Indonesian revelations

The large archipelago nation of Indonesia has been in the media lately with a couple of unexpected revelations – for me at least.

For one thing, the country’s capital city Jakarta will soon no longer be the capital city! I know this has been done before. Just think of Russia, where the capital city was moved from Moscow to St Petersburg in the 18th century and back to Moscow after the October Revolution of 1917. Or take Brazil, which switched its capital city status from Rio to the purpose-built new city of Brasilia in 1960. More recently, Myanmar did the same in 2005 and moved its capital from Rangoon (aka Yangon) to the planned new city of Naypyidaw.

Indonesia is about to go the Brazil/Myanmar way, as it were, with a purpose-built new capital in the very centre of the archipelago, namely in the province of East Kalimantan, on the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. It turns out the plan was already announced in 2019, but that passed me by. I only noticed last month when the name for the new place was revealed (see e.g. this article – external link) as Nusantara. Apparently that means simply ‘archipelago’ (so it’s similarly non-imaginative as is Brasilia for Brazil).

The reason for the move is that Jakarta is suffering from overpopulation, excessive congestion and construction, worsening air quality and also subsidence. Allegedly the northern parts of the city are sinking at the rather alarming rate of 25cm per year!

So relocating the government and administration with its inflated bureaucratic apparatus away from Jakarta is supposed to relieve the city of some of its woes, although it will likely remain the commercial hub of Indonesia for some time to come.

There are fears, however, that the new capital might put additional strain on the environment of Kalimantan, which is already suffering from increasing deforestation of primary jungle, especially for plantation agriculture and mining, pushing the island’s unique wildlife further towards the brink of extinction.

I had travelled to Indonesia in 2014, including some southern parts of Kalimantan, and also stayed in Jakarta for a couple of days.

There I experienced the problem of congestion first-hand. This is a photo I snapped through the car windscreen as my guide took me out of town (en route to Krakatoa). It didn’t help that it was a public holiday and millions of city dwellers were all trying to go to the countryside at the same time:


congested Jakarta road


The dark-tourism reason why I included Jakarta in my itinerary was something else, though, and has to do with Indonesia’s very dark twentieth century history.

Not only did the country suffer under Dutch colonialism and, during WWII, under a brutal occupation by Imperial Japan, it also created its own dark chapters in its history itself. The deposing of President Sukarno is one example. Sukarno (also spelled “Soekarno” in the Dutch way) had steered Indonesia into independence and membership of the Non-Aligned Movement (primarily initiated by Yugoslavia’s leader Tito). Yet for some he was becoming too left-leaning, and in 1965 he was deposed by military general Suharto … below I’ll come back to more on that and what happened next. In Jakarta, Sukarno had a national monument built, called Monas (short for “Monumen Nasional”), which was begun in the 1960s but not completed until 1975, after Sukarno’s death. Hence it’s also known under the nickname “Sukarno’s last erection”:


National Monument in Jakarta, Indonesia


I also travelled to Borneo, but only to the provinces of West and Central Kalimantan. The main dark reason was the Mandor killing fields, the site of massacres perpetrated by the Japanese during WWII, now commemorated mainly by this large monument with a gold bas-relief depiction of the atrocities:


Mandor killing fields monument


In addition to such official commemorations of dark history, you can also witness contemporary dark aspects of Indonesia. For instance, right next to the Mandor memorial site is a vast field of dead soil, bleached white – this is the result of illegal gold mining:


this is what a former gold mining site looks like: dead


See also my recent blog post “DT and mining” for another example of this. Environmental destruction in Kalimantan also takes quite legal forms, especially through vast monoculture oil-palm plantations for which large parts of primary rainforest are logged. Driving through the province we every so often passed lorries carrying oil-palm fruits away:


the modern palm oil industry raises its ugly head


Palm oil is a commodity in high demand in the cosmetics industry, as a biofuel as well as in food production (e.g. chocolate). It’s not necessarily unsustainable, but especially in Kalimantan it unfortunately often is (see also this take on the topic by the WWF – external link).

In Central Kalimantan I went to see the kind of environment threatened by these modern-day developments. My focus was on the Tanjung Puting National Park, one of the last large areas of low-lying swampy pristine rainforest. It is accessible only by boat, as seen in this picture:


by boat through the rainforest


The fact that the rainforest carries this designation was rightly demonstrated repeatedly by sudden heavy downpours like this:


this is why it is called a rainforest


The main reason for tourists to go to Tanjung Puting NP is to see orangutans. The park is the biggest original and still largely intact habitat for Borneo’s orangutans. At Camp Leakey and a couple of other spots, semi-habituated orangs can be encountered. I particularly liked the image of this young ape after one of those heavy downpours:


bad wet hair day for this young orangutan


But back to Indonesia’s dark history and the events of 1965 already flagged up above. On 30 September and 1 October that year there allegedly was an attempted coup in which several high-ranking members of the military were assassinated, allegedly by communists. What exactly happened and whether this really was an attempt at overthrowing the government and installing a communist regime remains very unclear indeed. However, what quickly became very clear indeed was that right-wing General Suharto exploited the incident as a pretext to grab power himself (there are even suggestions that he might have engineered the whole episode for that purpose). He put President Sukarno under house arrest and later made him sign over power. Moreover, it was the beginning of a ruthless purge of communists, or anybody who may have had the faintest of connections to them (or often none at all) or just for being of Chinese descent. The Suharto regime recruited local mafia militias for the killings (infamously depicted in the unusual movie “The Act of Killing” by Joshua Oppenheimer!) and somewhere between 500,000 and in excess of 1 million people were murdered. It was one of the biggest slaughters in the 20th century, yet it is rarely talked about.


