In late 2011, epidemiologist, writer and adventurer Elizabeth Pisani granted herself a sabbatical from the day job and set off to rediscover Indonesia, a country she has wandered, loved and been baffled by for decades. She was on the road and the high seas for a year, covering dozens of islands in 27 provinces. This site records photos and musings from that journey and beyond. See more about the project
Despite various moratoria imposed by an ineffectual central government, the Indonesian decentralisation Hydra continues to grow new heads. We’ve got a 34th province now officially on the books (Kalimantan Utara), and the tally of kabupaten/ kota has nudged over the 500 mark. And still, they ask for more. The photo above was taken by Melanie Wood, of Gangs of Indonesia fame, on Wawonii island in Southeast Sulawesi. To the visiting team from the Ministry of the Interior, it declares: We have only one thing to say: [We demand] Konawe Island District, at all costs!
“Harga mati”, literally “dead price” is the end of the road in any negotiation. It is the non-negotiable bottom line, the absolute final offer. When travelling around the more fractious areas of Indonesia (Aceh, Papua, even Maluku) one most often sees it on a green billboard outside a military installation:
NKRI Harga Mati!
NKRI is shorthand for Negara Kesatuan Republik Indonesia, so the slogan translates roughly as “A Unitary Indonesia: Non-negotiable!” I find it deeply ironic that the “Harga Mati” ultimatum is being used by local politicians in a call to pick apart of the fabric of the state, to atomise it into ever smaller units, each more and more concerned with its own primordial obsessions. Right now, Wawonii if part of Kabupaten Konowe, which boasts fewer than 250,000 souls. That tiny population already has its own arm of every ministry in the country’s bloated bureaucracy. I didn’t get to Konowe; I got stranded in neighbouring Buton. But if my observations in hundreds of other districts are anything to go by, I’d lay a bet that many of the micro-ministries are staffed by cousins of the Bupati and members of his “TimSes”, the team that successfully brought him through the election. Is it really a good idea to recreate each of those little centres of patronage for the fewer than 30,000 residents, of Wawonii? There would probably be a beige uniform for every single one of them, but how much loyalty would anyone have to NKRI? If Indonesia wants to survive as a Unitary state, it’s going to have to stop behaving like an amoeba.
[Since we’re on the subject of bottom lines, this is mine: I have come to the end of my travels and now have to sit down and write a book, at the rate of about a chapter a week. So no more Portraits for a little while.]
The failure was highlighted in the new UNAIDS report on the state of the epidemic. They estimate that the rate of new HIV infections in 2011 was more than 25% higher in Indonesia than it had been a decade earlier. That raises some questions for me: is an increase of more than 25% in HIV incidence (i.e. new infections) over 10 years really so shocking? Is the rate of new infections in Indonesia still increasing today? How do we know?
1) How shocking is an increase of 25%?
It rather depends on what the original rate was. The fact is, Indonesia had virtually no HIV epidemic in 2001, except in drug injectors and waria sex workers. In other words, the baseline rate of new infections in the largest risk populations (female and male sex workers, their regular clients, and gay men) was extremely low. If you go from four new cases a year to five new cases a year you increase by 25% but add only one new infection. If a high prevalence country goes from 10,000 incident cases to 11,000 cases, it has increased by just ten percent but added 1000 new cases. Which is the bigger prevention failure? I’m not saying that HIV prevention in Indonesia is a great success story; quite the reverse (see below). I’m just reminding people to beware of relative measures.
2) and 3) Is the rate of new infections in Indonesia still increasing now? How do we know?
The fact is, we don’t. Indonesia, which in the early 2000s built up quite a strong surveillance system, has seen that system break down rather badly, in part because of the effects of decentralisation and in-fighting between government departments which means that people who should be running the system are busy squabbling over project funding, and in part because of the small-mindedness of some of the donor-funded NGOs, who cared more about measuring their own little efforts and sucking up to their own pet partners in government than about supporting strong and transparent national systems. We can’t measure new infections directly, so incidence estimates are based on models that use information about overall infection rates (prevalence) from several years for several different population groups, together with information on risk behaviour, in some case. I’m frankly surprised that UNAIDS even published an incidence estimate for Indonesia, given the shockingly poor quality of the data available in the last 5 years. I note that the shied away from giving estimates for many of the other large countries with similarly diverse epidemics and patchy data: Brazil, China and Russia.
