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


Albinos, dwarves and royalty: the magic of Java

Last month was the 15th anniversary of the coronation of the Sultan of Yogyakarta; here’s a belated tribute. I covered the coronation for Reuters in Indonesia, accompanied by the fabulous photographer Enny Nuraheni. Here are some of her pictures, rescued from the trash.

The dwarves, albinos and albino dwarves that the Sultan keeps at court are supposed to concentrate mystical power around his person. He’s not all mystical though; he is a businessman who once had presidential ambitions and has battled with Jakarta to hold on to the hereditary governorship of the special administrative region of Yogyakarta. He won that battle in 2012, and is now the only non-elected head of a province in the country. When these photos were taken in an earlier, less democratic age, his popularity was unquestionable. I happened to be in town in 2012 when parliament passed the new law allowing the Sultan of Yogyakarta to assume the administrative post of Governor without elections. I met some people who objected to the abrogation of their democratic rights, but even they said they would have voted for him, given the chance.

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An easter treat: Catholic kitsch from around Indonesia

There are just seven million Catholics in Indonesia — a drop in a mainly Moslem ocean. Yet they have managed to make their mark aesthetically, with an astoundingly wide variety of statues, murals, graveyards and churches that range between Kitsch and High Kitsch.

In celebration of Easter, I offer this slideshow of some of my favourites:

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More Moslem than expected: the real surprise of Indonesia's polls

Mosque in Ambon, Indonesia

Commentators on Indonesia’s parliamentary elections have been surprised by the relatively poor performance of front-runners PDIP (see the FT, the Jakarta Post, the Jakarta Globe for examples). But the real surprise is surely the much better than expected showing by Islamic parties.

Islamic parties have seen their share of the vote slide steadily over the years. Just last week, the New York Times predicted that the PPP, the oldest Islamic party, would fail to make the threshold for parliamentary seats (parties need to have 3.5% of the popular vote to take up seats in the national parliament). The QuickCount suggests that in fact, they’ve won close to seven percent of votes. So too has the PKS, a Moslem Brotherhood-style party thought to be irreparably damaged by corruption scandals and the much-shared image of one of its legislators watching porn on his tablet in a plenary session of parliament — not a smart move for someone whose party made the Anti-Pornography bill a political centrepiece. (I note that during this election a PKS candidate in Kalimantan is demanding his bribe money back, complaining that he passed out 23 envelopes containing 150,000 rupiah each to voters in a village where he eventually only got two votes.)

PAN, a moderate Islamic party with strong nationalist tendencies, did better still; the QuickCount currently has them at close to eight percent.

The best performer in the Islamic stable was the PKB, which seems to have raked in over nine percent of votes. This is not, the party insists, because it selected pop singer Rhoma Irama as its presidential candidate. Pundits predicted that fewer than one in five Indonesians would vote for an Islamic party in these elections, but it looks like closer to one in three actually voted religious. Since any party or coalition representing over a quarter of the popular vote or a fifth of seats in parliament can nominate someone to run in July’s presidential elections, the Islamic parties could certainly field a presidential candidate if they were able to agree on one. That seems highly unlikely; one of the reasons there are so many parties in Indonesia is that most are simply vehicles for the egos of individual presidential hopefuls.

I’ve said in the past that the vast majority of Indonesians don’t really want to mix religion with politics. Do yesterday’s results prove me and others wrong? I’m not in Indonesia now, and I can’t get out and talk to people in Sumatra, in Kalimantan, in East Java about how they voted and why. But my strong suspicion is that many people voted for Islamic parties as a protest against the endless bickering of the (predominantly secular) parties who have been locked in an uncomfortable coalition for too many years. The irony is that splitting the vote yet more evenly across the parties, secular and religious, is almost certainly going to lead to more bickering, and more legislative gridlock. Let the horse-trading begin.

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Is Indonesia more democratic than the UK?

Indonesians on election day

Indonesians love to complain about politicians, about parliament, about political parties. But they are much more enthusiastic democrats than citizens of many other nations. More than seven out of ten of Indonesia’s 171 million registered voters showed up at the polls in the last national parliamentary elections in 2009, compared with fewer than two thirds in the UK and a lamentable 40 percent in the US in 2010. Most expect a high turnout in today’s elections, too.

