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From chaos to crisis in lush Indonesia

Jakarta, Indonesia

A perpetual sullen haze hangs over Jakarta (population 17 million) -- a flat, 661 square kilometer formless spread of corporate headquarters, luxury hotels, skyscrapers and slums.

The skyscrapers, only a few of which are architecturally distinctive, are mostly banks, many of which are now defunct, and apartment houses, many of which are empty.

Zip from the airport by night in an executive limo to the glitzy, neon-lit circle around the Welcome Statue fountain, and if you’re staying at the Grand Hyatt Jakarta or the Hotel Indonesia you can get a sense of what only a year or so ago economists described as the big Asian boom. It was the boom that inspired speculation that “Asian values,” such as respect for authority and family, had triggered an economic explosion that would make this once remote corner of the map -- including Thailand, China, Japan and Indonesia -- the center of the world.

Not so in the light of day. Your cab stops at a red light, and boys hawking newspapers and “street singers” -- boys who cannot sing and who strum mini-guitars they cannot play -- besiege the vehicle. A woman carrying what looks like an almost-dead baby draped in her arm, its face covered, begs at your car window. The numbers of street people -- beggars, prostitutes, children selling items of junk -- has multiplied in recent months: a fair measure of a population desperate to do anything to stay alive.

Since the week in May during which riots, burnings and a coalition of the army, university students and the president’s own cabinet forced 77-year- old President Suharto to resign after 32 years of unquestioned power, Indonesia has gone from chaos to crisis.

Next months are crucial

Within the next few months it could reform its economy, till now controlled by the ex-president, his family and friends, and reinvent itself as a true democracy. Or, consistent with the process by which Suharto took over from Sukarno in 1965 -- following an aborted coup and a bloody purge of suspected communists in which an estimated 500,000 people were killed -- it could replace one military strong man with another. Or it will slip into chaos again.

It is breakfast time, Tuesday, July 28, and I have been more-or-less up since 3:45 a.m. -- awakened first by a rooster kept by Canisius College (a junior and senior high school of over a thousand students); then, at 4:30 by the recorded call to prayer blasting over the rooftops from the mosque next door and the Jesuit community’s black dog who joined the mullah in a howling duet.

But now the courtyard is filled with the music of the Jesuit community’s 21 exotic song birds, each in his or her cage. In one of the school’s two inner quadrangles, a gym master drives a formation of about 230 boys in white shirts and light blue pants through their morning calisthenics. The boys are mostly Catholic, many of them sons of Jakarta’s middle-class and government and business elite.

At the breakfast table, two -- sometimes three -- men huddle over a stack of documents along with a serious woman who holds a cellular phone and an intense, dark, slender young man with high cheek bones -- the visor of his baseball cap shielding his sparkling eyes. They debate the wording on the papers in front of them, oblivious to the others at table eating their bread and cheese.

The thin man’s beeper beeps. He gets up and huddles with his phone and returns to the table. They have very little time and work as if the fate of their nation depends on them.

It may. This slender man is Jesuit Fr. Ignatius Sandyawan Sumardi, secretary of the Volunteers Team for Humanity, an activist human rights organization, a hero to the Jakarta poor. In March he and his brother were arrested and tried for harboring three fugitives wanted for their alleged involvement in the riots following the July 27, 1996, government-engineered takeover of the headquarters of the Indonesian Democratic Party. The party is one of the three authorized Indonesian political parties and the only one that dared to stand up -- futilely -- to the Suharto government and to speak for the poor.

During the riots, five people were killed, 149 were injured and 23 are still missing. Though the court of three judges found the brothers guilty, it exonerated them because Sandyawan, the court said, as a priest, was obliged to care for these men in trouble.

Now, in the wake of the May riots, ecumenical human rights groups have produced four investigative reports that purport to demonstrate that a series of church burnings, the looting and torching of the ethnic Chinese shops and department stores that killed 1,217 people, and the mass rapes, followed by the public abuse and humiliation of over 100 Chinese women, were not random acts of violence but were deliberately orchestrated -- very possibly from within the military establishment.

The human rights story in Indonesia is a sordid one. According to a study published by the Indonesian Christian Communications Forum, between 1945, when the Republic of Indonesia achieved independence from the Dutch, and May 9 of this year, 463 Christian churches have been burned down, with the largest concentration -- 194 churches destroyed and 20 clergymen killed -- within the past three years.

The pattern of destruction convinces the Communications Forum authors that the burnings were planned. In the same vein, the Volunteer Team for Humanity report spells out how during the riots groups of thugs, disguised as students but wearing army boots, strangers to that part of town, arrived in vans, attracted crowds by spreading rumors and burning tires, whipped up the crowds into burning and looting Chinese-owned shops and malls, then broke into Chinese homes where they raped and mutilated women.

