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The drill in Aceh: whipping up support

I happen to be in Aceh for the local elections. These are interesting times, with rivalries between former comrades in the para-political movement formerly known as GAM hotting up. It’s a sensitive topic in a still-fragile part of this increasingly centrifugal nation; I’d say a lot more, but I have promised the Indonesian intelligence services that I won’t report on the ins and outs of local politics.

Indonesian Intel checks me out at a campaign rally in Aceh
Heri, an Intel agent in north Aceh, takes my photo on his iPad while his boss checks my papers.

True to my word, I’m going to write instead about Aceh’s creativity with power tools. A regular household drill can be used to make one of the province’s breakfast specialities — whipped raw egg with coffee, as well as to whip up support at campaign rallies.

Hike skirts, not prices: diversion for Indonesian politicians

Indonesian ministers pose with mini-skirted golf caddies
Who should we arrest? Indonesian ministers pose with golf caddies in soon-to-be-illegal mini-skirts (Photo: Rakya Merdeka)

Indonesians think about sex, or at least search for it on the internet, more than most: Indonesian was the number one language for Google searches on sex last year, and the country ranked 6th overall in sex searches (the good fellow Moslems of Pakistan led the pack for the umpteenth year; indeed seven out of the top 10 sex-searchers are Moslem-majority nations). If the legislator caught with a long-lens camera watching porn in Indonesia’s national parliament is in any way representative, politicians are not immune from this obsession.

Indonesia’s government has reacted to the uncomfortable clash between its prudish self-image and its lascivious reality in the way that it deals with most of this culturally scattered nation’s manifold contradictions: legislate, then fail to enforce. The controversial anti-pornography bill was first passed in 2008. Many people, especially women who could be prosecuted under the law for exposing undefined body parts, were furious. The law was put on hold while civil rights groups argued in the country’s highest court that it was unconstitutional, in part because pornography was not clearly defined. Would the temple carvings of central Java and Bali have to be dismantled because they qualify as “erotic art works”, prohibited by the law for example? The constitutional court in 2010 ruled that the definition of pornography in the bill was just fine, and that the law should be enacted.

Ok, so now we’ve got the law, we can get on and ignore it. But earlier this month President Susilo Bambang Yudhuyono (SBY) put the controversy firmly back on the agenda, establishing an anti-porn task force to clarify the definition of porn (yes, the same definition ruled clear enough by the constitutional court) and implement the law. Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali has jumped in to the fray, saying that the task force will tell women how to dress, probably prohibiting them from wearing skirts above the knee. It is hard not to agree with House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Pramono Anung, who protested at a ban on mini skirts: “What we need to take care of are mini-brains and mini-morals,” he said. It’s worth noting that the legislator caught watching porn was from the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which was one of the motors behind the drafting of the anti-pornography bill and which wastes no opportunity to preach to the nation about the importance of morality.

It seems more than likely that SBY resurrected this issue now because he is trying to distract attention from a (quite sensible but wildly unpopular) move to cut subsidies on fuel, as well as an ongoing corruption soap opera involving his own party.

The essentials of life: handphones where there’s no power

A shop offering phone charging services in Enarotali, Indonesian Papua

Just a couple of years ago, it was a source of wonder: “Wah! In Indonesia, even the hookers/farmers/becak drivers have cell-phones!” The citified loved to take photos of small buffalo-riding Javanese children or half-naked Papuan adults busily chatting on their cell-phones (HP, or “hah pay” in Indonesian, from the English Hand Phone). Now, cell-phones are such a universality that no-one even bothers to take note. But I still find it amusing that cell phones have entrenched themselves quite so firmly even in places where there’s no electricity. This has led to a whole secondary industry, illustrated by the roadside stall in the small town of Enarotali, in the highlands of Papua, pictured above.

CASS HP: what can it mean? In Indonesian, “C” is pronounced “Ch”: Chass HP, the local rendering of Charge HP. This shop will fill your battery for you, for 5,000 rupiah, about 50 cents. You’ll find stalls like this all over Indonesia, and plenty of people using them even in areas with no phone signal, especially near areas where electricity is sporadic or non-existant. Because after all, even if you can’t talk to anyone on it, a charged phone makes a very good torch.

