Thursday, May 21, 1998

May 1998 saw the end of Suharto's New Order. Real political opposition had surfaced, much of it centred around Megawati Sukarnoputri, the eldest daughter of the first president Sukarno.

Suharto had engineered her removal as the popularly elected leader of PDI, one of the three 'authorised' political groupings. On July 27th 1996 there was a raid on her party HQ in central Jakarta. The heavy handedness, orchestrated from on high, resulted in deaths and disappearances.

'Er Indoors was trapped in a taxi at the front of the traffic jam during those events.

The raid led to demonstrations and rioting around Jakarta during which buildings and vehicles were burnt and further clashes occurred between the security forces and demonstrators.

The onset of the Asian Economic Crisis, known as krismon (from krisis monetar) in Indonesia, with punitive remedies recommended by the IMF, had further exacerbated the sense of unease and life under Suharto had become very precarious. Many expats left the country as they saw their earnings drastically reduced. Those of us with rupiah incomes and Indonesian famlies shrugged fatalistically and carried on with our lives.

As elsewhere and at other times, the students continued at the forefront of the protests. The military and police, who were then under the same overall command, caused the 'disappearances' of several student activists. There is evidence that a rogue unit of Kopassus, army special forces, led by a son-in-law of Suharto, General Prabowo Subianto, was responsible.

Such was the paranoia at that time that 'Er Indoors would whisper the latest gossip about Suharto and his family even when our doors were shut and I was playing an album loudly and the TV was on.

As the events unfolded in May, live on TV, radio and in phone calls, I had a computer but no internet access. I was handwriting a letter to Son No.1, then pursuing his university studies in New Orleans. My letter turned from a parental missive into a commentary on what we were living through here in Jakartass Towers. My account would have made a great series of blogging posts - it's not that often that anyone, apart from journalists, can say that for a short while "I was there - or abouts".

Following recent criticism of journalist Richard Parry's witness account of events, it is only proper that those of us who have a longer term perspective should contribute to the 'oral history' of the downfall of a dictatorship.

This is the preamble to that account, an only slightly edited version of the ten foolscap pages that I wrote. Do read it in sequence and, perhaps, think of it as a mood poem. Also, please think of it as a work in progress as I'd like to add hyperlinks and photographs where appropriate.

Below is a list of links to others who were witnesses. If there are any similar blogger accounts, please leave the link in the comment box below. Also, those of you wishing to record your memories are welcome to email me so I can post them directly or, again, post directly in my comment box.

Jakarta Kid
As I was soothed by Canteloube and Puccini, I tried to come to terms with what was going on. Jakarta had seemed to be one of the world's safer cities; most kampung people were hospitable and did not tolerate theft; but now there were mobs on the loose. What had it felt like in Pompeii when the first tremors occurred?

That night the city was engulfed in rage and the sky turned red. I remember driving across town and finding Gatot Soebroto (this is one of the two main arteries of Jakarta) completely in the dark. No more neon lights and pretty faces on the billboard. It was dark from end to end except for random groups of guys burning things here and there.

A.M. Mora y Leon
I was somewhere outside Yogyakarta on this day eight years ago, within sight of Mount Merapi volcano. One of the greatest democratic revolutions in history was about to erupt but I didn't know it then.

... those were the days of thousands of young student moving to defy the thuggish Soeharto regime all by themselves. I had been going to the first demonstrations in March, taking photographs, to see for myself. Something big was going to happen, but I did not know what or when. Would we get shot? Would we get caught? Would the students throw the tinpot out?

Ujang of Cafe Salemba has commented: The respected author Marga T has a new novel coming out this weekend, in which one of the main characters found herself in the middle of a rampage during the May 98 riots.

If you're not familiar with her work, Marga T, who is a Chinese Indonesian, is one of the giants in the pop literature scene in the 80s. In the absence of official accounts or any closure about the tragedy, 8 years on, she said she's dedicating the novel to the victims.

More, in Indonesian, here.




4:00 pm |
  A Letter to Son No.1 - May 1998 In Jakarta

Part 1

May 4th

By the time you read this, I may well have an email address .... My father writes to say that he is "glad to hear that the rupiah has strengthened" ~ it's now 'only' £1 = Rp.14,200 rather than the Rp.18,500 of last year. He's also pleased that Charlton, having just missed automatic promotion with 88 points are in the playoffs.