That HIV prevention failed in Indonesia is indisputable. The failure was totally unnecessary, but sadly inevitable given the choices the country and its “development partners” made. When infection rates were still low we measured very high levels of risk behaviour in key groups. We did very little about it, and what we did was more often driven by institutional needs and development fashion than by the needs of the people at risk. We kept measuring risk and infection and saw that risk was not falling and infection was rising. We spent lots of time and energy getting more money, then threw the money at the same failed approaches (including, in the most iniquitous example, treating people’s STIs with drugs we knew didn’t work because the Ministry of Health, the WHO, the drug companies and their various cronies couldn’t get their shit together to change the outdated national guidelines on treatment).
If what data we have are to be even remotely believed, there does appear to have been some success reducing new infection rates among drug injectors. But by 2009, three years into Nafsiah Mboi’s tenure as head of the KPA, Indonesia had sucked 60 million dollars into its HIV coffers, for that year alone. How much of that was spent on HIV prevention for gay men, a sizeable group in whom infection rates had rocketed from under 3% in Jakarta when I did the first study in 2002 to over 8% in 2007? A princely US$ 23,000. It’s not at all shocking that HIV prevention doesn’t work if you are simply not doing it. Or if you are doing the kind of thing Indonesia is mostly doing, pictured above. The poster reads: “Don’t ruin your life for just a moment’s pleasure. HIV/AIDS. You can get it, you can prevent it.” Does it tell you HOW you can get it, HOW you can prevent it? No. And there are even worse examples out there.
Here’s something that I found shocking: UNAIDS chief Michel Sidebe was in Jakarta just a couple of months ago. What did he talk about? Not the gay men, junkies, waria, rent boys and clients of hookers that make up four fifths of the Indonesian epidemic (the majority of other cases being in female sex wokers). Or at least not according to newspaper reports of his visit. No, he talked about the importance of protecting innocent women and babies through sexual education for young people, most of whom are at practically zero risk. (Reminder, you can’t get HIV by having sex, even unprotected sex. You can only get HIV by having unprotected sex with an infected person. As long as they stay away from the trade, most young heterosexuals in Indonesia can have as much sex as they like without risk of HIV infection.)
The highest UN official for HIV comes to Indonesia and stresses the importance of prevention for people who are not at risk, and Ibu Naf wonders why infections continue to rise in the groups that are at risk. Please deh! Someone should write a book about this.
The US elections, taking place as I write, have not been much on the radar screens in the parts of Indonesia I’ve been in lately. Unlike the Indonesian elections, which are not due until 2014. Dashing out in front of the pack is Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto clone who is not, actually, a presidential candidate yet, according to his office.
Odd, then, that I stumbled on to two shiny new ambulances parked incongruously outside a Moslem saint’s grave in Lombok last week. Emblazoned on the side, next to a giant portrait of the non-candidate:
“GERINDRA WINS, PRABOWO [IS] PRESIDENT”
On the back, logos of his Gerindra political party, pictures of the local party bosses, and: “FREE”. The ambulances are strategically places in front of the tomb on the one day a year when thousands of pilgrims, mostly farmers, troop around tombs of the nine saints buried around Lombok. I ask one woman why she thinks the ambulances are there. “Prabowo wants to keep us safe,” she says.
No doubt. He has recently topped a national poll as the most popular (non) candidate. His party, Gerindra, is without doubt the best disciplined of Indonesia’s pack of over a dozen. And he is especially popular with people who grow misty-eyed at the mention of Suharto, Prabowo’s former father-in-law. The English cliche used to describe the man who ruled Indonesia from 1965 to 1999 is “strongman” but misty-eyed Indonesians follow the name of Prabowo with “Tangan Besi” “Iron Fist”, then a series of approving nods.