Indonesia is also more generous with its democratic rights. While the UK Supreme Court agreed that it was just fine for the government to deny citizens a voice in how they are governed if they are in jail, Indonesia allows prisoners to vote. Those organising the three voting stations for the 1,025 potential voters inside the Pondok Bambu prison in Jakarta have chosen “Love Indonesia” as a theme for the prison polling stations. They plan to decorate them with bunting, and all the officials will wear batik shirts, the informal national dress. Really, what’s not to love?

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Rediscovering Sumba (and a working slideshow)

I was first invited to take tea with a corpse in Sumba, in southeastern Indonesia, some 23 years ago. It was also in 1991 that I first attended a pasola, a wonderful jousting match which aims to secure a good harvest by spilling human blood. During that visit to Sumba, my friend Enny and I both photographed a boy wearing primary school uniform shorts and the head-dress of a jouster. He was too young to go riding out, but his “don’t mess with me” look advertised his intention to become a warrior to be feared.

In 2011, I found that young warrior again. He’s called Pelipus, he’s now the elected head of his village, and he still has the “don’t mess with me” look. Here’s a slideshow of people I found and re-found on my travels, the photos taken 20 years apart. Much has been said of Indonesia’s headlong rush for modernity but in some places, it seems, not so much has changed over the last two decades years.

I’m hoping to include slideshows like this one in the electronic version of Indonesia Etc. There’s a bit of work still to do on the aesthetics, I think, but you get the idea. Once again, your comments on whether this is worth doing, and your suggestions for improvements if so, are very welcome.

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Sacrifice in Sumba: Indonesia Etc ebook preview

Indonesia Etc goes to the printers this week. That ought to mean I’m done, but I’ve been working on an electronic version of the book that will include embedded video, audio and photos as well as the full text.

Here’s a taster video:

The photos and things won’t get in the way of the text — they’ll be signalled by very analogue icons like this in the margin:

Photo Icon

but they will mean that readers can get closer to the sights and sounds of any scene that appeals. (There’s no smell option: in the case of this account of a week-old corpse and ritual sacrifice that’s maybe not so bad).

It should work on most e-readers with colour capabilities, and it won’t cost any more than the ordinary e-book. But it’s a hell of a lot of work for me, and as you can see from the sample, video editing is a skill I am still wrestling with. Are home-grown videos like this of thing of interest to potential readers? Let me know, please.

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The democratic dividend: Trickle-down corruption in Indonesian elections

Indonesian election poster: Take their money, just don't vote for them

Indonesian election poster: Take their money, just don’t vote for them

Indonesian Presidential candidate Gita Wirjawan is talking up the “democratic dividend”. It’s a pun on the “demographic dividend” so beloved of the foreign analysts who write hubristic reports about Indonesia’s glorious future. This particularly laughable example from McKinsey, mostly based on interviews the then Trade Minister Mr. Wirjawan and his like, pimped the wonders of Indonesia’s demographic dividend just a few months before the economy (and the rupiah) went into a nosedive.

Mr. Wirjawan appears to hope that this year’s elections will give a boost to the economy. And they almost certainly will. Last year, I made a back-of the envelope calculation of the “democratic dividend” at the household level. Everywhere I went, I asked the price of a vote in the seemingly endless loop of elections Indonesians can now participate in. Indonesians are enthusiastic democrats — turnout at the last three presidential elections averaged 82% — and they have plenty of chances to go to the polls. In any given five year cycle, these include, at a minimum, votes for:

President (usually two rounds)
National parliament (DPR)
National regional representatives (DPD)
Provincial Governor
Provincial Parliament
District Head (Bupati or Mayor)
District Parliament
Village Head

Each of these votes can be sold, generally to a number of candidates. The prices vary widely across the country, and appear to be falling as some candidates realise it is more efficient to pay off the electoral commission rather than try and bribe the great multitude of voters. Still, with the exception of one of two local compacts for money-free votes at the village level, I never heard a price lower than 30,000 rupiah (for a provincial parliamentary vote in Java). In some races, such as those for bupati in cash-rich Papua, voters can rake in up to 300,000 from each paying candidate.

Let’s leave out the village elections and any two-round elections, and assume a conservative average of 80,000 per candidate. And let’s assume that people sell their vote to at least three candidates per election. That’s 1,680,000 rupiah per person in any given election cycle, around US$ 145. Not a vast amount, perhaps, but some 187 million Indonesians will be eligible to vote this year (67 million of them for the first time).