My salary has been increased and with c.45 hours overtime this month I should should clear c.Rp.7,000,000 (£400 in 'real' money)

NB. I was supposed to part-support Son No.1 financially in his university studies. As the Asian economic crisis began to bite the previous year I transferred £500 to his account. £1 was then valued at c.Rp.5,000, having risen from c.Rp.3,500. I had promised to send more when the currency eventually stabilised. It has now, eight years later - it's c.Rp.16,000, middle rate.

From the little I hear about superstatesman Blair, I'm beginning to think that John Major is/was the better man. The current cabinet is probably much more capable ~ I was acquainted with several of them when they worked in the voluntary sector. Given the propensity for youthful radicalism to transmogrify into "I'm alright, Jack" - Jack Straw was president of the National Union of Students when I was struggling through teacher training college - as is being witnessed in Blair's Britain, it's clear that whoever you vote for, the government gets in.

I do hope that you will be of some 'service' somewhere for part of your working life. I'm not sure what that really means, but your mother and I have never worked for the love of money. Sufficient unto one's needs and tomorrow generally takes care of itself. Health before wealth. I still say that even though there's no pension plan in this house.

Three days later - Thursday May 7th

And not likely to be for a while either. Today's papers report a plunge in the rupiah due to social unrest: the students are revolting ~ aren't you all? The government raised fuel, electricity and transport costs by approx. 70% this week. Electricity was already expensive, but in removing massive subsidies on fuel the economy should readjust albeit only after short-term inflation has hit everybody, especially the poor.

At least anger is now directed at the élite regime rather than ethnic minorities*. We now 'look forward' to housewives joining the students who are finally braving the security forces and taking to the streets, off campus.

My main concern, as always is my personal well-being. I've had the trots since starting this letter but have just managed a bowl of banana porridge so things could be on the mend. The cure?? Cornflour (tepung jagung) which, after all, is used as a thickener in sauces and custard. I've been suffering, too, as I've been clocking up overtime ~ this week 16 hours, last week 18. Still, a major boost to my rupiah funds - whoopee!

It's now five days later (Tuesday May 12th) with a wine hangover courtesy of an Australian millionaire. His access to power brokers means that his conspiracy theories are even wierder than mine.

Like, will Soeharto have a strategic heart attack while he's in Cairo? He does look like the Sphinx, although he acts like a sphincter.

Argentina is thought to be his favoured bolthole.

There are strange tales circulating of a trust fund ($30 billion some say!) in Switzerland left from the Sukarno days. If true, this would be some small compensation for the massive ripoffs perpetrated by the Suharto clan. Trustees are supposed to include Amien Rais and Megawati Sukarnoputri, who'll be launching a People's Front on May 20th.

All this speculation leads to blindness. Watch this place.

*NB I wonder why I made that comment about ethnic minorities. I presume I meant the ethnic Chinese although I cannot recall any incidents that early in the 'revolution'.

Thursday May 14th 9am

By the time you get this, and I'll try to get to the post office this morning, you'll know whether Soeharto and his cronies have gone or whether they've shot a few more students. A mass people march is planned for the 20th and all the signs are that this revolution is now unstoppable.

Suharto has spoken from Cairo: "If I'm no longer trusted (to lead the country), I will become pandito (sage) and endeavour to get closer to God. I will spend my time to guide my children so they become good people ... I will do tut wuri handayani (guide from behind)."

Is this enough?

As I was writing the above, I was rung by the office ~ we're shut for today at least. The British Embassy's advice is to take it day by day. And the news (almost) live on TV is that north and west Jakarta is burning. (Are they attacking the Chinese? Fools if they are!)

NB. They were.

Slightly later: they've attacked a cash 'n' carry, Goro, owned by Tommy Suharto which is just down the road from my office.

NB. Goro was a monopoly established to take over from the state-owned Bulog charged with keeping sufficient stocks of basic foodstuffs, esp. rice. The land fraud in this particular case lead to Tommy being sent to prison for ordering the murder of the judge who had sentenced him to imprisonment.

Grapevine gossip. Flags are flying at half mast because of the dead students and also as a witness, I feel, to the imminent death of a regime. Phones are busy, people are busy filling up there mandis (bathroom water tanks) in case the electricity is cut off. There's little hard news on the TV or radio ~ I wish I was already hooked up to the internet.

I wish, too, I had the guts, or anonymity, to check out the local main/toll road along which Soeharto will have to travel from Halim airport, if he doesn't use a helicopter - he did - to the Presidential Palace. He's due back from Cairo and students and 'the people' are rumoured to be lining the route ready for a boo-hiss scenario - or worse. Whenever, I think they'll be storming the palace gates soon.

