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Old lady carries wood in Central Java - Indonesia

It’s over two years since Portrait Indonesia went on the road. For several months now I’ve been rather quiet, hunched down over a computer, trying to pin Indonesia’s riotous diversity to the page. The book that will emerge in June 2014 will be called Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation. It will be published in the UK by Granta, in the US by WW Norton and in Indonesia by Godown, an imprint of always-inspiring Lontar.

The title Indonesia Etc is taken from Indonesia’s declaration of independence, which reads, in full:

We the People of Indonesia declare the independence of the Republic of Indonesia. The details of the transfer of power etc. will be worked out as soon as possible.

As Indonesia gears up for the 2014 elections, it is still working on its political “etc”. “Democracy by trial and error” was how one retired company head described it to me with a mirthless laugh. How far will decentralisation go? Will independent candidates and local parties be allowed? Much is still up for discussion or re-discussion. And yet the improbable nation muddles along remarkably well for such a young country. Re-reading Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address today, I was reminded that the United States, at a similar stage after its own declaration of independence, still had a bloody civil war ahead of it.

Though it looked touch-and-go for a few years at the start of this century, few people now expect Indonesia to face that kind of chaos in any of its vast territory (except, perhaps, Tanah Papua). In honour of Indonesia’s ongoing Etcs, and of my forthcoming books, this site is migrating to

  • If you’re signed up to Portrait Indonesia by e-mail, you should now get notifications of new posts on Indonesia Etc.
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Thanks for sticking with the journey so far, and selamat jalan to the next incarnations.

A requiem for Indonesia’s national parks

A honey tree, abandoned by its bees, rises from an oil plam plantation in Sumatra

The photo above is of a honey tree. The Orang Rimba, who have for centuries hunted and gathered their way around the forests of what is now the Sumatran province of Jambi, have been collecting honey from this tree for as long as anyone can remember. (If you squint, you might be able to see the pegs they have driven in to the side of the tree to climb its great heights.) “Now the bees don’t want to come here any more,” said Gentar, a Rimba man who currently stays with his family under a nearby palm tree. “There’s nothing for them to eat in a palm oil plantation.”

The area where Gentar lives is at the edge of the Bukit Duabelas national park. Or it should be, but the edge of the park keeps moving, shrinking back towards the core as people hungry for land on which to grow rubber and oil palm take their chain-saws to the “protected” area. These people, incidentally, include Orang Rimba, who increasingly need cash to buy things that the shrinking forest can no longer provide (food, treatment for previously unknown diseases). They also need cash to buy things that help them generate cash more quickly, most notably chainsaws, motorbikes and handphones. Cutting down trees because so many trees have been cut down: a particularly vicious vicious circle. (An aside: I try to avoid the monk-on-a-cellphone type of cliche, but I did do a double take at the well-formed man in a loin cloth riding a Honda.)

Indonesia’s laws related to national forests are confused. I need to do more homework around this, but my understanding is that under conservation law humans aren’t allowed to live in national parks, while under human rights law, indigenous communities are allowed to use national park land in ways that maintain their customs and traditions. One of the customs and traditions of Orang Rimba is clearing patches of forest to plant subsistence crops such as cassava. But does that extend to clearing forest to plant a cash crop such as rubber? Does a tradition from the era of the axe hold in the era of the chainsaw?

The bulk of the deforestation comes not from Orang Rimba themselves but from people who clear land in large quantities and and parcel it up to sell to smallholders who want to plug in to the commodity boom that is fertilising the rococo mansions that now sprout around plantation areas. I rode for an hour on Gentar’s motorbike from the place where the original 2004 National Park boundary marker used to be (it has now disappeared) to the first sign of any primary forest. The last few hundred yards were littered with the skeletons of trees that had been felled in the previous few days. In four days in and around the park I did not see any indication that the National Park was being protected in any way. No forestry patrols, no rangers, no boundary markers, not even any of those futile “Clearing of land prohibited” signs. Also, no bees.

For those interested in the challenges faced by ancient hunter-gatherer cultures seduced and/or assaulted by modernity, I recommend Butet Manurung’s The Jungle School, an account of her struggle with the notion (and practice) of educating Orang Rimba children. Including Gentar.

Bouncing back

Having been very rude about the Indonesian educational system in an earlier post, I offer up this example of genius from a junior high school teacher in the small town of Singkil, in Aceh province. It was his labour-saving solution to the fact that his baby cried unless it was being rocked constantly.

