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When the Waves of Colonialism and Tsunamis Are Gone

David Kootnikoff
All photos by David Kootnikoff unless indicated otherwise.

After years of repression, Indonesia is experiencing a rush of energy and enquiry usually associated with great shifts of national character.

Indonesia is a smorgasbord of cultures, laid out over an archipelago encompassing no less than 17,000 islands with approximately 500 languages and dialects and 300 ethnic groups. While "unity in diversity" adorns Indonesia's coat of arms, conflict is never far from the surface.

From a distance, terrorist bombings and last December's tsunami has contributed to an image of a country dissolving into chaos. But in fact, the opposite is happening: the people, mainly the young, are fighting to keep it together. In a country where 26 is the average age and over 30 percent of the country's 225 million people are under 15, a youthful dynamism is tangible. After years of repression, Indonesia is experiencing a rush of energy and enquiry usually associated with great shifts of national character.

Indonesia is indeed on a roll: along with the emergence of an indigenous form of moderate Islam and the messy disentangling of human rights abuses, Indonesian Pop Idol is huge and condom ads risqué. This is a country that is at least trying to "ride the winds of change", to paraphrase Suzuki motorcycle's recent ad campaign. And as the world's most populous Muslim nation, it behooves the world to take note.

Jakarta. "The big durian", as it's called, a durian being a tropical fruit that's hard and prickly on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside. They also have a putrid odor: imagine a septic tank dripping with sulfur on a sweltering day. Hotels in this part of the world prohibit guests from bringing this stink bomb onto their premises. Make no mistake; this bulbous, porcupine of a fruit is an acquired taste.

But once accustomed to its flavour, the yellow, velvety flesh can prove to be irresistible. Too bad the same can't be said for Jakarta. As the capital of Indonesia, it's a city best sampled in small morsels before venturing beyond to indulge in the feast that is the rest of the country.

Jakarta is a bit like Los Angeles; a hot, sprawling metropolis where relief often comes from a trip to Plaza Indonesia, an air-conditioned mega-mall. The city's equivalent to Rodeo Drive, this cathedral to commerce sits in the middle of the city like a cool oasis in a landscape of noxious fumes. Jakarta's public transport is also as comfortable and reliable as a toothache, forcing anyone who can to drive something - anything is better than riding Jakarta's busses or trains.

For a city of 10 million, there are four million motorcycles or scooters. One of the most popular forms of transport is the bajaj, a motorized rickshaw with three wheels, a driver in front and room for two in the back. Maximum speed is about 40kms and their belching, lawnmower-sized engines emit more pollution than a space shuttle at take off. But they're dirt-cheap. A buck will pretty much get you anywhere you need to go in the city, but negotiating a price is essential and expected.

My wisma (guesthouse) was in the Proclamasi neighbourhood, a 15 minute bajaj ride southeast of Gambir, the main railway station. Across the street, now a shaded park, was once home to the father of Indonesia's independence, Sukarno.

Sixty years ago, on August 17 1945, immediately following Japan's surrender to the allies, Sukarno proclaimed Indonesia's independence from this very location. Rather than be a place of veneration as might be expected, it's deteriorated into a dilapidated enclosure. Including a statue of Sukarno and his comrade Mohammad Hatta, there is also a memorial to his famous speech outlining Indonesia's state philosophy, Pancasila, or five principles. These include the belief in one god, democracy, civilized humanity, unity and social justice.

The reasons for this neglect are many and complex, but boil down to Sukarno's mixed legacy. Responsible for the birth of a nation, Sukarno sadly corroded into a decadent dictator who wielded power unflinchingly for 20 years. Starting off as a democrat, he eventually lost patience with it and introduced his own version of "guided democracy"; basically a "father knows best" type of rule.

In 1965, with the help of the CIA who suspected him of sympathizing with communists, Sukarno was replaced in a coup led by Suharto, another dictator who was more brutal than decadent. Determined to rewrite his predecessor out of the books as much as possible, his so-called "New Order" regime maintained power for 33 years. Finally, in 1998, student demonstrations precipitated his downfall and ushered in the current era of reformasi (reform). Just last fall Indonesia enjoyed its first directly elected presidential campaign.

