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Indonesian Impressions

28 Apr

Impressions from a Third Visit to Indonesia



Indonesia Visits


This was my third visit to Indonesia. The first visit was very brief. It consisted of two stops on a Princeton allumni cruise to South Asia in 1992.  I was invited to go along as ‘ a guest.’ In exchange, I was expected to give a few lectures on the political dimensions of our trip, especially pertaining to Indochina. Another academician, Ainslee Embree, an erudite comparative religion scholar, recently retired from Columbia, informed the 80 or so participants, mainly affluent Princeton alumni, about cultural and religious issues.


The notable highlights of the Indonesian phase of the trip included a stop at the world’s largest Buddhist temple at Borobudur in central Java. It is a spectacular structure, with nine levels, 504 Buddha statues, with 72 Buddha statues each encased in a stupa surrounding the central dome.  Climbing around the pyramidal structure in Indonesian humidity was a struggle, but a memorable one. I can only wonder at the immense effort of many hundreds of anonymous workers who produced such a timeless monument to ‘detachment’!  Our small ship also made a short stop at Bali, where several of the more luxury-addicted passengers, not content with the rather spacious staterooms on board, arranged to stay overnight at a splendidly expensive new hotel in the center of the island. They paid at least $1,000 per night; for the rest of us an elegant lunch on land more than sufficed as we happily retreated to the waiting ship.


Besides Indonesia, the cruise included on its itinerary several other countries. We started from Singapore, and made stops at Saigon and Pnom Penh on the Mekong, going inland to see magnificent Angkor Wat temple complex near Siem Reapin the dawn light, regarded as the largest religious monument in the world. It was surprising to learn that Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu place of worship, dedicated to Vishnu, and gradually became a Buddhist site in the 12thcentury. The more one is exposed to Asian culture and history, the more we come to realize that power shifts from one culture to another, but the symbols of cultural greatness and religious devotion are interchangeable. The countries of Asia are strikingly different from one another in almost all respects, and yet there is a civilizational commonality that makes it possible for the religious tradition to merge and overlap in ways inconceivable in the West where the dyadic logic of either/or continues to prevail, making it mandatory to distinguish ‘this’ from ‘that.’


 The thrilling cultural experience at Angkor Wat was followed by a sobering visit to ‘the killing fields” of Cambodia.  We were given a guided tour of the accompanying memorial museum that documented the decimation of the Cambodian population, portrayed in the Western Cold War media as genocide (Cambodian deaths estimated at between one point five and two million) in the period about between 1975 and 1979. The brutal Khmer Rouge policies of ‘re-education, forced communes, and anti-Westernism under the rigid Communist leadership of Pol Pot, so-called Brother #1, were blamed for the humanitarian catastrophe. What is held less remarked upon, if noticed at all, is the relevance of Nixon’s extension of the Vietnam War to Cambodia to the genocide. This extension included saturated bombing of the Cambodian countryside forcing the peasant population to seek refuge in Phnom Penh where food shortages did much of the damage. Our cruise passengers, generally on the political right, seemed interested in my remarks on these contested events, becoming almost receptive and unexpectedly friendly. One rather opinionated Princeton middle-aged alumnus ‘confessed’ that before embarking he had ‘pictured me with horns’ and almost withdrew from the cruise for that reason alone. Despite such forebodings, he admitted to being pleasantly surprised by my demeanor and approach. I did not altogether reciprocate these heartwarming sentiments as such a cruise attracts wealthy and snobbish individuals who are often spoiled and greedy, never humble, and generally dogmatically reactionary when commenting on the issues of the day. In this vein, among our passengers were several leading ‘junk bond’ operatives who survived the scandal of the 1980s seemingly unscathed and a pre-Trump NYC real estate mogul who were forever complaining that the fringe luxuries didn’t meet their standards (while I must admit it was exceeding mine!) As with many ambivalent experiences, I was glad to have been part of this cruise, but would never do it again unless the itinerary was limited to Antarctica!




Second Indonesian Visit


My second visit to Indonesia was more personally satisfying. I came in 1998 as an invited guest of the newspaper Kompass, with lectures in several cities in Java preceded by a week of vacation in Bali where we stayed at an eco-tourist inn (Sua Bali) run by a German expatriate and his Indonesian partner, an anthropologist. Meals were eaten communally with the other guests and plumbing was pre-modern. Nearby Ubud was a culturally vibrant local community where expatriate writers and artists gathered to live a life away from the pressure of markets and critics. Bali exceeded even our highest expectations in all respects accept for the consistently high levels of humidity.