I might note that this scene was filmed on a school day. The genius teacher was watching TV at home. “It’s raining,” he explained. “And anyway, they’ve given me a class with only 15 kids in it.”

In praise of Endang: A gem among Indonesian doctors


Wednesday was a sad day for Indonesia. and for me. It marked the death of Endang Sedyaningsih, who encompassed what is best in the women in this great country: courage, determination, integrity, compassion and humility. It is a rare combination at the best of times; in the Indonesian cabinet, where Endang held the position of Minister of Health, these qualities are nothing short of exceptional.

In my last post, I was pretty rude about Indonesian doctors. Endang counts among the “several smart friends who were once great doctors”. Unlike many ministers in Indonesia, she knew her territory inside out. For three years, she worked as head of a rural health centre in Nusa Tengarra Timur, the poorest province in Indonesia. She gave up doctoring in favour of public health and research, a choice that I predictably enough applaud, not least because a lot of her research was among sex workers and other marginalised groups. Indeed her thesis at Harvard centred on the lives of the women who sold sex in Kramat Tunggak, Jakarta’s largest red light district. She argued for improving health services for the women that worked there. Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso, seeking to burnish his credentials with Moslem voters, responded by bulldozing the area and building a gopping mosque and Islamic centre in its place. When Kramat Tunggat was closed in 1999, HIV prevalence among brothel and street-based sex workers in north Jakarta was 0.4 percent. Since the rise of the mosque and the dispersion of the sex trade, it has risen to 10.5 percent.

Endang was fearless both physically (not many of my colleagues were prepared, as she was, to brave the Jakarta traffic on the back of my motorbike…) and politically. During the reign of her controversial predecessor, Siti Fadilah Supari, Endang had to put up with a lot of flack because the national health research institute she headed cooperated closely with foreign researchers in trying to develop vaccines against bird flu, which has a higher case fatality rate in Indonesia than in any other country. For Siti, this cooperation amounted to collaboration with the enemy. Her book “It’s Time for the World to Change! God’s Hand Behind the Bird Flu Virus” is actually more about the hand of the CIA behind the virus – a mish-mash of conspiracy theories which were such an embarrassment to the Indonesian government that the book was eventually pulled from bookshops.

Leading the research programme for the Ministry of Health, Endang kept her head down and got on with her work. In her eyes, finding a vaccine that could protect millions of her fellow countrymen from a strain of flu that killed eight out of 10 of those infected was more important than whipping up populist anti-Americanism to score cheap political wins. When she was appointed health minister in Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yuduhyono’s second cabinet, the press showered her with nonsense about being a CIA plant. Again, she kept her head down and got on with her work, trying especially to improve services in the far-flung corners of the nation so often overlooked by those trapped in the political spider’s web of Jakarta.

Endang was an Indonesian nationalist in the truest sense of the word: not a knee-jerk Xenophobe, but someone who consolidated learning, skills and relationships acquired around the world and used them in the service of the men, women and transgenders of the Indonesia she loved so much. I am angry that she was taken from us by lung cancer at the age of only 57, but am proud to have called her a friend.

A sick system produces dumb doctors in Indonesia

“Why don’t you go to Penang/Singapore?” is the first thing most Indonesians say when they hear I don’t have kids. Obviously childlessness must be fixed, and obviously it is far too important to be left to the Indonesian health system. I usually give people short shrift when they trash the health system here. I have several smart friends who were once great doctors. Ok, they’ve mostly shifted into management jobs now, but Indonesia’s med schools are full of bright young things to take their place.

Or are they? A recent report from the World Bank wrings its hands over the quality of medical education in Indonesia. It finds that accreditation standards for health schools are wonky in the first place, are not properly applied, and are in any case not published. Not too surprising really. Another recent report from the World Bank notes politely how absolutely crap Indonesia’s education system is. In internationally standardised tests of 15 year-olds, over half of Indonesians scored less than one out of six on maths tests, and not a single Indonesian student reached the score of five or six that, according to the OECD which runs the tests, indicates decent critical thinking skills. When basic education is so poor, it would be miraculous for medical education to be much better. But the World Bank health worker report doesn’t even mention the thing that worries me most: training for doctors and jobs as nurses are for sale.

