In early-mid 1998 Indonesia experienced considerable student/civil unrest aimed against the government.
The news of the riots etc was splashed across the front pages of every newspaper, and was seen by millions on the nightly TV news.
But was that indicative of the situation? What was it like for a "foreigner"?
These are some of the experiences of a friend (the “Krazy Kiwi”) during those trying times
Introduction (from Alison Fursdon)
GraniteCCA has asked me to write something by way of an introduction to myself and why I was in Indonesia during the upheavals of 1998. And I would like to add a few more comments from the relative safety of Kenya
I am a New Zealander who became an expatriate wife in 1994 in Indonesia, the Philippines and now in Kenya.
My husband and I lived in Garut, West Java, about 65km south east of Bandung from September 1997 to May 1999. Darryl was building a geothermal power plant in the area, one of the few large projects to continue despite the monetary crisis. We arrived from the Philippines just after the Asian currencies went into free fall, and watched as the country which we had enjoyed so much during our first overseas project in 1993/1994 disintegrated around us.
When we arrived in the August in Jakarta we could not count all the cranes and construction sites from our office, there were so many. By December there was one left and that had been abandoned, rather than dismantled. Unemployment didn’t hit really hit hard until after the end of Ramadan. Before that holiest of Moslem months, most people had taken their severance pays, such as it was, and went home to their villages. If they bothered to return at all there simply was no work to be had in Jakarta, or any of the big cities, or indeed in their villages either. Indonesia is a country that has such a huge population – over 200 million, the forth most populous in the world – that there is no social safety net. It is a matter of no work, no pay, no eat, very simple really. Families do of course take care of each other, but it is never easy. That became another sore point for the unrest that had been brewing for some years, and was to culminate in the “overthrow” of the President Suharto, after the one sided elections that were held in February 1998.
We had been offered the job about 18 months before we arrived, during the time of the “Megawati” riots, and we felt that if the country was rioting 2 years ahead of the scheduled general elections, then by the time they came around the country would be in flames. We were not far wrong in our crystal ball gazing. In anticipation of life being somewhat tumultuous in Indonesia we sent the children to stay with relatives in New Zealand and there they stay.
Those days in May 1998 I spent a lot of time pacing the floor, channel surfing in 5 Languages – AusTV, BBC, CNN, 4x Indonesian channels, Malaysian TV, the French channel and the Chinese language channel, constantly scanning for anything new. My maid was as worried as everyone else, but she had the fortitude to carry on working while her country fell apart around her. She made me eat when all I wanted to do was pace the floor. She even channel surfed so that I would eat. Sleep was optional for several days and I spent a lot of time in the small hours emailing family and friends. With time zones and insomniac mates I kept a lifeline with the outside world.
We stayed for two reasons – our dedication to the project and the safety we felt in our valley. We saw on TV on the days that Jakarta was being evacuated that people were being forced from their cars on the toll roads into Bandung and Jakarta, and their cars being torched. We felt it was safer to stay where we were than to risk a long walk home. I stayed because I don’t run from anything. If it is too dangerous for me to stay then it is for Darryl also and vice versa – if he stays I stay. Perhaps that is why I am nicknamed Krazy?
To give you an idea of the "view" her friends had during this period :-
Excerpts from the emails of Alison Fursdon (KrazyAlly)
I don't remember all the biblical bad times, but this country has had more than its share in the last few weeks. First it was the monetary crisis, then the “El Nino effect” which bought drought to some areas and flooding to others. Then 24 of 27 provinces had a severe outbreak of dengue fever and about 10-15% mortality rate. Now there is rioting in the streets and looting. What else you may well ask? Well, in southern Sumatra there has been a plague of locusts and in Bogor, near Jakarta there has been a plague of flies that has eaten all new shoots off the new growth as well as breeding disease. I can now add to this paragraph that there was an earthquake in Lombok yesterday, little damage as it only registered 4 on the Richter scale and there were tidal waves along parts of the east coast of northern Sumatra last week that flooded some coastal villages. Also there is another plague of locusts and frogs in Central Java.