And everything seems calm in our street. Boys are playing badminton, very few cars, motorbikes or bajajs ~ it's a bit like a Sunday. Except they ring from Medan, (the hometown of 'Er Indoors) worried about us and could they have some more money to continue building the house we have up there. And the meals-on-wheels - fried rice, bakso (meatballs) and Walls Ice Cream - continue to ply their trade as they pass by.

And Our Kid's feeling poorly. (He was then just a year and a half.)

TV scenes of the army joining the people. But we can't get out of our area. Smoke rises ~ a white BMW on the toll road we hear and furniture stores in Jl. Otista the other side of the River Ciliwung, the BCA bank and a Fuji Image Plaza at the other end of our block. A siege mentality has set in. Thank god we have a good pembantu (maid) and a nanny for Our Kid ~ more mouths to feed but more help with the feeding.

Channel surfing to avoid repeats of the army velvet glove apologists and endless Chinese kung fu movies. And so to bed. Very late.

Friday May 15th

Soeharto has been misinterpreted. Of course he'll step down. Constitutionally. In 2003.

The People's Forum has announced itself - familiar names, but where is Emil Salim's? Oh, and one of the sons-in-law is there.

The airport road must have re-opened because there are no beds left at the airport hotels and no seats available on the flights out. I do have an exit visa, but no credit cards which means a dependence on cash, which is something we haven't stocked up on!

And just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean that they're not out to get you. So at the insistence of 'Er Indoors and my own who-the-fuck-knows feeling I've put the ladder in the backyard so there's an escape route into the backyard of the house behind. This is occupied by a Japanese guy with his Indonesian family. He has a ladder ready to escape into our backyard.

And our local handyman comes by offering to sell our broken TV for Rp.150,000 (today worth £7.50). We'll split it 50/50.

Today is a definite lull - the calm after ~ or before ~ the storm. Lightning flashes across the sky, distant rumbles of thunder compete with the evening mosques.

An announcement is due tonight from the DPR, the legislature under his thumb and reportedly meeting him today.

Fuel prices have been cut, but only by 20% having risen last week by 70%.
Some announcement !!

And very few petrol stations are open in Jakarta.

Saturday May 16th

Reports of hundreds dead, most trapped in the malls and supermarkets they were looting.
Americans, as usual the first, have initiated evacuation procedures.
Our Kid's in a good mood.
Just as the storm hit, we could see black smoke rising, not quite camouflaged by the clouds.

We made it to Bank Universal's HQ ATM, one of only two in service in town. A long but patient queue as the machine was refilled. The bank itself was shut. So we've got enough cash for the duration (?).

A fleet of buses was parked outside the packed Malaysian Embassy but I only noted three cars in the Russian Embassy compound down the road.

Some shops are open, a few, belying the TV news of the city returning to 'normal'.

We hear tell of officials at the airport charging Rp.5 million instead of the official Rp.1 million for the exit tax (fiskal). There are also reports of cars being sold to pay the extortionists. I've got cash so it's a pity I don't drive.

I've put a couple of beers in the fridge for tonight's FA Cup Final.

A ring round. Two colleagues are heading off to Bali ~ and later for 'home'?
Another is heading off, with his Indonesian wife, for the happy hour at Hard Rock Café
Most of us are settling in for a week's siege.

News from the UK is that Charlton, having beaten Ipswich twice, are in the play off final - at Wembley no less - next week. How many games is that - unbeaten? Live, or highlights, next week? Nice to have something else to anticipate.

NB. "The greatest ever game at Wembley" and I have yet to even see the highlights. Charlton 4 Sunderland 4 after extra time. Charlton eventually won 7 - 6 in a penalty shootout.

Half time: Arsenal 1 - Newcastle 0. Great tackle by Shearer on Adams. Ring a friend, he tunes into BBC World Service ~ message: get out now or don't go. I can't get out, not with rupiah. Ho hum. Time for some more substances from war zones.




3:30 pm |
  Part 2

Sunday May 17th

A big calm and sunny day. Quieter than the quietest bank holiday. Phones ring. Big fat millionaire made it back to Australia. Did niece make it back to Medan? (She did, but with no thanks to him.) Many acquaintances are heading for the hills. Is anywhere safe?