I came to Indonesia with Hilal. We were assisted and guided throughout by an extremely engaging and sensitive young former student activist leader, Taufik Rahzan, who greatly enriched our experience. During our three weeks in the country the Indonesian currency was hard hit by a volatile speculative market, which seemed inflamed by hedge fund traders in the West betting on the falling value of the Rupiah, and doing their best to make it happen! Mahathir Mohamed, then leader of Malaysia, made headlines by blaming the currency crisis in the region on George Soros, and lauding his own efforts to steer clear of neoliberal globalization, which he contended helped minimize the adverse impacts of the currency manipulations.


Recalling Indonesia means above all remembering my most cherished Australian friend, Herb Feith, who devoted his too short life to the study of Indonesia, and was probably responsible for my invitation to visit and speak. Herb was wonderfully strange in his intense innocence that led people to overlook his moral passion, exceptional intellectual capacity, and significant scholarly achievements. I will never forget his inexplicable practice of eating the meat on chicken bones left as garbage on their plates by others at several dinners we had together. Herb died far too soon while riding his bike in Yogyakarta where he also did some teaching. I first met Herb, and his advance student protégé, Richard Tanter, years earlier when they sought me out at Princeton in the 1970s, apparently looking for an anti-war activist hiding behind Ivy Walls. They were doing research at Cornell, which had a highly regarded academic program on Indonesia, and we instantly bonded for life.


Another human highlight for me was a long meeting with Indonesia’s extraordinary literary figure, Pramoedya Ananta Tuer, whose novels I had been reading with great admiration in preparation for the visit. I requested the meeting, and it was arranged for me to visit this left author/activist who had languished in terrible prisons for much of his life, having opposed and fought against Dutch colonialism, Japanese occupation, and Suharto’s reactionary regime, and been imprisoned by each.


Perhaps, the most remarkable feature of Pramoedya’s life was the story behind his literary masterwork, the Buro Quartet, four novels strung together by way of the life story of Minke, an Indonesian journalist and activist who became a resistance fighter during the last phase of Dutch colonial rule. Adding to the literary quality of these novels is the amazing story of their composition. While in the miserable prison on the arid island of Buro for seven years Pramoedya was denied paper and pen, but refused to be silenced. Instead, each evening he would tell Minke’s story of hardship and struggle  to his fellow prisoners. How this oral transmission was transcribed and converted into a gripping series of novels is not clearly established.


Politically, Pramoedya was on the left, paying a heavy price, being arrested and hustled off to prison in the aftermath of the anti-Communist massacre that led to the arrest of thousands more Indonesians. He supported Sukarno, who led the Indonesian independence struggle, and held General Suharto in contempt, and even after Suharto’s retirement, Pramoedya found no good things to say about the way the country was governed even though its democratically elected leader, Megawati Sukarnputri, was the daughter of his national hero, Sukarno. In his harsh words,”[a]fter Sukarno there have only been clowns who had no capability to run the country.”


When I visited Pramoedya he was frail (he died from health issues a few years later, in 2006), somewhat hesitant to talk much about his past, and seemingly worried about who was listening and watching. I had the sense of someone suffering from post-prison traumatic stress disorder or

PPTSD. I was glad I made this pilgrimage as it did give me the sense of someone brave and principled who lived his life and did his work in conformity with his beliefs, and yet despite enduring extreme deprivation and punishment managed 30 books, and created a legacy of distinguished achievement that has gavin the Indonesian people a national narrative detailing their struggles against the external and internal enemies of Indonesian self-determination and democratic legitimacy.


I cannot now remember even the themes of my talks to local groups of intellectuals. I also gave several lectures within university settings to students, stressing human rights. These activities provided stimulating contact with local personalities in three cities: Yogyakarta, Bandung, and Jakarta.


Unquestionably, for all of us, the enduring drama of this illuminating visit arose from a humbling incident occurring at the end of our last day in Indonesia. I had the temerity to disturb the local gods at dusk by losing my balance as I jumped from the pier to the ship moored below that was to take around the Jakarta harbor for a sunset tour. I fell rather deeply and uncontrollably into the scummy waters, prompting Taufik to dive in after me, losing his glasses in the process, and creating big fears of disease and infection for both of us as the water was extremely polluted. My fall was an event, attracting hundreds of local onlookers several of whom rushed me to a nearby shower, and while they were warmly empathetic they were also appropriately amused by my plight borne of awkwardness. The shower was on a moist stone floor in a broken down shack. It was as forbidding as the harbor water. With a genuine Good Samaritan spirit these local people who were obviously very poor provided me with a simple sarong to replace my infected clothes. Nothing happened to confirm these fears, but it has made me careful never again to anger the gods at dusk!


