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
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?
Nutmeg drying in the Banda islands. This low-grade nutmeg is known as BWP: "broken, wormy and punky".
I welcomed 2012 while in the Banda islands, moderately famous because just one of the nine tiny islands of this isolated group was once thought to be a fair exchange for Manhattan, something I wrote about while a Reuters correspondent in these parts two decades ago. The differing fortunes of the two islands — the one still rich in nutmeg, the other now just plain rich — inspired Michael Schuman to give us this homily of protest at protectionism. He makes a sensible enough point; economies need to anticipate tomorrow’s needs rather than try to entrench today’s. Could the Dutch have anticipated that the perfidious Brits would smuggle nutmeg over to the similarly volcanic, sea-side location of Grenada and break the Dutch monopoly over the spice trade that way? Probably, yes. Could they have anticipated that the market for nutmeg would implode in large part because people got better at preserving ice and chilling food, and thus had less need for preservatives such as nutmeg? Maybe. Did they give a damn about the long-term prospects of the crop, or indeed the local population? The answer to the second part of the question is obvious: since the Dutch slaughtered most of the indigenous population in order to establish the monopoly, they were unlikely to be overly concerned with the continuing welfare of the slaves they imported to work the nutmeg plantations. Whether they cared about the price of nutmeg in the long term is harder to guess at. Nutmeg provided a nice little bonanza for a while, but it was the vast sugar plantations of Java and rubber plantations of Sumatra that underwrote most of the development of the Netherlands, now one of the world’s more generous welfare states. Though by Michael Schuman’s standards the nutmeg growing islands of Indonesia are poor, it’s perhaps worth noting that, with the crop requiring virtually no work and nutmeg now fetching US$12.00 a kilo and the mace that covers it US$ 27.00 a kilo, the nutmeg planters of Banda are the envy of many people on other small, far-flung islands in Indonesia.
I was interested to find a staunch defender of the Dutch in the form of the British naturalist Alfred Wallace — some say the true originator of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution. Wallace spent 12 years wandering this part of the world killing things: shooting birds and pinning down butterflies mostly, though he did a fair bit of damage to the orang-utan species, too. Writing in the 1850s, long after the Brits were growing nutmeg elsewhere, he claims that the Dutch had a moral duty not only to monopolise nutmeg, but to destroy any excess trees that might raise production and lower the price. His logic is as follows: nutmeg is not a necessary commodity. It is not even used by the natives as a spice. (That’s still more or less true, though they do make some quite good jam out of the fruit that surrounds the nut). So raising the price does not hurt the local population. On the contrary, pushing up the price and putting the gains into state coffers provides a source of income for the state that would otherwise be raised from the local population in taxation. And we all know that taxes do hurt.
It would be a fair argument if the gains did indeed go into state coffers, and if they were indeed used to benefit the people who were doing the picking, peeling, drying, and shelling of nutmeg. If money made from the (admittedly not very onerous) sweat of the Banda islands is used to swell private purses or subsidise the already relatively well-sated needs of people in the Netherlands, on the other hand, or even of people in Java, it’s harder to make the case. It’s a debate which is still immensely relevant today, as Indonesia struggles to divvy up the wealth that geography has distributed so unevenly across its great surface. Of which a great deal more anon…
For the last few weeks, I’ve been in Maluku, formerly known as the Moluccas, famous for spices and inter-religious carnage. The hideous religious riots of 1999-2002 have left a deep scar on this part of the country. Whole communities were uprooted and there was a shift between islands as people who formerly lived perfectly happily with neighbours of another faith consolidated into single-faith blocks.
Needless to say, this makes me furious. I have never understood how people can grow to hate someone else because of who they choose to pray to, any more than I can understand hatred based on who people choose to sleep with. In the spirit of conciliation, therefore, I’m posting evidence that all religions in Maluku are equally adept at really kitsch religious art.