Charlie taught a regular private class this morning. He saw Chinese electrical and electronics stores razed. The housing complex has a barbed wire reinforced barricade. Those under siege are petrified.

Gossip talks of a massive airlift - board now, pay later, but where can we go with rupiah? Am somewhat concerned that no family member has rung from the UK. Sister Sue works for British Airways, so she should know that they're charging dollars upfront for seats.

Monday May 18th

Prepare to go to the office, but get phone call to say it is shut all week. I go anyway because my bank is next door-ish. I take Our Kid for 'protection'. The front of our building has a banner saying Pribumi Milik (Owned by indigenous Indonesian.) I don't let on that the owner is ethnic Chinese from Kalimantan.

In the bank, full of colleagues on a similar quest, I'm near the back of the queue. I ask the cashier if they've got Rp.5 million. We check the needs of those behind and, thankfully, the bank has. Just, so I take it 'in case'.

At home there's a message from Son No.1 on the ansafone. He's worried about us, but I can't contact him as he's set off on a valedictory tour of the US having finished his studies there. Will he visit mutual friends who, I strongly suspect have cancelled their plans to visit us here? We expected a call from them last Wednesday, but didn't get one.

One very corrupt Cabinet minister - Abdul Lateif - has quit. As Minister of Tourism his potential income must have been drastically reduced. (Ha, still got a sense of heavy sarcasm ~ another shitty day in paradise.)

'Er Indoors says that a TV station reports that the army want to arrest Amien Rais (the de facto leader of the People's Forum). Do that and there's no way the people will allow it. He's really pushing and has scared off a few of his fellow forty People's Forum ~ like Soeharto's son-in-law*, who says he still seeks reform. The Jakarta Post has consistently, but wisely argued the case for reform. The students are taking to the streets and to the legislative bodies, both national and regional.

The pressure on Soeharto is immense. Will he conveniently die of a heart attack brought on by the stress? Or will he seek a wise, compromising but still publicly acceptable 'abdication' and peaceful succession? It will be good for the latter if he opts for the latter. And good if Indonesia wins the Thomas and Uber Cups in men's and women's badminton. How can those players concentrate so far from home (in Hong Kong). But they're still in there winning.

The men beat Malaysia 3 - 2 in the final and the women lost 4 - 1 to China in their final.)

Two female colleagues (who live a couple of streets away) ring to say they're heading to Lombok. Good luck, have a nice holiday, but I didn't tell them that I've heard that all flights to Bali have been cancelled. (But why??)

Some cause for optimism: journalists filming Harmoko, leader of the legislative yes-men, broke into spontaneous applause, no doubt breaking professional bounds of impartiality, when he announced that all factions, inc. the army, are asking Soehato to resign.

Phone call from Son No.1; distinct parochial bias in the US press. "Baton Rouge couple evacuated."

*Can anyone let me know who were the members of the People's Forum and, in particular, which son-in-law I was writing about?

Tuesday May 19th

Live, in front of ulemas (Muslim religious leaders), Soeharto says it's premature for him to 'abdicate'. Give me 20 months, i.e. to the false dawn of the millenium, to carry out reforms, even electoral ones. Will the people let him? Live comments from the ulemas weren't unanimous ~ one was 'censored' - i.e. the sound was cut off !

It's the waiting within a siege which is wearing. You can get excited, panicky and irrational as you watch smoke plumes, all black, and listen to gunshots which may not be because they don't sound like they do on TV in crime and cop stories, and you weren't really watching those reports from Beirut, Bosnia or wherever. But the silence may be worse.

Phone calls: Charlie, my 60 year old ex-Jesuit priest friend with a very witty line in dirty jokes is off to Bali - by executive class bus because it's comfortable and he likes the scenery. Our numbers decrease and our sense of isolation increases exponentially. An emotional balance is difficult to sustain.

Time for a SuperMie lunch.

Repeated showings before the news finally ~ believably? ~ sinks in. He's going. Elections will be held for the M.P.R. which will elect a new president and vice-president. He will not be a candidate. He's in favour of a constitutional succession, supervised by a Reformation Ctte. composed of various public figures - including ulemas, no doubt, and university rectors. So ... how long will it take? Much conjecture and TVRI (the state run TV station) shows ulemas saying "Don't take anything for granted" and "terus, terus" which rhymes with Bruce and translates roughly, as "keep on keeping on"

Common sense will out? The students are still camped out at the MPR building and tomorrow is the 20th ~ scheduled for a People's March to the Presidential Palace ~ and the 90th anniversary of National Re-awakening. Symbolic or what? Of what, we wait for tommorrow. Will the people believe it when he talks of anti-corruption, anti-monopoly? He's old, he can afford to give up a quest - if that's what it was - for temporal wealth. But can he give up his children?