A Third Visit


My third trip to Indonesia was in early April of 2018. This time I was accompanying Hilal on a UN mission trip in her role as UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food, a position established some years ago by the Human Rights Council in Geneva. As I was not part of the mission team, I was able to pursue an independent line of activity, spending much time in our various hotels trying to write, but still managing to gather impressions that convinced me that Indonesia is not only an important and distinctive country, but an exciting place to be due to its deep, vibrant, and plural cultural identity and its warm traditions of hospitality.


Important because of a population of 260+ million, the largest Muslim country in the world, rich in a variety of resources, and exhibiting a strong record of economic growth and poverty reduction in recent years, as well as seeming to be evolving in democratizing and humanistic directions via elections, leadership, civil liberties, and social & economic rights. At the same time the country is beset by problems, old and new, arising from a variety of sources. A major problematic set of issues is connected with the rapidly expanding palm oil production causing harmful environmental and cultural side effects, some Islamic extremism, corruption, urban blight, weak infrastructure, and various dimensions of inequality, as well as some lingering dark shadows from past traumas whose memory has not yet faded away, and may never.


Indonesia is distinctive (with some comparison to the Philippines) as an island archipelago dominated by a single island, Java (comparable to Luzon’s dominance in the Philippines) spread over great distances. Within its many semi-autonomous communities there are numerous languages, separate ethnicities and traditions, a variety of ways of being Islamic, and overall, a bewildering complexity that make all generalizations suspect..



Remembering Sukarno, Forgetting Suharto


I made it point of asking a variety of persons I encountered during the ten days about their feelings toward the two dominant political personalities in Indonesian political history since it won political independence from The Netherlands in 1949 after four years of armed struggle. In short, those I spoke to remembered Sukarno favorably as the father of the country who was politically victimized by the malevolently tragic events of 1965, a massive anti-Communist national blood bath, abetted by the United States and reflecting the passions that overwhelmed morality during the height of the Cold War. For an understanding of how these past crimes haunt Indonesian political and moral consciousness I recommend highly the two documentary films of Joshua Oppenheimer: “The Act of Killing” (2013) and “The Look of Silence” (2014).

In contrast to the warmth toward Sukarno, there was disapproval, or at best, a stony silence when asked about their recollections of General Suharto who governed Indonesia with an iron fist in the period 1967-1998.



New Urbanism: Vitality and Blight


Clashing images struck me, especially in Jakarta: many striking examples of high rise contemporary architecture, much more so than in the typical American city, coupled with traffic gridlock. Hilal’s urban logistics would have been totally frustrating had not the government supplied a police motorcycle escort leading her cars from appointment to appointment, or making our way to and from the airports. The way Indonesian police found space to move our cars through the thickest concentration of vehicles was truly amazing, a kind of postmodern magic!


We were told that studies of urban life showed that an average Indonesian will spend ten years of his/her life behind the wheel. Such a situation gives rise to innovations. Many Indonesians cope with the traffic ordeal by relying on Go-Jek to get around cities by hired motorcycle, arranging rides by phone similar to Uber. There were abundant Go-Jek drivers all over Jakarta, recognizable by their Green jackets, many working for a company aptly named ‘Grab.’ Go-Jek service, like Uber or Lyft, also includes deliveries of takeout food and a courier service.


Jakarta, and its metropolitan surroundings, is estimated at over 20 million, making it the second largest urban center in the world, with ten million in the city, and the other ten million close by where rents are cheaper, and it is possible to have more space.


As incomes rise, and the car population grows quicker than the high birth rate what can only wonder whether Indonesian ingenuity can keep pace. Maybe the digitation of work will produce a deurbanizing trend in coming years to avoid having survey in the 2020s finding that an Indonesian spends 20 years getting to and fro work.



Archipelago Identities


Of course, every large country has regional differences, expressed by dialects, distinct language preferences, and food taste and local cuisine, but islands seem to accentuate their separate identities. Island pride often exceeds nationalist sentiments. This was clearly evident during our brief time in Indonesia.


There are also significant power/wealth differences within and among islands. For instance, other islands complain about Java’s dominance, which can be grasped through the geography of leadership, development assistances, and a variety of preferential investments, including centers of educational and cultural excellence. The remoteness and ethnic differences of Papua is cited as an example of how such prejudice operates on an inter-island, and in this case, an inter-civilizational basis. On Java there are complaints about inequalities between Jakarta and the rest of this main island, exhibited in the quality of the roads, employment opportunities, and cultural life.  Of course, Bali is a world apart, maybe mostly because it is where the unconverted Hindus retreated (and Buddhists seemed to disappear) when Islam took over the rest of the archipelago starting as early as the  9thcentury, and spreading gradually (with no clear narrative) over the course of the next six centuries until 95% of Indonesia is regarded as Muslim..