What drugs are they on? Madness in Indonesia’s jails

Balinese boys flick gang symbols before parading thir evil spirits around town

I spent Nyepi, the Hindu day of silence, in Bali. Things have quietened down a bit here, but earlier in the month prisoners in Kerobokan, the main jail, went on the rampage. Officially the riot was about overcrowding, though the trigger seems to have been some spat about drug dealing. It is old news that drugs are cheaper inside Indonesia’s jails than outside. But it is the link between drugs and overcrowding in jails that we need to be thinking about.

At the start of this year there were over 143,500 prisoners and pre-trial detainees in Indonesia’s prisons and detention centres, according to a friend at the UN who follows these things. That’s in a system that has a capacity of 97,200, so that’s one and a half bodies in every bed. Some 21,500 of these prisoners are banged up just for using drugs, and almost the same number again for dealing them, very often in very small quantities. One person I know of in Jakarta occupied a cell for four years because he ferried 10 ecstasy pills across town. Four years for 10 pills, for God’s sake. Four years is the amount of time that Tommy Suharto spent in jail after being convicted of masterminding the murder of a High Court judge. My pill-carrying friend would have been clogging up a cell for seven years, but a judge reduced the sentence after he was paid US$ 40,000 to help him in his decision-making.

In short, almost the whole of the overcrowding problem in Indonesia’s jails could be solved just by not giving people sentences for getting high or peddling small packets of drugs. In Kerobokan itself, over half the pre-riot population was in on drug charges. A lot of the guys (and they are mostly guys) in jail have not even been sentenced: over 51,000 are being held before being tried. This, according to friends who have been there, done that, is sometimes a money-making ploy on the part of the cops. They pick people up for drug use (or other minor “crimes”), then negotiate a pricey release before a formal sentencing. The high proportion of unconvicted prisoners also reminds us that the courts are at least as overcrowded as the jails. But again, if we weren’t taking up judges’ time processing people for getting high, that problem might be more easily solved, too.

In an informal meeting with groups interested in providing health services in jail, Justice and Human Rights Minister Amir Syamsuddin recently questioned the wisdom of prosecuting people for use and possession of small quantities of drugs. He should be encouraged to support a more rational approach to drug use.

Aside: The photo above is of a group of Balinese louts-in-training getting ready to carry an “oga-oga” around their village on the eve of the Nyepi festival. These representations of evil spirits are paraded to the village limits, then burned in a ritual that is supposed to cleanse the community of evil before the start of the New Year. Let’s hope it works, and that none of these lads wind up in Kerobokan. For more on that infamous jail, check out Kathryn Bonella’s “Hotel Kerobokan”.

Taking tea with the dead. Again.

A dead grandmother receives guests before her funeral in Sumba, Indonesia
“Taking Tea with the Dead” — the working title of the book I’m not quite getting around to writing — was taken from an experience over 20 years ago, when I was invited in to meet the grandmother of some random villager in Sumba. I was a little put out, on being introduced to Granny, to find that she had died the day before. I picked this piece of exotica as my working title because I was pretty sure that I would find, revisiting these parts two decades later, that such esoteric traditions would have disappeared. Tea with the Dead would surely have died, swept out of Indonesia on a homogenising wave of modernisation. The title would reflect the changes in the country, and perhaps, in a self-centred sort of way, my nostalgia for something that was no more.

Not at all. When I went to visit my friend Mama Bobo the other day to arrange our outing to the pasola jousting, she was in a tizz. Her sister-in-law had died the night before. Now she had to scrape together weavings, pigs, buffalo and endless supplies of betel nut to contribute to the week of feasting that precedes the funeral. Of course I must come along (this would entail some scraping together of my own, for every guest must pay tribute). And so, 22 years after I first took tea with a dead Granny, I repeated the ritual. Which rather calls in to question that homogenising wave of modernisation. Though Granny slept through it, the remainder of her terrestrial existence was quite bloody. For the less squeamish readers there will be more, much more, in the book. Whatever it is called.

What’s a man without his weapon?

