Tag Archives: Indonesia

So what’s the deal with…

Having lived in Indonesian for nine months here few things I have yet to full understand about everyday life here:

Why do my nails and hair grow so much quicker here? There definitely and answer for this somewhere on the internet but I kind of like the mystery,

Why are there so many employees just standing around at the grocery stores? Seriously, there are always about three-times as many staff as there needs to be and none of them seem to be doing anything 90% of the time.

Why are drivers so terrible here? If you only knew Indonesians from the way they drove, you’d think they’re the rudest, most inconsiderate, and clueless people in the world. Fortunately none of these things are even remotely true but driving here is a nightmare. For example drivers of both cars and motorbikes rarely look when entering traffic and it’s not infrequent for cars to just turn around in the middle of the street. Which begs the question…

How are there not more traffic accidents here? Ok, so I did see a dead body in the middle of the bypass (main road), a while back, and when there are accidents they’re usually pretty bloody (motorbike vs. car never ends well for the former) but drive here for more than five minutes and it becomes clear that there should be more crashes, accidents, bumps, etc. than there are.

Why is always so hot here? Because we’re so close to the equator, I know, so this is more a rhetorical complaint than anything else…

Why do people here hose off their driveway/street? Come mid-afternoon (sore) people just walk around with a hose to wet any paved area they can find. My first guess is that they’re trying to clean but I’m not sure it really accomplishes that. My second guess is to cool it down (see above).

Why is it cool to have contraptions attached to your muffler that make an absurd amount of noise? Funny story about this one, apparently there was a recent traffic stop in Denpasar where the police were making whoever had one of these get down on their knees and put their ear next to the muffler. Maybe this is a bit cruel but I think the amount of nose these things make is equally atrocious so the bastards deserve anything they get (or lose, as in hearing).

Why do people living here wear sweatshirts in the middle of the day? I guess they might be used to the heat but still let me reiterate how hot it is here… Really hot. And on the same train of thought…

Why do people prefer hot drinks to cold ones? This confuses the hell out of me. I try and drink everything with ice except for a morning coffee but it’s extremely common here to have hot tea with a meal. Bananaland…

There are certainly more, but since I can’t think of any right now I’ll leave them for another time. The mysteries of life here are never-ending…

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50 Years Ago in Indonesia

Last week passed like any other in the vast archipelago, but 50 years ago an attempted coup d’état set in motion a genocide that left 500,000, or likely even more, dead.

On September 30th, 1965, a group calling themselves the 30 September Movement arrested six of the highest-ranking generals in the country. By the morning of October 1st, all six generals were dead and the Movement – which included members of the Presidential Guard of Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno, and other military units near Jakarta – had taken key points in the capital surrounding Merdeka (Freedom) Square and declared that they were protecting the president from an CIA-backed coup.

Within hours, the little-known Major General Suharto had taken control of the army, talked down the troops surrounding the president, and declared that he would destroy the ‘counter-revolutionary forces’ that were quickly associated with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

While there was only marginal evidence of Communist involvement, the subsequent genocide of the political left in Indonesia was called “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s” by the CIA.

The massacres, which began in Java before spreading to Sumatra, Bali, and elsewhere, has been thrust into both the Indonesian and international spotlight of late due to the success of filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion pieces “The Act of Killing” (2013) and “The Look of Silence” (2015). The former, which followed a group of perpetrators reenacting their crimes was nominated for an Academy Award but more importantly was screened for hundreds of Indonesia’s leading citizens.

In interviews and a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Oppenheimer, an American who currently resides in Copenhagen, takes care to stress two critical aspects of killing spree. First is the fact that the “many perpetrators still hold power throughout the country” have created a false narrative surrounding the event (that “communists” are to blame and they are heroes for defeating it) and a “climate of fear in which corruption and plunder go unchallenged.”

On a national level, the genocide tore apart the ideological triumvirate of nationalism, religion, and communism that had supported Sukarno and ushered in the 33-year regime of Suharto. Suharto and his military partnered with religious leaders in violently propagandizing communism and any political opposition. While the dictatorship ended amidst the economic turmoil of the Asian Financial crisis in 1998, its corrupt practices and hierarchies remain intact in industries across the country.

On a more local level, the one Oppenheimer portrays so deftly, the gangsters (or as they refer to themselves, ‘free men’) and paramilitary groups that committed the atrocities remain embedded in the political system and the families who were targeted 50 years ago remain economically and politically disenfranchised.