One day I walked to the corner for a bite to eat where warungs, groups of movable food stalls, are set up daily. They resemble barbeques, or hot plates on wheels. For a people whose average annual income is less than US$1000, the stalls provide cheap eats; US$2 dollars will buy a full meal. Young chefs serve up such local delicacies as nasi goring (fried rice), gado-gado (spicy mixed veggies in peanut sauce) and kelapa muda (fresh coconut). I ordered the gado-gado and coconut.

The hodge-podge of patrons sitting out on wooden benches and tables under the trees included bajaj and taxi drivers, local peddlers, office workers and people from the kampong (neighbourhood). Some were dressed in t-shirts, others in more formal attire, but no one was in shorts, except me, the notoriously casual foreigner.

"The corner was our testimonial to freedom", sing the Last Poets on the recent Common single, and this is what it felt like: a gathering of generations rubbing shoulders and sharing gossip under banyan trees amidst the gritty grime of the inner city. Not unlike the African Americans Common referred to, these too are a proud, exuberant people who fought to break the shackles of oppression � Dutch colonialism in this case � to forge their own independence. It was such an embarrassment for the Dutch that only this summer did their government formally acknowledge Indonesia's Independence Day. Previously, they had recognized 1949, the date they had allowed Indonesia to become independent. It never much mattered to these people down on the corner: Sukarno and Hatta didn't need anyone's permission to proclaim their independence.

The Chinese have historically inhabited a very precarious place in Indonesian society. No one knows exactly when they began to arrive on the archipelago, but by the 15th century there was already a significant number and their temples and communities were well established. By the time the Dutch gained control of Indonesia in the early 17th century, the Chinese were being exploited as middlemen between the indigenous population and the colonial government. This created tensions and institutionalized divisions that continue to this day.

Following Surharto's ascent to power in 1965, a bloody massacre engulfed the country, claiming over 500,000 lives according to Amnesty International, in what has been called one of the most overlooked massacres of the 20th century. Many of the victims were Chinese, targeted as scapegoats for being communists. Later, when Suharto was thrown out of office, another rampage, albeit smaller but nonetheless brutal, occurred in 1998. This time the Chinese were blamed for being capitalists, for controlling over 80 percent of the Indonesian economy.

The city of Semarang in Central Java was the host this past August to the 600th Anniversary of a "Chinese Admiral who became a eunuch", Cheng Ho (aka Zheng He). The celebrations were unique in that they were organized by the Chinese Society with the full support of the government. Things appeared to have turned around for the Chinese in Semarang, and the week long festivities were heralded by some as an indication of a Chinese cultural revival.

However, things are rarely that simple in Indonesia. The involvement of the government had more to do with trade and finance: the current administration of President Susilo Yudhoyono has already signed a number of deals with Beijing and this event was as much an opportunity to attract attention and investment from China as it was a cultural event. Cheng Ho also happened to be a Muslim. Comprising roughly three percent of the population, most Chinese in Indonesia either follow a form of Confucianism or Christianity, and very few are Muslims. While visiting, I spoke to city officials who believed the Chinese were minimizing the Admiral's Muslim faith. "They're trying to turn Semarang into Cheng Ho city," said one.

A historian I spoke with acknowledged that the Chinese resisted cooperating or mixing with Indonesia's indigenous culture and tended to look to China for their traditions rather than create a hybrid with Indonesian characteristics. A prominent human right's lawyer, Frans Winarta, himself an ethnic Chinese, confirmed that a backlash was still possible. "The hatred runs deep," he said. "We need to be careful."

For Independence Day I decided to flee "the Durian" for the more hospitable climate of Western Java's second city, Bandung. A three-hour train ride southeast through landscapes of rice paddies and lush, rolling hills, Bandung is renowned for its universities and telecommunications. Sometimes called the "Paris of Java", it's also the heartland of the Sundanese people who pride themselves on their easy-going nature.