A banner discouraging people in Sumba, Indonesia, from carrying deadly weapons
"Stop violence": 10 years in jail for carrying a traditional weapon

“Like throwing salt into the sea” : an Indonesian expression for futile activity. Called to mind by this banner at the airport in West Sumba. “Stop Violence!” proclaims the banner. It reminds us that, under a 1951 law, we can be jailed for 10 years for carrying sharp weapons without a permit. On the right of the banner, an illustration of some of the sharp weapons in question.

Enforcement of this law would depopulate the island. No self-respecting man in West Sumba is without one of these parangs; they are a core element of ceremonial dress, and in the last week I’ve seen them used to slaughter pigs, skin a horse, clear land, prune trees, whittle musical instruments, even sharpen a pencil.

But they are also used to make trouble. The first time I arrived at this same airport, Tambolaka, a local doctor gleefully showed me a photo on his hand phone of a body hacked up in the market in Waikabubak, West Sumba’s main town. “Look, that’s his hand, lying over there…” Local ceremonies in which conflict is ritualised — the pajura group boxing contest, held on a beach by the light of the moon, the pasola jousting war, which sees youngsters on galloping horseback sling spears at one another — sometimes turn nasty. At both of these ceremonies last week, young men were barred from carrying their parangs. Just as well; the Wanokaka pasola degenerated into a glorious riot of chest-puffing and stone-throwing. A few people and a police car got badly bruised, nothing more, but had the young bloods had their parangs on them it might have been nastier. Their elders, including Bpk Petrus, pictured below, still get away with wearing their weapons whenever they please. But it does raise something of a problem in areas of Indonesia where the carrying and use of potentially dangerous weapons is common. The police can hardly enforce the law selectively, and if they try to enforce it universally, their efforts will be slashed down by the custodians of culture as well as by the farmers and labourers who rely on their parangs for tasks large and small.

Getting dressed with sword for a traditional ceremony in Sumba, Indonesia

What’s wrong with Indonesian penises?

A statue outside a health centre in Enarotali, in Indonesian Papua

Reading the newspapers in cities across Papua, I cannot help but notice the full-colour ads for penis extensions. In only half an hour, with no invasive anything, men can see their organs grow, thicken, harden, for ever. The ads are explicit about the results, down to the last half centimetre; clients can choose both the length and girth of their organ, up to 20 cm by 6 cm (the more modest promise diameters of just 5.5). All of this with just some magic oil and a few prayers, guaranteed free of side effects. The “Specialists in Vital Organs” promise services for women, too, tightening up our fannies “until you are like a maiden again”. And for both sexes, they will pray away our sexually transmitted infections.

Why the obsession with sex organs, and why especially in Papua? Are people encouraged by the blatantly erotic sculptures that are common in these parts? Do migrants from other parts of Indonesia feel inadequate on arrival in Papua, or do they feel the magic will be especially potent in the nether regions of the nation? And isn’t it mildly ironic that all of the people offering their dick-swelling charms claim to be from Banten in western Java, where mystics sometimes break their fasts by eating light-bulbs? They offer other mystical services too: tying down your spouse, implanting a protective aura, ensuring you get promoted or elected. But most of their force is expended on delivering: “What other people only promise, we prove with results that are Large and Long”.

It turns out that the penis obsession is not, in fact, confined to the tens of thousands of immigrants from the rest of Indonesia who have been sucked east by Papua’s booming economy. I learned this when I asked a Papuan nurse in one of the province’s largest hospitals what brought men to outpatient services. Three things, he said: injuries resulting from violent fights, injuries resulting from traffic accidents, and prison. Prison? Do people get sick in prison? “No, that’s the penis stuff.” Prisoners, Papuans and others, are operating on one another’s members — inserting ball bearings and biro parts, threading hair through the urethra. A doctor friend who ran an STI clinic in Papua for many years says he saw a lot of penises embellished with horse hair, but the nurse said since that’s in short supply in prison people weave ornaments from their own locks. Not surprisingly, many of these go septic, hence the hospital visits.

My doctor friend blames the porn industry for the penis-plumping craze. “People watch these porn films where everyone has a giant dick, and they begin to think that that’s the norm.” Certainly porn films are enough of a norm in Papua to have their own nickname: “film o-ya”. The name derives from the script, which in many films does not go much beyond the repetitive groaning of “Oh yah!, Oh yaaaaaah! Oh yaaaaaaaaah!