So that’s potentially 27 BILLION US dollar’s worth over the next five years, just on vote-buying. Then there’s the T-shirts (what did people in rural Indonesia wear before this wave of democracy, I find myself trying to remember?), the buffalo feasts, the generous donations to mosques and churches; all this just in swag for voters. There’s lots of other spending too: posters and banners and paint-jobs for cars and buildings; column inches in newspapers, and operational expenses for the “TimSes” (the Success Team), payment for paens of praise by the local poet laureate, and very much else, as Ben Bland notes in this nice FT story.

In a much more rigorous analysis than mine, Michael Buehler looked at the Indonesian money supply in years of national elections (2004 and 2009) and compared notes in circulation and bank outflows in the three months before election date with the same measures in non-election years. He found that withdrawals from banks increased three-fold in the three months before the 2009 election, while there was a measurable spike in 100,000 rupiah notes in circulation. In 2004, it was 50,000 rupiah notes that saw the big spike, suggesting that whatever can be bought with a single crisp bill became more expensive between the two elections.

Where is all this money coming from? Well, a lot comes from the personal coffers of the richer candidates, people like Golkar chair Aburizal Bakrie. Redistributing their savings into the pockets of farmers and small-scale entrepreneurs who might put their “democratic dividend” to productive use may be no bad thing. But less well-off candidates borrow against the future: the hope is that they win, and then control access to jobs, projects, political favours and cash which can be used to pay back their donors. But only one candidate can win. The rest are often saddled with huge debts. I met one former candidate in central Java who had failed to get elected to the district parliament for the PDIP party, but who was bankrupted in the attempt. “Our party rules don’t even allow vote-buying,” he said. “But when all the other candidates are doing it, what else can you do?” He now works pumping gas in the local petrol station.

As a former Minister of Trade (and former head of JP Morgan bank in Indonesia), Gita Wirjawan must understand the implications of this trickle-down-corruption better than most. The “democratic dividend” comes at a price,.

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Indonesia vs the UK: who's more cosmopolitain?

An advertisment for Manchester United branded credit cards, for True Fans in Indonesia

True Fans in Indonesia flash Manchester United credit cards

Dari mana? Where are you from? It’s the first question most rural Indonesians ask. To simplify things, I just say England. Twenty years ago, there was only one response: Wah! Inggris! Lady Di! Now, there are two: Wah! Inggris! David Beckham! and Wah! Inggris! Manchester United!

I mentioned this at a discussion in the UK’s House of Lords the other night hosted by the BBC World Service ideas programme, The Forum. A lot of very clever people were discussing how Britain was perceived in the world: Britain stands for Democracy, I heard, for Fair Play, for Tolerance. Odd how everywhere I go, it stands for football and royals.

I mention this because the current issue of Inside Indonesia asks a similar question about Indonesia, but it turns it inside out. Not “What does Indonesia mean to the world?”, more “What does the world mean to Indonesia?” The piece about West Java by Julian Millie is especially worth a read. He describes “cosmopolitan” as a dirty word, demonised in large part by the kyai, preachers in the local Islamic schools.

“Many rural Muslims consider Indonesia’s mainstream culture, with its pronounced western influences, something to be wary of. An increase in consumption-related media has brought with it advertising images showing independent, individualistic lifestyles. These urban images are disconcerting to people trying to live an Islamic lifestyle, and the kyai provides an alternative message.”

I would replace a single word in that analysis, replacing “Islamic” with “Javanese”. Millie is absolutely right that poor, rural Moslems in Java (including the Sundanese in West Java and other communities in Banten) feel threatened by “urban images”. In every other island I visited in travels that took me over 42,000 kilometres round and about Indonesia last year, people complained of corruption, bureaucracy and the slings and arrows of outrageous decentralisation. In Java, the bogeyman of KKN was replaced by “loe loe, gue gue“. The expression — literally “you you, me me” in Jakarta slang — describes the rampant egotism of the Big Durian, the dog-eat-dog culture which has taken over Indonesia’s capital and which is pumped in to small villages in an endless stream of sinetron soap operas. It represents the breakdown not of religious values, but of society itself: the gotong royong, keluarga besar values that are the foundation of life in Java and other islands respectively. It was what everyone in rural Java seemed to fear most: if things go on like this, we’ll be just like Jakarta, loe loe, gue gue.

