The politics of puppetry
Indonesia's grand tradition of blaming mysterious 'others'
30 November 2016
By: Duncan Graham

The November 4 protests in Jakarta over alleged blasphemous comments by Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama ended badly.

Police cars were torched, tear gas sprayed and one man died as a small gang stirred strife in the dark after most demonstrators had left the scene.

The thuggery was incited by “political actors” according to President Joko Widodo.

His explanation followed a tradition.

The Jakarta riots that triggered the fall of President Soeharto in 1998 took the lives of more than a thousand citizens and destroyed hundreds of shops. Many were owned by Chinese businesspeople and their families, the prime target of mobs determined to make mayhem.

The initiators were dubbed “dark forces”.

A year later in the distant Moluccas (the capital Ambon is 2,000 kilometers to the north-east of Jakarta) far more serious fighting erupted. Up to 15,000 may have died and 700,000 made homeless before a formal peace agreement in 2002.

This civil war was widely portrayed as Christians versus Muslims in an area where adherents of the two faiths had long lived together in equal numbers and relative harmony.

No longer. An edgy return to some form of normality has been achieved with the physical separation of residents according to their faiths. This them-and-us arrangement is prone to rupture if poked and prodded by the malicious.

The provokers were labeled “outside actors”.

On November 5 President Joko was on a teleconference call to Indonesians in Sydney assuring them that the capital was calm and their homeland safe. Most listeners would have been ethnic Chinese studying or doing business in Australia and holding strong memories of 1998.

If their skills and money stay away from the Republic, the government’s plans to develop the economy with large-scale investments, particularly in the president’s signature infrastructure projects, could falter. Chaos does nothing for business confidence.

In the Moluccan and Jakarta cases no one group has been proved responsible for starting the fighting. Instead the public has been told about phantom masterminds in theatrical terms. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink blaming is not exclusively Indonesian; the French term agents provocateurs is well embedded in English.

Hints-not-facts sit awkwardly in modern societies that give priority to openness, justice and reparation. These principles include exposing those out to fracture peace, airing their motives, bringing them before the courts and making them accountable. 

However the explanations do fit Javanese cultural views centered on the dalang puppet master in the ancient wayang kulit epics. These accounts of mystical beings pre-date the arrival of Abrahamic faiths in the Archipelago.

The dalang is a deft artist taking the roles of producer, director, stage manager, choreographer and commentator. Performances may include references to current political dramas. He is heard but largely unseen.

He tosses and dances the elaborately crafted puppets before a lamp so their images flicker across a white cotton screen. Although the wayang are physically two dimensional, their characters are multi-faceted and prone to devious twists and turns, leaving audiences in states of wonder, amusement and puzzlement.

The dalang and his shadowy figures is the easily understood metaphor for any social drama where the script is complex and the performers devious. But this doesn’t lead to a just resolution when the guilty remain as ghosts.

Academics trying to understand the forces driving social unrest are now moving onto the stage once filled by partisan politicians. 

Among this small group of peace experts is cultural anthropologist Dr Birgit Brauchler, formerly at Frankfurt’s Goethe University and now a senior lecturer at Australia’s Monash University.  

She’s been in Indonesia to talk about research into conflict resolution; she studied the Moluccan conflict for a decade - how it came about and what solutions worked, though none have been wholly successful.

When fighting flares the need to restore order is urgent. In the usual pattern elite troops, often from afar and with little knowledge of local sensitivities, are despatched. They enforce peace by deploying more men with bigger guns and exercising greater discipline than the troublemakers.

Eventually the smoke settles; the soldiers retreat to their barracks and the job of patching the community’s wounds is left to others. Brauchler said that before the 1999 riots in Ambon there were less than two dozen NGOs in the region. That number swelled to 400, though not all were effective peacemakers.

The best involved a mix of locals often working in secret and with women taking prominent roles.

Brauchler warned post-graduate peace studies students at Malang’s Brawijaya University  that there were “no easy answers” to the complex question: Why do some groups whet knives to solve problems when it’s clear that combatants sooner or later must get back to working and living together?

In her latest book The Cultural Dimension of Peace she advocates a “new anthropology of peace” where disciplines beyond law and political science get involved. She urges the creation of “peace scapes” as opposed to “war scapes … where the maintenance of peace becomes more lucrative than war, and where such negotiation and communication can take place.”

During Soeharto’s authoritarian rule, public comment on SARA (suku, agama, ras, antar golongan) issues of race, faith and ethnicity were banned.

The prohibitions were lifted with the re-introduction of democracy this century but the power and will to stop community violence using such emotional fuel has yet to be effectively applied.

Political scientists believe allowing orderly dissent is essential for a balanced society, and President Joko has agreed with the right to peaceful protest. But he has yet to discover the sweet spot between Soeharto’s authoritarianism and the current tension. 

He promised to reveal the “political actors,” though so far has stayed silent. Military Commander General Gatot Nurmantyo has stepped in to suggest US and Australian involvement, though without producing evidence.

Refusing to identify and isolate those alleged to be responsible is not assisting reconciliation, while mystery references just shower all players with suspicion. 

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