This night, Sandyawan and his delegation will fly to Washington to address the National Press Club on July 30 and the Human Rights Caucus of Congress the next day, in an attempt to put the moral tragedy of the Indonesian crisis before the American people.

Muslim political power

Next door to where I am living is the mosque-school-office building that houses the headquarters of Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organization. Its chairman, Amien Rais, a political scientist, educated at Notre Dame and the University of Chicago who wants to be the next president of Indonesia, is planning his next move. Rais was one of the group, led by then Minister of Research and Technology B.J. Habibie, who established the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals in 1990 as a vehicle to represent modernist Muslim political aspirations. Rais is repositioning himself in the wake of the recent riots and political upheaval.

Ironically, in a country that is over 80 percent Muslim, the Muslim majority, particularly the vast underclass at the bottom of the feudal pyramid, has long felt frozen out of the nation’s new wealth. Meanwhile, the ethnic Chinese, many of them Christians, who have been excluded from political life and government positions, have concentrated on business. Though only 4 percent of the population, the ethnic Chinese control 70 percent of the capital (not land) wealth, including the country’s food distribution system. (The 70 percent figure, though widely repeated, has not been statistically verified.)

Terrorizing the Chinese

The riots, which focused on terrorizing the Chinese, have had their desired effect: They have driven thousands of Chinese out of the country. The undesired effect: There’s no one with the skills to distribute what food there is to a starving population.

Not everyone trusts Rais. His power base is a movement that seeks to bring “Islamic values” into political life. And the possible emergence of Islam as a political force, rather than a specifically cultural or religious movement, prompted the widely respected Muslim intellectual, Abdurrahman Wahid, to write a warning to Suharto, who had been cultivating Islamic fundamentalists, that Indonesia was in danger of becoming “another Algeria.” Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, is leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamic organization. In 1991 Wahid and 44 leaders, including a Catholic priest, founded the Democracy Forum to “loosen” the political system, to prepare for some perhaps more democratic future. But Suharto listens only to himself.

It may be that Indonesian Islam is more ecumenical, more influenced by Buddhism and Hinduism than its Iranian and Middle Eastern counterparts; but I’m told that Islamic religious identity here is strong enough to, under pressure, bubble over into a political movement that could lead to an Islamic state. To offset this possibility, Wahid has launched a new party, the National Awakening Party open to all -- including Christians and Chinese -- to contest the general elections scheduled for next year.

Rais, who earlier in his career blamed the Chinese and Christians for the nation’s woes, says he has changed. He says he favors a diverse, multicultural society, not an Islamic state, and he is resigning as head of Muhammadiyah to found another new political party, the National Mandate Party, the latest of the 45 set up in the new open atmosphere that has followed Suharto’s fall. Then he will merge this new group with the old United Development Party, the third of the original three -- including the Indonesian Democratic Party and Golkar, the government mouthpiece -- approved by the constitution.

A few blocks south, Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of former president Sukarno, moral but not legal head of the fractured Indonesian Democratic Party, nervously checks out the grounds of her estate. Tomorrow is the second anniversary of the 1996 riots, which followed her expulsion from her headquarters. Her Sukarno connection in itself would not seem a credential for national leadership; yet she is enormously popular because the people see her as someone who, like themselves, has been oppressed. Since the government will not allow her to hold the anniversary rally in a public space, she will have it at her home.

Thirty thousand of her followers will swarm over her grounds, and 9,000 police and troops will patrol her streets. Nothing must go wrong. They will begin with prayers and poetry; then she will blast the armed forces commander, Gen. Wiranto, the same one who finally forced Suharto to quit, for not allowing her to stage her rally in a public stadium.

One afternoon, with a student, I visit the scenes of the worst May rioting: Trisaki University, where four student demonstrators were shot; Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown; and the huge Jatinegara Plaza, to the southeast, where over 200 persons burned to death. At the university, most of the students had already returned to the campus and were in the parking lot when the fatal shots were fired from the highway overpass overlooking the lot.

In the tapes I saw, troops fired into the fleeing youths indiscriminately, without even taking aim. One soldier, passing a dead or dying boy, deliberately kicked him in the head. In the Glodok we wander past blackened hulks of stores and countless shattered glass facades, through the public market, into the labyrinth of back streets to the 348-year-old Dharma Jaya Temple. A monk shows us a Buddha in a glass case who is the “god” who protects the business establishments in the area. I want to ask whether he thinks the god is doing a good job.

