Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

The mayor who fell down the well

Published: Sep 12, 2007
Reformasi came to a Javanese country town almost like a revolution

Anton Lucas

In Tegal, a town of nearly 400,000 people on Java's north coast, the sun is searing. It even burns your toes in the becak. There are lots more becaks (trishaws) nowadays than in 1975, my last research visit. At night the drivers lower their hoods and pedal at high speed along the city's straight flat roads. Instead of bicycle bells, they have those metal clangers suspended under the seats which, when struck with another piece of metal, resonate wonderfully around the streets in the evenings. I'd forgotten the taste of the strong sweet black tea called teh poci (served hot) and the sate gambing (goat sate), both specialities of the city.

Thanks to the Indonesian newspapers now posted on the internet, I had read about the events here in mid-June 1998, when shops and bank windows 'that could not escape the frustration of the angry masses' were smashed (but not looted or set on fire). The angry crowd also set vehicles on fire, but no one was killed and Chinese traders were not physically threatened. Many now have the words 'Pro Reformasi' painted in large letters on their shop fronts.

Suharto's resignation had a big impact on the local student-led reform movement. It was first and foremost directed at Tegal's mayor, HM Zakir, a retired army colonel, one time intelligence officer and a former commander of the local military garrison.. After Suharto left the stage, the local political and religious elite quickly joined the protest against HM Zakir for the same reasons, namely collusion, corruption and nepotism, or KKN.

'A carbon copy of Suharto's arrogance'. This was how the mayor of Tegal was described in one press interview. I discovered while in Tegal recently that he was much more than arrogant. He was also a heavy weight corrupter, making huge amounts on commissions, levies, manipulation of local taxes, and extra-legal payments for building permits on a grand scale (rather like Dutch officials of the VOC did in the eighteenth century).

One student banner which appeared during the protests of last year depicted HM Zakir sitting on a red bag of money beside a pile of logs with his fingers in his ears. This poster portrayed his links with a local Chinese businessman named Ponco Dianto, who between 1991-96 was selling tropical timber, stolen from Kalimantan and smuggled into Central Java via the port of Tegal. To do this the businessman had to pay off the local bureaucracy, consisting of the harbour master, the police, the military and the local head of the Justice Department. Not to mention the regional and provincial military commands as well.

'How much did HM Zakir get paid?', I asked one of Tegal's leading Indonesian Chinese developers. He made some rough calculations. Ponco Dianto was smuggling into Tegal between 5-10,000 cubic metres of stolen Kalimantan hardwood timber every month, for six years. He sold this timber for between Rp 300,000-500,000 per cubic metre. Ponco paid the mayor a flat commission of Rp 30,000 per cubic metre. All this means he was making at least Rp 150 million a month, before the Indonesian monetary crisis! At the old exchange rate to the Australian dollar (about Rp 1,500), we worked out that the mayor raked in at least AU$9 million commission on the sale of smuggled timber in Tegal during his time in office. Ponco Dianto went to jail after the government cracked down on timber smuggling everywhere, but many are dubious that HM Zakir will be charged, for lack of evidence that will stand up in court.

No receipts Mayor HM Zakir tried to make money on just about everything in Tegal. On taking office he stopped the local market redevelopment so that his own contractor could build a similar department store on another site (the old bus terminal), in return for free shares in the company. The old market site has now been empty for seven years. After the elections, the originally planned five-storey department store will be built at a cost of AU$40 million.

The mayor levied compulsory payments for street cleaning on electricity bills, then contracted out the street sweeping to a private company, who employed women at rates below the regional minimum wage. He charged doctors one million rupiah for a licence to practice (young doctors couldn't afford to open a general practice). He charged banks Rp 25 million for permission to build a branch. He got all these fees paid to him in cash in his mayoral office. No cheques thank you (he sent one back), and no receipts of course.

On 20 May 1998, the day before Suharto resigned, students from the local Panca Sakti University initiated a sit in at the local municipal assembly (DPRD). Cultural expressions of dissent in Tegal, through poetry and plays, had actually begun years before. The May event cleared the way for most of the local political elite to change sides and support the students. Even a majority of the DPRD supported a resolution, read out publicly on 26 June 1998, that Mayor Zakir must resign.