And are they, the children, really in the UK as reported on the net and supposedly confirmed by BA (British Airways)? An interesting question for we Brits: what would you have done if you had found that they were on the same flight as fellow evacuees? Boo'd and hissed? Invited them to jump out the nearest emergency exit? Or asked them to get the drinks in?




3:00 pm |
  Part 3

Wednesday 20th May

Up early-ish, have regular cold mandi (bath) just so I'm ready for .... whatever. Amien Rais cancels the People's March for fear of more bloodshed. The area around the palace is seemingly impenetrable with masses of barbed wire barricades to stop the masses

The Jakarta Post takes very sceptical view of Soeharto's 'live' announcement yesterday. Where were the dissidents - Amien Rais, Megawati, Emil Salim et al* - who'd pushed him so far?

The Post reports that all embassies are recommending evacuation, then has article with quotes from those of us with family commitments who can't leave. But two friends with Indonesian wives are .... where?

P, who'd been interviewed by phone by BBC radio & L have possibly headed for Bali. (One time I rang them, L was trapped one street away from their home in Bintaro.) J & I, with 3 pre-school children, will probably head Manodo or the Moluccas on Friday. Both P & J are on an extended break from the Korean International School so both have time ~ and dollars! If my office stays shut for another week, I think we may head for Bali. Why not?

Turns out that P & L have gone to Kuala Lumpur. Due to embassy warning?* And why not tell us? I check with embassy - ensure I'm still registered with them and basically confirm that sitting here doing nothing is best. Unsure even about which CD to play or which book to read; nothing will fit a mood which is impossible to define. Those of us still here say the same.

A later phone call from a colleague due to leave anyway who's staying with his in-laws in Sukabumi (about two hours away). He's flapping because he wants to know if the office will still be able to process his exit permits ~ and year-end bonus inc. flight. (They did.)

The TV channels show lots of 'we are all God's children' music performances. And the Clint Eastwood/Charlie Sheen epic The Rookie. Lots of lovely blood although the gunshots don't sound like those I heard here in Jakarta.

*P told me today that the previous night his electricity had been cut off just as he was answering a phone call from his worried family in Britain. At the same time, the local security guards had come down his street advising everyone to prepare buckets of water in case of fire ~ crazed mobs were expected.

Thursday 21st May

Suharto resigns, Habibie ascends.

All constitutional, but acceptable? Wiranto, army chief, says the army will protect Soeharto and his family. Boo, hiss ~ but what else?

Soeharto leaves the palace - with Tutut his 'public' daughter and lately Minister for Social Welfare (hers?) - in a civilian registered stretch Mercedes. Habibie leaves in the presidential version. On another channel, a documentary on the 60's - Peace, Love and Demonstrations (and great music).

Who will be on the Comite Reformasi, now presumably chaired/engineered by Habibie? A consensus arises, documented live-ish on TV, that the succession was not done constitutionally ~ why at the palace and not in front of the supposedly elected legislature? An anchorperson signs off ~ selamat reformasi (long live reformation).

Following The Rock Revolution, which closed with John and Yoko singing Give Peace A Chance, we get another documentary entitled The Art of Illusion, Hollywood's take (and give?) on reality.

The students are still at the parliamentary buildings.

News surfaces: the students are digging in, people are supporting them with food, messages and neighbourhood discussions. Whatever new corruption-, cronyism- and nepotism-free cabinet is formed by Habibie will not be legitimate if Habibie's there. Another sleight-of-mind by the master?

If so, we hear at 5.30pm. that it's not happening - 14 cabinet ministers have tendered their resignations. We haven't heard the names of Bob Hasan (Soeharto's golfing buddy) or Tutut.

News in English, 6.30 TVRI. General acceptance of the situation; the students have won the first round. Let's not forget Soeharto's achievemnents over 32 years, great statesman is international viewpoint ~and one must concur. The death of his wife, Madame Tien (per cent), must have destroyed much of his drive. The children became more arrogant and must, eventually, be brought to account, preferably fiscally but judicially if just cause can be found.

Or the country can conciliate, openly, and forge a new openness and respect for - and from - the community at large. We all await to see who's in the new cabinet, but this could be the end of our siege mentality. This country has lanced a boil.




