Politics from the sidelines


The recent Ubud Writer’s and Reader’s Festival is responsible for infecting me with an annoying earbug I haven’t been able to shake out of my head for a week. This post so far has been written in three airports and on as many flights.This year’s theme,  Indonesia’s national slogan “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”, which is usually translated into something like “unity in diversity”, is supposedly an  acknowledgement of pluralism in a country with more than 300 distinct languages (no, not dialects, languages). Unsurprisingly, this vast archipelago spread over one-eighth of the world’s girth comes with a smorgasbord of cultures as well, rendering all attempts to describe “a traditional Indonesian culture” into an elaborate farce.

During this international gathering there were some fine examples of diversity. For example ancient Pali and Sanskrit scholar of Buddhism, the highly academic Professor Richard Gombrich (non-plussed at being invited to a literary festival!) sat down with Bali’s defacto poet laureate cum playwright Cok Sawitri and Inayah Wahid (the youngest daughter of  late President “Gus Dur’”). Gombrich, scholastic but eloquently loqacious, interpreting the actual words of the slogan, put forth the view that we needn’t bother being so obsessed with unity, why not simply allow diversity? He certainly got diversity. Cok Sawitri, in her usual dramatic fashion, insisted in commenting in high Balinese and ancient Kawi, leaving Gombrich a bit high and dry as he speaks neither, and the moderator with the additional headache of translating. Meanwhile  Inayah hadn’t even shown up yet. When she did, she somewhat breathlessly started off with telling us she really didn’t have much to say. But one thing she did say (prompted by a question) was a little gem: “My father always said that pluralism is not just tolerating others who are different. It is standing up for them when their rights are trampled”.

At another session a very humorous Israeli writer cracked that at every international festival he attends they always put him in a panel next to a Palestinian writer “and hope for some sparks”. Both he and the Palestinian burst out laughing. I am sure they both know about stereotyping and what it feels like to be forced into a mold.

But the question for us in Indonesia is why is such a simple message – unity in diversity – is so difficult to convey to a certain set of people who insist on terrorizing anything that doesn’t look like their idea of the culture of a deserted piece of the Middle East, despite the fact that they are locally born and bred? The trend is growing and, fatally, is allowed to grow by a hamstrung government wallowing in its own issues of bad governance. Our brand new chief of police even made a statement to the effect that militant Muslim groups could help “maintain security”. I suppose it’s not that surprising from a man who shrugged off his role in the bloody suppression of  the Trisakti students with: “I was following orders”.

Of course everyone has heard of the rampant corruption, but most outsiders simply assume that it is just an endemic problem concerning individuals within the ranks of the civil service etc.. It’s true there is that, but behind that is something quite a bit more sinister.

What some people still don’t realize or wish to acknowledge is the importance of huge amounts of New Order corruption-sourced funds that were never successfully recuperated after the fall of Soeharto some 12 years and 3 Presidents ago. That money, secured by his cronies and extended family, now represents re-entrenched political forces in their own right, consisting of blocks of economic might ensuring a shadowy immunity. The current  regime (or shall we just say  leader) doesn’t seem to have the stomach needed to face down this silent, seemingly iron-clad bastion of rampant nepotism, much less recuperate the billions of dollars which rightfully belongs to the republic. Even just the interest earned on those misappropriated funds would fund the housing of many of Jakarta’s abject poor.

I digress with some purpose. How, in a fractured political situation like this, are we to deal with social issues now threatening to rip this country apart? The pervasive perception of the president is that he is much more concerned with his own well-being than the country’s overall functionality – a fatal flaw in a region where the standard of leadership determines a countries moral compass. If the President, now secure in the early years of his second term, won’t step up to the plate and take on the ‘holy’ hooligans (and their hidden backers) by the horns, unity in diversity will remain just a tired slogan.

It is not enough to know what is right and wrong, one needs to take a stand, both in heart and action. As the late moral philosopher Philippa Foot argued, reason can help you recognize the right thing to do, but it doesn’t necessarily motivate you to do it.

However ineffective he was as a president, Gus Dur’s view of pluralism is unassailable: if you believe in it, then defend it. We  need  to dare, we need to reach out. Otherwise, don’t complain if the only ones who dare and who reach out are the misguided maniacs. Most of the fanatic footsoldiers who fight in the name of a twisted version of  religion aren’t even aware that they too are pawns, manipulated by both those who seriously have lost all moral fibre and  those whose hubris makes them think they can switch maniacs on and off.

Personally I still believe that the majority of Indonesians are tolerant and kind, living in a country that whose nature is rich and forgiving. As one foreign film maker put it in the title of his documentary on Indonesia: Wet Earth and Warm People. It’s just that it takes a real outrage for them to speak out. That is something that needs to change. The moderates need to find their voice, and they need to use it. The real Muslim majority, not the Afghanistan alumni, needs to be heard. The rest of the nation needs to be heard. Hoping that a self involved, weak leadership complemented by a puerile parliament will take the initiative is fantasizing.

We need be midwives at the birth of a truly civic society. It’s trite, but it’s true that there is no running away from the past – it has to be confronted for us to go forward. To do that we also need to let in a younger generation who understand that they are free to be who they are yet not afraid to embrace what is different. A generation that understands that unity is not dictated homogeneity.