A more serious aside: data newly released by the Indonesian Ministry of Health show that one in four of the Papuan women who are selling sex to their men-folk on the streets of the Papuan highland town of Wamena are infected with HIV, while well over half have another STI. Perhaps because condoms don’t fit snugly over the horsehair, three in four of these infected highland women are not using protection with their partners.

Note to Papuan politicians: Democracy is for grown-ups

Full-page apology from the district head in a Papua newspaper

When a senior Papuan politician said recently that Papua was not ready for democracy I was mildly shocked. “The people are not mature yet, neither are the political elite. They are not ready to accept defeat, which results in them resorting to violence. Organizers of elections in the regencies are terrorized and intimidated. People are prone anarchic acts,” Yop Kagoya, the deputy speaker of Papua legislative council,told the Jakarta Post.

There’s no shortage of vociferous calls for self-determination for Indonesia’s easternmost region. But the more one reads the papers here, the more one tends to agree that if Papuan politicians and voters really want to determine their own future, inside our outside of the embrace of Indonesia, they have a bit of growing up to do. In Tolikara district, elections that have already been postponed for two years were put off again this month as running battles broke out between supporters of different candidates. Today’s paper reported 46 people killed in the last couple of weeks; the death toll in Puncak in recent months has been even higher. When I heard that the Vice Bupati (Vice Regent, i.e. Number Two in government) in Wamena, the biggest city in the populous highlands of Papua had been wounded by an arrow and his adjutant killed, I assumed they were attacked by political opponents. (In fact, they were trying to put a stop to a brawl that began with an unpaid motorcycle taxi fare, and turned in to a riot several hundred strong.)

Looking for news about the Wamena incident, I came across the full-page ad pictured above. It was taken out by the Bupati of Teluk Wondama district, Albert Torey. He’s apologising to the graduates of a local institute of higher education for calling them all “gutter-snipes” (more specifically, he said they had crawled out of the Konto river, a stinking, garbage-strewn drainage canal in the West Papua provincial capital of Manokwari). His comment was apparently prompted by his disgust with his running-mate, the Vice Bupati, who is a graduate of the school. The Vice-Bupati ran the shop in Teluk Wondama for the eight months that the good Mr. Torey spent in rehab for drug use –he and his wife were caught taking meta-amphetamines last April. According to local journalists I happened to gossip with in a cafe in Manokwari, Mr Torey (now comfortably back in office) is snarky because his deputy did such a good job when he was away. Nothing like a bit of good governance to make your superiors uncomfortable.

The college was so upset by the gutter-snipe comment that it threatened to sue for defamation unless the Bupati printed an apology. This is a slightly more grown-up way of dealing with conflict than reaching for the bows and arrows, but it still smacks of kids fighting in the sand-pit. Needless to say, the constant squabbling and even outright violence that appear to be the hallmark of Papuan politics are a drag on development. As much out of habit as anything, Papuan voters still tend to blame development failures on the wicked government in Jakarta. But sooner or later they are going to have to take a closer look at their own leaders, and indeed their own behaviour, and ask themselves what role they play in holding back development in one of Asia’s richest territories.

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Which is worse: HIV or corruption?

Indonesian poster declaring war on corruption, drugs and HIV
West Papua will lead the fight against corruption, drugs, and HIV/AIDS

After another giant geographic leap (roughly the equivalent of London to Tehran) I find myself in Manokwari, West Papua. Tanah Papua, Indonesia’s eastern extremity, has the country’s highest rates of HIV, and also its highest levels of stigma. Which makes me wonder who came up with this commitment, made on an ageing poster that has pride of place outside the provincial Governor’s office. It declares:

The West Papua government will lead the fight against:

    KKN (Corruption, Collusion and Nepotism)
    Narcotics and illegal drugs

Though hopeful donors have been pushing voluntary testing and counselling clinics on Papua for years, all the clinics I’ve visited in the last week report that the truly voluntary “I’ll just go along and see whether I’m infected” walk-in client is rare. Most are referred to the clinics by health staff who see signs and symptoms of AIDS — often, in other words, after people have been walking around with HIV for a decade or so. Why don’t more people want to get tested? Perhaps in part because we still tell people AIDS can’t be cured. But also because we are equating HIV with distinctly undesirable things like corruption and illegal drugs. It brings us back to the eternal prevention dilemma. We want people to think HIV is undesirable, because we want them to protect themselves from infection. But we also want to stop treating it like some horrid plague which deserves to be feared (and financed) more than any other inconvenient, chronic, treatable disease.