Even the best state universities, the ones that in the past gave scholarships to my smart friends, are raking in money selling places in med school. The starting price to get in, for students with exceptional grades, is 10 million rupiah, over US$ 1,000. The lower your grades, the more you have to pay to get in. Medical school is so fashionable these days that I’ve heard of people paying up to 250 million rupiah just to get in. That’s not for tuition, of course, that’s purely for the privilege of being able to say “My eldest is studying to be a doctor”. If they are either stupid or lazy or both, they will have to pay another great whack each year to pass their exams. When they graduate they’ll have had a very expensive education. But would you want them taking care of your tumour?

The sale of jobs starts at a much lower level. Nurses and even midwives now have to put out to get hired even in small town health centres. The going price in Aceh, where I’ve spent the last few weeks, is 60 million rupiah for an entry level job (assuming that you have already earned, or indeed bought, the appropriate qualifications). Sixty million rupiah, US$ 6,600 dollars, to get a job that will earn less than US$ 300 a month. Is it any surprise that most health centre staff, doctors, nurses and midwives included, go to work in the morning and run a private practice in the afternoons or evenings?

I often ask people why they pay to see the doctor in the evening when they could see exactly the same doctor for free in the morning. The universal response is that doctors keep the “strong” medicine for their private patients. At the health centre you get obat warung – “kiosk drugs”, cheap, over-the-counter stuff. Given the deterioration of standards required of people studying medicine in the first place, I would have thought the drugs they give you would be the least of your concerns.

Forbidden pleasures: What Elizabeth eats for tea

Giant clams hung out to dry in front of a fisherman's house in Pulau Banyak, Aceh
Giant clams hung out to dry in front of a fisherman's house in Pulau Banyak, Aceh

Indonesian food is varied and generally wonderful, though in out of the way spots like Pulau Banyak, off the West coast of Aceh, the choice for travelers is not extensive. I eat whatever is on offer on any given day at the one food stall in town — usually indeterminate fish in a yellowish or a reddish gravy. Yesterday the gravy was yellowish, and the first mouthful took me back to my grandmother’s kitchen. I was eating clam, of a very, very delicious sort. The cook’s husband, seeing my pleasure, rummaged behind the stove and came out with a clam shell about a foot across. “This is it’s shell”, he said. “They’re getting harder and harder to find.”

Turtle eggs for sale in Banda Aceh market. One pile sells for under two dollars.
Turtle eggs for sale in Banda Aceh market. One pile sells for under two dollars.

I don’t think giant clams are officially an endangered species, but I still wondered if I should feel guilty about eating one. Getting moral about what we eat presents us with so many dilemmas. I’ve always been surprised by moral vegetarians who happily eat fish. That’s the one thing that we still hunt in the wild, despite their getting harder and harder to find — surely that makes fish more morally problematic that meat which is bred for consumption? Giant clams are probably a no, though they are widely available here (and so very, very delicious). Turtle eggs are a definite no; there are even regulations against selling them, thanks in part to the work of conservation NGOs such as Yayasan Pulau Banyak. But that didn’t stop a young neighbour of the NGOs pleading with me to bring some back for her from the turtle breeding island of Bangkaru: “I’m pregnant. It’s my duty to eat things which are good for me”. And it doesn’t stop the traders in the main market in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, selling them quite openly. A clutch of seven goes for just 20,000 rupiah, about US$ 1.80. I have no moral dilemma at all over turtle eggs; I don’t eat them. Though that may be because the only time I’ve ever tried them, in this very province some 20 years ago, I felt like I was eating slightly fishy snot bombs. If they were very, very delicious, I might be more conflicted.

A comfortable T-shirt culture

If I had the courage to stick my camera into people’s chests, I’d by now have a vast repertoire of photos of absurd and inappropriate T-shirts. Pretty young school-girls sporting obscenities that would make a punk blush. Elderly crones decked in gyrating boy-band idols. Moslem clerics declaring their love for Jesus. And plenty of slogans that just make no sense at all. Most Indonesians love to pose for pictures; it’s me that’s uncomfortable snapping things that will make people look silly. So I have to settle for what I can capture from behind.

Aceh’s new leaders: Militantly religious?

