaigns: the threatening spectacle of scooters with no mufflers, their 'ninja' drivers and menacing passengers with sticks in hand ready to use on any bystander who failed to raise the appropriate hand signal. This was Jakarta, it was day one of the campaigns, and I was scared.

The first day of campaigning was the only one when all 48 parties were permitted to march. 'Experts' of all kinds predicted riots. But from the moment we reached Jalan Thamrin and began the hike south to the Hotel Indonesia roundabout, all my concerns disappeared. Instead of open intimidation, we had a celebration. Vehicles from one party happily gave way to the next. Buses carried flags from many parties under the banner 'Bis Koalisi'. People helped each other. Whereas in 1992 Chinese bystanders were harassed for 'petrol money', now they too were visibly relieved and joined the throngs on the roadsides. When we finally reached the roundabout, the carnival atmosphere was in full swing with acrobats, clowns, floats, colourful banners, and a great deal of good cheer. Jakartans had beaten the odds, confounded the 'experts', and enjoyed themselves immensely to boot!

In Jakarta and in Yogyakarta the campaign and the election itself went surprisingly well. Very few incidents marred the festivities. On June 7th, in my kampung in central Yogyakarta, men sat in the shade of the fruit trees in my front yard discussing politics. They joked about the old days before reformasi, when nobody bothered to vote yet the kampung tally still showed full participation for Golkar. Now things were different. Men of all ages were enjoying the atmosphere, while women lined up to vote first. 'Women shouldn't have to stand in the heat', the men said as they stepped aside to let the women through. The process was long. It took over an hour from queuing up to casting the three ballots to confirming their legitimacy to staining a finger in ink (meant to prevent double voting). No one complained. Everyone seemed to enjoy the experience and the chance to discuss it all with neighbours.

For weeks prior to this day, TV, radio, and all print media educated the nation on the voting process. Each night speakers from the different parties were introduced through open debates and speeches. Immediately upon Suharto's resignation, the talk show format seemed to have taken over evening TV. Now there were discussions of election topics, reviews of party platforms, training videos, guest speakers, and viewer call-ins. Through TV videos, advertisements, posters, pamphlets, and print media cartoons, the nation was assured that this election was unlike all the previous ones.

Women's voice

People were taught to recognise various ways of cheating, and to reject gender bias by assuring women that their votes were personal and very important. Women make up over half the electorate. Media campaigns incessantly told them that 'for the first time, we do have a voice. Women will determine the nation's future!' TV ads assured women that their vote was secret and should be cast for the party that best supported women's issues. Disappointingly, no one I asked knew of such a party.

Other ad campaigns encouraged voters to follow their own preference and conviction and not just follow husbands, village heads, or religious leaders. Yet others warned of 'politik bayaran' or vote buying. They actually encouraged people to take the money but vote according to their preference. As the day approached and for weeks afterward, the media campaigns shifted. Now, the nation was encouraged to accept the outcome as free and fair, regardless of who won. Scenes showed friends and family fighting over differences of opinion, then pointed out how wasteful such arguments were.

No one doubted the significance of this election. Everyone in my kampung said how important they felt personally. While most agreed that no candidate stood out as a true leader, all felt confident that Indonesia was finally on the mend. After the polls closed, as many people as the hall could fit took part in the counting. Many kept their own tallies. During three days of counting, the crowds in the hall and those hanging around outside never abated. Nor did their enthusiasm and desire to be part of the great occasion. Fathers led me to the window of the hall to point to their sons and daughters and with great pride said: 'That's my child, an election monitor!'

During the long counting process, each ballot paper was read out aloud. Each one was greeted by a flurry of comments: cheers (Megawati's PDI-P), boos (Golkar), laughter (the youthful PRD). Any discrepancy was carefully checked. On the night of June 7 and for the rest of the week, kampung celebrations were visible all over town. Men gathered in roadside party huts ('posko') to shave their heads and/or to cook dog meat stew, both common ways of giving thanks and celebrating a blessing. Their reasons were numerous. 'No, I didn't vote for Mega, but that doesn't matter. What is important is that the election was a success.' 'We are celebrating the new era for Indonesia.' 'We are celebrating because Golkar is finished.' 'We don't care who wins as long as it is clean.' 'Yes, it will take a long time to clean up Suharto's mess, but we have already begun!'

The only people who remained cynical and had no inked finger (alias they didn't vote, saying they were 'Golput') were the older generation of Yogya activists. These were the university students who had helped Muchtar Pakpahan create the labour union SBSI, had helped Megawati rise in the PDI and later to form PDI-P, and had helped Amien Rais form his PAN, among others. Before Suharto's fall they had pitched in to write their platforms, and organised their rallies and protests. Many of them had now graduated (or dropped out) and are working for non-government organisations. They felt they knew the candidates too well. They were too familiar with their flaws to vote for them.

Open minds

All in all, the changes Indonesia has experienced (in some places) since 21 May 1998 are phenomenal. In just over one year a wave of openness has flooded into the media, the streets, the kampungs, the campuses, and people's minds. Rather than blindly follow provocateurs, people are beginning to feel their responsibility in the future shape of the nation. They question the motives of troublemakers.

The group of men I sat with as they waited for the women to vote talked about their roles in preventing corruption and in ensuring the next president really does represent the people. The idealism I witnessed was touching, if not a bit naive. Indonesia has a long way to go before the effects of oppression, social inequality, and institutionalised violence subside. At least in the kampungs of Yogyakarta and Jakarta, the 'little people' are ready to face the changes. Let's hope both the old and the new generation of leaders can do the same.

Laine Berman is a research fellow in the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 60: Oct-Dec 1999
Page 2 of 2

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