2:30 pm |
  Part 4 - A Closing of Sorts

Friday 22nd May

'Er Indoors brings word from the market: Harto terun, harga terun. (Harto falls, prices fall.)

Kabinet Reformasi contains lots of professors and a few familiar faces. General Wiranto remains Minister of Defence, Ali Alatas is Foreign Secretary, overall co-ordination of security is in the hands of Feisal Tanjung and for finance there is internationally (IMF?) respected Ginandjar Sukismata (sp?). Apart from Habibie himself - who, when he became vice president, appointed his son to head up IPTN, the Bandung-based aerospace company set up by Habibie - I can't at the moment finger any Suharto cronies. But then what do I know? Only 16 out of the 36 faces are new.

Still, I'm optimistic about Habibie; there's an air of professionalism coming from the Cabinet members, maybe because they're now allowed their own voices. Bank Indonesia is now independent which means that they, rather than any form of government, can reform the banking sector. Given the revised management structure, B.I. is no longer Suharto's private piggy bank.

There is dissension in pro-democracy circles: to accept this or not. Those who wish to accept the situation are still putting a time limit on the expected elections. My view is the same; give Habibie a chance, but watch very closely for any variation from the people's aspirations - which are very clear.

Free political prisoners, allow the formation of political parties which adopt, yet adapt, the five principles of Pancasila, especially one people, one community and, above all, allow the freedom of expression which does not prevent freedom of expression. In other words there should be no religious fundamentalism or political extremism.

I worry when I see banners saying 'National Front' as I recall the UK fascist and racist group in London and elsewhere in the UK in the '70s and earlier. I worry because the Indonesian Chinese were recently targetted and because the Americans were the first to get themselves evacuated. This caused unnecessary resentment against we remaining Caucasians.

Belum pulang? (Not gone home yet?)

Goddam it. This is my home!

We met a schoolfriend of 'Er Indoors in the local Hero supermarket today. She's married to an English guy and they have a daughter aged 15, and she's got three more, older, daughters. Whilst he stayed for the duration in South Sumatra, she and the daughters went to Singapore, coming back with tales of fully booked hotels and vast expense.

And so this episode finishes. Very many thanks for your concerned phone calls. Life is but a series of passing phases and occasional smiling faces.

Enjoy your last year at university and, as ever, we look forward to seeing you here in what we hope will be a renewed and revitalised Indonesia.

Having withdrawn large sums of cash in anticipation of flight, bank closures etc., people are now spend, spend, spending. It's party time at those malls still open. Anyone got a slightly burnt modem?




2:00 pm |

Since the events of May '98, life has certainly moved on. Passing the MPR today (17.5.06) I saw a demo by farmers protesting the proposed revision of the agrarian laws. There was a minor traffic slowdown as drivers gawked but now that the public has the democratic right to protest and doesn't have to fight for that right, there is less of a focussed intent and a greater ennui.

Ho hum.

Some of us, indeed an increasing number, have turned to hyperspace for our hyperventilating. I expect to receive my 50,000th hit within a day or so.

To celebrate this momentous occasion, I am offering a selection of sounds (in MP3 format) to whoever can email me the hit counter with the number that is closest to that arbitrarily important figure.

In my 'diary' of our time in the initial phase of Reformasi here in Jakarta, I commented that I was unsure about which music I wanted to listen to; nothing would fit a mood which, due to uncertainty, was impossible to define. Looking back on those events a picture emerged; a number of songs seem to capture feelings and words which were, perhaps, badly expressed in my missive to Son No.1.

This is the commentary I wrote in July 1998 to accompany the compilation to be played whilst reading that original letter. Sleeve notes if you will.

ROBERT WYATT: East Timor (Indonesia) fr. Old Rottenhat
I've been a long-term fan, from his early days with Soft Machine and Matching Mole, through his solo career, so I was very pleased to find this album as a pirate cassette in 1988 when I first arrived in Indonesia. The Suharto regime was obviously unable to understand his sentiments and was certainly unaware of his involvement with the British Communist Party.

East Timor has remained an important focus of Indonesia's pariah status, both locally and internationally. There may yet be a solution: self-autonomy. A federation of states within the Republic of Indonesia may prove viable and appropriate.

(We all know what was about to burst upon the world with Timor Leste the result. But who's to say I wasn't prescient with my notion of a federal state. Is Aceh to be the only semi-autonomous province?)