Prabowo’s particular genius is for leaping into bed with his enemies. In 1996, he trained the thugs that tried to oust Megawati Sukarnoputri from the leadership of the PDI party. In 2004, he ran as Megawati’s Vice Presidential candidate. As a Kopassus commander, Prabowo was a key figure in the battle to suppress what was then called the “Security Disturbing Movement” in Aceh, and is accused of human rights abuses there and in East Timor. Earlier this year, he became one of the former Disturbers’ greatest political supporters, stumping up 50 billion rupiah for the Partai Aceh campaign, according to political rivals. That’s five million dollars; the sum may just be pre-election bad-mouthing, but it is beyond doubt that Prabowo was welcomed as a guest of honour at the inauguration of his former battlefield adversaries. And that he has a special interest in the support of Partai Aceh, which, as a local party with a formidable grass-roots machine, has no candidate of its own to back in 2014.
Prabowo did well, too, to throw his weight (somewhat belatedly) behind Joko Widodo (Jokowi), the media darling who recently became mayor of Jakarta. Having an ally in control of the capital during an election year is no small thing. Oh, and some of the activists he once kidnapped now work for him. He’s a charming man, I remember from days long ago when I shared the odd beer with him. But there’s also something about this conjunction that made me whip my camera out the other day…
Prabowo has the distinction of having been denied a visa by the US, under the provisions of the United Nations Convention against Torture. But he doesn’t often make it into the UK papers. An exception, yesterday, was the report in the venerable Financial Times that Nat Rotshchild is cozying up to the Iron Fist. The story of Bumi plc is too torturous to relate, but Nat’s principle seems to be that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. He wants to buy the Bakrie family out of the floundering coal buisiness, and Aburizal Bakrie is a rival (non) candidate for president. But Nat should be warned: if a coalition including Prabowo does get hold of Bumi, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the King of Cooption try to bring his political rival back in to management.
Earlier this month, almost exactly a year after I started this Indonesian Odyssey, I finally set foot in Java. Except that I didn’t quite. As I clambered off the boat at Semarang before dawn, my feet plunged in to water, calf-deep. Semarang is Java’s third largest port; the Pelni boats were ranged four deep along the wharf. And every one of the thousands of passengers getting off here had to wade to dry land. Because Semarang is sinking.
The city is sinking at about 12 centimetres a year. It’s a story that is by no means unique; 40 percent of the nation’s capital is below sea level, too, and flooding is legendary. But it’s especially sad in the case of Semarang because the Old City, (Kota Lama), which nestles along canals very close to the port, has some of the most gracious colonial-era buildings in the country. Many of them, like the one pictured here with its folorn “Di Jual” (For Sale) sign, are crumbling into wrecks. Soon, they will be unsalvageable. And no-one wants to take them on, though the area could be a tourist attraction to rival Penang’s Georgetown (and Penang is getting well over 3 million visitors a year). To an extent, that might be because Indonesians find little to celebrate in their colonial history. But it’s also because even the most ardent fans of colonial history and architecture don’t want to have to wade to their hotels.
It would be possible to save Kota Lama by enclosing it in a polder, protecting the old buildings inside a giant dike. It is a big project, one in which the local government has shown little interest (not least, perhaps, because the Mayor is currently high and dry serving a 1.5 year term for corruption). Encouragingly, a group of local citizens, led by the Oen Semarang Foundation, are now taking matters into their own hands and trying to preserve the city while there’s still something to preserve. One aim is to get the city on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
After many months on the high seas and highways of Indonesia I’ve finally made it into the Javanese heartland, and I’m in shock. The cause of my shock is, principally, shock absorbers: those things that I had assumed had been rattled out of every bus in the archipelago. The bus on the left is one I took earlier this month between Simitau and Putussibau through uninterrupted hours of oil palm in West Kalimantan. But it could have been virtually any bus I have taken over the last year. (The driver, squatting under his rust-bucket for unscheduled maintenance, is fitting a cleaner oil filter with the help of a screw driver and a flattened out Red Bull tin. Which allowed me to go and do some maintenance behind a bush.) The bus on the right is one I took last week, along Java’s southern highway. Not only does it have shock absorbers, it has free juice and buns, air conditioning and flat screen movies. It stops in special rest stations with rows and rows of sparklingly clean loos.
