Feb 26, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Reframing the demon

Published: Dec 01, 2019

Anton Novenanto

On the morning of 29 May 2013, hundreds of Lapindo mudflow victims gathered in Porong Square in Sidoarjo, East Java, to march along the highway in commemoration of the seventh year since the disaster began. A group of marchers carried a five-metre-tall ogoh-ogoh (effigy) of a man wearing a yellow suit, carrying a briefcase full of money and sitting on a mud-volcano. The procession ended with the effigy being thrown into the mud lake. As it was cast in, one victim yelled to the crowd: ‘This represents the throwing away of our misfortune, which [Aburizal] Bakrie is responsible for.’

Political disaster

‘Lumpur Lapindo’ (the Lapindo mudflow) is an unnatural mud-volcano in Porong. The eruption is releasing 180,000 cubic metres of mud per day – the highest rate of any volcano on earth – and has inundated around 800 hectares of land, including more than 15 villages. It has fully submerged six of those villages along with their public infrastructure (including the Porong highway and tollway, the backbone of the East Javanese economy) and displaced their residents. And the mud is still flowing. Geologists predict that the current high rate of mud flow will continue for at least 30 years – dated from the beginning of the eruption – and then decline to a lower rate for an unknown period of time.

Because the first eruption, detected in the early morning of 29 May 2006, occurred adjacent to a natural gas exploration well, Banjar Panji 1, public and academic debate has focused on whether the drilling triggered the eruption. Banjar Panji 1 was operated by Lapindo Brantas – from which the name ‘lumpur Lapindo’ originated. Lapindo is a subsidiary of the Bakrie & Brothers conglomerate, which owned half of Lapindo’s shares at the time of the incident. The other half was owned mainly by Medco (32 per cent) and Santos (12 per cent). Gradually, Medco and Santos have handed their Lapindo shares to Bakrie & Brothers.

The mudflow quickly became a political disaster because, at that time, one of Bakrie & Brothers’ senior figures, Aburizal Bakrie, was also the coordinating minister of people’s welfare. Aburizal got his cabinet position on account of his political clout: until May 2016, he was chairperson of Golkar, then the nation’s largest political party. Many consider his political position to have been highly influential in the government’s response to the mudflow. Some political scientists have argued that former president Yudhoyono never pushed Lapindo to take full responsibility because Aburizal was one of the major donors to Yudhoyono’s 2004 and 2009 presidential campaigns.

A yellow ogre

The mudflow victim who initiated the idea of making the effigy, and oversaw its construction, told me that he was inspired by a Balinese ritual held a few days ahead of Nyepi (the first day of the Balinese New Year). The ritual, he said, aims to cleanse the community of evil spirits before the new year begins. The ritual ends with the burning of effigies to cleanse the village of evil spirits and bad luck. Nowadays, in addition to making effigies of mythological creatures (ogres or demons), the Balinese also create them depicting real-life figures who are deemed to have a bad influence on the community’s social and cultural harmony. In this spirit, the mudflow victims’ yellow ogre effigy stands in for Aburizal – the yellow shirt representing the Golkar party.

It is not surprising that Aburizal has been the main target of local anger; he has effectively deployed his political and economic power to reduce his company’s liability for the disaster. But his most controversial act has been framing the incident as a ‘natural disaster’, rather than an ‘industrial accident’, by arguing that an earthquake triggered the mudflow. To most mudflow victims I have spoken with, Aburizal is not simply a bad guy possessed by an evil spirit. Worse, they argued, he is the evil spirit, the demon possessing government and society.

People’s hero

If the effigy of the yellow ogre is drawn from Balinese ritual, the demonisation of Aburizal corresponds to the Javanese folktale of Timun Mas (the golden cucumber) fighting Buto Ijo (the green ogre), which ends with the death of the latter. This folktale is very popular among mudflow victims because, in one version of the story, Buto Ijo sinks into an artificial mud lake. The drowning of Aburizal’s effigy in 2013 was a vivid representation of how the notorious ogre – in this case, a symbol of the politically and economically powerful Aburizal – eventually dies by the hand of an oppressed and relatively powerless peasant – the mudflow victims.

In the Javanese tradition, misfortunes such as geohazards are often perceived to be the result of evil spirits possessing members of the community. This notion relies on the idea of human bodies as containers, allowing spirits and other influences to move in and out, leaving the people vulnerable to losing their own spirit or possession by another. Within this logic, misfortunes (including, geohazards) can be prevented if someone, or those around them, can keep the original spirit from coming out of one’s body and therefore preventing alien spirit(s) from coming into it. When misfortune happens, ritual practices may help to cast out these alien spirits and restore original spirits back to their bodies.

This view, moreover, corresponds with the Javanese idea of environmental hazards as being cultural as well as natural. As one anthropologist has observed in the case of Mount Merapi in Central Java, volcanic eruptions are seen as the outcome of the abuse of power by rulers, either at the local or national level. It is within this framework of interpreting geohazards as a result of individual or collective misconduct of humans that the Lapindo mudflow case has been pinned on Aburizal.

The Lapindo mudflow has become a milestone in the history of the relationship between humans and nature in Java. Works on Javanese culture tend to argue for the arrival of a noble leader and messiah, a ratu adil, when the Javanese people are in a state of crisis. Beliefs about this relationship are based on the idea that power is centred in particular figures, mainly the kings of the Javanese courts.

Mudflow victims are in the unusual situation, in this Javanese political narrative, of those in power having never taken their side. Instead, the government has opted to protect those responsible for the disaster by taking on all liability for further damages resulting from it. Although mudflow victims have little hope for official recognition, they have nevertheless launched a powerful protest by reframing classic narratives through creative art to demonise the powerful.

Anton Novenanto (nino@ub.ac.id) is a researcher and lecturer at Universitas Brawijaya, Indonesia. He has been doing independent research into the Lapindo mudflow case since 2008 and is the editor of Membingkai Lapindo (Framing Lapindo, 2013) published by MediaLink and Kanisius.

Inside Indonesia 138: Oct-Dec 2019

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