One very heartening sign at Ubud Writer’s Festival was the presence of a group of teenage high school students from Jakarta who on their own initiative organized a bus to bring to Bali just for the occasion, somehow managing to coerce one of their teachers into chaperoning them. They did as much as they could, dancing with Savunese weavers, listening and talking to their literary idols, attending discussion after discussion. As my old journalistic mentor, Tides Katoppo, remarked when we heard their story: “Now I believe there’s still hope!”

What Will Rise from the Ashes of Bangkok?

There were no winners in Wednesday’s showdown in Bangkok. The Reds’ supposed people’s movement had long shown signs of extreme rogue elements, and was tainted from the beginning as being motored by a supremely corrupt, bitter, and vindictive – albeit “illegally” deposed –  ex-prime minister. There is no question that there were some sincere ‘simple folk’ amongst them, but it is also clear that they had been duped, and then utterly betrayed in the crimson, blood stained retreat.

The deliberate and professional torching of Bangkok’s business center wiped out whatever little remaining sympathy there was for this people’s movement. The sheer brigandry of it has left a very bad taste in everyone’s mouth, and for now these ‘simple folk’ couldn’t be any further away from getting a better deal – anyone associated with the Red movement has been branded.

For the other side there really isn’t much of a victory either. The current government might be led by intelligent figures (looking back over the last few years, this is easily the most credible bunch yet), but it could not muster enough control over its admittedly divided army to crack down firmly and quickly on the early stages of a disruptive movement in the heart of its own capital. A ragtag mob, fed by the dirty money of a deposed leader, was allowed to stay for weeks after the initial outrage of taking over the retail heart of the city. Early on the government, even after losing face in front of all its ASEAN neighbors in that embarrassing helicopter evacuation in Pattaya last year, seemed unwilling to take any serious action to break the back of a clearly escalating chaos.

The end result? The entire world staring at distressing images of mayhem in downtown Bangkok. Central World blazing. People facedown on the ground, humiliated and cuffed. Bloodied bodies and corpses. Strangely disturbing too, the image of a monk cuffed to a plastic chair, his face twisted in emotion – everyone knows how privileged and revered monks supposedly are in Thailand. After a couple of days the world will tire of the news in Thailand and move on. Nonetheless, their memories of the country will be those images. They will take time to fade.

Abhisit’s government has had an unfortunate track record from its early months: its perceived unwillingness to come down in court on leaders of the Yellow shirt movement, who so blithely flaunted the law and took over the airport a couple of years ago, crippling all international air traffic to Bangkok for a week. Court proceedings seemed to trail off into vapor along with any moral authority that the government might have had. Political will was hardly evident. Worse yet, it opened the doors to escalation. Granted the airport occupation was a fun fair compared to the Reds’ occupation downtown, and that there was no shortage of people duped into the Yellow movement as well; but there  is no question that to the Reds it became: “Hey, if they can get away with it, so can we”.

It is perhaps a little unfair to criticize the current Thai government for just simple indecisiveness. Amongst all the squabbling factions, royalists or not, there are two very real powers in Thailand: money and military. For much of Southeast Asia, that’s nothing new. Perhaps somewhere in the hearts of many there is a craving for a moral leadership, yet even that moral leadership in the end would have to negotiate those two minefields.

And what has become clear in this debacle is that in today’s Thailand both money and military can go any way they damn well please. General Anupong, military commander–in-chief due to retire, most likely had little stomach for a career blemishing finale, and it is well known the military is split. Undoubtedly it will be a few years before we hear what really went on in the backrooms of the military barracks when Abhisit himself was quartered there for protection. On the other hand, a billion baht still buys as much as a billion baht will, even if it comes from the coffers of one of the most viciously vindictive of corrupt politicians. In this case money blind-sided a whole government.

Abhisit’s government did appear to dither in the early stages of this debacle. Coming into power in a controversial way himself, Abhisit has never been really been able to get even his own party behind him, let alone a whole electorate. He allowed the army to send in green recruits for weeks when a one-day sweep with the crack troops would have nipped it in the bud. When they were finally sent in it was clear that bloodshed and mayhem would be inevitable. He has displayed a dismal lack of political savoir-faire in dealing with the Reds, offering practically no graceful way out for their leaders to compromise without being seen as sell-outs.

The world at large may try to depict this as simply a class struggle or a country versus city conflict. But it is far more complicated, a story of manipulation and counter-manipulation, with many duped on both sides. And the speed at which Bangkok’s once vibrant economy spiralled into chaos was alarming.

Now amongst the ashes and the impending knock-on effects on the Thai economy, Abhisit’s government has to be decisive and bold. Whether there will be elections or not, the bitterness that is dividing Thailand is not going away; it will continue to fester. Whether he will continue much longer in office or not, Abhisit needs to display extraordinary leadership and reach out to all sides evenhandedly. And he needs to do this very soon. A witch hunt will make it worse. It is a daunting task, given the vengefulness which has reared its ugly face, but for the future of Thailand there is little choice.

It is a Thai problem, and only Thai leadership can bring the country back together. Now the question is, can Abhisit lead an effective civilian government to bring reconciliation to this torn nation? Or will General Anupong’s successors push for yet another military ‘solution’?