I could (and will) write at some length about the disparities between Java and the rest of Indonesia. But for now I think the stats are enough:
Ouch! Very ouch.
Bruise? What's a bruise?
On the other hand, the flat screen TVs on the Java bus play those really annoying “innocent people being surprised by stupid gags” videos, on a loop. Where as in Kalimantan, I got to spend my 10 hours contemplating the special positioning of the windscreen sticker montage. The implication, obviously, is that the Father of the Nation had public health on the brain…
True Fans in Indonesia flash Manchester United credit cards
The first thing any Indonesian asks a stray foreigner, before they even get to age, marital status or the product of one’s ovaries, is: “Dari mana?” Where are you from? And the first thing they say when I say “England” is: “Wah! Manchester United!” (Occasional variant: “Wah! David Beckham!”) The second thing they will say is: “I wish we’d been colonized by the Brits, not the Dutch.” This is especially true in areas which border Malaysia, such as West Kalimantan where I’ve spent the last couple of weeks. Malaysia is the go-to example for the assertion that former British colonies are more “maju”, more developed, than those colonised by the Dutch. Certainly it’s a major source of employment for poorer Indonesians from all over the archipelago.
When I ask what the difference was between the two colonial powers, I almost always get the same answer: the Brits educated the ‘natives’ in their colonies, whereas “the Dutch just wanted to keep us all stupid”. Obviously, this is a vast and complex topic with many truths, half truths and rewritings of truths alongside some blatant errors of fact. But it certainly seems that Malaysia had a stronger educational infrastructure at independence than Indonesia did, and the gap has widened radically since. So I was quite surprised to read in the Jakarta Globe that an Indonesian parliamentarian is calling for a return to the Dutch colonial educational system. When they got around to providing any education at all, the Dutch circumscribed knowledge quite tightly. Essentially, they taught just enough to turn ‘educated’ Indonesians into clerks and (very) minor civil servants. But former comedian Dedi Gumelar approves of this; he particularly endorses a proposal by the Ministry of Education to drop the teaching of science and social science at the primary level, the age at which children’s curiousity and excitement about the world around them is most pronounced, the age upon which the foundations of future learning are built.
“Let our education produce a civilized society, not just physicists and mathematical geniuses,” he said. “Let’s understand the values of humanity. That is the core of education.”
Dedi said Indonesia should go back to the education system adopted during Dutch colonial rule and shortly after independence, when elementary school students were only taught basic education. “… The ministry said that the new curriculum would emphasize basic mathematics, the Indonesian language, religious studies and patriotism.
In my (prosaic, English) mind, religion and the values of humanity are things you learn at home. Maths, science, geography, history are things you learn at school. Though as I’ve said before it’s pretty questionable how much Indonesian kids outside the larger towns ever learn at school. I have to wonder about the Ministry of Education’s assertion that kids should have less schooling. In theory, primary school kids are in the classroom from seven in the morning until noon. But when I went to help out for a day in a school up a tributary of the Kapuas Hulu river in the forests-cum-rubber-plantations of Indonesian Borneo last week, the teacher who had the key to the office didn’t show up until 7.30 (and teaching can’t start until the principal’s office in unlocked because…. well, Because). Two of the other three teachers who were between them responsible for six grades of primary school and two of secondary school drifted in somewhere closer to 9.00. Then all four teachers set the children tasks and retired to smoke and drink toxic orange drinks in the staff room. Dispiritingly, the kids were sometimes asked to copy out multiple choice questions, including all the wrong answers, from their text books into their note books. By 11.30, exhausted by what passes for teaching in rural Indonesia, the educators told most of the classes that they could go home.
It’s lucky that village kids in Indonesia are obsessed with football rather than cricket. Their maths is just about up to keeping score in single figures, but I sometimes wonder if they’d be able to go much further. As for understanding how a top sportsman’s body functions, well, who would be interested in that when they could be learning patriotism?
