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


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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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Take the Money Politics and run

A poster in Aceh, Indonesia warns that selling votes leads to corruption

Stop Money Politic...! This poster from the elections commission in East Aceh, Indonesia, has the thought bubble: "Won't he have to use corruption to get back the money he's spent?"

It’s local election season in many areas of Indonesia. That means posters of well-fed used car salesmen promising vaguely to fight corruption and enrich the “rakyat”, the majority of Indonesians who live from day to day or month to month. It also means that towns and villages are filled with “Tim Sukses” — swarms of volunteers who try to get the vote out for their candidate, often with the help of envelopes of cash.

Here’s my question: why does money politics work? I put the question in a slightly more direct form to someone in Aceh who was cross because she’d been offered only 100,000 rupiah — less than US$ 11 — for her vote. “I got that in 2006, and there are more candidates this time, all of them making offers. Why would I give away my vote for just 100,000?” Why, I asked her, didn’t she just take 100,000 from all of the candidates, and then vote the way she would have voted anyway? She looked shocked. “If I’ve promised my vote, I have to deliver my vote!” In other words, money politics works because enough people are honest in their corruption.

As this poster from the election oversight commission in the East Aceh town of Langsa suggests, the vast spending on campaigns, including vote-buying, leads to a cycle of corruption. Elected leaders resort to graft just to get back the cash they’ve spent. Sometimes, the payback is in contracts, not cash. But every which way, it means public money is badly spent. This report from the World Bank gives a pretty clear picture of how it all works. It refers to the last round of elections in Aceh, the rich Westernmost province of Indonesia that teeters perpetually on the brink of independence, but — pace the separatists — there’s virtually nothing in it that is not just as true of the rest of Indonesia.

The exception is wrapped up in the final point about voter behaviour: intimidation. In Aceh, people are talking about “Terror Politics” as well as “Money Politics”. Last week I made a giant leap from the tuna fishing grounds by the Philippine border to the far West of Indonesia to witness the local election campaign in Aceh. I didn’t see it because the elections have been postponed for the third time, in part because the fractious former separatists, unhappy with the current governor who is also a former separatist, have been obliquely threatening unrest if Jakarta doesn’t roll over and do everything it can to undermine the incumbent. I can’t say that it is their camp, Partai Aceh, that was behind the drive-by shooting at the house of the Governor’s Tim Sukses head last week. But party activists in the local coffee shop were not denying it when I reflected that a postponed election increased their chances of getting “their man” — a crusty old soul who has spent much of his adult life in exile in Sweden — elected. If this all sounds complicated, it is (there’s a good run-down of the issues from the International Crisis Group and more in Inside Indonesia).

According to a former candidate for mayor in Langsa, home to the anti-money politics poster pictures above, terror Politics is the order of the day, at least in rural areas. “If you stay in a village for a week before the elections, I guarantee you’ll get a knock on the door in the middle of the night.” In an area where a knock on the door at night meant near certain death for over 15 years, either at the hands of a shadowy group of thugs and rebels who eventually gelled into Partai Aceh, or at the hands of the Indonesian army that fought to suppress them, it’s pretty persuasive. Even more persuasive, perhaps, than 100,000 rupiah.

Ceremonial confusion: personality, politics and parties in Indonesia's fiefdoms

It’s party season here in Weda, a newly-bustling town on the east coast of Halmahera island. There are parties and Parties, and the confusion of the two are a pretty good illustration of life in Indonesia’s districts, which are often run very much as personal fiefdoms of the Bupati, or regent.

The Bupati is the elected head of the local government. He (it usually is a he) runs an executive that is supposedly held to account by the local parliament, the DPRD. But the Bupati is usually also the local head of the strongest political Party, which means he controls the fortunes of many parliamentarians — that slightly cramps their syle in holding him to account, then. He’s also often the largest client for one of Indonesia’s most important local industries, the printers of giant banners. The Bupati planting trees, the Bupati eating local staple foods, the Bupati shaking hands with the President. And of course, the Bupati in the colours of his political Party.

Here in Halamahera Tenggah, that colour is red. The Bupati, now entering the fifth and final year of his first term, belongs to PDIP, the Party headed by former President Megawati Soekarnoputri. I happen to arrive on Sunday, PDIP’s birthday. The town is painted red, quite literally. And giant banners hang from every lamppost, flags flutter high above the mosque, the funfair, the marketplace, even the office of the rival Democrat Party. And by early afternoon, virtually all of Weda’s residents are also wearing red – mostly polo shirts declaring their fervent support for Al Yasin Ali, aka Aba Acim. They flood onto the streets, following a (surprisingly good) marching band twirling the red flags of the PDIP, ahead of a motorcade of honking, screeching, gyrating citizens. They shout for the re-election of the man who brought the seat of local government to this, his home town, four years ago. With his rule came paved roads, better transport to other areas of the province, better phone coverage, and some very flash new government buildings, all kept afloat on a sea of cash the like of which this former backwater has never seen. As they go past his house the local citizenry fight to shake his hand; he grins and grips, dispensing general bonhomie. Elsewhere in the district he is said to give out minimg contracts illegally, to violate the zoning regulations made by his own administration and to turn a blind eye to blatantly illegal logging. But let’s not ruin the mood.

This Party party is squeezed between three others. On Friday and Saturday, the Bupati spent “billions” of rupiah (according to the local papers) hosting some 7,000 guests at the back-to-back weddings of two of his daughters. I missed those parties, but what I saw of the left-overs alone would keep some of the islands I’ve visited fed for several weeks. Around the huge tented area where the ceremonies took place are more giant banners — very much larger than life sized photos of the happy couples, but also photos of the Bupati and his wife on holiday, the Bupati in his uniform of office, the Bupati with a list of the achievements of his first four years in office. All, needless to say, topped with huge PDIP Party banners hoisted in preparation for Sunday’s Party party. The fact that the wedding ceremonies revived some of the lost customs of the district surely justified subsidising them with public funds.

Monday, quite by chance (??), was the fourth birthday of the move of the local government to Weda. So another whole round of ceremonies, presided over by the Bupati. During which, along with traditional dances, a reading of Pancasila (the five principles upon which the Indonesian state is supposed to be based), a short history of the district and more marching bands, we heard at least four separate demands that we support the Bupati for a further 5 year term in elections due mid-year. Each in the local language, Indonesian and (GoogleTranslate) English (about which they might have learned their lesson from the recent Malaysia experience). But wait, this is a state occasion, funded out of the public purse, not a political rally. Or is it?

In this part of Indonesia, small Sultanates for centuries enjoyed large spheres of influence. The present system is an advance in that it allows people to choose their Sultans. But patterns of patronage, the confusion of government, Party and private interests and the very likely confusion of government, Party and private funds show that personal fiefdoms still dominate government in Indonesia.