Independence Day means parades, parties, food and lots of red and white, Indonesia's official colours. One activity called panjai pinang involves children climbing a tall greased poll in a race to the top for treasure bags of clothes, books, and sweets. On Independence Day, every neighbourhood across Indonesia, from Papua in the east to Sumatra in the west, engages in this greasy ascent for booty.

Traditionally, Indonesian Presidents have used this day to offer prisoners amnesty by reducing their sentences. This year was more controversial than others as Yudhoyono chose to reduce the sentence of militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, jailed for inspiring the Bali bombings, by four and a half months.

Indonesia has a unique relationship to Islam. On the one hand, its secular characteristics appear to defy academics such as Bernard Lewis who have suggested that Islam requires that Allah be written into the laws of the state. Indonesia prides itself on adopting the Islamic paradigm of ummah wasat (the middle way) and officially scorns extremism.

However, like the US, there is a powerful conservative lobby that pushes the government towards a discourse that makes it appear more religious than it actually is. In Indonesia, this sometimes spills over into reckless and harmful policy decisions.

Over a period of two months, a group led by the Islam Defender's Front, lobbied the local government of Bandung to close down over 20 churches. Some of these closures were done forcefully. When the news made national headlines recently, officials backtracked, stating that the churches lacked the necessary permits to remain open. Ordering an investigation, Yudhoyono urged a rapid and peaceful settlement. However, nothing involving the Indonesian bureaucracy can ever be done quickly. In the meantime, the damage has been done.

Perhaps the best known site in all of Indonesia is the Buddhist stupa of Borobudur. Dating from the 8th century, it's the largest of its kind in the world. Like a small pyramid, it emerges from the surrounding jungle beckoning a closer look. Ascending this tribute to Buddha is a remarkable experience; one spirals clockwise among reliefs lining the walls to the very top, or nirvana.

Once at the top, serene statues of mediating Buddhas, some contained in bell-shaped latticed stupas, offer greetings with the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa. From the air, the complex resembles a Buddhist mandala, a path to enlightenment.

The island of Bali, roughly in the middle of the country, remains a popular spot despite the 2002 terrorist bombings that claimed 202 lives. The extraordinary festival of Nyepi (day of stillness), occurs annually around March/April. A hybrid of Hindu and local animistic traditions, Nyepi is the start of the New Year according to the local lunar calendar. On this day, the entire island shuts down and nothing but emergency services remain open. To avoid drawing the attention of evil spirits believed to be circling overhead, people are to remain within their property or risk being fined.

When I was present for the festival in 2001, I, of course, foolishly dismissed these warnings as local braggadocio. My wife and I snuck in a swim in front of our guesthouse and were completely alone. Later the next day, I was pick-pocketed and lost my cash. Someone or something must have witnessed our little indiscretion.

This photo from: GeoffsPhotos

In the weeks leading up to the day, every neighbourhood fashions their own giant monster from foam, paper and clay. "Ogoh-ogoh", the name for this comical figure, appears on display in various twisted shapes around the island. The night before the day of stillness, hundreds of Ogoh-ogoh's are paraded through Bali's streets, accompanied by gamelans and drums, before being set alight in ritual bonfires.

The Asian tsunami, the worst natural catastrophe of recent times, claimed over 150,000 lives in the northern Sumatra province of Aceh alone. Today, the pace of reconstruction is falling far short of expectations.

While in the main city of Banda Aceh, I met a young man of 25, Akbar, who vividly recalled the darkness of that morning on 26 December. The "cobra wave" threw Akbar out of his bed and eventually swallowed him up. Rising to a height of over 20 meters, it carried him amidst the carnage of his city until he was able to grab hold of a tree branch and watch as the wave subsided.

Akbar lost eleven family members that day, including his father. Today he works as a taxi driver and is studying nursing in the hope of earning enough to rebuild his home.

