When The Questions Become A Forest
WHEN Krakatoa Island erupted in the Sunda Strait in 1873 it made the loudest bang in history. Never since, even when science triggered its most devastating nuclear weapon, has the world known the release of such power.
Australians 2500 miles to the south heard the volcano as it blew a 1000-feet deep hole in the ocean floor; people on Rodriguez Island, 3000 miles away in the Indian Ocean, heard it. Shock waves raced east and west around the globe: they met, bounced off each other and returned to source. Twice more they did this before Krakatoa’s energy dispersed.
It was not the first time the green islands of the archipelago which was to become known as Indonesia, had displayed such frightening strength. Nor was it to be, nor will it be, the last.
The world’s fifth most populous nation and largest Islamic state is going through troubled times. Its leadership, not known for kid-glove tactics, is becoming increasingly repressive as successive development plans fail to provide a better deal for Indonesians at large. And danger signs are emergingthatthe foreign money which flowed in during the seventies for oil and as foreign investment could dry up.
Indonesians, through the centuries, have had to deal with wave after wave of trading, colonising and proselytising forces all of which have been absorbed and transformed in the process. Only Islam has come near to total conquest but even that has succeeded only by allowing its millions of converts to cling to the Hindu, Buddhist and animist practices they valued most.
The Dutch came and fought for 400 years. never really succeeding in imposing their will evenly and consistently through what became known as the Dutch East Indies. At times they may have thought they had the situation under control. But Indonesians have a subtle, introspective way of resisting unwanted overlords. And when that tactic has failed, a leader has always emerged to challenge the oppressor in physical conflict as Prince Diponegoro did in the 1820s. Though he was defeated, his rebellion on Java was enough to ensure that the Dutch held a new respect for their colonial subjects.
Japan’s victory over the Dutch in 1942 dispelled for ever the myth of white supremacy; Indonesians realised that national liberation was within their grasp. On August 17, 1945, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta hoisted the red and white flag and proclaimed the Republic of Indonesia. The Dutch oW jected. But four years later they had been fought to a standstill and independence became a fact in 1949.
Momentarily, Indonesia belonged to all Indonesians. But it was a nation of many different peoples, with many different languages and customs. And soon it was obvious that Indonesia was not, as its motto claims, finding ‘unity in diversity’. The reality was that a new form of colonialism had replaced the Dutch: Java, as the central and most populous island, was the new colonial power ruling over the outer islands. Resentment, and regional rebellion, soon became evident.
Just once, in 1956, Indonesians took part in a full and free general election. But regional, cultural, religious and political currents rendered the result inconclusive. No one group or coalition could be found to govern the country. President Sukarno the man who had led the fight for independence and was recognised as the founding father of the republic stepped in, abandoning his figurehead role.
Sukarno put in train a process of freewheeling popular political action that, on September 30, 1965. erupted in a way even more horrifying than the blast at Krakatoa when a mere 30.000 died. At least half a million Indonesians were killed in the months after that confusing night of September 30.
When news began to leak out about the holocaust the anti-populist military and Muslim death squads were inflicting upon the Indonesian people, it was almost as if the world didn’t want to know. The British ambassador to Indonesia, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, was quoted in late 1965 by the Jakarta newspaper SinarHarapan as saying that ~the present developments in Indonesia will lead to an improvement in the relations between Indonesia and Britain’.
The United States which had a Berkeley-trained group of Indonesian economists waiting in the wings to get the socialist
The cover lines, And, as the day takes form, our questions will become a forest’, are from W. S. Rendra’s 'Poem for a Students’ Meeting’, written in December orientated Indonesian economy back on to solid free-enterprise tracks felt very much the same.
What exactly happened on September 30, 1965. in Indonesia may never be fully known. It is accepted that a group of junior commissioned officers moved to arrest a number of generals. In the ensuing action, six of the generals were killed. A colonel named Suharto led the counter-charge; he has ruled Indonesia ever since.
While Suharto has pursued a policy of ‘betting on the Strong’, with industrialisation, foreign investment and faith in trickle-down’ which have resulted in a massive shift of wealth and power into the hands of ever fewer people the West has continued to look on benignly, seemingly oblivious to massive evidence of the government’s disregard for human rights.
By 1978 Indonesia’s creditor nations had poured in more than $6 billion. The rewards for the 55-million Indonesian workforce? Less than two million new jobs in a decade. Meanwhile 1.4 million Indonesians enter the workforce every’ year.
1977. Rendra, one of Indonesia’s most popular playwrights, is constantly in trouble with Indonesian authorities. He was arrested in May 1978 after a poetry reading in Jakarta and charged under the ‘hatesowing’ articles of extant Dutch colonial law. He was never brought to trial, finally being released in October 1978.
In 1980 his government refused to grant him a visa o travel to Australia In response to this ban, Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre staged a reading of Rendra’s The Struggle of the Naga Tribe’ (seepage 30) which had just been published in English translation by Max Lane. Struggle’ has long been banned in Indonesia
But lack of job opportunities, poor wages and often appalling working conditions are not the only areas of friction between government and people.
Intellectuals, even senior-ranking supporters of the New Order regime, today are complaining that Suharto, while he professes to be pursuing the humanitarian principles of the Indonesian state philosophy (known as Panca Si/a), in reality is doing nothing of the sort.
