Report from Indonesia

what newspapers and tv don't tell you...

by Dr. Peggy Reeves Sanday
Professor of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania

October, 1998


With a passion I had never heard in his voice, Hok, my Chinese hairdresser of many years said: "Oh Bu, write about how it's safe here, not like CNN says, people starving, looting, and robbing. We are losing tourism and investment due to the belief that the situation in Jakarta applies to all of Indonesia." His plea was later echoed in the highland village where I have worked as an anthropologist studying the Minangkabau people nearly every year since l981. "Why does the Voice of America report that the situation in Indonesia is so bad?" one man asked.

I arrived in Padang, the capital city of the province of West Sumatra, Indonesia on July 17 some two months after the May riots in Jakarta brought President Suharto's 35-year regime to a grinding halt.

"The cultural diversity and vastness
of Indonesia as a land and a people
is a factor missing from media reports of
Indonesia's economic and political crisis.
"

Although the plane from Singapore was filled with some thirty international surfers on their way to a newly discovered surfing Mecca off the coast of West Sumatra, Padang was virtually empty of tourists. I was not surprised given the advisory issued by the State Department warning against all travel to Indonesia.

But West Sumatra is far from Jakarta and is located in an agriculturally-rich area where farmers were likely to benefit from the inflationary rise in produce prices causing rioting in the capital. This coupled with the Minangkabau love of social order made me feel safe about traveling there this year for my usual two months of work-vacation. Just to be sure, I called ahead to a few friends to ask about the safety of travel--a Chinese produce trader in the city near the village where I work, a government official in Padang, the provincial capital, and a few other friends.

They all reported the same thing: The situation could not be compared to the problems besetting Jakarta. Yes, there were a few days of demonstrations in Padang but now it was quite safe. Come, they said.

The cultural diversity and vastness of Indonesia as a land and a people is a factor missing from media reports of Indonesia's economic and political crisis. What I found in Padang and throughout Central Sumatra where I traveled without encountering a trace of danger, even in areas where people had demonstrated against government abuses, contradicts most of what I read in the Indonesian and American press. Instead of revolution sponsored by a few from the privileged classes and despair sparking widespread violence, I found people speaking out in the cities and organizing in villages to claim "rights" guaranteed by the Suharto democracy but denied by his corrupt government. People talked about "reformasi damai" (peaceful reform) with an excitement and outspokenness unparalleled in any of my years in Indonesia.

The provincial movement I observed was a continuation of the student movement that brought Suharto down in Jakarta. People said that during the May student demonstrations they clustered around village TVs watching members of their children's generation in action. Padang students occupied the provincial Parliament building. "They climbed up to the roof and sat there," one woman told me incredulously but with apparent delight. "They lived there for one month, just like in Jakarta," she said.

"Unlike journalists constrained by the
headline-a-day mentality, I had
the luxury of spending six weeks
observing the reform movement
as I traveled through Central Sumatra."

In June, villagers started seeking redress for past wrongs at the suggestion of local organizers, some of whom came from Jakarta. Demonstrations were held all over West Sumatra calling on corrupt elected officials to step down. However, this was done peaceably and yielded significant concessions by government officials who for the first time responded to the voice of the people rather than the power brokers of the Suharto regime.

It is not yet known who was responsible for the looting, rioting and rapes in Jakarta, but there is good reason to believe that the destruction came from the landless underclass some of whom were inspired by entrenched military interests supporting Suharto. As we know from other revolutions, chaos is the best argument for a return to military rule.

Unlike journalists constrained by the headline-a-day mentality, I had the luxury of spending six weeks observing the reform movement as I traveled through Central Sumatra (West Sumatra and Riau provinces.) Wherever I went the people I wanted to see (elders and experts in oral tradition) were more often than not engaged in village-wide meetings with government officials or officers of multinational corporations. Interestingly, the goal of these meetings was always the same: seeking or receiving compensation for the seizure of ancestral land by the Suharto regime (in some cases amounting to hundreds of thousands of hectares.)

At one day-long meeting the undercurrent of anger which at times spilled out into long-shouting speeches was muted by the firm hand of the village leader who repeatedly reminded participants that they were to follow the local tradition of discussion and consensus. However this same leader made it clear to representatives of a Taiwanese pulp company that they would pay dearly if nothing was done to compensate the people for the forest lands the company had laid bare with the help of Suharto's government. Afterwards, the Chinese director said to me in exasperation: "I have never had to deal with the people in this way." A sign of the new policy in Jakarta was his presence at the meeting alone, flanked only by two younger employees of his company. Notably absent were the usual government and military officals enforcing the central government's will in return for a share of the profits.

"Whatever happens, the dominant slogan
of the new times -- end collusion,
corruption, and nepotism -- will not go away."

It is too early to tell where the reform movement is headed. It could easily lead to another form of Suharto-inspired oligarchy rather than the grass-roots participatory democracy I observed in Central Sumatra. The dark cloud on the horizon is the inflation causing widespread hunger and hardship for the landless poor and salaried workers. Offsetting this trend and possibly averting national civil war is the new wealth enjoyed by farmers in rice-rich areas such as West Sumatra. Whatever happens, the dominant slogan of the new times -- end collusion, corruption, and nepotism -- will not go away. People want their rightful share in the economic miracle produced by Suharto's policies. Seen from Central Sumatra, Suharto's mistake was not the institutional infrastructure he constructed but the naked greed that permeated the economic-political-military machinery of his New Order.

Peggy Reeves Sanday is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. She spent three months during the summer of l998 traveling in Indonesia and Malaysia.


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