Monday, May 03, 2010

Street Fighting Men

Over the last month, Indonesia has twice erupted into an orgy of setting fire to things and slicing and dicing people with primitive farming equipment. Different these two incidents may superficially seem to be, however perhaps there are common elements in the root causes. Certainly, the location of both of these conflagrations was the same, namely down at the docks.

Up at Tanjung Priok, on the capital's North coast, locals rioted over a rumour that authorities were planning to relocate the tomb of Mbah Priok, a Betawi Muslim icon. Barely a week later, an Indian boss up in Batam was alleged to have said that Indonesians were stupid. This provoked more riots, which didn't really serve to provide much of a counter thesis to our hapless subcontinental's damning assessment.

Docks have always been lively areas of course. The stereotypical image of the docker, in the West at least, is that of a weather-beaten, tattooed muscleman who's as hard as nails and who can drink a pint of beer in one and a half seconds before then eating the glass. Docks have also, historically, been great crucibles of activity responsible for fomenting social and labour struggles. Examples abound. It was at the Gdansk Shipyard in Poland that the Solidarity movement became the first non-Communist trade union in the Soviet Eastern Bloc, sowing seeds that eventually led to the opening of the Iron Curtain. In my home, the UK, the world's oldest democracy, the London Dock Strike in 1889 ended in victory for the strikers and is considered a milestone in the development of the British labour movement.

So what exactly is going on? Are these two riots manifestations of a deep and growing unrest within Indonesian society? Are the docks in fact coalmines and the workers and communities down there their canaries, singing a song of impending doom? Are these coastal zones an early warning system, alerting us to the possibility of another 1998 style inland tsunami of rape, murder and pillage? This is a complex question of course and one that I don't feel particularly qualified to answer. It seems clear to me though that the image of the country's politicians, judiciary, police and civil service is close to an all-time low in the eyes of the public just at the moment.

Anyway campers, I decided to head up to Tanjung Priok last weekend in order to survey the wreckage and to hopefully avoid getting my head kicked in by either Muslims, dockers, Muslim dockers or any combination of the three. The huge elevated East Jakarta toll road up to the coast affords the casual motorist some great views of the urban sprawl below. Jakarta's critical mass of concrete and metal stretches as far as the eye can see, squatting beneath brooding clouds of premium gasoline fumes and the smoke from 5 million heavily Bogarted kretek cigarettes.

As you get towards Tanjung Priok itself, the traffic starts to peter out and the only vehicles left on the road are lumbering trucks and petrol tanks ploughing their own dusty furrow up towards the coast. Close to the docks, I saw various dollar-a-day types emerge from God knows where with plastic bags in their grubby hands. They were trying to tap a few drops of petrol from each of the passing tankers. Presumably they then sell it on to motorcyclists, either to put in their fuel tanks or to mix with Krating Daeng for a great, if potentially fatal, buzz.

Tanjung Priok is a truly enormous place. The huge, sprawling dock stretches down the coast for several kilometres. Inside the complex, I came across the mosque at the epicentre of this month's love in. Lots of behatted and robed types were entering and leaving the mosque area, no doubt in order to pray and to pay their respects at the great Mr. Priok's tomb.

I shuffled off in the other direction though for a chat with some of the dock’s security guards who were chilling out and enjoying a few soft drinks (and not beer). They proved to be very friendly and, after the usual ‘Hello Mister’s and questions about the relative merits of Chelsea and Manchester United, they told me about the riots and showed me a burnt out car and the windows of their little office which had been smashed in the melee. The broken glass still lay shattered on the asphalt although the windows have already been replaced (to be smashed again at a later date no doubt).

One of the guards, a native of Flores, told me that he had been working in the Kuta area of Bali when the bombs had gone off in 2002. Now he's had to watch people dying all over again, however he's retained his natural Indonesian ebullience.

"Do you think this will happen again?"
"Perhaps Mister, the Satpol [public order officials] are not liked by the people."
"Would you like to join the revolution? Or even a nice dock workers labour organisation?"
"No, no, that would cause terrible trouble."

Well, you've just had your trouble, mate. Today your windows, tomorrow your face perhaps. Labour struggles are indeed dangerous affairs though and if Indonesia's lower classes are up for it then many heads will be kicked in as the workforce struggles against the invidious multi-headed Hydra of outsourcing, low wages and general despair. Anyway folks, let’s look on the bright side. It’s Labor Day today, so I'll see you down the docks later okay? I'll be the one in the Che Guevara T-shirt and the PDI-P dinner dance cufflinks.