And there are other flash points. Secessionist movements fester on in northern Sumatra (which has fought for centuries to resist outside control), former Dutch West New Guinea (now the province of West Irian) and the former Portuguese East Timor.
Everywhere the rural poor are being deprived of their land. In 1963 only43.6 per cent of the nation’s landowners owned less than 0.5 hectares each. By 1973 this figure had risen to 59 per cent. Today it is even higher. New farming technology has resulted in the buying up of land for bigger operations. Only when the money a small landowner receives for his land has gone does he fully realise that he has lost his independent ability to survive. And then the resentment starts to grow.
Intellectuals, journalists, poets, singers, authors, students are finding their media restricted, often non-existent. Beatings. jailings, interrogations are common. Publications regularly are forced to close sometimes temporarily, occasionally permanently. Dialog magazine, which criticised the government for not putting money into areas which would help the underprivileged, was told to sack the offending journalists. Its proprietors decided to wind up the publication rather than bow to such pressure.
And then there is the question of corruption. There is something almost respectable about the open-faced corruption which characterises much of Southeast Asia when it is compared to the covert corruption which is exposed from time to time in the West. But the rush of oil, aid and investment money to Indonesia has caused much resentment among the 99 per cent of Indonesians who get next to nothing.
Madame Ten-per cent’, as the president’s wife is known for having her hand in so many business dea1s’, is the butt of Street poets and singers. Ibnu Sutowo head of the state oil corporation through the heady years of early OPEC price power, lost his job when evidence emerged of massive mismanagement and multi-million dollar redirection of oil revenues into senior executive’s pockets. But he is a close friend of the president and he has strong business links with Mrs Suharto. So he was honourably discharged.
And, while he continued to live in luxury. Jakartans in 1979 were guaranteed a minimum wage of Rupiabs 600(96 cents) a day that is, if they were fortunate enough to have a job.
Sinar Harapan looked at what R600 would buy (early 1979 prices): a bus ticket to work 100; a snack at work 50; two litres of rice (enough for a family of four for a day) 300; a bunch of sweet potato leaves (not very nourishing) 10; two bananas 50; a litre of kerosene for lighting and cooking 30; salt, soap, matches, tea 60.
With that shopping list, R600 will not buy meat, eggs, nutritious vegetables, accommodation, clothing or schoolbooks all items which might be considered basic to daily life.
The Holland-based Indonesian Documentation and Information Centre (Indoc) last year published a revealing document entitled ‘Indonesian workers and their rights to organise’.It accuses employers and government of disregarding International Labour Organisation conventions and publishes a long, far from exhaustive, list of examples of industrial action which flies in the face of the government’s assertion that Indonesia is the home of the docile worker; but not in the face of Suharto’s claim that it also is the home of cheap labour.
Indoc provides evidence of Indonesian industry’s extensive use of child labour and a preference for employing young girls who are less likely than the mature worker to answer the boss back.
Indoc declares: ‘There is evidence enough that abusive, discriminatory, often inhumane practices by factory owners towards this young, inexperienced labour force are not only common but systemic, and condoned by the state.’
A national newspaper, Merdeka, on September 4, 1980, declared: The suffering of workers is so clearly terrible . In factories, in plantations, in workshops, on boats, in firms, and in all the many fields of work.
In many of the Indoc case histories, the image is vivid of police and military standing by, just in case they might be needed as employer and workers taw over their problems.
Dissent in Indonesia today is clearly fragmented. There is no common thread which unites worker with secessionist with Islamic leader with corruption fighter. But in recent years there have been many signs of a re-awake ning of the populist spirit which was so free in the early sixties.
The new mood became evident after 1974 when massive demonstrations occurred during the visit to Jakarta of’ Japan’s prime minister.
Among demonstrators arrested was Hariman Siregar, chairman of the Students Council of the University of Indonesia Addressing a rally in late 1973, Hariman Siregar accused the Suharto government of using the concept of development as a means of legitimising its control of the population.
This was a new kind of dissent in Indonesia Previously the view had been that corruption and abuses of power were simply ‘excesses’ by what was basically a good government.
In 1978 similar sentiments were ringing out across the campuses of the nation as Suharto was about to be rubber-stamped into a third term as president.
Next year, barring the unforeseen, Suharto will be rubber-stamped into a fourth term. But it is unlikely his re-election’ will go by without protest.
For the moment Suharto can afford to feel reasonably secure. Oil still brings in 70 per cent of export earnings. (However, Newsweek has hinted that Indonesia might not even be in OPEC by the end of the eighties because it will have no more oil to sell). The national debt, though large, is not yet unmanageable and aid is unlikely to dry up from a West that is eager to keep Jakarta sounding virulently anti-communist.
But Suharto also knows there is growing Conviction in many areas of Indonesian society that all the high-flown talk of deve Lopment through his years of rule cannot hide the fact that the private dreams of the elite who surround him are not those of the Indonesian people en masse.
Fissures in the human volcano that 150 million people spread over 13,000 islands have the potential to be are spitting with increasing intensity. Suharto knows full well the power of those people; his New Order government once before quelled it at the cost of half a million lives. And he is not going to avoid becoming a victim of that power by stepping up his regime’s systematic programme of repression.