It’s All Connected

Thursday, 7 September; 08:30

Sitting in the kantin on the Humanities campus here at UI. After class today, direct to the Kantor Imigrasi, it is time to renew my visa so that I can continue my studies without fear of deportation. At the moment, spending a few moments with a cup of tea, seeing what I can make of today’s local newspaper. A good exercise if frustrating at times.

Kampus is now awash with student life, this being the first week of classes. Being in a different country, I never questioned the fact that campus has felt so incredibly foreign the past couple of weeks. Now that I am surrounded with the energetic chaos of my fellow mahasiswa-mahasiswi, I feel much more comfortable, however. I guess the subculture that this form of educational institution nurtures has become globalized, and I feel right at home amongst the privileged and elite educated young people of my generation.

It strikes me that both ends of a spectrum result from higher education like this. There are those that learn about the systems that govern our world and begin to question them; then, there are those who see the opportunity to profit from the stratus quo power structure they are inheriting.

12:30 I got on the bus on Jalan Margonda, and there was already some pengamen providing some entertainment (musicians that play in public places and ask for money- an honest enough living if you ask me. I never hesitate to throw some money in the hat if I think they’re good). These were three elementary aged kids, however, shaking pebble filled plastic bottles and singing a popular Peter Pan IndoPop song.

It strikes me that economic and social justice are universal issues; they are by no means the exclusive domain of “the 3rd world,” if you actually put currency in that term. But the bifurcation is no doubt very pronounced in this monster of a city. On the way to the Immigration office, we passed a row of tall corporate office buildings, shiny and impenetrable looking. They stood in a small enclave of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts shops, a few blocks away was a trash filled stream, old women searching the banks for plasic bottles. It envokes the memory of driving 4 minutes out of Chicago’s Hyde Park into the housing projects near Martin Luther King Boulevard. Aware of the lack of social justice in this world, and seeing the obvious contrast between this little pocket of wealth and everything around it, one wants to believe, is almost convinced without questioning, that all those people sitting in there, in the air con, are rapists- in at least one sense of the word.

1:14 pm. Finally at the Immigration building, the process of visa renewal was bureaucratic, slow, sweaty, but not entirely unbearable. I discovered that I, a “Bule” or foreigner, did not have to bribe officials to get the same efficiency of service that might cost a local an extra 50-100 thousand Rupiah. I saw a fellow bypass the long line, handing his papers across the counter, discreetly sliding a few large bills along with it. I turned to him, with my well-oiled naivety, asking “Kenapa?” Why? Oh, am I supposed to pay extra too? He smiled a guilty smile, staring at me, not quite sure what to say I suspect. Oh, only if you want your papers extra fast? He nodded excitedly like I had just asked the right question in a game of 20 questions. He told me that a normal bribe was about 50,000 Rp; I’m sure I saw quick, seamless exchanges of no less than three hundred thousand happen at various counters, however.

I’m not sure exactly what conclusions to draw from this experience, beyond agreeing with many that it is a practice that needs to change. The issue of corruption is no secret in Indonesia; it’s hot on the lips of individuals and the agendas of organizations, politicians and political parties, activists and NGO’s. One of the Islamic political parties promises a campaign against corruption, calling it a violation of religious doctrine. It is a practice that affects the daily life of individuals in Indonesia, but also affects the country at a macro level. The government is still saturated with the corruption that was institutionalized during the Sueharto era. The military has its fingers in all sorts of business, and politicians and generals very often double as CEO’s or own huge companies.

I’ll quote some figures, but they’re from conversations, not my own research. A local researcher told me that something around 80% of the country’s wealth is concentrated in the capital city Jakarta, with only 3% of the national population.

National integration is difficult enough in a country so large and diverse; I’ve talked about this a lot. Those difficulties are compounded, the tenuous nature of Indonesia’s quest for democracy is all the more evident, with such obvious disparities. Why should an outer province contribute to national unity and welfare? It is questions like this one that have fueled discontent to the degree of the thirty year, bloody independence movement (GAM, the Free Aceh Movement) in Aceh. That conflict seems to be over, but in no small part to the horrible tsunami that disrupted any political activity there in 2004.

