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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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The bottom line for decentralisation in Indonesia

A banner demands a new Indonesian district, "At All Costs"

Photo: Melanie Wood

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.]

2 comments to The bottom line for decentralisation in Indonesia

  • If Jakarta/Java is self-centred and self-interested, given the opportunity rascals in the periphery will be tempted to take care of themselves.

    (Looking for the publication date of the book :))

  • Mauricio

    In the grand sweep of history, this Indonesia is an great and very recent anomaly for never have the territories that now comprise it, nationalist indoctrination notwithstanding, ever been so tightly bound together. In the grand sweep of history, the anomaly is not dispersion. The anomaly is Indonesia itself.

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