A proto-military jeep in front of a mosque at a Partai Aceh rally in Aceh, Indonesia
Partai Aceh: religiously combative

Well it’s official. The Partai Aceh candidates for Governor and Vice Governor will rule Indonesia’s most fractious province for the next five years. Their election campaign was a strange mix of proto-militarism and religious fervour. At every rally, hundreds of the young men who are the party’s most fanatical supporters stood in serried ranks in red, black and white “camouflage” uniforms, saluting the candidates, one of whom is a rather homey doctor who has spent most of his adult life in Sweden. They (and I) listened also to sermons about how Partai Aceh would keep the province free of “kaffir” religions — anything that is not Islam, effectively. There were strange digressions about protecting the territory from the Jews, although to my knowledge the Jewish community is, uuuum, somewhat under-represented in Indonesia as a whole, let alone in Aceh.

As he formally acknowledged his election, the doctor from Sweden, Zaini Abdullah, said he would seek to implement a “purer” form of Islamic Sharia law. His bitter rival in this election, former governor Irwandi, is seen by some to have sold out because he refused to sign a bill implementing Sharia law, finding some if its provisions too harsh. Stoning adulterers to death, for example. I’ll be interested to see how Zaini Abdullah negotiates this one. His running mate, the former guerilla commander Muzakir Manaf (who looks like he’s been sent over to Party headquarters by Central Casting), is widely known to have at least five wives. That’s one more than is allowed by Sharia law (which, says Zaini, “is about how to educate our youths about what is right and wrong”). Technically, then, the Vice Governor is an adulterer. Will Partai Aceh’s dedication to purity put it’s own number two at risk of death? Watch this space.

Shaking up infrastructure and politics in Aceh and Papua

Poor David Cameron; something always seems to steal his thunder. During his visit to Indonesia today, it was two huge earthquakes in Aceh. I’m in Aceh just now, and was watching his press conference on Indonesian TV when the room started to shake and we had to tear ourselves away from his platitudes. The UK Prime Minister is reportedly looking for business for UK companies. If investment decisions were based on need, or on the impact they might have on the daily lives of poorer people, Cameron might encourage UK businesses to turn his blah blah about bridge-building into something more concrete. In the last couple of months I’ve been in two of Indonesia’s richer provinces, Aceh in the extreme west, and Papua in the far east. In both, there are shocking lapses in investment in infrastructure — lapses that make life miserable for kids on their way to school, women on their way to sell vegetables in the market, people trying to scrape together a living running motorbike or pick-up truck taxi services.

The high-wire act that passes for a bridge near Tangse, in northeast Aceh, shown in the video is the remains of a wooden bridge washed out by a massive flash flood in early 2010 — what the locals call “our tsunami”. Although there are still millions of dollars sloshing around in unspent funds donated for reconstruction after the 2004 tsunami, nothing had been done to fix this bridge 18 months after its evaporation. You’ll have to excuse the shaky filming — I had to keep one hand on the wire as I crossed….

A woman carries vegetables to market across a half-collapsed bridge in Wamena, Papua, Indonesia
A woman carries vegetables to market across a half-collapsed bridge outside Wamena, Papua

This other photo was taken in Wamena, in the stunning central highlands of the country’s richest province, Papua. Wamena is the main town in the highlands, and this bridge is on the main road out of town, linking the hospitals, markets and high-schools of town with the rural hinterlands. Or rather not linking them; motorbikes can get across but it has been months since a truck or minibus made the leap.

It’s sobering to see the people of Aceh’s reaction to today’s earthquakes, even in the hills where I am just now and where there’s no risk of a tsunami. The girl I was talking to went so faint that she to had to be helped out of the building for the second earthquake, 8.8 on the Richter scale. A little later, still shaky, she told me that she had lost several family members in the 2004 tsunami. She also agreed with someone’s only half-joking suggestion that this was the earth’s reaction to Monday’s elections in Aceh. These were comprehensively won by Partai Aceh, the political offspring of the GAM guerilla movement improbably directed out of Sweden. Though they’ve been widely accused of election-related manipulation, violence and intimidation, Partai Aceh played the Peace card in this election. But they played it upside down. Rather than say: “if you vote for us, we’ll keep the peace”, the rank and file, at any rate, were saying: “if you don’t vote for us, your precious peace will be no more”.

I rather suspect Partai Aceh would have won even without the scare tactics. But Earthquake-Girl’s reaction to my idiocy (as I wandered back in to the shaking building to get my computer) reminded me of this fact: the more people know the bitter taste of fear, the more effectively it controls their behaviour. The people of Aceh spent the 15 years to 2005 finding corpses by the roadside in the morning, trembling at midnight knocks on the door from guerillas and soldiers alike, being shaken down for cash, rice, a motorbike. They’ll vote for anything that avoids a return to that.