Monthly Archives: December 2009


When you land at Banda Aceh airport today and drive into town, there is not much that seems different from any other smallish provincial city in Indonesia, except perhaps for a much higher percentage of women wearing jilbab head shawls and a terminal designed to look like a mosque. Along the main roads and protocol areas leading to town, there are no major physical indications of the tsunami that ripped through huge swathes of flat-lands in this outlying province of Indonesia 5 short years ago, killing hundreds of thousands of people. And much less so the forty years of armed conflict that has shredded the fabric of Aceh’s society.

Some of the more freakish sights, like a huge floating electricity generator pontoon which the tsunami propelled five kilometers inland, have become local tourist attractions and somehow have lost the aura of tragedy.

But the prolonged, bitter conflict and the apocalyptic devastation left behind by the tsunami, have gouged deep scars in the Acehnese psyche, and nowhere more so than in the hearts and minds of it’s children. The worst hurt seem the most taciturn. Their voices recounting their stories are matter-of-fact, tempered by suffering. Few adjectives enter their sentences.


Today there are still many children who are separated from their families, many of whom have little choice but to live in a variety of child care hostels ranging from traditional local Islamic boarding schools (‘Dayah’) to state institutions, which in Indonesia go under the generic term of panti asuhan.

The quality of care, education, living conditions and social atmosphere of all these institutions, particularly the newer ones, vary greatly. Often it boils down to the motivation and character of the directors of the institution itself, who in the case of the private institutions tend to be the ‘owners’. In not a few cases the children have become a commodity, the ‘bait’ for funding and grants – the more the children, the more the money. More often the atmosphere of these institutions is less spiritual than repressive.

The children register everything quietly, but remember vividly. Dormitory rooms so full that the only place to sleep is on the floor. Sharing 3 bathroom/toilets with 65 others. Punishments: “I was forced into the got (open sewer like gutter) because I couldn’t memorise the religious texts well” said one 15 yr old girl who eventually went home.

Many endure for lack of choice, parents killed or impoverished by war and tsunami. They know they are a burden for their families. Says one 12 year old orphan “I would like to stay with my aunt, but she is already looking after 5 of her own kids and my little sister, it’s very crowded and my uncle doesn’t work”. Some are determined to weather the worst to improve their lot: “My father is gone. My mother is a seasonal farm laborer. I want to be a doctor” states a petite teenager in a baby blue gauze jilbab.

Others are just happy to have any sanctuary. A 13 year old ward of Dayah Darul Amna in Pidie whose father was killed by GAM rebels and whose mother was lost in the tsunami when she went to Banda Aceh that fateful day, feels secure here: “I like Walid (Rachmat, the director), I can talk with him.”.

Perhaps one of the reasons why is that ‘Walid’ Rachmat really understands: his own father was killed by GAM rebels demanding a cut of money granted to Dayah by the government. That’s not to say the 13 yr old in his charge doesn’t miss his parents: “I wish I had gone to Banda Aceh that day. At least I would be with my mother now.”.The adults in the room fall into a delicate silence.

There are many such stories. Ironically, the tsunami has washed away public attention from the deeper wounds of the armed conflict. Though the Memorandum of Understanding remains in place til now, long term suspicions remain, some barely beneath the surface. Both sides committed atrocities. Both remain suspicious of each other, and of each other’s children. In my local guide’s words: “Acehnese revenge lasts 7 generations”.

What is even sadder is that those who tried to remain neutral in the conflict and simply get on with their lives, were not only caught in the middle but were labeled traitor by both sides. The Acehnese even coined a new word, “Cua’ak”, for these ‘fence sitting traitors’. The same twisted logic applies to the cuâ’aks children, who inherit this dubious title and the double discrimination that goes with it.

In this atmosphere of political and religious tension, these young charges of institutionalized care, these tenacious victims of circumstance, are not really just statistics. These children of Aceh, so sparing with their adjectives, living by their own rules of emotional survival, are the heirs of a fractured community.

Some of them are determined to fight for a better future. Others have neither the will nor the help to overcome their hurt. Meet the time bombs of the future.