I arrived back in Indonesia just in time to see Jakarta vote for its Governor. It’s not a small job, wrestling some sanity into a city that crushes nine million official souls into its alleys, backstreets and blossoming apartment complexes, swelling to nearly 18 million on work days. The election was hotly contested. I witnessed the voting first outside the official Governor’s residence, in rich and (relatively) leafy Menteng. Well-coiffed women in their high day and holiday batik knocked back free bottled water and fruit as they waited to vote in a polling station bedecked with top-lit satin. Then I went 15 minutes down the road to the tenements of Tanah Tinggi. There, plastic tarps kept the sun off the ballot boxes, and people slopped around in T-shirts and sandals, waiting to hear their city’s fate.
The second-round fight was between the incumbent governor Fauzi Bowo (Foke to his friends) and the mayor of the central Java town of Solo Joko Widodo (aka Jokowi). The latter was paired with Ahok, an ethnic Chinese politician from the Western Indonesian island of Belitung. Both of the challengers are known for their pro-poor policies. Yet as I wandered the grubby, syringe-strewn alleys of Tanah Tinggi, I found hostility for the new-comers, support for the incumbent. What has Foke (a senior official in the Jakarta administration for nearly two decades and mayor for the last five years) done for you? I ask a woman who is bathing her child in the central gutter between two overcrowded tenements. “Ya, OK, not much. But we can’t let the Chinese take over our city”. In the nail-biting vote count I witnessed in Polling Station 12, Tanah Tinggi, Jokowi won by just 3 votes, 98 to 95; elsewhere in Tanah Tinggi Foke won handily. In TPS 24 in Menteng, outside Foke’s house, Jokowi crushed the incumbent by 226 votes to 59. The rich, who don’t need more than they have, vote for change. The city’s poorest have low expectations; it now seems they’d rather stay poor than take a punt on someone who will team up with the “Chinese”. It’s a mark of the maturity of Jakarta’s electorate that so few of its members were swayed by the nakedly Xenophobic campaigning of the Foke team.
I had cause to think of this again the other day as I wandered around Singkawang, a Chinese-majority city (maybe Indonesia’s ONLY Chinese-majority city) in West Kalimantan that happened to have elections on the same day. There, squabbling candidates managed to split the Chinese vote three ways, leaving the single indigenous Malay candidate, a Moslem, with the mayor’s post. Racial solidarity doesn’t go all that far, it seems. But nor do racial stereotypes. The assumption in much of Indonesia is that all ethnic Chinese Indonesians are business people who float near the top of any given town’s financial strata. In Singkawang, I floated in to a brick factory where men and women were stamping out clay bricks using simple wooden moulds. How much did they earn? Sixty rupiah per brick. And how many bricks could they make in a day? Oh, 300, said one woman proudly. Another woman shook her hair in disgust. “Me, I can make 400”. That puts these brick workers on something around two dollars a day, the same as the lepers of South Sulawesi earn, even though the bricks here are better quality and sell for 50% more. Every single one of the workers in the factory was ethnic Chinese.
Beyond Brics: A Chinese Indonesian labourer in a brick factory in Kalimantan (Photo: Melanie Wood)
“Use good and correct Indonesian” urges this placard. Though perhaps not overseas.
In the windswept west of Ireland, I’m struggling with notebooks written in “Bahasa Gado Gado” — a mixture of English and Indonesian which at times catches me by surprise. This bit, for example: “Local rich people count their capital in hewan, dan dengan ratusan ekor pun tidak bisa beli semen”. Which translates as: “Local rich people count their capital in cattle, and even with hundreds of cattle you can’t buy semen.” Oh wait, no, you can’t buy cement.
The moment of confusion when reading my own notes explains why Semen Gresik, a large Indonesian cement producer that wants to buff up its image internationally, is planning to change its name. That shows that the country is beginning to think more about its place on the world stage, beginning to consider how outsiders perceive it. This is so important that even Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has signed off on the new name, according to the Jakarta Globe.
And what’s the new name? Drumroll, please: Semen Indonesia. You couldn’t make it up, could you?
I am pleased to note that this gem is deemed worthy of Unspun’s coveted Shit-for-Brains award. A gold medal to the marketing team, please.
