Obrol (chit-chat)

My room in the Penginapan Suasana Baru was right next to the hotel’s conference room, which had a very excessive sound system. It hosted business meetings and religious services, and some events that seemed to be a combination of the two. Across the hall was a sort of restaurant, which never seemed to be open but served as a hang-out for the hotel’s guests. Sometimes it was possible to order coffee or Anker beer or instant noodles from a waitress who usually pretended I was not there. Otherwise, I attracted a lot of attention, and got into conversations with the others in the restaurant. When a tourism development conference was in town, I talked with two fellows charged by the government with promoting tourism in Aru; they were local, but now lived in Ambon, as it seems most people who make contact with the outside world do. I met them before I had made it to Ujir, and so was anxious to find a guide through them, but like the linguists, their proposed route involved doubtless time-consuming bureaucracy. It’s a bit odd that they think Aru is ready to be developed as a tourist destination. The potential is undeniable—the coasts have flawless white sand beaches, and the possibilities for diving and ecotourism are obvious. The sheer remoteness is also a sort of benefit, but it has obvious practical implications.

The Aruese are without question proud of their island group, not least of its natural beauty, but the state of Dobo and its surroundings would appall most Western tourists. The beaches nearest to the town are almost completely covered with garbage. The general procedure for the disposal of garbage is to throw it into the bay, from which it is drawn out by the tide and later deposited on a beach a short distance away. Even my otherwise smartly-run hotel did this. I suspect that the nonchalance toward the profusion of garbage everywhere must be something like the attitudes in 19th century Chicago about horse dung and coal smoke everywhere—it’s a sign of progress. The old (young) Dobo was a true frontier town, wooden sidewalks and all, but now it has reached a comfortable, dowdy middle age, thinking of little but its own prosperity. Unfortunately, it seemed while I was there that Dobo was between next big things, and that might be one reason for the town’s desire to promote tourism.

Later on in the hotel restaurant I met another tourism booster, political candidate, and as far as I know, Dobo’s sole fluent English speaker, Sonny Djonler. Shortish, with close-cropped hair salt-and-pepper hair, perceptive eyes, and constantly smiling and laughing, he was an excellent politician, unusual among his profession for being visibly smart. He had learned English in New Zealand, where he worked and studied, but returned to Aru to teach and perhaps run for office. His political goals reflect a change taking place—slowly—all over Indonesia.

A bit of history might be useful here. Indonesia broke off from the Dutch colonial system in the late ‘40s, guided by a nationalist movement and Indonesia’s first president Sukarno. The new country struggled to define itself, and the nationalists’ desire to create a unified but diverse state was sometimes at odds with the wishes of minorities, who felt they wouldn’t be treated fairly by the Javanese-dominated nationalists in power. The nationalist government successfully (sometimes brutally) suppressed various separatist movements in the provinces, including one that broke out in Maluku in the early ‘50s. Despite these dissents, Sukarno succeeded in promoting a nationalist vision of Indonesia as a champion of the developing world, with a system of “guided democracy” that gave the military considerable power. Sukarno coined the term “third world;” originally this referred to countries aligned neither with the capitalist US nor the communist USSR: neutrals in the cold war.

To this strategy Sukarno added a good dose of personality cult, familiar in tone, which helped ally ordinary Indonesians with him, and play political factions against each other. The heady early days of independence, combined with Sukarno’s flair for self-promotion, still causes most Indonesians to remember “bung karno”—“buddy karno” fondly.

This relatively innocent age of Indonesian independence ended abruptly in the mysterious coup of 1965, when a group of military officers assassinated six senior army generals. The reasons behind this coup are still not clear, but at the time it was attributed to communist elements within the government. The officers themselves suggested that they had prevented another coup against relatively left-wing Sukarno by the right-wing generals. Up to that point the communists had been a legitimate and powerful political party, but many saw them as a threat to the established order. The coup gave their opponents an excuse for a purge of communists from government, combined with a nationwide massacre of communists and suspected communists.

Sukarno gave a general named Suharto control of the army, with a mandate to restore order. This eventually led to Suharto’s assumption of the presidency, which he held for over 20 years. During this period, Suharto distributed Indonesia’s levers of power, and much of its wealth, into the hands of his relatives and friends. It was only after the economic collapse of 1998 that he was forced to resign, amid riots and massacres of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population (the position of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese is worthy of several posts on its own, which will come later).

A lot has happened in Indonesia since 1998, some of which I’ve alluded to in earlier posts, but for our purposes right now, the important thing to remember is that many of Suharto’s cronies remained in power in the government and military—Indonesia has a “deep state” that remains despite elections, just like most other countries. Despite the admirable efforts at reform undertaken after 1998, Suharto’s two decades in power left behind a magnificent tangle of corruption at the higher levels of government, something that is also replicated at the provincial and local level.

Every Indonesian with whom I talked about politics mentioned the debilitating effect corruption has on their country. The Suharto generation still maintains control of much of the country, and in general they haven’t been shy about diverting its resources for their own gain. They have maintained a sufficiently functional government in most places, but not much beyond that. It’s worth noting that Aru has become far more accessible since its government became an autonomous kebupaten (regency). This attracts government money for infrastructure, plus new attention from airlines and shipping lines. The Bandas, still subsidiary to an outside kebupaten, are largely neglected. The new governmental status was the main reason the Aruese gave for their relatively developed capital.

The younger generation of Indonesians recognizes the problems that come with corruption, and aren’t shy about complaining about it to foreigners. Nonetheless, they usually say that they are relatively powerless at this point, and they are frustrated with the pace at which reforms take place in the government. One Aruese said that although he agrees with the current president’s attempts to slowly reform the government, they were too slow. “He’s too much of a pussy!” the man said (this is a loose translation).

Sonny Djonler and I had a long conversation along similar lines. He is planning to run for local office in the hope that he can reform the local government, make it more efficient, and perhaps even improve the state of Aru’s environment. He talked about the need for Aru to have a powerful voice at higher levels; a difficult prospect when so few Aruese ever leave their island group to get access to the relative metropolis of Ambon, to say nothing of Jakarta. Sonny also wants to develop a full-on resort here, somewhere that wealthy Indonesians and foreigners can go to relax, dive, and admire Aru’s natural beauty. As usual, the main obstacles are bureaucratic in nature.

Corrupt people in power have fortified their positions to such an extent that some Indonesians despair of things ever improving. However, a few, like Sonny, are trying to start reforms. The universal consensus, among the people I talked to, was that Indonesia could become a world power if it tackled corruption—but that was very unlikely to happen.

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