A delegation went to the Ministry of Home Affairs in Jakarta to ask for his dismissal. There was no response. Then during the 17 August national independence day celebrations last year, several groups left the ceremony in protest rather than have to march past and salute the mayor. Ki Entus Susmono, the activist local dalang (shadow play puppeteer) and a new ally of the students, took the microphone to calm the crowd. The mayor was finally forced to resign two weeks later, on 5 September 1998.

To celebrate the mayor's departure a shadow play was held. Dalang Ki Entus Susmono modified the story of the popular clown Gareng, who challenges the moral authority of King Prabu Duryadana for cheating his cousins and taking their kingdom. In the Tegal version, a familiar figure (Kumbakarna) was used to play a new character called Prabu Kala Muzakar, whom the delighted audience knew immediately was Zakir the Mayor. This character came from a kingdom called Bahari (Tegal Bahari is the New Order government's name for the municipality in the national Clean City competitions). Right at the end of the performance a puppet in the exact likeness of the mayor appeared, and fell down a well, presumably to his death. The 70,000 crowd was delighted, and went home satisfied that, ritually at least, HM Zakir was now gone for good. The bupati (regent) of Tegal was also later replaced for nepotism, but less dramatically.

Two revolutions? The changing of local officials in 1998 was not as dramatic or as far reaching as in 1945, when all of Tegal's district and subdistrict heads (wedanas and camats), the mayor and the bupati, as well as most village headmen had to flee for their lives. These 1945 officials were targets of the people's anger because of the way they had been compelled to organise compulsory rice deliveries to the Japanese occupation army, and also because of corruption in the distribution of scarce cloth, rice and kerosene rations. Corruption on a smaller scale than today perhaps, but just as widespread in those days, and easier to prove.

In 1998 it is much harder to remove corrupt officials. Cultural expressions of change are also different today, but still played an equally important role. Bahasa Indonesia is no longer the exciting new language that village people were learning to speak in 1945, but cultural activists, poets, playwrights, and of course the dalang, now use the local Tegal dialect of Javanese (bahasa Tegalan) through protest poetry, local radio, and literary magazines. As well there are now three monthly local newspapers (in Indonesian), all attacking corruption and promoting political change and a more open society.

I was given a photo taken last year that showed a group of youthful village protesters. All were armed with the same sharpened bamboo spears (bambu runcing) that provided the leitmotiv of the pemuda revolution in Java in 1945. Except now motor bike helmets and baseball caps have replaced young coconut leaves (janur kuning), which back then gave the freedom fighters invulnerability.

Just as fundamental social structures proved difficult to change in 1945, so today money politics is still around. One of the mayoral candidates to replace Zakir distributed mobile phones to his supporters. Everyone expects more changes in the future, just as they did in 1945.

On Sunday 18 April 1999, Tegal city was a sea of navy blue and white. Twice the number of people than was expected by the organisers, perhaps 100,000, turned up to hear Muslim reformist leader Amien Rais speak at a mass rally in the city square. In Tegal city it will be a struggle between Amien Rais, who heads the Partai Amanat Nasional, and PDI Perjuangan. In the 1955 elections Sukarno's old PNI, not unlike Megawati's PDI today, won in Tegal.

The surrounding countryside will be hotly contested too. Conflict is emerging within the Islamic community in neighbouring Pemalang. PPP is making an issue of the fact that PKB has as its party principle the Indonesian state philosophy, the Five Principles - Pancasila - rather than Islam. They want to try and stop the Muslim leaders (kiai) from leaving PPP to join Gus Dur's PKB (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa). Tegal regency is more devoutly Muslim than it was 30 or 50 years ago.

There is plenty of local government as well as party supervision of the electoral process. Dozens of new village headmen chosen since last year (in Tegal city over three quarters of headmen are new) won't have the same authority to force a Golkar victory, even if they are paid to do so as in the past. In Tegal there is cautious optimism for a democratic outcome.

Anton Lucas teaches at Flinders University, Adelaide. He wrote this while on a research visit to Indonesia.

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