February 14th, 1998
The local bus operators went on strike for 3 days to protest the rising cost of vehicle parts and the threatened increase in the price of fuels and oils, not to mention the huge hike in food bills.
All the expatriates in Garut, West Java, (about 20, of which, at this time, I am the only woman) kept their heads down and I was grounded in the expectation that the demonstrators might start rioting. The military sealed off the 3 roads that lead into this mountainous valley and managed to keep out rioters and other undesirables from entering from the east. It appears that the riots are moving from east to west with truck loads (literally) of disgruntled students and fanatics inciting otherwise peaceful people to rampage. Fortunately we were well warned and the demonstrations were peaceful affairs here. In the expectation of trouble ALL shops in and around town closed for three days! Other towns about 30km away were not so lucky.
February 19th, 1998
Today's paper says that the American Embassy is recommending that expatriates not travel unnecessarily for the next while, for obvious reasons I guess, so the plans that I tried to lay over the weekend - namely how to get out of my little prison here and visit you there may prove fruitless for now. I have no plans to evacuate.
The people here are a peaceful bunch and I think that they are not really of a riotous nature and I get the feeling that they would rather be left in peace, if only the price of essentials wouldn't rise every day.
Here in Garut there has been some unrest and the military is on alert, but their presence today was not visible. I went to the supermarkets on Monday and the shelves were bare of such essentials as oil, flour, soy sauce and noodles are in short supply, and rice is expensive although there seems to be enough vegetables and chicken and others meats in the market. I have spent the last couple of trips to the big city stocking up on expatriate stuffs and if things get a bit of a worry in town here I have enough in the pantry for a week or so.
May 17th, 1998
All our Jakarta staff were evacuated out by corporate jet on Saturday (May 16) morning to a camp in northern Sumatra and then on to Singapore on Monday (18th). They are going to re-establish the office in Singapore. We are staying for the meantime to try and stop the contractors from making major cockups on the job, but they are very, very worried little Asians as they feel that they could be mistaken for Chinese, who are the major targets for vandalism, and personal violence.
Things change so fast that what I write now could all be rubbish by lunchtime."……… I can now report that while there are continuing delays with materials, as the Custom House in Jakarta was among the casualties, things are now flowing slowly again and that construction has really not been greatly affected. The 'time-out' has been a useful time to make detailed inspections and get deficiencies in the welding etc. sorted out.
I am very nervous, not sleeping well and have developed a nervous tick in my left eye and my stomach is real upset at present, which is why it has taken so long to write this note."……… I can now tell you that my nervous tick has gone away and my stomach has now returned to normal.
May 21st, 1998
As of nine o'clock this morning the country let out its collective breath and started to celebrate the beginning of the passing of the old guard.
Life here will never be as it was before and it will take many years to restore the damage that has been left, both financially and socially as well as to the buildings and infrastructure.
The company's security people were extremely concerned for our safety as the unknown is more frightening than the known. They arranged for a local villager -a respected retired gentleman - to stand guard and yesterday a national flag was hanging in our front garden. It was felt that although the intellectuals (read students) in this town did not want a repeat of the activities of Jakarta, that perhaps outside elements (i.e. agitators for other towns) could be heading this way. The army and police blocked roads into this valley again, as they did earlier this year when riots were spreading across this island. In the last week since the students in Jakarta were killed things here have been extremely quiet. Only women hurrying to the market and back again. Students of all grades hurrying to school and back again. None were game to be seen in groups greater than 4 or 5.
Over the weekend we packed up our valuables and took them up to Darryl's office and also took up a suitcase each in case we needed to leave in a hurry. We live on a main road and have two 5m x 3m plate glass windows in front (and back and upstairs) and so if anything happened then the temptation to throw rocks through our windows could have been high. ………I can add here that yesterday Darryl brought all our things down again, but I am not yet in a hurry to unpack
For me, probably the worst day was Sunday. We received a phone call at about 10am that the students were assembling and that trouble was expected. I grabbed a few little essentials that I had forgotten, such as food and toilet paper, in anticipation of a hurried evacuation up to Darryl's office. (Take to the hills is a very apt cliché here.) Darryl decided to go out for a quick reconnoiter and came back to say that the number of students was about 20 and they seemed more in the mood for a party rather than a riot, and that we were not leaving. Having been ready for flight and the adrenaline flowing, this was more than I could handle and I had a really good weepy.
