About
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


Contact




Indonesia's iron-fisted seducer takes in the Rothschilds

An ambulace advertising Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto

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.

A tale of two stereotypes: Chinese Indonesians at work

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.

A Chinese-Indonesian worker in a brick factory in Kalimantan

Beyond Brics: A Chinese Indonesian labourer in a brick factory in Kalimantan (Photo: Melanie Wood)