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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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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Indonesia gets investment status, but where's the investment?

Indonesia starts the new year hopefully: it has been upgraded to investment status by one of the rating agencies. It’s no huge surprise; rating agencies tend to think quite short term, and short term, the indicators look good. The Financial Times is enthusiastic about what it calls a “demographic dividend” i.e. lots of young people. “Indonesia’s dependency ratio of workers to retirees is dropping from about 55 percent now to 45 per cent by 2025,” says the pink paper. What looks to the FT like “favourable demographics” looks to me like a collapsed family planning programme that will surely be problematic in the longer term.

But the paper’s David Pilling sees three other sorts of trouble: infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure. To that I would add pandemic corruption and the gaping absence of an independent judiciary, but I can’t disagree with the observation that there has been an underinvestment in ports and power stations. This little video was shot off a cargo boat “docked” at Lirang in Southwestern Maluku, at the sea border with East Timor (the grey land mass in the background of some of the shots is East Timor — a hazard for the users of cell phones because their powerful comms get passing boat passengers so excited about having a signal that we don’t clock that we’re paying international roaming charges). The scramble to get on board is a pretty good illustration of what many people on the remoter islands deal with if they want to go anywhere else, but since goods have to be offloaded in the opposite direction it also shows why petrol sells at more than five times the government-set subsidised price, and why it is so difficult to build up the other sorts of services that people want.

I’d agree, too, that more power stations are needed. I’ve learned that one of the easiest ways to judge the level of “development” of a town is to ask whether it has electricity 24 hours a day. Even when the answer is yes — and in this part of Indonesia it rarely is, below the sub-district (kecamatan) centre level — brown-outs are a norm; the sound of generators is almost as common in the evenings as the buzzing of mosquitos. I’m in two minds, however, about the underinvestment in roads. Building roads is the most palpable and most immediately achievable way for a newly-elected Bupati, the district heads who in this era of regional autonomy wield an immense amount of power, to show that he is delivering “development”. Building roads has lots of other advantages too. It’s an easy way to repay the favours provided by Chinese Indonesian businessmen (most of whom at least dabble in contracting) during the election campaign, not least because road building is easy to dole out: this 5 km stretch for PT Putra Wijaya, that 12 km block for the more generous PT Sinar Jaya. It involves contracting and buying stuff, so the possibility for kickbacks and skimming cash off budgets through overpricing is manifold. And it is endlessly repeatable. I’ve tortured my rented motorbikes over roads that are beginning to crack and subside at the beginning of the newly tarmacked stretch when the trucks are still out dumping asphalt at the far end of the same stretch, just a few kilometers down the road. They may as well have taken a can of black spray-paint to the existing
earth track.

In this age of transparency there’s often a “Papan Proyek”, a project information board, at the site of a new road construction project, so it’s possible to know what the formal budget is. If you added up all the stretches of road under construction in Indonesia, you’d probably get to a respectable sum. The problem is not an underinvestment in roads on paper, it is an underinvestment in well-engineered, sustainable roads in practice.