DR. JOHN: Money fr. Television.
The sentiments of the song seem to encapsulate the 'yuppie' mentality engendered by the 'fruits' of Soeharto's grand development design. He seemed to have a kinship with Mrs. Thatcher. Indonesia was his fiefdom; he was a village chief, albeit of a very large one.

A reminder that vices are universal. I bought this CD at my favourite second-hand stall for Rp.20,000 - which is about 80p today. (Sunday, July 12, 1998).

PETER GABRIEL: We Do What We're Told
Severely slapped wrists, or a bullet in the back of the head, for any dissidents since they were surely anti-Pancasila, the state philosophy which emphasised 'One Family'.

IWAN FALS: Mengapa Besar? (Why Big?)
A mega musician here. Although a general's son, his songs are about the 'little people', those who are unable to do more than just survive, if barely. He has rarely performed recently because of his vast popularity and the reluctance of the police authorities, due to political pressure, to issue permits. His public persona of personal integrity has not been compromised in spite of the death of his 17 year old son from a heroin overdose a year or so ago, His concerts have often degenerated into riots as, indeed, happened just last week. If he sang in English, I?m certain he'd be an international super-star.

DAGMAR KRAUSE: Song of the Whitewash fr. Tank Battles
This is an album of pre-World War II songs which were definitely not acceptable to Hitler. Songs of decadence and decay.

This particular song seems to mirror the paternalistic ramblings of the regime, which acknowledged that mistakes had been made but trust us because we're with you and are the best people to get you out of the mess. After all, we got us into it. And it's not so bad anyway.

BOB MARLEY: Burnin' and Lootin' fr. Live at the Lyceum
This followed the shootings at Trisakti University which followed several weeks of protests and demonstrations against the government, which had rapidly lost touch with the populace. Talk at this time was openly wondering when Soeharto would step down. So, who shot the students? There are two policemen currently on trial, but popular conjecture is that there was a 'hidden hand', close to the regime and, therefore, the army. Another whitewash.

It was this day that terrified the Chinese community, in particular, as they and their businesses were the targets. Ex-pats became targets of highway robbers on the way to the airport, but I do feel that there was an element of racism in succumbing to the quite natural fear. After all, any slightly informed observer here would have known that the people's wrath was essentially aimed at the regime.

RICKIE LEE JONES: Scary Chinese Movie fr. Ghostyhead
I love the album and the song title seems appropriate. 168 women, mainly Chinese, were reportedly gang raped during the days of rioting. Chinese kung-fu movies are on every TV channel, seemingly every evening.

CLASH: Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
A seriously considered question. We stayed, others went. The decision we made for ourselves - there was insufficient money to get us out the country, though we did consider Bali - exactly mirrored the advice given by the British Embassy here, who, many of us feel, were unjustly criticised by those with more money than sense.

PAT METHENY: Roots of Coincidence fr. Imaginary Days
This one track portrays the weird mood swings of our 'siege'. Private thoughts and personal networking, paranoia and languor, excitement and laziness. Ten days that changed our world. But to what and how, few have a clear idea.

XTC: Merely A Man fr. Oranges and Lemons
On 29th August 1998, President Habibie said, "I am not God." Or a mere 'photocopy' of Soeharto. Indeed. He was too populist to achieve credibility.

My listening buds have been revitalised since.

(The compilation I send to reader no. 50,000 will note a slight variation from the above. This is because I can't digitalise my cassette collection. As a bonus I'll add loads of other stuff you probably won't have heard before.)




1:30 pm |
  Time to move on?

That was the comment from one of my readers in May 2006, but I said no.

It is essential that we call to account those who think they can get away with genocide, who can rob a country blind and then say ~ "Hey, we've got democracy now."

No we haven't, not until there is closure.

In saying what we felt then and how we feel now, perhaps there can be some understanding. I wonder though. Folks back in Blighty seem to be more interested in the impending eruption of Gunung Merapi (lit: Fire Mountain) presumably because it makes better television.

Well, have a look at Indcoup's account and the scenes he has posted.

Over the railway track, and toward Slipi. It's getting frantic now. At the junction I notice the words makin bikin brutal (let's make it brutal) chalked onto the road. Groups of people milling around. A couple of guys with sticks. Thank fu#k I'm on the bike. Gotta keep moving. Full throttle, through the red lights and I'm clear.

Five minutes later, I'm home.