Indonesia’s heavily institutionalized generation has had enough. Today thousands have promised to take to the streets to protest against the rather spectacularly lame way in which the government, in particular the president, has dealt with two highly charged cases – the attempt to frame Anti Graft Commission leaders and the Century bank scandal. This morning local networks aired footage of a stern looking president warning against any violence by provocateurs which the government intelligence agencies supposedly know are set to move. Mostly this has backfired and become fodder for critics who see it as fear mongering.

Many people take this as either overblown caution or perhaps even trying to stir up fear. What it obviously does is take the focus off the actual issue itself, which right now is not just corruption per se but the government’s failure to act decisively on these cases where there is clear indication of dereliction of duty. This morning’s papers carry President SBY’s slightly stagey promise to wage “Jihad” on corruption – a rather blatant attempt to reach out to different communities. The rhetoric, in the light of huge public disappointment with the government’s perceived attempt to cover-up these two cases, probably will backfire as well. People are tired of talk, whether it is Obama or SBY. They want results. They want the various institutions that have been funded by their money to deliver.

At this point it is an almost impossible demand to fulfill. While on the surface, and of course in very proper terms, it is a perfectly fitting demand, and the president should act, but in reality this mind-boggling corruption has seeped into the very foundations of these institutions and requires a much more powerful antidote.

What this corruption has done is to eat into the heart of the community. Indonesians, like most people in the world, crave community. We all create our own personal communities of choice, but these are always sustained within and interact with larger networks defined by traditions, philosophies, economies. The reality is Indonesia has patched together more than 200 ethnic communities into a nation that can hardly avoid being a dysfunctional family until it manages to knit itself into a larger, wholesome one. With the help of today’s hyper-communication, a newer generation is trying to do so in a somewhat organic albeit haphazard way.

What has been the focus of all the nation building efforts especially during the New Order, and what has carried over into the so-called Reformation Era, is the creation of institutions and supporting bureaucracies. The structures have taken on a life of their own, artificial communities inspired not by common interest and vision but by power (e.g. military) and money. Unlike the natural communities of the past they have somehow managed to de-contextualize themselves to the point of absurdity by defining their position within the community as authorities over rather than supporters of the community’s needs.

Yes there are many problems, social, political and economic, which rack and torture the country. But our institutions have become diseased and impotent in the face of these problems – they focus on spawning programs which rely on the institutions themselves to be sustained. “Community building” has been reduced to a slogan.

With the breakdown of traditional communities, Indonesians are rushing to fill in the gap with informal communities of their own. But where we should be reaching across gaps and embracing our plurality, we are often busy only trying to find psychological shelter for ourselves and our own kind.

A certain minister during the New Order era once told me that the only way to get anything of real value done is to create task forces that minimalize the role of individual, monolithic and encrusted institutions. I was somewhat taken aback by the humble realism of this statement coming from a man sitting on top of crusty department of his own. But it also made me realize how reliant we are on the odd individual for the political will to do something right.

We don’t need any more institutions to control existing institutions. I have no idea whether the Anti-graft Commission’s Bibit and Chandra are innocent of all corruption or not, but the point of the protest was more about due process of law. What we need is for those people in these institutions to realize that they are just as accountable to the community as they are to their bosses. This is what protesters and social media networkers are yelling out to them.

The voices of ‘opposition’ come from all corners, some unthinkable even in the recent past. Recently I was alerted to an extreme case of a 5th grader (yes primary school) being held at the Krobokan jail in Bali (for adults) for some petty crime. Of all the people to alert the community on the outside, it was prisoners themselves. Even these so called hardened criminals (that’s another debate) didn’t have the heart to see a child being held there.

Fed up of waiting, people are creating their own network communities (as opposed to community networks) thru social media and so forth to act and react. It is haphazard, but it is the voice of Indonesians rebelling against de-humanisation and irresponsibility. Thru the agency of these overnight network communities we have school children gathering coins to pay for Prita Mulyasari’s draconian fine, people marching in the streets and so forth. Dear Leader – meet the new spirit of Indonesia. Don’t try to crush it, be a mensch and embrace it.