Shadow Puppets and Special Forces: Indonesia’s Fragile Democracy

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Fifteen years ago last month, Indonesia’s President Suharto was overthrown following a series of student-led protests. In the violent chaos that ended the former dictator’s long and brutal reign, there was a wave of seemingly well-organized beatings, rapes, and murders of ethnic Chinese in major cities such as Jakarta and Surakarta, also known as Solo. Indonesia’s new democracy was christened in blood.

Today, that sinophobic violence is a distant memory (due in no small part to a failure to investigate the attacks and prosecute the perpetrators), but it is clear to all that numerous threats to domestic security lurk just below the surface. Recent events in Yogyakarta, affectionately known as Jogja, illustrate the forces that threaten stability as the world’s third-largest democracy approaches an election year. These include confusion about the Indonesian Army (known as the “TNI,” for Tentara Nasional Indonesia, one of the many, many acronyms that dominate political and conversational speech in Indonesia) and its mission; the weakness of civilian state authorities; ethnic, religious and racial tensions; rising criminality; conspiracy fears; and the power of social media to amplify gossip and rumor.

Numerous observers have suggested the wayang kulit, or shadow puppet plays telling stories from the great Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, as the best metaphor for understanding Indonesian politics. In these plays, the dalang, or puppet master, sits behind a screen. Hidden from view, he manipulates scores of beautifully colored and intricately cut leather puppets. The audience sits on the other side, seeing only the shadows that the dalang skillfully casts on the barrier, and not the puppets themselves. The art is a spiritual metaphor for humanity’s inability to truly understand the world of the divine, a tenet central to Hinduism and Buddhism, which along with local animism were the dominant faiths of Indonesia before the coming of Islam between the 15th and 20th centuries.

For our purposes, the wayang kulit is useful for approaching Indonesian politics, as there always seems to be a deeper game and a hidden puppet master, with conspiracies real or imagined that are the true reality that are incomprehensible to mere mortals.

The latest national puppet drama began with several moments of shocking violence in the normally tranquil and tolerant Yogyakarta, a city known and loved throughout Indonesia for its polite and soft-spoken locals, its dozens of universities, and a sultan, Hamengkubuwono X, who enjoys considerable autonomy and is a great patron of the arts, including the wayang kulit.

Wayang kulit performances always have a battle scene. First-time viewers are often surprised at how exiting a talented dalang can make a shadow war. In our story, the violence began with a bar fight. About 2:30 am on March 19 a group of men beat, kicked, and stabbed to death one Heru Santoso at Hugo’s Café, actually a nightclub on the grounds of the pricey Sheraton hotel, with an unsavory reputation for drugs, prostitution, and binge drinking. Although Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population and beer, let alone hard alcohol, is difficult to find in Jogja’s minimarts and supermarkets, Hugo’s Café and a handful of other mega-discos offer the wealthy elite – many of whom are children of Jakarta’s nouveau riche sent to Jogja for a rather expensive but not very rigorous private education – $150 bottles of Jack Daniels for decadent conspicuous consumption.

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