Indonesia crisis: Heartbreaking destruction of the city I love

David Foll, a writer and teacher who lived in Java, writes of his anxiety for a people and a country he came to love

IN THE early Nineties I lived for nine months in the city of Solo, central Java, where I was studying classical Javanese music. I grew to love the Indonesian people for their grace, gentleness and almost universal kindness.

During my last weeks there, I witnessed the campaigns for the 1992 elections. The complexities of Indonesian politics had been reduced to a choice among three political parties (the government party and the small Muslim and Democratic parties), three numbers (1, 2 or 3), three symbols (a banyan tree, a buffalo head and a star) and three colours (yellow, red and green).

There was never any doubt about who would win. Quotas of votes were set for village heads to return if they wanted any share in development projects, and all civil servants had to vote for the government party, which received "only" 68 per cent of the vote.

On specially designated days one party was allowed to rally in the area. Supporters, mostly young, put on T-shirts of the correct colour, piled on to motorbikes (sometimes three at a time) or pick-up trucks and massed aggressively in the streets.

"Stay clear," my landlady told me. "Don't go out. If anyone asks you which party you support, you do like this." And a mask fell over her usually animated face, which was instantly inoffensive and blank, with only the vaguest of smiles.

Travelling in a minibus from Solo to Yogyakarta, I was caught in a succession of such rallies. We repeatedly had to stop at the roadside to let what seemed a tribal army pass us, chanting slogans, waving banners and thumping on the roof and sides of our minibus, which, thank God, had tinted windows so that the foreigner inside could not be seen.

What impressed me most was the pointlessness of these events, as well as the explosive, barely contained energies of these charming people who had become a monster with many heads. They were profoundly frustrated and they had no channel for their political aspirations.

Always present beneath the smiles was this sense of fear, of the state, the army, the police, of anyone in authority. But there was a deeper fear, too: that Indonesia would have to go again through the nightmare of 1965- 66, when perhaps half a million people were killed after a failed coup against Sukarno, the first president of independent Indonesia. Communist Party members were hunted down and butchered, along with Chinese Indonesians (Sukarno had aligned himself with Peking, and anyway the Chinese minority always get it in the neck when there is trouble) plus, in the fields, those poor farmers who had joined the campaign for land reform. Suharto rose to his pre-eminent position through this bloodshed.

No one would talk willingly about this time. As a guest in their country I never wanted to press my friends about it. But once Nyoman, a Balinese friend, did speak. I had been with him to a festival in his home village. We were looking at some photos I had taken of the masks worn in the temple celebrations when he said: "This mask you must never put lower than the others. If you do, the earth will shake. That happened in 1965." Suddenly he was telling me how he had killed people. He had to, he said; if he hadn't, they would have killed him.

Suharto's authoritarian rule was created to bring back order, stability and economic prosperity. There were outward signs of democracy (a consultative assembly, a house of representatives, elections) but these he controlled like a Javanese dalang, or shadow puppeteer, until they were as insubstantial as shadows.

I went back to Java over Christmas last year. The Jakarta skyline was changed beyond recognition. Huge shopping malls with skyscraper hotels rearing out of them were everywhere. Inside were international designer shops andfreezing air-conditioned lobbies. Whatever happens, I said to a friend in Jakarta, they will never jeopardise this. Like the absolutist Javanese kings of old, Suharto seemed to have fulfilled his role of Father of the Nation, and his kingdom was peaceful and wealthy. In return he claimed the age-old prerogatives of unquestioned power, slavish respect and huge personal wealth.

But by Christmas this prosperity was tottering. Only a few could afford the luxuries. Then came the forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, partly caused by the effects of El Nino, but partly by First Family business activities - timber, plantations, and, crazily, the reclamation of mangrove swamps for rice fields.

Now there is appalling public disorder. The wahyu, the divine radiance of powerful kings, has deserted Suharto. With it gone, there is no reason to support him any more. But it is difficult to see who the wahyu will pass to, since Suharto has disposed of all credible opposition.

It is heartbreaking to watch on television such scenes of destruction in a city I love. Yesterday I phoned friends in Solo. Even in that gracious city a department store, five minutes from my old house, had been torched.

I fear for the lives of Chinese friends. I can only hope that the high walls and metal gateways with which they surround their homes will protect them.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star