Second, Oppenheimer makes sure to highlight American and British involvement in attempting to bring down Sukarno who they viewed as too friendly with communism. While the American military provided equipment and training to their Indonesian counterparts, the CIA provided lists of thousands of targets with alleged ties to communism.

Equally as troubling was the response of Western media outlets who, while barred by the Indonesian government from direct reporting in the country, were spoon-fed headlines by their governments feared a communist-led government post-Sukarno and thus backed the military and Suharto’s intervention. Perhaps the most damning story came from Time, in which the massacres are described casually under the headline “Vengeance with a Smile.”

In the article, written as the purge was slowing down, Sukarno is a “swaggering demagogue” who, while not a communist, made “the Kremlin seem like a neutralist”. Meanwhile Suharto, who steadily siphoned power away from the Sukarno until he replaced him in early 1967, is described in terms palatable to an American audience already programmed to fear the ‘Reds’. Most notable is the assumption throughout the piece that the coup was led by the PKI. This was Suharto & co.’s official line but there are several theories behind the actual motivations of the 30 September Movement.

One of the more controversial theories was laid out shortly after the events by two Indonesia scholars at Cornell University, Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey, in what has become known as the Cornell Paper. Anderson and McVey say that the Movement was the work of a small group of junior officers who, as they claimed on the morning of October 1, were protecting their president from generals who were collaborating with the CIA and the PKI had little to no prior knowledge.

An even darker theory by Professor Peter Dale Scott suggests that Suharto himself was involved in the attempted coup and was backed by the CIA. Scott cites circumstantial evidence like the fact that Suharto’s command building on the east of Merdeka Square remained un-occupied on October 1st; that the units involved were commanded by Suharto’s allies; and finally, that the generals killed were all Suharto’s superiors and presented obstacles to his taking power. In other words, everything seemed planned for Suharto’s ascension.

The truth is a mystery. As Oppenheimer puts it, “the extent of America’s role” – and thus Suharto’s – “remains hidden behind a wall of secrecy: C.I.A. documents and U.S. defense attaché papers remain classified.”

For years during the Suharto regime, a film brutally depicting the deaths of the generals at the hands of the evil communists was broadcast on national television and screened in classrooms on September 30th. While this propaganda has stopped and President Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi), who was elected in August 2014, made campaign promises to move towards investigation and reconciliation of human rights abuses, there has been little evidence of a shift in the government’s policy of silence.

Jokowi, who has faced several scandals over what must have been a very long first year in office, has had to ally himself with the military-business complex that was built during the Suharto years. These are the folks that have an interest in the status quo and are unlikely to want to see the truth come out.

Nations whose identity is tied to patriotism can have a hard time admitting mistakes and failures. Indonesia’s dark past is more complicated than the good-evil dichotomy of countries like Germany and South Africa who have come to terms with their sins. Professor Robert Cribb of Australian National University has explained “the killings had an elusive character that has militated against close analysis.”

While projects like Oppenheimer’s can peel away the initial layers of silence, it must be left to the Indonesian people to continue the conversation, sort through the deepest layers of pain and suffering, and come to terms with their genuine history in order to remember, even 50 years on, what this anniversary is truly marks.

Highlights and Lowlights from an Indonesian Awayday

This was going to be my post last week but Sidd’s death while I was away obviously took precedent.

If you’ve been following my work over the past several months, there is one subject that I’ve written about more than any other: Indonesian football. Last weekend I was away with a group of fellow Bali United supporters (aka Semeton Dewata) on the first leg of their quarterfinal tie with Arema Cronus, the team from Malang in East Java. I’m not going to go too in depth because I’ll hopefully be putting together a larger piece for publication elsewhere in the not-too-distant future. But I still thought I’d share some highlights and lowlights. We’ll start with the latter.

Lowlights:

  • 25+ hours on a bus. We left Friday evening and drove through the night. Malang is somewhere between an 11- and 13-hour drive away and on a bus where the seats are frankly not made for 6-foot-4 (and a half) gentlemen, that’s a long ride. I ended up sleeping on the floor for a couple hours. My travelling companion (who was also too large for the seats) and I were hoping to get some sleep but rather than a quiet and restful environment and in addition the cramped quarters, Indonesian karaoke music was blaring until around 3am. The ride back was somewhat more subdued but longer (around 14 hours).