But what to do? There's a bottle of wine that I was saving for a special occasion, but f#ck that: this is a special occasion. I chuck it in the freezer to get it cold. And so half an hour later I'm up on the roof garden (the place where the servants hang the washing), wine glass in one hand and a Henry Wintermans in the other. I even take off my shirt to get in spot of sunbathing.

But what the hell is that?

Treespotter has posted a very moving, emotional article. This is his (slightly edited) ending:

In this legal system where the head of the Supreme Court is a suspect in a bribery case and the sitting President is his ex-security chief, Soeharto is being freed of all charges on medical grounds.

The government conveniently used the frenzy around our nuclear wielding Iranian friend and dropped this news into the end of the news cycle on a national holiday weekend when no newspapers were published. On exactly the same weekend eight years after we oversaw his downfall. Somebody there has a wicked sense of humour.

I can have a lot more to say about this, really. I had friends who died exactly this week eight years ago. I have relatives who were shot and detained without charges over this stuff. I attended Elang's funeral and I looked into his mother's eyes, thinking that she might be proud someday that her son died for something. I shook her hands and kept the tissue for days afterward.

Only I won't say anymore right now because I'm just too fucking mad today.

And that's why we mustn't move on just yet.




1:00 pm |
  Stay put and stay low

Shortly after Suharto abdicated, stories appeared in the British press about the so-called 'incompetence' of the British Embassy staff. This is totally unfair. What was unfolding in Jakarta could not be planned for; it was organised anarchy.

The source of the story, a lass then living in Bandung who panicked and fled to Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta airport, should have stayed where she was. There was no way that embassy staff could have protected her from the mobs on her route or organised her individual itinerary.

During the Siege of Jakartass Towers, I relied a great deal on the disembodied voices at the end of a telephone connection in the Embassy to reinforce my perceptions. Stay put and stay low was, I felt, the best thing to do, and whoever I spoke to seemed to agree. This was a comforting thought.

Since then, I have got to know one of those voices quite well and, at my request, M., who had volunteered his services, has penned a few of his thoughts about the ten days or so spent in the Embassy compound.

I stared out of my hotel window watching the troop dispositions around the British Embassy. It was a surreal site; the road surface had been chewed up into curved and corrugated ruts by the passage of heavy tracked vehicles, there were barbed wire barriers everywhere, and an ominous lack of traffic on what is usually one of Jakarta's busiest thoroughfares. Troop carriers and armoured cars were parked at crazy angles at the road junctions. Kids were clambering onto and into the military vehicles, while soldiers lounged in the shade under the trees at the side of the pavement, sleeping or smoking their kretek cigarettes.

The Mandarin Hotel, just across the road from the Embassy, was general HQ for the hordes of journalists and camera crews who had descended on Jakarta. I called in there every morning for breakfast, picking my way over battered aluminium cases and coils of slithery black cables to snatch what food was left at the buffet. Journalists, I reflected, have exceedingly healthy appetites. Sadly, their appetite for getting in close to the street action didn't seem quite so keen. My impression, from the conversations going on around me, was that a lot of them were more concerned to find some local bigwig to posture in front of a camera and pontificate on what was happening, rather than get into the thick of the action and see it first hand.

I was based in the Embassy during those critical days, updating their web site information and helping to man the emergency phone service that had been set up to provide advice for British nationals throughout the country. Phones rang non-stop, anxious Embassy officials darted hither and thither with slips of paper and notepads, and you could smell the tension in the air. But in spite of the apparent chaos it was a well-organized and very efficiently run operation - which needs to be said, as there were completely unfounded criticisms levelled at the Embassy after the crisis.

The highlight of the second week was my escape from the Embassy. We'd been told it was still unsafe to venture outside the cordon around the place, and on no account were we to return to our homes. Sneaking out of the gate with a colleague, we drove through the barriers unchallenged and sped to our respective homes in south Jakarta. I had two aims: check that my cat was safe, then head for the local bars to get the gossip from my friends. The traffic was jammed solid as usual, shops and offices were open, life had returned to the streets. It was only later, chatting with friends over a few drinks, that the darker horrors of the previous couple of weeks came vividly to life from their eye-witness accounts.




12:30 pm |
Sunday, May 10, 1998
  West Sumatra Earthquake Aid Agencies (NGOs)

Check the sites of each of these reputable organisations for details of their operations and regular updates on their ongoing help.


Mercy Corps
(CafeGive is donating a proportion of its sales to Mercy Corps.)

Yayasan IDEP

SurfAid International

International Red Cross
Paling Merah (in Indonesian)




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