Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A Death in the Family

So it seems I got it very wrong last weekend when I suggested that Mr Suharto would soon be back in good health and playing Grand Theft Auto on his Playstation back on Jalan Cendana. Sorry about that but not being a Javanese mystic I don't possess the requisite psychic and telekinetic powers to have foreseen the old man's imminent demise last Sunday. I'm clearly not in touch with the great spirits of the mountains. In truth I'm more of a vodka man.

Inevitably, last Sunday we were treated to plenty of archive television footage of Mr S. larking around in rice fields, fishing and generally bestowing fatherly blessings upon those genuflecting before him. Now, a respectful attitude towards the dead is to be applauded in civilized society of course. However, I think that if Indonesia took a long, hard look at itself in the mirror in the shadow of this man's death then it would do the country the power of good.

When Suharto stepped down in 1998 and the student demonstrators, perhaps stunned at the enormity of what had happened, accepted Mr. Habibie as his replacement, the momentum for reform pretty much stalled in its tracks. Suharto's Golkar party was not dissolved and about 90% of the New Order regime remained in power. Ultimately, the '98 revolution had a pretty hollow ring to it; it was a specious, typically Indonesian political victory of appearance over substance. Since then it's thus been a painfully slow slog towards a fairer society and now, a decade later, the country still seems to reflect back the old man’s inscrutable smile from the mirror.

But you've all been reading this kind of stuff to overkill during the last week I'm sure. Cries of "He was a tyrant," or, "He was a great leader," repeating endlessly like a broken record. The country seems somewhat conflicted about the death and doesn't quite know how to react, possibly because they only ever had one president die before.

Speaking of which, Sukarno's widow (well one of them) has piped up this week and declared that the old man was Indonesia's Pol Pot. In fact, in terms of his local, Asian peer group, it was probably only a lack of ideological fervor in the man's character that stopped Indonesia's journey just short of the insanities of the killing fields or of Mao's completely bonkers Cultural Revolution. Why do so many of these postcolonial dreams of freedom end up so shabbily? Why has George Orwell's famous cautionary tale, the allegorical Animal Farm, proved so prescient to so many nations in recent history? The good intentions always seem to sour. The animals all struggle together to wrest control of the farm from the humans then the whole dream flies out the window as the pigs take command and equality becomes a relative term.

But enough of the heavy stuff. At street level it's been quite interesting this week trying to gauge reactions to the great man's passing. We had a media blitz coverage of the funeral on Monday with President SBY ironically skipping an anticorruption conference in order to attend. The BBC, usually at pains to avoid the shameless rabble rousing and emoting of certain other TV news networks, surprisingly referred to Suharto's, “Obscenely wealthy children, " in their coverage. Well done the Beeb.

Many students at my school seemed to be barely aware of the man and his achievements/crimes. No real surprise there. Other Indonesians of my acquaintance seemed to be roughly evenly divided in either their respect or contempt for Mr S. President SBY has called for a week of national mourning and for flags to be flown at half-mast, which has proved to be a good visual yardstick during the last few days.

As I write this I can see a flag flying at a forlornly low height across the road from me although I have seen others at full mast too. Whether this represents some kind of political statement or is indicative of a failure to find the step ladder, I'm not quite sure. A friend of mine told me that seemingly every large house in the Pondok Indah area of town has a respectfully lowered flag flying outside. Most of these houses are worth well in excess of $1 million. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

In contrast, having a drink at one of Jalan Jaksa's scuzziest bars last week, I noticed that the flag on the roof was billowing proudly at the top of its pole. Not only that but the place seemed to be more crowded with foreign tourists than it's been in ages. The music was pumping and the backpackers danced the night away with the local men dressed as ladies and ladies dressed as men dressed as ladies. Mourning certainly didn't seem to be the order of the hour. On the contrary, I've rarely seen the joint so jumping.

Perhaps the tourist board's grammatically controversial new slogan, "100 Years of the Nation's Awakening," should be replaced with, "One Week of the Nation's Awakening: He's Gone, It's Finally Over, Let's Party." Judging by the evidence on show last week, it could boost tourist revenues no end.