Wednesday, September 21, 2005


I was standing near the centre of a smallish patch of tree-shaded rough grassland, adjacent to a busy road, and only few hundred metres distant from my house.

Sitting on the ground, on one edge of this patch of grassland, there was a heavy-jawed soldier.

His eyes looked hard but not gloating; veniality seemed mixed with embarrassment.

No doubt he was there to keep an eye on the day’s event: an officially sanctioned street parade.

The soldier was armed. He had a very hefty-looking machine gun positioned at his feet.

A few metres in front of me stood a group of excited children, some of whom were having their cute young faces painted red and green; one half of the face red and one half green. Drums were beating and some of the boys were gyrating their hips wildly to the rhythm.

It was the turn of the opposition to President Suharto to take to the streets.

Jalan Veteran, the highway so very near to my house, had been taken over completely by thousands of happy flag-waving supporters of what was called ‘Mega-Star’. The supporters of Megawati’s outlawed party and the supporters of the Moslem PPP party had joined forces; they were wearing the red colours of Megawati and the green colours, and star symbol, of the PPP.

It seemed that the majority of the kampung inhabitants, whether ‘Christian’ or ‘Nationalist’ or ‘Moslem’, had turned out to show their opposition to Suharto and his GOLKAR party.

A convoy of cars, trucks and buses progressed very slowly down the street in the direction of the city centre. The atmosphere was a mixture of jolly Rio carnival and defiant political protest.

Mammoth green flags waved to and fro; a tall young man dressed only in sandals and a flimsy grass skirt was dancing mincingly in the middle of the street; hanging on to the side of an overcrowded lorry a group of young teenage boys were wiggling their bottoms in tune to the music blaring from a loudspeaker; pretty girls in tight trousers and tighter blouses waved their arms in the air as if in ecstasy at a rock concert. This was officially the day of the PPP, the Moslem party, in the biggest Moslem country in the world.

I wondered if the soldier with the machine gun was going to have a quiet day. As I wandered along the street, taking photographs, I felt reassured by the presence of so many women and small children. Surely there could be no violence when parents had brought out their toddlers to wave colourful flags and watch the parade.

I had at the back of my mind a peaceful protest about ‘Democracy’ on St Peter’s Field in Manchester, England, on the 16th of August 1819; the Manchester crowd was well-behaved and included women and children enjoying picnic lunches; soldiers wielding sabres attacked the gathering; nine men and two women were killed; six hundred were injured. On the 4th of May 1970, an unarmed group of students were holding an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University in Ohio, USA. National Guard soldiers decided to open fire on the protesters. Four students, two of them girls, were killed.

On Jalan Veteran, the day passed off peacefully; but, elsewhere, the election campaign became more violent. Over three hundred people died; some simply fell off overcrowded vehicles during motorcades; in a place called Banjarmasin, in Kalimantan, GOLKAR security guards tried to force their motorbikes through crowds attending Friday prayers and this led to over a hundred deaths when a riot was followed by a deadly fire at a shopping centre; in several of the poorer kampungs in Jakarta there was feuding between soldiers and youths, leading to at least one youthful PPP supporter being shot dead.

Who won the election? Suharto’s GOLKAR won, with over 70 per cent of the vote.

No comments: