Illuminating Indonesia

A busy street in the university town of Jogjakarta and I’m struggling to get a borrowed moped through the layers of tangled traffic. There is a system. It’s just not one I’m used to. I’ve been told by a friend from my language school to make no sudden changes in direction, use my indicator well in advance and then smoothly sweep in the direction I wish to go. Apparently I’m not to concern myself with traffic behind – looking behind would cause me to lose sight of what’s going on ahead. The thing is to give way to any vehicles in front and be aware they will move right or left with not an iota of concern for who is coming up behind.

As if to demonstrate that the system really works, up ahead I see a young woman standing in the middle of the flow of traffic, singing at the top of her voice. Her dark skin, wide Melanesian mouth and short-cropped tightly curled hair suggest that she is originally from Papua in the east of Indonesia. Her yellow t-shirt and jeans are stained from sleeping where she can. Giving way to what is ahead in the road, the traffic parts left and right of her and sweeps past smoothly. And when the vehicles slow towards the traffic lights, several drivers lean over and hand her a coin. I can hear her song Merdeka… Merdeka… Hatiku merdeka… Pikiran merdeka… (Freedom… Freedom… My heart is free… My thoughts are free…) and now I am convinced she is from Papua, a region where many want independence from Indonesian rule.

Her song, with its plea for freedom, is by the Javanese folk hero Iwan Fals. For years a busker himself, he has been a voice of popular Indonesian dissent since the early days of General Suharto’s dictatorship, and his songs are still the most popular choice for the thousands of musicians who work on the streets. After 30 years of the New Order regime, when fear and aggrandisement made sure Suharto held control of the nation in much the same way as Stalin did in Russia, mass protests and increasing international pressure forced him to step aside in 1998. Since then the modern Indonesia has been building its international reputation as a stable democratic market economy and important exporter of palm oil, rubber, oil and gas, minerals, electrical goods, clothing and footwear. Whilst the social issues that challenge Indonesia domestically may have sunk below the global radar, many Indonesian citizens still feel they have plenty to sing and protest about.

Jogjakarta is within easy reach of the serenity described in Jacqui Furneaux’s article of her trip across the island of Java. Lush foothills, rice terraces, volcanic peaks, tropical beaches and the ninth century Buddhist temple of Borobudur, a UNESCO world heritage site, are only a short ride away. But Java’s slum housing, textile factories, subsistence and plantation farming, palatial shopping centres and many homeless buskers are much in evidence.

One of the most densely populated places in the world, with pockets of the most shocking urban poverty, the island is also the home of the capital Jakarta and the super-rich Indonesian elite, many of whom built vast fortunes under the corrupt Suharto regime. Java dominates politically, culturally and in terms of population, but it is but one island on the vast map of Indonesia, a nation of 240 million people and an estimated 17,500 islands (some 6000 of them inhabited). The archipelago spans a distance of 3400 miles from Sabang in Aceh province on the western tip of Sumatra, to Merauke on the far eastern edge of the province of Papua. Between the two is a nation so diverse linguistically, religiously, culturally and racially, and so divided by water and distance, that it’s a wonder that it is a nation at all.

Aceh and Papua, geographically at the extremes of the country, are examples of this diversity. Aceh is positioned on the Strait of Melaka, a historic trade route between China and India, and it’s estimated that Islam was introduced here by Gujurati sea traders as early as the eighth century. Keen to encourage trade, the animist Acehnese adopted the faith of their visitors and the gradual spread of Islam began. Numbering 200 million, Indonesia now has the largest Muslim population in the world. When Islam was adopted in Java many of the ceremonial aspects of the courts (which already incorporated a uniquely Javanese blend of Hinduism and Buddhism) were retained, thus fusing aspects of all three. Islam generally practised in Indonesia today descends from this mixed tradition. The Acehnese practise a more devout form of the religion than in other provinces and women are expected to cover their hair and skin (apart from the face) and Sharia law governs much of regional customs and laws. But even here the tying of the jilbab (head scarf) has become an art form and a fashion statement. Young women adorn themselves with scarves of different colours and styles, much as young women in the west consider which pair of skinny jeans to put on in the morning. And skinny jeans also feature heavily. Perfectly proportioned for this unforgiving fashion, Acehnese women, with their delicate features and narrow-hipped slim figures, appear classy and modern chatting over a coffee in the cafes of the regional capital Banda Aceh.

Despite the 2002 bombings in the Bali tourist resort of Kuta, carried out by members of the extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah, the huge majority of Indonesian Muslims are moderate. In Aceh it is the feeling of religious orthodoxy and cultural difference, as well as resentment over exploitation of natural resources by central government, which fuelled the Acehnese independence movement and civil war in the region from the mid-1970s. Despite peace talks and some genuine political devolution in the post-Suharto era, it was the devastating 2005 Tsunami that calmed the political situation, as all efforts turned to coping with the aftermath. What was previously a tightly controlled military zone was opened to thousands of foreign aid workers.

On the other side of the archipelago, indigenous culture is very different but the political situation has some similarities. Ethnically Papuans have more in common with the aboriginal population of Australasia and the Pacific islanders of Fiji. Until the 19th century, when Christian missionaries arrived in the region, small tribes lived in isolation from the rest of the world. Travel to the Baliem valley in the highlands (as a few tourist do) and you will meet the Dani tribe who still live in traditional extended family groups, with the men occupying different huts to the women and children. The koteka (penis gourd) is still much in evidence, and the cult of the pig means these animals are prized currency and essential if you want to marry, bring peace or die respectfully.

In the busy lowland Papuan capital Jayapura, pork and a Papuan yam or sweet potato, both cooked on hot rocks under ground, are the traditional feast food, and local churches the focal point for many indigenous Papuans. West along the coast in the town of Manokwari, there was a recent proposal to follow the French and ban the wearing of religious attire (most significantly the jilbad) in public places. Despite the recent introduction of Special Autonomy for the region, most indigenous Papuans resent Indonesian rule and exploitation of Papua’s rich natural resources by foreign companies. In the highlands of Timika is the biggest goldmine in the world owned by the US-based Freeport McMoRan and BP have a huge gas extraction project in Bintuni Bay while most Papuans live in grinding poverty and endure an atmosphere of political repression. A small number of activists and armed rebels campaign actively for political independence. They do so in the face of heavy-handed police and military tactics, violent repression of demonstrations and long terms of imprisonment for those who raise the Papuan Morning Star flag.

Independence movements, religious tension and distinct ethnic groups are present in many other parts of the archipelago. Jacqui Furneaux’s experience of travelling over the border between West and East Timor (which gained independence in 2000) highlights another example.

The geographical area roughly resembling modern Indonesia, was first brought together politically in the early 1900s by Dutch colonists. European traders and colonists keen to exploit the mineral wealth and spices of the Malukus were jostling for position in the region from the 1500s. The Dutch army finally gained full control of Bali, Aceh, Kalimantan and Maluku and then in 1920 took the western part of the island of New Guinea. They added these to their Netherlands East Indies creating a vast territory. With notable exceptions, for example the infamous slaughter of 1300 Balinese rulers and their followers, in many parts of the colony the Dutch could secure the cooperation of the local rulers by making them regents.

Indonesia is administered and locally governed to an impressive level. The Dutch trained the local aristocracy to become an indigenous civil service operating under the hierarchy of a few Dutch officials and the legacy of this European bureaucracy will be evident when you arrive with your bike. When I move into lodgings in Jogjakarta I am sent immediately to register with the Pak RT (or “Mr Rukan Tetangga” which translates as Harmonious Neighbour) and give him a photocopy of my passport and visa. This local head, always a man, manages a small collection of about 20 houses meeting regularly with the local residents and reporting upwards to the Pak RW (Mr Harmonious Citizen) who has oversight of the whole neighbourhood. These mechanisms have served successive governments well.

The Dutch also implemented a policy of transmigration, moving Javanese from the over-crowded island to settle in other areas in an attempt to mix the population and consolidate the large colony. When Indonesia finally shook off foreign rule in 1949 the new nationalist government continued with the task of uniting the people under the revolutionary mantra One Identity, One Country, One Language.

The Indonesian language Bahasa Indonesia is a simplified version of Malaysian, and was devised specifically to be easily learnt and it quickly was, now spoken throughout the archipelago even in remote valleys of Papua. Tenses barely feature and the grammar is sparse making basic communication very easy. An example is the endearing way that plurals are formed by repeating the noun so that anak (child) becomes anak-anak (children). Unlike many other Asian languages the pronunciation is easy for most Europeans and a short stint at a language school is well worth the effort if you intend to explore the country.

As the lights change the woman starts another song addressing the President, imploring him to think of his moral conduct. With a jolt I remember the need to concentrate on my own conduct, look straight ahead and open the throttle.

Megan Ciotti