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    Travel-buddy Brant and a group from the bus. The one giving me the middle finger is Gus. He’s calling me a “stupid fruit” which is his favorite compliment He’s also the leader of the entire supporters group.

  • Bali United lost 2-1. And played poorly. Arema’s stadium is a pretty intimidating environment and United fielded a young squad but their defense was disorganized and their midfield got pushed around. When they had possession they did use their width well but they’re going to have to play much better in their home leg this evening if they’re going to advance.

Highlights: 

  • Malang is a cool city in more ways than one. The city sits in the East Javanese highlands and apart from the middle of the day, the temperature is perfect. Because of this cooler highland climate, the city was popular among the colonial Dutch as an escape from the unending heat of Surabaya – a major port a couple hours to the north – and so it is well-planned with wide tree-lined boulevards and art-deco buildings that are older than the Indonesian nation.

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    The main roundabout in Malang. Cars look funny in panorama.

  • Bali United only lost 2-1 and they scored an away goal.
    The three goals reported in a local paper. The third goal was basically this guy Samsul waltz his way through half the United defense.

    The three goals reported in a local paper. The third goal was basically this guy Samsul waltz his way through half the United defense.

    In truth it could’ve been much worse. Despite United taking the lead through a 66th minute penalty, Arema looked the more dangerous team throughout and hit the post more than once. Because of the away goal, Bali United only need to win 1-0 to advance to the semifinals.

  • Joining in the Semeton Dewata cheering section. Ok so maybe ‘joining’ isn’t exactly the correct word since I didn’t actually do much singing. The words were in Indonesian and I’m not one for going too gila. It also seemed like the Semeton Dewata were
    The Semeton Dewata arrive at Stadion Kanjuruhan.

    The Semeton Dewata arrive at Stadion Kanjuruhan.

    more interested in their chants than the actual gameplay, which is what I really wanted to see. Still, between the constant beat of drums from our corner and watching the 20,000+ members of Aremania perform their own chants across the pitch, it was definitely an experience.

After that bus trip, you better believe I’ll be making the hour ride up to Stadion Kapten Dipta for the decider this evening. I’ll make sure to keep you updated.

For Sidd

It’s impossible to truly say what connects man with dog. It’s been tried with IMG_4350marginal success in a literary sense but there are only so many adjectives and emotions that can be articulated in black and white. The real essence is deeper; part biology, part sociology, part emotion, part something else that combines those and more. Whatever unnamable, maybe even transcendent (if we’re being somewhat melodramatic) thing it is, is real.

I met Sidd in front of my house not even two months ago. He was a puppy whose two other siblings had died soon after they were born. His mother, Rosy, is a tan dog with a scar on her head that makes her look tougher and less amicable than she really is. She is a sweetheart and so was Sidd.

From that moment we met in the alley there was a connection, that connection, between us. He was afraid of nearly everyone else but trusted me. I would leave the gate open and a bucket of water for him to drink from and he would wander into the house and try and chew the floor. I would pick ticks and burrs off him and he would gnaw at my hand. He would roll over so I could scratch his belly.

IMG_5628None of these things make this relationship special in any way. Dog and man have had these exact same interactions and connections for millennia. And that’s just it. Our psyches can be synced in an utterly uniquely conscious fashion.

So why would someone poison Sidd? I don’t have an answer for that. The only thing I can come up with is “A lot of people here don’t like dogs.” But that doesn’t do this justice and nor does it explain why Sidd, of all the annoying dogs in the neighborhood, is the one that died, and why I’m sobbing over a dog I only knew for six weeks.

IMG_4447Much of this is me attempting to tread a path through the emotions of finding out a companion has just died, while I was away, and there was nothing I could reasonably do about it. The other part, the harder bit that will stay with me, is seeing him coming into the house, running his weird sideways run, and flopping on the ground at my feet and realizing this won’t happen again.

There are a few things that do give me some comfort and nowhere on the list is “it’s just a dog” (please see above). Here are some:

  • He was happy. This much was very clear. Although most people scared him and he didn’t like when I picked him up, you could tell he was still happy. Honestly, I don’t think this can be said for the other dogs around here.
  • He was loved. Primarily by us here but also, unbeknownst to me until we confirmed what happened, by another guy in the complex where he and Rosy lived.
  • He knew he was loved. I can’t say how I know this but if you understand everything I just said, then you’ll understand this.