If you’ve been reading this blog much, you’ll have gathered that the parallel with corruption is not actually so far off for Indonesia, in that corruption is also an undesirable, inconvenient and chronic disease. At least HIV is treatable.

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Headhunters stand up against religious thuggery

A new mosque being built in the centre of Ambon, a Christian-majority city that often sees outbreaks of religious violence
A new mosque being built in the centre of Ambon, a Christian-majority city that often sees outbreaks of religious violence

One of the mysteries of life in Indonesia is how the government and the security forces allow absolute chaos, sometimes even mass murder, to develop in totally predictable ways. As groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam or FPI in Indonesian) move around the country beating up hookers and inciting violence against non-Moslems, the President and his ministers play Three Monkeys — see no evil, hear no evil, and therefore never have to speak about any evil. Their dereliction of duty is such that the Dayak tribe in Kalimantan has finally taken matters into its own hands, taking over the airport’s runway to prevent FPI leaders getting off a plane to sow their poison. (As an aside, the manager of a large nightclub in north Jakarta told me a while ago that she pays the FPI substantial “protection” money.They’ve exchanged their leather jackets for white robes, she said, but it’s the same old thugs.)

Lest we forget: way back in 1999, thousands of frenzied young men from the overcrowded Islamic heartland of East Java shipped out to predominantly Christian Ambon to support their brothers in a largely trumped-up fight about supposed religious insults. This group, known as Laskar Jihad, something of a sister organisation to FPI, did not hide their intentions and they apparently didn’t need to; some of the boatloads of rabid jihadis were waved off by government ministers keen to boost their ratings with Moslem voters. The result was a three year pogrom which spread across the eastern province of Maluku, in which 9,000 people are thought to have died. Communities were torn apart, previously mixed areas were taken over by a single religious group, and the was a spate of symbolic dick-wagging, expressed mostly through religious architecture, that persists to this day. The photo above is of a gargantuan mosque being built in the very heart of formerly Christian Ambon; huge churches are springing too, though only in subsections of the city where Christians have kept their strongholds.

The conflict in Maluku was shut down after 9/11, as international tolerance for religious (and particularly Islamic) extremism fell well below zero. This rather suggests that if the security forces did want to prevent these conflicts, which tend to be massively lucrative for the police and the army, they could. And indeed there’s some evidence that their swift action when I was in the region in November/December pre-empted a potentially bloody Christmas. But the scars of the conflict in Maluku are still deeply felt. Kalimantan, too, has its scars; at about the time Laskar Jihad was wreaking havoc in Maluku, the Dyaks, a tribe known in part for their propensity to cut the heads off their enemies, were in bloody battle with settlers from Madura. Their refusal to host the bigwigs of FPI suggests they’d like to pre-empt more unnecessary conflict. FPI is not Laskar Jihad — the latter supposedly disbanded after the Bali bombings in 2002. But its leaders were inciting FPI members to violent action in Maluku as recently as last September. “We’ve issued an edict to all FPI members throughout the nation to get ready to leave for Ambon to defend Moslems” the FPI’s Secretary General Muhammad Shabri Lubishe told the Voice of al-Islam website. (The story rated 236 Facebook “Likes”.)

Some commentators see the Dayak’s action as a turning point in Indonesia’s tolerance for groups that provoke violence. I’m not so sure. When the middle class intellectuals of Jakarta drew strength from the Dayaks and staged a protest against FPI in central Jakarta, the police turned pussy. They asked protesters to disband because they had reports that FPI were on the way and they couldn’t guarantee the safety of protesters. The response of Indonesia’s spineless president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is even less encouraging. “Why should others be allowed to carry out their activities while our brothers in the FPI are forbidden?,” he asked journalists at a press conference. Because it’s a thuggish organisation which burns down buildings and injures and kills individuals to stop them doing completely legal things such as selling alcohol and running nightclubs, perhaps?

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