We went for a few days to Ambon, a glimpse of paradise. The stillness of the place creates sea vistas with the vividness of fine Asian paintings, a sense of lost tradition and eternal ways of living, the marginality of the human presence in the Asian, the primacy of nature, experienced as ‘the exotic other,’ inscribing the depth of pre-modern authenticity.  On the roads, motorcycles dominate the unlit roads, and driving at night feels hazardous as cars with impatient drivers move past slower vehicles on rather narrow roads, heedless of streams of approaching single headlights weaving in and out, without the slightest awareness of separate sides, much less lanes. Fortunately, the skill levels of drivers and bikers is high, the speeds are low; otherwise, fatal accidents would be sure abound.



Debating Flogging


On Java, in particular, devotion to Islam seems low keyed. I don’t recall hearing a call to prayer during our whole time in Indonesia or even seeing many mosques, unlike Turkey where the smallest village community will have a minaret defining its skyline, and city views will usually display several minarets wherever one is positioned. Also, again unlike Turkey, notable is the seeming non-issue arising from head scarves worn by many Indonesian women, worn with a strong sense of color and feminine grace, and freely mingling with girls and women who have their hair uncovered. This kind of pluralism, unselfconsciously a form of virtuous practice in our world troubled by secular and religious fundamentalisms. In Indonesia living together seemed to flow as naturally as the current in a lively river. Such a sense of harmony creates a calmness that is absent in the West where the atmosphere is stressed by encounters, explicit or not, between Islamophobes and humanists, as well as rigid secularists and their religious counterparts. To avoid being seen as a romantic, I would not that ethnicity can be an issue in

Indonesia as the Chinese minority, punching above their weight in the economy, know only too well.


But on the island of Ache things are different. Scarred by the 2004 tsunami disaster (more than 170,00 dead) and by a bloody independence struggle that seems paused if not ended by a peace agreement featuring autonomy in exchange for disarmarment, Ache exisst beneath the thralldom of far stricter Islamic law than elsewhere in Indonesia.


While we were in Jakarta, the daily papers were reporting on discussions in Ache about whether flogging of prisoners should be done in public to warn children to behave as they should in the future or behind the secrecy of prison walls so as to spare young Indonesians such gruesome spectacles. As near as I could tell, renouncing flogging as a punitive practice toward prisoners is not on the public agenda in Ache. It is not a question of whetherflogging, but howit is most constructively performed. What lies beneath such religiously vindicated cruelty is culturally specific, yet mysteriously disturbing.



Airport Security


With so much travel, we have become aware that airport security reflects the vagaries of national temperament, and sometimes reflects the personal style of the local administrative official. My bionic knees that set off the inspection alert in even the crudest of detector devices have given me much more extensive experience than I wish in the comparative practice of touch and feel. The Germans, as we might expect, are the most rigorous, with heavy hands leaving no body part untouched. The Indonesians are at the other extreme except when it comes to umbrellas. For Indonesian airports security personnel inspecting the body of strangers seems an embarrassment, even if gendered, and appears situated somewhere between the unpleasant and the unnecessary. But when it comes to umbrellas it is another story. As shown in crime films, umbrellas can be weaponized, and ours was viewed with suspicion, which was the case even though it was a humble umbrella with UN logos as its design motif. Finally, with pleading just short of tears we prevailed, and walked away hoping for rain!



The Lure of the Feminine


Our hotel in Jakarta, The Hermitage, was the embodiment of post-colonial tradition and elegance, with hostesses and staff selected for their charm and beauty, and undoubtedly trained to be conversational and friendly. These Indonesian smiles have a special radiance that is best understood (metaphorically) as the transparency of the soul. Another way of perceiving this lure of the feminine in this pure Indonesian form is as ‘gracious composure’ that is classless, purposeless, and without the taints of a colonial mentality left behind by the Dutch. These qualities also made Hilal’s female team of assistants and interpreters especially engaging, the Indonesian ways of being were contagious enough to reach an Indian regional coordinator and a Korean staff member from the Geneva Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights. It was my pleasure to experience this conviviality in a work-free atmosphere as my only obligation during the trip was to stay out of the way, and indulge my natural inclination for non-obtrusiveness, which happens to be the best way to observe the unfamiliar, whether it be persons or places.  


A Concluding Word


Nothing better summarizes the experience of another culture or country than whether or not at the time of departure you leave with a strong desire to return as soon as possible. Certainly, despite age and geographic remoteness, I was unrealistic enough to hope that we would return soon to Indonesia, and especially experience that sense of Ambon bliss, perhaps on other islands as well. Indonesians told us that there many Ambons waiting to be visited, bearing a vivid witness to one version of what Derrida had in mind when he spoke so intriguingly of what it means to ‘live well together.’