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Dance Night in Semawang

So far Semawang Stories has been a little light on the actual stories and events so this week I thought I’d share an evening from a couple weeks back.

Bali is famous for its dances. Most are performed as part of rituals with deep spiritual and symbolic meaning and others are for entertainment. There have been dozens of ethnographies detailing their meaning and purpose. This is not one those.

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The statue of Ganesha, which normally causes minor traffic confusion anway, was decked out with offerings while the street was shut down. Also, the guy in the foreground is wearing an udeng.

A few weeks ago, Semawang hosted its own evening of dances. Actually there were several evenings of events but I only attended the one. The (for lack of a better term) festival, surrounded a purnama ketiga or ‘third full moon’. I won’t pretend to know the significance of this or why it was being feted but it was clearly important enough to block the main intersection with a substantial tent and force a traffic diversion.

In the tent there was a stage with a none-too-authentic Styrofoam set that belied the true localness of the atmosphere. The Semawang banjar of Sanur is a pocket of Balinese more or less surrounded by hotels, villas, and restaurants but locals have more or less held a large swath of real estate a couple hundred meters from the resort-lined beach.

The whole banjar, decked out in traditional garb, gathered for the evening’s entertainment. The men in white shirts, sarongs, and udeng (a folded cloth headpiece) stood or sat at the back, while the colorfully dressed women took up the 20-or-so rows of chairs.

By the time I arrived around 9, the dancing had already begun with kids, seemingly under the age of five, decked out in the elaborate gold and making the smoothly sharp and intensely choreographed movements that define Balinese dance.

YT standing awkwardly with Ibu Wayan before she takes the stage.

YT standing awkwardly with Ibu Wayan before she takes the stage.

The reason for my attendance on this particular evening was the promised performance of friend and neighbor. As dance followed dance, I starting noticing tourists creeping closer with smiles of awe and good fortune until they were literally against the stage, filming and photographing what they were lucky enough to have stumbled across. One (I think) Japanese guy almost tripped onto the stage with enthusiasm. But despite this secondary entertainment, there was still no Ibu Wayan (That’s my neighbor’s name, also my landlady’s name. The name means “first born” so there are a lot of Wayans around).

After a quick run back to the house, I was told that the ibus were up next. It seemed that the program was scheduled according to age and with an older troupe on stage when I returned (the stage was abotu a two-minute walk away) it seemed logical. An ibu did come out but it wasn’t Ibu Wayan (well, maybe it was, but not our Wayan) and she didn’t perform the high-choreography of the early performances. Instead, a man from the crowd joined her on stage and they pantomimed a sort of quasi-sexual pursuit for which the man mockingly apologized to his wife and the crowd on several occasions to great laughter.

Ibu Wayan sans partner. Note the

Ibu Wayan sans partner. Note the “elaborate” setand the microphones hanging down from the rafters.

The first woman ‘hosted’ three men in the same fashion and another danced with two before our Ibu Wayan finally took the stage with the audience well warmed-up and full of laughter. As Ibu Wayan’s second date was leaving the stage, I was asked if I wanted to join in. Now my hesitance at performing on stage goes back to early childhood when I hid under the table at Epcot Morocco rather than even chance an encounter with the in-house belly dancer. Once again it ruled the day and I politely refused participation with only minor pangs of regret.

All told it was an enjoyable and marginally educational evening. I didn’t learn much about the dances themselves but the fact that Balinese society has an easy sense of humor, even when it comes to one of their most storied traditions, was certainly on show. And I realized that I’m still afraid of dancing on stage with women.

On Migration

There was a certain amount of irony for me this weekend. At the same time as thousands of refugees were making their way into Europe with varying degrees of welcome, I jumped over to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia on what is known here as a ‘visa run’.

I’ll save my experience in KK for another post or article and while I’ve gone into the topic in a previous post and podcast a visa run deserves another quick explanation because it’s germane to the topic at hand; namely, the free movement of people or lack thereof. Essentially, because the Visa on Arrival (VOA) is only valid for 30 days and can only be extended once for an extra 30, every 60 days those of us on the VOA have to leave the country. While this has given me a couple opportunities to explore Malaysia, I’m reminded of its slight absurdity every time. On this visa run, though, the brutal image of a Kurdish/Syrian boy washed up on the shores of Turkey and the news of thousands of refugees (yes, refugees, the term is significant) banging on Europe’s proverbial door put that slight absurdity in stark relief.