Mille, the always thought-provoking Gerry Van Klinken, and Sue Ingham all question whether “cosmopolitan” (and the celebration/abhorrence of mall-and-fast-food culture that goes with it) maps on to “Western” in the Indonesian world-view, as well as in the world’s view of Indonesia. As the diversity of articles in this issue of Inside Indonesia attests, it’s a question that can’t be answered, precisely because Indonesia itself is so diverse, so historically cosmopolitan, indeed.

It made me think again about how Brits perceive the way they are perceived. “Wah! Inggris! Demokrasi dan Toleransi!” — it’s something I’ve never heard. But “Manchester United!” That’s a value which is shared by both Indonesians who read Cosmopolitan and Indonesians who burn it.

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Why won't my Indonesian friends watch The Act of Killing?

It’s easy to be snobby about the Oscars, but just sometimes, they put a spotlight on a film that deserves, indeed demands, to be more widely watched. The Act of Killing, for example, which has just been nominated for Best Documentary.

If you are interested in how societies process their own history of mass murder, Josh Oppenheimer’s extraordinary film is a must-see. For more than a year, I have been carrying a copy of the film around on a USB stick. Every time someone suggests watching a move, I whip it out.* Since it has been on quite limited cinema release in Europe and the States, several people have been grateful for the chance to watch aged Indonesian gangsters re-enact the slaughter, in 1965/66, of people accused of being Communists. Oh, and of anyone else they disliked.

Not my Indonesian friends though. Not one of them, either in Indonesia or in Europe, has wanted to watch the film. Few can articulate why not. But I suspect the response of one Balinese friend probably reflects what many people are feeling.

“It is a little bit too heavy for me just watching the clip [on TV]. I think the same feeling is probably prevalent among Balinese where we lost quite big proportion of our population. Some said almost 10%. Everyone in Bali is still carrying the pain now, but not wanting to discuss about it…
My father was a member of the nationalist youth and my mother was a member of the communists. My fathers side supposed to kill everyone in my mother side, but luckily he didn’t because my mother side is also an many times removed extended family members. Nonetheless, we lost more than 20 of our extended family in the village on top of having communist suspect from other areas of Bali delivered to be executed in our village field.

The animosity from that period in my village still run very deep now, and has been fertile ground for political parties to mobilize support. Those who [lost] their member in 65 now have their chances to join any militia and feel powerful. The biggest problem to emerge from the tragedy is probably the deepened mistrust of Balinese against Javanese. We have an expression for 65 that goes: orang minum di Jawa, mabuknya di Bali. [People drink in Java; their drunkenness is in Bali]“

Reviews of the Act of Killing (including from critics I respect greatly such as Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, and Nigel Andrews in the FT) fulminate that the “perpetrators” are still swaggering around unpunished. Would we make such a film about the Nazis? asks Lane. Would the Khmer Rouge show off in the way that the killers in Indonesia still do? asks Andrews. No.

Why not? Well, the Nazis and the KR lost. Suharto, whose army encouraged the slaughter of 1965/66 in Indonesia won, and he won with the perhaps-more-than-tacit support of the United States, then embroiled in its own anti-communist vendetta in Indochina. So no Nuremberg trials, no US government funding for genocide projects and documentation centres like the ones run by Yale law students in Cambodia in the mid-1990s. Indeed quite the opposite. Foreign governments supported Suharto in his efforts to bring stability to previously chaotic Indonesia. And he did bring stability, along with a virulent strain of anti-Communist propaganda which was used for over three decades to justify the military’s domination of, well, just about everything. Even in the post-Suharto era, history books have been burned because they attempted to give a more nuanced view of the events of 1965/66. In 2012, the Attorney General rejected a report on the killings by the Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights. Though they intevrviewed over 300 eye-witnesses, they did not produce enough evidence to justify an official investigation, said the AG (You can read it in Indonesian here and in English here, and judge for yourself.)