This Reuters photo (oddly branded by Merdeka) shows what Indonesian athletes wear under their sarongs
The day before the Olympics began, I ate at a warung nasi Padang hidden at the end of a grubby corridor on the upper floor of a central London shopping mall. Opposite us, a canny Chinese stall-holder had stocked up on flags that visitors could buy to wave around in enthusiastic support of their athletes. Ethiopia, the US, Italy, Cameroon: they were all there. But no Indonesia. Sold out, perhaps? No, said Firdaus who runs the warung; they never had any Indonesian flags. We resolved the situation by buying a Dutch flag and cutting off the blue stripe at the top, but it wasn’t really the same.
Then I went to watch the opening ceremony at Victoria Park, in East London. There were several thousand people there, determined to stay through the Parade of Nations for the treat of the fireworks, which we’d be able to see bursting up from the stadium just a mile or so away. East London is one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world, and as each nation was announced, a clutch of people would jump up from the crowd, dance up and down, wave their flags. Comoros: yaaaaaaay! Fiji: “woooohooooooo!” Indonesia: only me, feeling a bit of a fraud. I didn’t have to cheer for long. With just 22 athletes, not even one per province, the Indonesian team was gone in the blink of an eye.
And as for the games themselves… We’ll pass over the B word, and just note that as of today, August 4th, Indonesia ranks 4th in population in the world but 50th in Olympic medals, with just one silver and one bronze under its belt. Is it any consolation that it puts Indonesia just one bronze behind India, the country that ranks number 2 in population and that is also pants at sports? China and the US are 1/2 and 3/1 in population/medals respectively. There are of course lots of efforts to look at the data other ways: adjusting for population size, number of athletes in London, GDP etc. The Financial Times has very nerdily adjusted for all these factors at once, and concluded that Indonesia is only doing half as well as it should be. Which is perhaps fair enough, since we’re only waving two thirds of a [Dutch] flag in encouragement.
I often wonder why gloriously rich, diverse, self-confident Indonesia punches so far below its potential weight on the world stage. Why weren’t Indonesian flags on sale? Why weren’t there more Indonesians mucking in with the rest of East London to watch the opening ceremony? I feel the answer has something to do with self-sufficiency, a sense that the country has nothing to prove to the outside world, that it’s content with its own little warung of possibilities. But I’d like to know what real Indonesians think.
Last month, at the Makassar Writers’ Festival, I had the great privilege of meeting one of the giants of modern Indonesian literature, Ahmad Tohari. His triolgy Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, was for years censored by its Indonesian publishers Gramedia: they removed a large chunk of writing about the killings of suspected Communist sympathisers by government troups in the mid-1960s. It was only after the book was translated in full as The Dancer by the fabulous Lontar Foundation that Gramedia dared to restore the gory details of the original. Tohari said he was especially pleased that a film based on the book, Sang Penari, included scenes of the killings. But such films are few and far between.
Though the theme of the writers’ festival was “Visiting the Memories”, it is remarkable how few Indonesian writers, film-makers, artists have dedicated themselves to trying to excavate, explore or explain the cataclysm of violence that exploded across Sumatra, Java and Bali (and spattered other islands, too) in the mid-1960s. Half a million mothers and sons, fathers, schoolteachers, best friends, lovers slaughtered in just a few months, and all in my own lifetime. Yet no-one in Indonesia talks about it, and most people outside Indonesia don’t even know about it.
I had cause to think about this again yesterday, as I watch the mesmerising film “Nostalgia for the Light”, by Chilean director Patricio Guzman. The philosophical-poem-in-a-film is a meditation on that country’s own amnesia about the even more recent killings of the Pinochet era. In the vast, empty Atacama desert, however, there are still women scratching around for the remains of people they loved and lost to the political madness. And people like Guzman still question the forgetting. I don’t see that quest in Indonesia. Is it because pragmatic Indonesians feel there is no quarter in scratching at old wounds until they seep and get infected? Is it because Indonesia’s impossible fecundity covers over remains and memories so quickly, recycling them into the growth of a new society in a way that Chile’s barren dryness doesn’t? Or is it because more ordinary Indonesians were involved in the slaughter, which is said often to have boiled down to a settling of scores between stroppy neighbours or jealous lovers? We’ll never know, but I’m surprised that more people aren’t asking the question.