While there have been moments of horror (such as the image of the boy) and disappointing responses from some countries including Hungary, The Netherlands, and the UK to name a few, there have also been encouraging acts of humanity. Thousands of Icelanders joined a movement to welcome a refugee into their homes and with the German government expecting to see as many as 800,000 arrive this year the country’s reception, at least among football fans, has been heart-warming.

But as much as grassroots movements to help are nice things to post on social media and can serve to absorb some of the strain, the real work must be done by the EU and the wealthy, developing countries where these extremely at-risk men, women, and children are heading. The fact of the matter is they have a moral and legal responsibility to help.

Now, both morals (for example Human Rights) and international law (which frequently is derived from those morals) depend on what are called in IR-speak ‘norms’, which means they’re flimsy and somewhat less persuasive than the hard power of, say, several thousand tanks. But with those wealthy, development countries being the main purveyors of those norms, ignoring them now would be the ultimate in tragic hypocrisy.

Fortunately though, we’ve seen that the people in many of these countries still believe in helping out their fellow humans despite fearful rhetoric about Islamization and potential threats from terror. And I think a whole lot of that humanity comes from the understanding that they are privileged to live comfortable, safe, and relatively free lives in their homes countries.

And so that privilege brings me to this past weekend. At the other end of ‘migrant’ spectrum from ‘refugee’ is ‘expat’. This is what I have called myself as a title and word to describe the experiences I’ve had living in Indonesia. But I use this term keeping in mind the word ‘expat’ is racially and economically loaded and stuffed with all sorts of neo-colonialism. You’re not an expat if you’re from Africa or Asia and move to the West, you’re an ‘immigrant’ at best. But because I am an ‘expat’, I was able to catch a plane to Malaysia for a couple nights and return on my now 5th tourism visa with no questions asked. There’s also the fact that I can return home whenever I want without fearing for my life.

Really that’s what all migrants, from refugees to expats, are looking for: to live their lives in the best way possible. Arbitrary lines on a map shouldn’t get in their way.

On being kept at arms’ length

I suppose there’s a reason I started this blog here, in Indonesia, rather than when I lived in the UK or the Netherlands. I found out this week it’s likely because this is the first place that I’ve truly felt like a foreigner.

I can’t say that this realization came to me organically . It was the hypothesis of an Argentinian guy I spoke with recently. He’s lived here for seven years and said that, of all the places he’s lived, this was where he could never truly feel a part of the Indonesian society, let alone Balinese. And in my more limited experience, I have to agree with him.

Of the expats I know that have lived here for many years, even those who are married to or work with Indonesians and speak the language fluently, all still run in expat social circles. This is not to say integrated foreigner don’t exist, I have stories of a couple and perhaps I have too small a sample size to declare this definitively, but the integration of foreigners or immigrants into Indonesian society is relatively minimal.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the extremely rich cultural heritage of Indonesia and, again, Bali in particular. Unless one converts to Balinese Hinduism and joins a Banjar, one is seen as an outsider. This has more to do with the strength of society than of any social barriers that are constructed

Another factor that influences this is the strong nationalism that runs through Indonesia. This is not a nationalism that was fueled by an immigrant narrative like the US (current Presidential candidates notwithstanding) or a kind of secular civic nationalism like in France, but a vibrant post-colonial nationalism that places the Archipelago’s fight for independence against European colonialism at its center.

This is not to say that I’ve had negative experiences or see this a social defect. Indonesians are culturally the most welcoming and friendly people I’ve come across, almost to the point of over politeness. But there is a distance, possibly even a society-wide wariness, that is hard to ignore.

And in some ways this is reflected in government policy. I’ve complained about the immigration process before, but it goes even further. Foreign citizens are not allowed to own real estate in Indonesia (with a minor and recent exclusion of high-rise apartments in Jakarta) and must have an Indonesian business partner to own a company (I think that’s how it works, at least). Both of these are disincentives for expats to make a permanent life here. Naturally many still want to and find ways around the regulation (for example 99 year leases), but the point remains.

But I don’t think Indonesia is alone in this. Any country with a strong ethnic base (I could go in depth here into why I called Indonesian nationalism post-colonial and not ethnic but I’ll save you the IR talk and just point you to the Types of Nationalism Wikipedia page) would have some incarnation of it.

And for what it’s worth, it makes for some entertaining and controversially worded conversations at expat bars.