Instead, there were burning buildings and shattered glass, tear gas and a constant howling of ambulances and police cars, fists pointing to the sky in anger and defiance. There appeared to be a revolution in the making, an unmistakable desire for change, a hunger for a better country – a more honest, more liveable country.
The whole world watched images of the fourth most populous nation on earth revolting against a brutal and corrupt regime: according to some, Indonesia was fighting for freedom, while others believed it was descending into anarchy, becoming ungovernable, and heading rapidly towards disintegration.
It was at that point I met the leaders of the student revolt in a computer room at the Trisakti University, hastily converted to become the headquarters of an uprising against the regime. One of them was called Suresh. He seemed a gentle human being, well brought up, well mannered. His eyes were red from lack of sleep, his shaking fingers holding a clove cigarette, his shirt unwashed for days.
I always remember how at one point I abandoned my dislike of clichs and asked the student leader: So this is your Sorbonne, your Paris, your Mexico City of 1968, isnt it?
Youre wrong, he finally answered. In the West, they fought for free love and revolted against their parents, their families, their professors, and their culture. We love our country, we love and respect our families and our teachers. We are dying to return to our homes and to our classrooms, we are tired and confused. All we want is our country to return to the rule of law: we want an end to corruption and we want justice.
Soon after, Suhartos regime collapsed. Six years later, Indonesia is still a stubbornly conservative country ruled by a miniscule clique made up of individuals motivated by private interests and backed by the might of the military.
The PKI was first outlawed after Suhartos 1965 coup against Sukarno, an act supported by the US. The human cost has been estimated to be between 500 thousand and 1.2 million lives. Generally supportive of Sukarno, the Communist Party was singled out and falsely accused of staging the coup (in fact, it had been instigated by Suharto and his military faction). Its members were promptly liquidated en masse. Among the victims were also members of the Chinese minority (who were absurdly accused of supporting Communist China), opponents of the new regime, and progressive thinkers, as well as professors and intellectuals in general.
While tolerating and even promoting local culture (mainly folk music and dance) as well as pop of any origin as long as it carried no subversive messages, Indonesia embarked on a long and painful process of intellectual degradation.
The two pillars of the system became religion and the family. To lack religion became illegal behaviour: everybody had (and still has to) to commit to one of the five officially sanctioned religions on his or her identity card (Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist or Hindu).
As in almost all poor countries ruled by extreme right wing governments with almost no social spending, the concept of a strong family unit became a decisively important socio-economic element. Parents were expected to make great sacrifices to educate and support their children, who were later expected to support their ageing parents (identical to the situation in Latin America or Africa).
The linguistics of the process were turned upside down. Necessity was turned into virtue, the way to survive into family love.
A God-fearing nation was the next logical step. Sukarnos secularism had not been destroyed – even now, Indonesia remains a secular country in many ways. Nevertheless, in a society where almost any alternative thought or criticism of the system led to some sort of discrimination, sanctions or something much worse, religion became almost the only escape from a dreary reality.
Moving dramatically from a relaxed approach to religion during Sukarnos rule, post-1965 Indonesia embraced religion as some sort of public display of loyalty and conformity, instead of a personal and extremely private expression of faith. Suhartos departure made no difference: indeed, new strictures such as a dress code for women (something very relaxed in the past) and strict observance of all religious rules became issues. The system did not interfere in the process; as far as it was concerned, women could wear anything they wanted.
One counter-argument would be: but if they like it that way, why challenge their choice? The answer is, because they never had a choice. Almost no child comes in touch with any alternative to religion (for instance, the theory of evolution is mentioned only to be ridiculed) and society destroys anyone who would openly refuses to follow a faith breaking the heart of the family a euphemism for probable excommunication from their kith and kin.
The system has become almost perfect in many ways. There is no longer a need for a huge police force or an army of informants. Any truly fundamental opposition is labelled as leftist or communist and either dismissed or simply banned. Family values and religion assure conformity of the members of Indonesian society at the basic level, negating any effort of men and women to live uniquely and independently lives, behaviour regarded as dangerous and therefore a threat to the status quo.
Many brilliant minds gave up (or never had a chance to bloom), mostly entering business as the only way to succeed (thereby further strengthening the system), instead of embarking on a discouraged path of creativity. Their responses to such limitations are practical, based on a need to provide for themselves and their families or because their uniqueness or creativity cannot be recognized (for instance, how can one excel in arts if any discussion or argument is discouraged in advance even at the university?) or simply to make their families happy. Of course, not to be pro-business would automatically be labelled with the c word in any case!!!
Fiercely critical of the US and its foreign policy (over 50% of Indonesians believe that Osama bin Laden has something to offer to the world), the Indonesian state increasingly resembles a sort of dirt poor version of the nightmare of any progressively thinking citizen in the United States.
Indonesia makes sure that any foreigner who marries an Indonesian citizen has a miserable life even to contemplate a marriage acceptable to the family and the state, those who have no religion have to commit to convert to a recognised faith.
Patriotism sometimes gives way to realism. Off the shore of the island of Lombok, I was once told by the local fishermen: If we, the poor people of Indonesia, could we would all leave for Australia, Singapore, the US, or Europe. Only the rich like it here, because they can have us almost for free. But even they would have to leave, because with us gone, they would have to learn how to clean and cook and do everything by themselves.