How could this be, I wondered, after all the donations and assistance that had poured in from around the world? The fact is, relief work, the delivery of tents and essential services, is relatively routine and easy compared to reconstruction. Aceh is at the reconstruction stage now and all the human variables, such as bureaucratic red-tape and corruption, are conspiring against any quick recovery for locals such as Akbar.

On 15 August, a peace accord between the local rebels, GAM (Free Aceh Movement) and the Indonesian government, was signed in Helsinki, Finland. So far, it has produced a cessation of fighting that has consumed the province from 1976, claiming up to 15,000 lives.

For all its destruction, the tsunami helped produce the atmosphere for this deal. Overwhelmed, both sides sought out a resolution with "dignity" in its aftermath. Sponsored by the International Crisis Group (ICG), headed by former Finnish President Martii Ahtisari, the peace has created an air of cautious optimism among the locals who have for too long been caught in the middle.

To observe how things looked on the ground, I decided to drive to Meulaboh, also struggling with reconstruction after it, too, was decimated by December's tsunami. Once a three and half hour drive, 250kms south from Banda, Meulaboh is now only accessible by a rough, mountainous road that cuts across the province, taking about nine hours. A hellish way to travel, it proved to be a good chance to observe how the military was responding to the peace accord.

I tucked myself into the front seat of the minibus, beside a young Muslim girl dressed in a khimar (headscarf) who ended up vomiting four or five times over the course of our journey. Luckily for me, the driver had prepared black plastic bags for such a situation and my neighbour displayed an impeccable sense of timing and accuracy.

Over the course of the drive, we passed over 20 military checkpoints, and were stopped at least 10 times. This shouldn't be occurring. Under the terms of the peace deal, civilians posing no threat shouldn't be subjected to unwarranted stops and searches. Many times, the soldiers openly brandished machine guns and asked for cigarettes or snacks. They even hopped inside for a free ride on two occasions. Whenever they spotted me, a foreigner, their cool attitude immediately changed into a gregariously warm smile. Who knows what would have happened had I not been there. Before the peace deal, money reportedly exchanged hands at these checkpoints.

Meulaboh is a fishing village and when the fishermen struggle, the local economy suffers. Due to the slow pace of the reconstruction and their close proximity to the sea, many fishermen still remain homeless and face an uncertain future.

I spoke to the head of the local fisherman's union, Teuku Risman, and he expressed frustration that his members still have not received the aid or materials necessary to even begin returning to normality. "The people the government and NGO's hire engage in corruption," he said, "we need an NGO for fishermen."

NGO's maintain a large presence in Meulaboh and there is still a significant amount of relief tents providing shelter. The day-to-day bustle of life happens right next to large square plots of barren land, where untold numbers had to be buried in mass graves to prevent the spread of disease during the immediate weeks following the tsunami. Destruction beach/building

I walked out to the beach, about 3kms from the center of town. After two or three blocks, the buildings began to reveal their scars and skeletal frames until nothing but a few tattered, abandoned tents remained amidst the rubble. I crossed a wooden footpath between the sandy beach and a once residential area, and noticed a human femur bone lodged in the fetid mud.

A curious pall hung in the air despite the blue sky and warm breeze. Even the few surviving palm trees conveyed despair, their branches frayed into contortions of mourning. I'd been to other such locations where the loss of life had been overwhelming and relentless: Cambodia's killing fields, Hiroshima, Dachau. Despite the obvious differences between a human made atrocity and a naturally caused catastrophe, a similar sense of darkness inhabits these areas. Creeping up from the earth, it sucks all peripheral detail away, reducing the moment to a pinpoint of sensation until only a lead-heavy silence remains.

I took a deep breath, exhausted and drained, and listened for the roar of the surf. I couldn't fathom the numbers of dead, instead focusing on the face of Akbar back in Banda. As he had gazed out on the Indian Ocean, his expression changed from bitterness to determination in the blink of an eye. Recalling that subtle flash, as easily overlooked as the sun on the tide, the sound of the waves returned and I continued on.

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