Tag Archives: Jakarta

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.

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.

Brief thoughts on Jakarta’s traffic

I’m a day late in posting this (if you haven’t noticed, I try to post Friday morning EST) and have again left myself without a topic to write about. This week’s excuse is that we were moving to a new house and packing for a trip to San Diego for my sister’s graduation. So to make up for my tardiness and because we’re spending a few days in Indonesia’s capital on the way Stateside, I thought I’d share a piece I wrote a couple months ago and have yet to find a home for. So let’s get into it here are some brief thoughts on the World’s Worst Traffic:

Complaining about where you live is such a part of human nature that it has become grossly clichéd (e.g. the grass is always greener…). But living in or visiting a place that is actually the worst at something is a rarity. So when Castrol – of motor oil fame – and TomTom – of satellite navigation fame – published their (possibly) prestigious Start-Stop Index and Jakarta came out on top (read: bottom), I felt a certain twinge of pride as a part-time Jakartan.[1]

Other (more full-time) Jakartans I spoke with were somewhat less enthusiastic. When asked, most of their eyes tended to glaze over with something akin to the “thousand-yard stare”. Some can manage a half-hearted chuckle and headshake before quickly changing the subject. Only one, an Indonesian-American from LA could match my enthusiasm and described a flood-ridden (see below) ride home from work that took his boss four hours but him only two. I was impressed but quietly thankful I didn’t have a daily commute.

So, now that I am quietly separated from the honking masses but looking forward with something like intrepid horror to my next visit to the Indonesian capital, I thought I would share some brief thoughts on Jakarta’s infamous traffic situation.


1) Jakarta driving is one massive game of chicken.

This is the best and most complete description I can provide. While there are lanes on the major roads throughout the city, the lines are widely ignored and replaced with a game of “who can find and enter space first”. One would assume that the result of this would be a consistent stream of accidents but by my very unscientific observations there were amazingly few.

I chalk this down to two factors, first there seems to be a general rule in place that as soon as a leading vehicle commits to entering a lane, those following must yield. This may sound simple and universal but the limits – or rather margins – to which this (unwritten?) rule is pushed might give Lewis Hamilton the sweats. The other factor (which might not trouble Mr. Hamilton so much) is that the speed at which the traffic moves is pretty damn slow. This means that the there are very few wannabe Fast and Furious extras, so offensive and defensive drivers alike have plenty of time to react.


2) Jakarta needed a mass-transit system ten years ago.

And it seems that should have been the case were it not for a series of setbacks officially due to “lack of funds” but the more colloquially cited causes, as is common refrain with many issues in Indonesia, are bureaucracy and corruption. As of 2013, Jakarta, whose metropolitan area is home to nearly 30 million people[2], is the largest city in the world without a metro or subway system (via) and the Castrol ranking is the result. Jakarta’s current public transportation is the world’s longs bus service (so there’s two more records for the books) that claims its own bus lanes, which often (reasonably but annoyingly) sit empty while traffic edges along nearby.

Fortunately, if somewhat belatedly, the government secured a $1.6 billion loan from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency in 2009 and broke ground in October 2013 on the first thirteen-stop section of track. After some delays, this stretch is supposed to be completed by 2018 with an additional stage of the same north-south line finished by 2020. An east-west line is still in development with a rough completion date of 2027.

Even when Jakarta Mass-Rapid Transit – as it’s officially known – is completed, Jakartans are still going to have to want to use it (something that is by no means guaranteed) and it will only serve the Special Capital Region, home to only about a third of all metro-Jakarta.


2a) It also needs a flood alleviation system.

While traffic is generally an inconvenience at worst and certainly affects quality of life, Jakarta’s floods are probably the more serious of the two major infrastructure problems. The floods are primarily caused by over-development in the areas surrounding central Jakarta, which is essentially a delta. With nowhere for the water to drain flooding has become more consistent, it regularly drives people from their homes and has caused dozens of deaths in the past several years. Okay, now back to the fun stuff.


3) Use an Ojek.

There is really only one way to get around Jakarta with any sort of speed: by motorbike. Motorbikes are ubiquitous in Indonesia and it’s not uncommon to see an entire Indonesian family of four or five on a single bike. In Jakarta, the motorbike’s omni-presence arguably contributes to the overall congestion and the ojeks, the unregulated motorbike taxi, lay claim to a large percentage (but statistically unknown because of the whole unregulated thing) of said omnipresence.

Oddly, ojeks are generally more expensive that taxis (here’s a nice little explanation why), they’re also open to the elements including the un-air-conditioned and exhaust-filled Jakarta air. Another complaint I’ve heard but not yet experienced is the smell of the required helmet

So there you have it. Maybe not so brief in the end, but a little taste of what travelling around Jakarta is like.


[1] I use the term “part-time” very loosely, I am currently based between Jakarta and Bali but have lived there for as long as a month at-a-time.

[2] Greater Metropolitan Jakarta is widely called Jabodetabek, an acronym taken from the five cities that comprise the Jakartan “Megacity”: Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi. One of the main reasons why it has taken so long to build a metro system is that Jabodetabek is divided among nearly a dozen different political entities. For those interested they are (starting from the center and working toward the peripheries): the Special Capital Region of Jakarta (which has provincial level status), City of Tangerang, City of South Tangerang, City of Depok, City of Bekasi, City of Bogor, Tangerang Regency and Bekasi Regency. To further the confusion, the cities outside the Special Capital region are split between West Java Province and Banten Province. Some parallels can be drawn with the District of Columbia-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) region but for perspective’s sake, DMV is home to less than a fifth of Jakarta’s population and even when you throw in Baltimore and its suburbs the area’s population is still less than a third of Metro-Jakarta’s

To add to this confusing medley of political interests there is the seeming contradiction that while all urban development within Jabotabek projects are under the control of the central government, there is also the Cooperating Body of Jabodetabek Development. The Cooperating Body, however has no actual authority and since its inception in 1975 has been “ineffective in coordinating development programs in the megacity of Jakarta”. Thus, the onus for all projects is left to the central government when they aren’t too busy with the other 17,000 islands that stretch a distance equivalent of that from Lisbon to Tehran.