Sunday, October 02, 2005


I was invited to a reception that the Saudi Arabian Embassy was holding in one of the biggest five star hotels in Jakarta. At the entrance to the grand ballroom, I shook hands with a tall smiling gentleman in Arab robes, whom I presumed was the father of one of my pupils.

"Your son is a good student," I said.

The man raised his eyes heavenwards. He could see that I was lying. He knew his son was potentially bright but not exactly a scholar.

I ambled over to one part of the room where there were a number of young ladies. I seemed to be attracting a lot of attention: some women were staring in my direction and smiling. As I am sometimes a little bit slow on the uptake, it took me some minutes to realise that in Saudi Arabia they do things differently. The women mainly stand at one end of the room and the gentlemen at the other. As discreetly as I could, I edged over to the correct section of the assembly.

On a table of great length I could see a whole roast lamb, dishes of leg of lamb with yoghurt, cracked wheat with yoghurt, cucumber salad, and pastries with honey, but no alcohol. I picked up some lamb and a fruit juice and approached an elderly and kindly-looking Indonesian whom I took to be the Minister of Social Welfare.

"Do you know a place called Panti Bambu?" I asked him in English. "It may have links to your ministry."

The old gentleman gave me a puzzled look. I proceeded to tell him a little about the place where Wisnu had lived.

"Panti Bambu?" he said, blank faced.

"You are the Minister of Social Welfare?"

"I am the Chairman of the Council of Ulema," he said, quietly and politely. He was referring to the body made up of influential religious figures who are experts on Islamic law and dogma.

I accidentally dropped a piece of gravy-covered meat onto the expensive carpet. Neither of us could think of anything further to say.

Having escaped to the food table and picked up some more lamb, I managed to get talking to a small, nattily dressed, middle aged Australian, who seemed to fizz with happiness .He was the local boss of some UN agency.

"Any famous people here?" I asked him.

"That looks like the president’s eldest daughter, Tutut, over there in the middle," he said, nodding in the direction of a young woman who sparkled like a star at a Hollywood premiere.

"Beautifully dressed in an Islamic sort of way."

"Friendly smile," I said, "She looks younger than her age."

"She’s in the toll road business, and said to be close to certain generals, like Hartono."

"Useful. What about Tutut’s brother, Bangbang?" I asked.

"I don’t see him here. They say he keeps in with General Sudrajat."

"You have inside information?" I was wondering if the Australian had links to the security services.

"I simply read the press. I get most of my information from a publication called Inside Indonesia. The Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek are also useful." He beamed.

"I recognise the soberly dressed woman on our right," I said. "She’s smiling at us."

"I think it’s Megawati, daughter of Sukarno."

"And now leader of the PDI party," I said. "She has a motherly smile."

"The military reckons that if there were free and fair elections she’d get sixty-per-cent of the vote. And the PDI is not a Moslem party. It’s a secular party, a mixture of nationalists, Moslems and Christians."

"I hear she has some friends in the military."

"Gumelar and Hendropriyono are said to have helped Megawati become boss of the main opposition party, the PDI."

"So the army’s not united?" I asked.

"Ten to twenty years ago, it was Christians who had a lot of the top posts in the armed forces, people like Sudomo, and Benny Murdani. Then Murdani criticised certain particularly corrupt people around Suharto and it looked as if the army was no longer automatically on Suharto’s side. Murdani ceased to be the Armed Forces boss and Suharto, in more recent times, has been promoting people like Feisal Tanjung and Hartono, who are Moslems."

"So is the army now more Islamic?"

"No, it’s more complicated than that," said the Australian, grinning merrily. "It’s difficult to tell whether General X is part of the Moslem faction or part of the Nationalist faction. General X might ally with General Y because both have the same religion but more importantly because both are from the same region of Indonesia and both have the same business interests. It’s more about money and power than belief in God. I don’t think the generals are necessarily particularly religious. A Christian officer might crack down on Christians in Timor and a Moslem officer might crack down on Moslems in Aceh."

"Who are the up-and-coming generals?"

"Suharto tends to give top posts to relatives or people who’ve been his personal guards. There’s General Prabowo who’s married to one of Suharto’s daughters. There’s Prabowo’s ally, Sjafrie, who was trained by the Americans, allegedly about the tactics of terror. There’s one top general who allegedly wants to use militias made up of preman, that’s street thugs, to keep law and order. A lot of the generals are rumoured to have links with preman."

"What part does the underworld play?" I asked.

"Who runs things in Indonesia? I was told, in one city, that it was the local mafia boss who was in charge. Of course these things get exaggerated."

"What about Jakarta?"

"In my part of Jakarta, things like parking and gambling are supposedly controlled by a gang of Ambonese Christians. They even have influence in the shopping malls. Dangerous people some of these Ambonese. A gangster from East Timor is said to run Tanah Abang market."

"Why does the military put up with criminals?"

"Imagine a city where the mayor is a military man, let’s say an Ambonese Christian, well connected to generals and businessmen in Jakarta. He may use local Christian gangs to help him stay in power and bring in the money, or at least that’s how his opponents see it."

"Useful connections," I commented.

"The mayor will make sure the jobs go to his family and friends."

"So it’s like politics in Britain," I said jokingly.

"Godfathers sometimes have links to the police, politicians and certain freemasons," said the Australian, eyes twinkling.

"What about these youth organisations like Yorris’s Pemuda Pancasila?"

"Some are good. Some bad. One of these groups reportedly makes its money from protection rackets, gambling, prostitution. And it’s used by very powerful people to do their dirty work."

"Such as?"

"A number of the demonstrations you see on the TV news are not the work of ordinary citizens. They’re the work of criminal gangs, paid for by sections of the elite."


"The danger is that when the president retires there could be a civil war among all the competing criminal factions, or even military factions." The Australian had put on his serious face as he related this.

"What about military discipline?"

"There was a gambling place near us being protected by a soldier. A policeman had an argument with the manager. The soldier and the policeman came to blows. Next day a group of soldiers came to the police station to beat up the police."

"I’d still think it’s safer here than in Detroit or even London," I said.

"In a sense, the criminals here are kept under control. You’re right. The streets are safe."

"That’s what it’s all about surely?"

"Empires don’t last for ever though," said the Australian. Do you know this quotation? ‘There has been a gradual weakening of civil liberties, an increase in the power of the army, and an acceptance of corruption among public servants. Vast fortunes have been made by a small group who use their wealth to control the Senate.’"

"The Senate?" I queried.

"That was someone writing about the Roman Empire, but it could apply to Indonesia or even the USA."