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
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The Independent Online
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.