On Monday I went round to the house of the only other expatriate wife here and watched TV, went to the bank, and did a little shopping. There was another rally and again only about 20 or so students, surrounded by ....wait for it...about 30 or more riot police. They all went on their demonstration laughing and joking -even the police.
Tuesday and yesterday were anticipated to be more serious and indeed a quick tour yesterday morning around town before going up the hill with Darryl showed that everyone was battening down the hatches with 99% of shops closed, as well as all banks, schools and government offices. The major fear is outsiders.
There were evacuation plans involving helicopters and company planes to remove us if blood had started flowing in the streets of Garut. Thankfully this did not come to pass. It would have been more excitement than I would choose to handle. But sometimes the alternative choice is not so attractive.
For myself - I am still very nervous, but greatly relieved at the immediate reaction to this morning’s announcement. The next few hours when the new president will speak for the first time and the coming days will be just as nerve racking as the past week. If he announces what the people want to hear – i.e. new faces in cabinet that do not reek of nepotism and cronyism - then things will calm down and life will go on. But if he delays, defers, or announces the same old Suharto supporters then this country will descend again into demonstrations and perhaps total anarchy.
May 28th, 1998
When I returned to Indonesia a few weeks ago things were getting more tense and intense by the day until things exploded a couple of weeks ago. In our small town, there was no trouble. We are fine and did not join the mass exodus from Jakarta.
I feel that the crisis is over for the time being, and unless the new president is on a death wish, that the situation will ease over the coming days. On Monday (25th) it would appear that he is trying by releasing political prisoners, but it would appear that these people, instead of being grateful for their freedom, are whining about the wording of their release. They are objecting to being given an amnesty - they feel that term smacks of being a criminal in the first place (or something like that- I was only listening with one ear.) So far Habibie - whose name has miraculously changed from BJ to Josef - has been accused of 'listening to the students with only one ear' (AusTV) and 'speaking with a tongue with no bone' (!) (national at Darajat) - hmm ... this could be a long Mexican Stand-off. We shall have to just wait and see what happens." ………Habibie was immediately dubbed by some students 'Hababi' This is not a good sign as the word 'babi' means pig in Indonesian, which is a serious insult to Muslims.
Life goes on here in this sleepy little town. I am trying to convince the company that the guards out front are now surplus to requirements. Mundane things have resurfaced as the most pressing problems, such as the washing machine on the blink (I suspect a worn bearing.).
Politically things here are settling down again, but the next major issue is going to be a food shortage, because the exporting countries haven't been accepting Indonesian letters of credit and don't trust the importers to pay up on delivery. The Japanese government however has decided to guarantee certain orders, particularly for food and medicine and a few other essentials. That should help to ease the immediate problem, but in the middle term there is going to be more strife. The view among those who are crystal ball gazers is that the next round of riots will make the May troubles look like a teddy bears picnic. Predictions made privately are that something approaching total anarchy could reign if the price of basic foods gets any higher. Already rice is 2500Rupiah per kilo vs about 1350Rp a year ago. Almost doubled. That coupled with that fact that about 30-50% of Jakarta's people are out of work due to the burning of buildings and the Chinese population not coming back in a hurry, you can begin to get the picture. Unemployment even 2 months ago was already at about 15%.
(… so just another note)
We decided to stay principally because it was just too dangerous to try to get out and a hazard that we really didn't want or need to face. We felt (and still feel) safe in this small town of Garut. It is a very conservative and religious town and the anarchy that swept Jakarta and other cities has shocked the people here.
I have been told by several townspeople that "This is Garut, not Jakarta or Bandung" as if to say that those places are on a different planet.
A final word from Alison
I am happy to add here that although the project was completed and mothballed in May 1999, a year later there is enough demand for electricity that it was commissioned and is now fully operational.
Would I go back? – Yes! Unreservedly. It is an exciting country with gentle people, who were incited to do terrible things they would not normally do. I am hoping in the future that Stage 3 will get off the ground and we can go back some day.