The Moslems in Banda Neira give us these Id-ul-Fitri wishes, complete with Arab style mosque and a Reggae Che Guevarra.
At the Chinese cemetery, also in Banda Neira, we have a breastfeeding lion standing guard over the graves.
Further south in Saumlaki, in the Tanombar islands, virtually every house has some icon or other to offer to the competition. This Jesus Sneezed fresco caught my eye.
I am sad to say that the Protestants have done less to defend their title to kitsch, and I have little to offer on that score. At the risk of being accused of bias, I do think Maluku’s Catholics have made a more than adequate contribution that perhaps makes up for the slackness of the other Christians. This larger-than-lifesized statue commemorating the first Catholic baptisms of head-hunting “savages” in Tanimbar takes some beating.
AIDS prevention poster in Southeastern Maluku, 2011
I have a collection of daft AIDS posters going back years, but I’m glad to say they are getting harder to find. This one, in Saumlaki, the main town in the remote Tanimbar islands, was thus a great find. The headline reads: AIDS: there’s not yet any cure! On the right is this helpful information:
You can’t avoid it by:
Choosing your sex partners on the basis of their appearance
Drinking/injecting antibiotics, alcohol, or herbal medicine before and after having sex
Washing your sex organs after having sex
Some, including the South African president Thabo Mbeki Jacob Zuma* and uber-philanthropist Bill Gates would take issue with the last point. I, of course, would take partial issue with the second — you can avoid AIDS by taking medicine, you just can’t avoid HIV that way. But the most egregious part of this ad is the illustration.The population of Tanimbar is largely Melanesian. Overwhelmingly the highest HIV risk for them is the sex they might have on their frequent money-spinning travels to neighbouring Papua. Indonesian Papau, rich in minerals, forests and much else, is swimming in cash. It is also swimming in HIV; it’s epidemic looks more like East Africa 15 years ago than it does like any other part of Indonesia today. And it is populated not by pointy-nosed tourists with straight blonde hair but with flat-nosed Papuans with crinkly black hair.
Most AIDS posters are pretty useless, in my opinion. But this poster associates HIV with Western tourists slow-dancing under the palm trees — an “other” that most people here will never come across, while saying nothing about commercial sex in high risk areas (Papua, but also with the local transgender (or waria) population). Those are very real risks that many certainly do face, at least if Astuti, one of the latter, is to be believed. She excused herself early from a grilled fish dinner because her phone rang. Not her Blackberry, that’s for friends and family, but her “HP selinkungan” (cheating phone). In Tanimbar from neighbouring Kei for around a year, she hasn’t had a day without clients. And though she has helped distribute condoms and promote testing in other cities around Indonesia (in some of which one transgender sex worker in three is infected with HIV), she’s seen no sign of an HIV prevention programme in Tanimbar. By maintaining the fiction that something is being done about HIV prevention in Tanimbar, this poster is a lot worse than useless. It is actively dangerous.
*(Thanks to Thakhani for correcting my presidential confusion.)
I’ve just spent five days (and five nights) on the deck of a cargo ship travelling between Wini, in West Timor, and the Tanimbar Islands in southern Maluku. As in any five day period, there are good moments and bad. The bad would certainly include the hours when the lads sitting close to me, having been drinking palm wine for several hours, broke out a guitar held together with duct tape and took on the booming karaoke machine, a competitive cacophony of tuneless shrieking. The good would include the early evening hours, when the sun had cooled enough to sit dangling one’s legs over the prow (which is also as far as it is possible to get from the relentless karaoke machine), staring at the rippling sea and beginning, gradually, to get a sense of the enormity, perhaps the impossibility, of Indonesia. The very best moments come when those evening hours are punctuated by dolphins, who have come out to play with the passing ship. After a bit, the sky goes fiery, then dark. On truly exceptional days, a blood-red moon rises out of the depths, paling as it climbs, showering gold across the sea. Drunken singing seems like a small price to pay.