This stream of thought could continue for a good long while, for there is no end to the web of connections between these many factors shaping the Indonesian scene. The economic disparity just talked about is also often along ethnic lines; the Chinese minority quietly controls a huge part of the national economy. Under the New Order regime, Sueharto and his “cronies” made many business deals with Chinese businessmen, granting exclusive contracts with the government and with the foreign corporations, who had to work through the authoritarian administration. The Chinese also make up a good deal of the Christian minority, adding to the already tense religious relations.

It becomes almost impossible to pinpoint the exact cause of the violence that has broken out against both Chinese and Christians in Indonesia- religion, ethnicity, economics. A combination of all three is probably at work.

Students Change the World

Last Friday afternoon found me rushing to the Gambir train station in central Jakarta after class. I had received an invitation from my friend Suroto to come to Purwokerto for the weekend, and I had mulled over it all week until finally making a last minute decision while sitting through a lesson on grammar that morning.

Suroto has become my best friend here in Indonesia, as well as my most valued mentor. He has brought me to ancient temples, up mountains, into volcanoes, into tiny villages, and now he was showing me a part of the Indonesia that has fascinated me ever since I learned enough about it to know that I knew almost nothing about it: the political/ social movement aspect.

Last weekend was a conference, held at the largest university in Purwokerto, a college town you might say, to develop and implement a process that will unify all the youth and student cooperatives in the town while at the same time further legitimizing and strengthening the democratic process. Youth organizations as well as cooperatives were both severely undermined during the authoritarian regime of Sueharto, which ended in 1998 with ‘Reformasi,’ and they have been struggling to regain legitimacy and strength ever since.

purwokerto coop guys

Suroto is a veteran student and democracy activist, and was part of the original student movement that helped to overthrow Sueharto in 1998. The entire weekend was an education in the kind of political culture has and does exist in Indonesia, especially amongst the university. I sat and talked at the warung hik where students met, discussed ideas and politics, and organized rallies in the late nineties. I sat on the street corners at night, learning about the friends that these activists had lost to the government crackdown, as well as what the issues are today and what still needs to be done to make democracy a reality in Indonesia.

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The strengthening of student cooperatives might seem like a pretty tame activity for an activist, in the face of such dire and deep routed barriers to democracy in Indonesia. But it is one way that my friends and many others are working to empower normal people, to instill democracy and an ideology of social justice. It is but one of the many gerakan mahasiswa, or student movements, that young people join to nurture, develop and work towards making real their political selves.

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A New Home, Always

Just coming back to Jalan Kukusan, took advantage of the Saturday morning and no class to hop on the blue angkot #4 and head towards town to Pasar Raya, one of the big “traditional” markets. My only mission was to buy some bananas, pisang, but my consumeristic tendancies always see me walking away with a bag of sweets for my Ibu Kos and her family (the woman that runs my housing building), and who knows what else.

Each time that I move to a new place, start to understand where I am and feel like I belong there, I always seem to think, “well, this would be a really good place to live.” Before I go someplace, I am always inundated by expectations, warnings, and stories from other people about what I am going to find. Not unsurprisingly, what I actually find often winds up being totally different from the impression that people have.

Even neighboring Malaysians have an impression of “dirty, poor, corrupt Indonesia,” an impression that strikingly contradicts the safe, friendly neighborhood feel of my lifestyle here in Depok. The fact the Malaysia and Indonesia have Muslim majorities also gave rise to many opinions and impressions from my friends back in Minnesota.

On another note, or kind of the same one, I got an email from the US Embassy in Jakarta, just making sure that I remembered to live each moment in fear of possible terrorist attacks. I am defenseless against charges of being a bad American, I suppose, for the not infrequent reminders and warnings from the State Department are, in my opinion, a poor reflection of reality, and are working towards a self-fulfilling prophesy of some ‘clash of civilizations’ or something.

Indonesia is in the process of sending about 1000 troops to Lebanon to join the UN peacekeeping force there. This can be interpreted in different ways, I suppose. On the one hand, it could be a reflection of the “world wide Islamic movement” that is threatening all of Western civilization! The Muslims are going to Lebanon to support them against the invading Israelis! I am insulted by this proposition.

On the other hand, it could be a reflection of Indonesia’s desire to use cooperation and work within International institutions, namely the United Nations, to solve the conflict that is plaguing us. I am an idealistic youth, of course, but this is the version of the story that I believe. Being here, having discussions with Indonesians on the street and in the University about what is happening around the world, I get no sense of a desire to go out and “crush the west.” Quite the opposite, in fact.