But here comes the second revelation of recent weeks about Indonesia – and in fact Britain too! As had already begun to emerge at the end of last year and has been corroborated last month by yet more documents released by the National Archives in the UK: British propaganda specialists from the Foreign Office in co-operation with MI6 offices in Singapore were very much involved in inciting these killings of real or alleged communists in Indonesia, namely by producing and distributing targeted pamphlets calling for such action in no uncertain terms. For more details see e.g. this article (external link). Of course it was a time when anti-communism was quite established in the West and fostered high levels of tolerance towards brutal right-wing dictators as long as they provided a bulwark against communism. Suharto is hardly alone in this role – see also e.g. the history of the Dominican Republic and its dictator Trujillo. South America presented yet more examples, not least that of Pinochet in Chile. Still, it is shameful for Britain to have played such a role in the mass killings in Indonesia in the 1960s. There are now calls for an inquiry. Let’s see what comes of that.


Within Indonesia itself, the stories of the alleged communist coup and Suharto’s “heroic” reaction in order to “save” his country from communist rule are still pretty much gospel, be it in textbooks or in official commemoration. The starkest place to experience this is at the Pancasila Sakti monument and museum in Jakarta. The main monument looks like this:


Pancasila Sakti monument in Jakarta


The figures at this monument in front of that kitschy large bronze bird are supposed to be the “martyrs” killed by the communists on 1 October. The bas-relief beneath depicts their funeral procession and an oversized Suharto as the great saviour of the nation … by having all those communists rounded up (that they were subsequently murdered on a massive scale is conveniently left out of the narrative):


Saving the nation in the face of tragedy – allegedly


The rest of the complex includes a traditional indoor museum exhibition, which is predictably crude and biased, along with some outdoor elements … for instance this life-size dummy diorama depiction of bloodthirsty commies (note the red scarves!) attacking and torturing one of their victims:


brutal commie dummies at work


Also part of the complex is the (reconstructed) well into which the ringleaders allegedly dropped the corpses of their victims, lit up in a deep red:


blood-red well of death


The text on the marble plaque translates (according to Google Translate) as “the spirit of our struggle to uphold the purity of the pantja precepts cannot be broken just by burying us in this well”. The scene of the disposing of the bodies is also depicted by a scale-model diorama inside the museum exhibition (same photo as the one at the top of this post):


diorama of the commie plotters disposing of one of their victims


Part of the outdoor complex is a building with this sparsely furnished room, in which the conspirators supposedly had met to work out their malicious plans:


dubious ‘proof’ by furniture


A sign that comes with this proclaims quite matter-of-factly that these chairs, the table and bed are “the historical proof of the incidents before and after the September 30th Movement” (as the perpetrators of the alleged coup attempt are also known). How on Earth the mere presence of some rather standard furniture can be “proof” of anything is not elaborated on.

You can find such skewed accounts of history quite a lot in Indonesia. The same is true, for instance, of the way in which East Timor is portrayed, which Indonesia subjugated and occupied for two and a half decades (again, with Western approval). At the Monas it always appears as a natural part of the nation. All the maps of the archipelago include it – as part of Indonesia!

By the way, “Pancasila Sakti” means as much as ‘the sacred five principles’ that are supposed to be the core guidelines of the state (roughly: belief in a single God, civilized humanity, unity of the state, “guided” democracy, and social justice).

Suharto may have been forced to step down at the end of the 1990s after nearly three decades of authoritarian rule, but his Nationalists and e.g. the “Pancasila Youth” still exist. The latter is a paramilitary organization which apparently still has some 3 million members. Their uniforms and vehicles have a characteristic colour pattern – as on this jeep that I spotted by the road in southern Java en route to Ijen and Bali:



jeep in Pancasila Youth colours


And finally, here’s another vehicle painted in a dodgy way, this time one of those trucks like those that cart oil-palm fruit around in Kalimantan. The colour code and symbolism on its rear are rather unexpected for this part of the world:


disturbing sight – do they mean it, you have to wonder


I know that the swastika symbol plays a totally innocent role in Hinduism and Buddhism that has nothing at all to do with Nazis, but in this colour pattern and tilted (almost) 45 degrees to the side, it does look disturbing (and in this part of West Kalimantan, where I spotted this, it’s rather Islam and Christianity that are the dominant religions, not Hinduism or Buddhism). But then again, I am aware that in some parts of Africa and Asia allusions to the Nazis are not so uncommon. I remember spotting a “Hitler collection” shop for children’s clothing in Bhopal, India (get your small-sized brown shirts here, could be their slogan), and a friend once brought me back a pack of cigarettes from Pakistan that are not only called “Hitler” but the pack even has a portrait photo of the man on the front! And I know from Trevor Noah’s autobiography “Born a Crime” that in South Africa black parents sometimes gave their children first names like Mussolini or Hitler … just because they were very vaguely aware that these names had meant problems for the British (the former colonial power). It’s probably something similarly vague in the case of this truck too … though you never quite know …


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