What will happen to this country? If the arts give us a clue, the future is bleak. At the Jakarta Playhouse, Teater Koma’s new play, “Constipation Opera,” which opened last week, begins with a naked man sitting on the toilet. To his alarm he discovers that his stool resembles that of a goat’s rather than a human being’s. Then, when he and the other citizens of his village become constipated, they turn to an authoritarian doctor to cure them. But, rather than help them, the doctor uses their sickness to gain power over their lives. As the play ends, the people, bloated and unable to excrete, begin to die. Thus, Indonesia today -- helpless, poisoned from within.

Wednesday, July 29, on the seven-hour train ride from Jakarta through Central Java to Java’s cultural heart, the university city of Yogyakarta, where I will participate in the Jesuit ordinations on St. Ignatius Day, July 31, I cannot take my eyes off the spectacular countryside. Miles and miles of rice paddies stretching to the horizon in flat, flooded fields or terraced on hill and mountainside; little farm villages close to the railroad tracks, some squalid and garbage strewn, others clean, landscaped, with clusters of uniformed school girls laughing their way home; brick factories; peanut fields and lush forests of palm trees with homes buried in the brush; occasionally a solitary man or woman bathing naked in a mountain stream.

The vast majority are poor -- very, very poor; and I am overwhelmed by the realization of how differently God -- fate, history, chance -- treats us all. If I had been born the son of an Indonesian rice farmer rather than a Trenton, N.J., journalist, rather than know the joys of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” of French bread and cheese and Bourdeau wine, of the Brooklyn Bridge and Tolstoy, rather than teaching generations of students and writing an article like this, I’d be standing in a rice field in mud up to my knees, not even looking up to see this train go by.

On the other hand, as a student told me, a few rice farmers manage to send a son or daughter to college. Nevertheless, long-range economic reform will have to include better land distribution, plus the return of the Chinese, whom the new President Habibie has foolishly scorned, to distribute the food available. A more radical restructuring of the economy that, free of bribery and corruption, gives equal opportunity to all citizens, especially the non- Chinese Indonesians, will have to follow the general elections, which will choose the People’s Consultative Assembly, which elects the president.

Who will be president?

Who the president is will depend on several factors. No one I spoke to thought Habibie had either the skill or the trust to continue. If history repeats itself, the general who removed the president, Wiranto, backed by the military and perhaps Golkar, could assume power. If the democratic process, for a change, gets a chance to work, Megawati Sukarnoputri may form a coalition with either Rais or Wahid.

It is late afternoon, Aug. 2. The haze, which this morning made it impossible to see much of the city from the top of the National Monument tower, has lifted, and I look up from the balcony at a broad pattern of pre- sunset blue. Though thousands of cars, cabs and motorcycles are roaring by outside the gate, the only sounds back here are the chirble-chirble of the caged birds and the irregular bam bam from the basketball court below where the boys play.

Thursday night in Yogyakarta, before the next morning’s ordination of five Indonesian Jesuits, I talked with Gabriel Possenti Sindhunata, editor of the Jesuit intellectual bimonthly, Basis, and a writer for Kompas, Indonesia’s most respected newspaper. More than anything, he pointed to the terrible moral wound inflicted on the nation by the burnings and the rapes. Gesturing at his guts, he said these crimes revealed an awful evil in the nation’s innards that had to be confronted and expelled.

“Who was the ‘Mister Big’ responsible for the burnings and rapes?” I asked. Most of the speculation centers on Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, at the time commander of the Army Strategic Reserves, Suharto’s son-in-law, who, the theory goes, used a mini-army of paramilitary gangsters to foment a crisis that would thrust him into power. Perhaps, said Sindhunata, if everyone is saying this, it might be true. Wiranto, he said, was, among the military, the best of a bad lot -- but still not good enough to become president. Megawati, because she has suffered, might be the person to lead Indonesia through the next period of suffering it must undergo.

But, again, he returned to the suffering inflicted on the Chinese. “We are to be democratic,” he said. “But we seem to need a victim, a scapegoat, onto whom we can project our ills. Respect for justice is the foundation of democracy; but we have this deep, deep problem -- this aggression -- in our culture which must be overcome.” The church, he said, with its schools and influence, is in a strong position to help work for a cure.

When he returns from the United States, Fr. Sandyawan, along with the leaders of several human rights and nongovernmental organizations, will join the commission established to investigate the May riots. If they can name the persons responsible and if those persons are punished, at least part of Indonesia’s poison will be purged, and there may be hope for a new future.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is assistant dean of Fordham College.

National Catholic Reporter, August 28, 1998