On the one hand, many millions of Indonesians, like my Balinese friend, come from families still scarred by the killings in very real ways. On the other hand, the whole population has for more than three decades been force fed a version of history in which heroic patriots protected the nation from wicked Communists. It is not wildly surprising, then, that most Indonesians would not automatically think of the protagonists of The Act of Killing as “perpetrators”. According to the dominant narrative, they don’t deserve punishment any more than the Royal Air Force pilot who dropped bombs on Dresden in World War II deserves to be hunted down and made to pay for his sins. Many younger and better-educated Indonesians are, however, beginning to question that dominant narrative more openly. Indeed in The Act of Killing we watch the best-educated of the killers underline the facts for his fellow-assassins: if we tell the truth, he warns, people will begin to think of us as brutal, more brutal even than the Communists. Blowing away the core myths upon which modern Indonesia is built might bring down the whole house of cards, he implies. The other gangsters are not smart enough to understand the implication; they wave him away.

At the moment, the majority of Indonesians continue to wave away the slaughter of 1965; they’d rather not think about it, let alone talk about it. Though I was at first surprised when my friends refused to watch The Act of Killing, I have begun to think that it is because they are among those who understand the implications of a more thorough reckoning very well. But if the movie wins an Oscar, and I dearly hope it will, it will at least be an unavoidable topic for conversation among plugged-in, urban youngsters in Indonesia. And just maybe, they’ll go home and ask their parents what really happened and stories will begin to be told. Will that be a good thing? Not necessarily: scratching at wounds tends to make them bleed again.

*Note to Josh: It’s piracy, I know; I apologise and I owe you several beers as a result. But there just hasn’t been enough opportunity to see The Act of Killing on screen. I have taken many people to see the film when it has been showing in theatres, though, and I tweet it out whenever I see it’s on, so I hope that makes up for the theft a little bit…

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And the other 215 million Indonesians?


2014 seems to have begun with a burst of excitement about “Indonesia” in the foreign media. BBC Radio 4 this morning ran an excellent analysis of the country’s prospects by economist Jim O’Neill, the bloke that invented the term BRICS to describe the boom economies of the 2000s. He proposes the MINTs for the 2010s (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey), though now he’s going around visiting them all, he seems less sure that they are poised to take over the world. (If the Radio 4 link didn’t work for you, try this one from the World Service)

The Wall Street Journal gives us an ecstatic piece about a new generation of selfless young leaders, and the Financial Times follows up with a profile of one of those leaders, a favourite of mine, the Mayoress of Surabaya Tri Risma Hartini.

But all of this excitement is not actually about “Indonesia” at all. It revolves around the stories of the country’s two biggest urban conglomerations, home to perhaps 35 million people in total. O’Neill sounds almost surprised in Jakarta to find quite such a plush carpeting of golden shopping malls and trendy bars populated by home-owning, English-speaking middle-class yuppies, though he draws a nice contrast with some of their less fortunate colleagues, who face ghastly commutes to jerry-built suburbs, and with the Jakarta residents least often visited by business analysts and economists, the ones who live in the oft-flooded slums. In their optimistic WSJ piece about the new political generation, Ben Otto and Andreas Ismar cite examples from Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya. They collectively ignore what’s going on in the rest of the country, home to another 215 million Indonesians. And the picture there is often very different. That’s true even of other parts of better-educated, highly urbanised Java. It’s lovely to grasp at saviour figures in Indonesian politics (ironic, isn’t it, that current darling Joko Widodo used to be a carpenter?). But for a more representative picture of what the present system is delivering, take a look at Michael Buehler’s mind-boggling mapping of dynastic succession and patronage in local politics.

I’m really sorry that Jim O’Neill spent his whole five-day visit to Indonesia in Jakarta. Had he had the opportunity to travel to other parts of the country, I think he would have come closer to answering the question that underpins his article as well as the WSJ’s piece: will Indonesia ever realise its full potential? What is missing from his otherwise excellent report is any real sense of the constraints imposed on progress by Indonesia’s current political structure, it’s extraordinary level of democratic decentralisation. With the probable exception of Finance Minister Chatib Basri, even most of the ruling and business elite that O’Neill talked to in Jakarta has no real grasp of how very little influence the capital has on what goes on in the rest of the country.

Yes, Jakarta could change investment policies to encourage more infrastructure investment. But as long as the actual investment decisions are made at the level of the 509 districts and cities, many opportunities for vital, large-scale, regionally joined-up projects will be missed. And some of the things it needs to do it can’t. “Can [the Indonesian leadership] deal with cronyism?” O’Neill asks at the conclusion of his piece. For now, the answer is a clear no. Right now patronage from Jakarta (and the crony structure through which it works) is the glue that keeps this increasingly diverse country together.

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