As I drive around the jam packed streets of Jakarta seeing babies on bikes without helmets, little kids picking up the trash, old ladies with bowls begging for a few rupiah, barefoot workmen digging up the roads, men pulling wooden rubbish carts with their family inside amongst the rubbish, shimmering mosques lining the streets, groups of men enjoying some nongkrong time on a rat infested street, cigarette billboards plasted across the city, giant malls nestled side by side filled with high class stores as warungs set up shop out front for the employees of the malls to eat at, the jamu women trudging the streets with their baskets strapped to their backs, a Ferrari ducking around the potholes, security and parking men endlessly waving their red torches, roads shut down to allow government officials to pass through, others shut down for mass praying, rivers that smell like sewerage and gold fish for sale in plastic bags being wheeled through the streets; I wonder, how did it become like this?
Through my time here, I have tried to understand it; I began by asking friends who seemed to know very little, I read books, and in my mind I have pieced together a story of Indonesia and how it has been shaped and shaped again by world events such as colonialism, world war 2 and the cold war and how it is that countries that are rich in resources, often end up the poorest in the world after the big companies get their greedy hands onto it.
And meanwhile, the people are trying to survive however they can.
Allow me some guesswork and some mass generalisations and potentially misinformed rhetoric to retell what I believe is Indonesian history is 1000 words or less, up to the part where Sukarno was President and save the rest until later.
Let me begin 2000 years ago, when Indonesia was not a nation, but a vast array of thousands of islands, formed by the movement of plates beneath the earth creating volcanoes which produced rich soil – so rich that traders from China and India were making their way to the islands to trade for spices, precious wood and medicine. Trade routes were established and there was an exchange and crossing of cultures, with Buddhism and Hinduism making its way to the archipelago – beautiful temples were made which still stand in Central Java showing engineering knowledge and craftsmanship equal to, if not more advanced, than the cathedrals that were build hundreds of years later in Europe. Islam started its journey into Indonesia via Aceh and the trade links that were being established there which made it easier to trade with the Muslim traders and over hundreds of years, making its way across the islands and being absorbed into the culture at different rates.
In my imagination, I think of this as a peaceful time. No doubt the kingdoms were fighting, as kingdoms always do, and the people were trying to survive and live and fall in love and have families and learn the traditions of their cultures, as people do. In my mind, as I romanticize the past, I feel a sense ofmerdeka at this time. People had enough leisure time to build beautiful things, people were educated and well fed and healthy. Maybe all virgins were thrown into volcanoes at this time, I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I just want to imagine a place of Javanese kingdoms and cool costumes.
But in my imaginings of history, while the Javanese are trading and building temples and learning about Islam, there is trouble brewing in the North.
Little do they know of the advances that were taking place in Europe as shipping technology improved so Europeans were able to travel outside of their general area and explore the world. Many set sail on an adventure and returned from long journeys to write books on the newly available printing presses, which told of fantastic far-away lands, where people had never heard of Jesus or the 100 year war, or the Crusades, where the finest silks could be found and new flavours of food were sampled, where women were topless and the crystal clear waters would make you weep with their beauty. The Europeans looked around their poverty-stricken cities where beggars lined the streets and the rivers were full of rubbish and the men were tired from fighting endless Crusades, and crime was rampant, and thought “well, this place is a bloody mess, let’s go see if we can take some stuff from that nice sounding place”.
So given supplies and ships and the promise of rewards from Kings and Queens, the great explorers set off to see what riches they could find. The Portuguese were the first to sail around Africa and eventually to make their way to Indonesia where they found the well established trade networks and decided that they wanted a piece of it, and at the same time would work to convert these people to Christianity. Eventually as we all know the Dutch came, kicked out the Portuguese and established their centre of trade in what we know called Jakarta, but which they called, Batavia, after a long and bloody battle in which all of the residents, the Bantanese, were kicked out.
So from the 1600s the VOC, or Netherlands United East India Company, began their fight to take over the trade networks using underhanded tactics, bigger boats and guns and rivalries between the different kingdoms in Java so that by the end of the 1700s, after some fierce battles, they controlled all of Java. After the VOC became bankrupt, the Dutch government took over control of the trading and eventually spread their control to Sumatra, Bali and Ambon.
If I can crudely summarise what happened to Java and the Javanese at this time I would say this; the Dutch became a very rich nation by making the farmers of Java grow cash crops such as sugar and tea; grown in Java but sold to Europe with the Javanese making zero profits for themselves. They took control of land owned by subsistence farmers and basically changed the whole shape of Java. All old systems of trade were finished, and only the Dutch were allowed to trade. Soon the whole of Java was basically a big cash crop farm, old landowners now had to work at the farms, and a kind of mafia who worked, for example for the sugar cane companies, took over control of these people. Many people, now without land, were forced into the city areas to try and make a living and by the early 1900s, what is now Jakarta was already an urban mess with no water, barely any housing and malaria and other diseases creating disaster zones. This was outside the concern of the Dutch, who probably lived in big houses in Menteng and had natives to fetch them all that they needed. And so the problem grew without respite.
Also, for many years Indonesian people were not allowed to be educated, unless they came from the highest elite. And Of course the Dutch kept a very close eye on any potential uprisings and used covert methods to undermine any attempts of nationalism. Many people were imprisoned or exiled from the colony to serve as a warning that independence was not an option.
World War II of course saw the invasion of Japan who Indonesians hoped would be nicer than the Dutch with their slogan of “Asia for Asians” , only to find that they were bloody awful too. They made men work for free, they created mass food shortages and although they stressed that they were Asians too, they didn’t see Indonesian people as equals. In 1945 when the Japanese lost the war, Sukarno declared independence and raised the flag and the Republic of Indonesia was born. The Dutch didn’t like this one bit of course, as they planned to come back to Indonesia and suck a few more resources away to build up their post-war economy. So then the Indonesians had to fight the Dutch again, and eventually the United Nations said “ok Dutchies, enough is enough, just give it back”. So they did, but they kept control of some of the resources.
So then Sukarno came to power and he tried his best to try and bring together the different religions, thousands of languages and cultures and the mess that had become Jakarta. Some people wanted Indonesia to be an Islamic nation, others argued that religion should be separate from politics, and the debate waged on, and still does.
So, here we are at the end of the first phase of this history lesson. Coming up next the overthrow of Sukarno by the American backed Suharto, the rise of the Suharto family, the rise of corruption, the deals with the IMF, the Asian Financial crisis, the incarceration of Tommy Suharto and now his move back into politics.
Meanwhile, the man outside is still pushing his cart, survival more on his mind than how he got to be in that position. And he is still waving and smiling at the bules as they walk past. Ah, history is as confusing as the present.