ASEAN Beat | Politics | Society | Southeast Asia

Indonesia and COVID-19: Living Dangerously Once Again

For the third time, Indonesia faces a critical inflection point amid several converging crises.

By Will Doran for
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Indonesia and COVID-19: Living Dangerously Once Again
Credit: Facebook/ President Joko Widodo

They say things come in threes. In this context, the year 2020 might be the third time Indonesia experiences a “year of living dangerously.” The phrase is perhaps most well known internationally for the Christopher Koch novel and subsequent 1982 award-winning adaptation that starred a young Mel Gibson. The story, featuring a group of foreign correspondents, diplomats, and potential spies, takes place as the events preceding the September 30 Movement of 1965 gradually unfold. The final sequence features Gibson listening to a broadcast and hearing news of a military takeover. He eventually departs the country in a frenzy. Currently, in Jakarta and elsewhere throughout the country, foreigners are doing the same thing. However, this time it is not because of a putsch by the armed forces but because of a global pandemic.

The second “dangerous” year was 1997-1998, which saw the end of Suharto’s reign and the beginning of Reformasi and a new era of democratic values in Indonesia. Now, Indonesia is experiencing its third “year of living dangerously.” It began with riots and protests after the presidential elections in May 2019, followed by more riots and protests regarding amendments to the country’s archaic Criminal Code and revisions to the Anti-Corruption Bill, the Land Bill, and the Penitentiary Bill, among others. The current “year of living dangerously” has brought Indonesia a new challenge, one unique and different to the previous epochs: confronting the nascent coronavirus pandemic.

The “year of living dangerously” phrase was popularized by Sukarno himself in 1964, notorious for his grandiloquent and flamboyant oratory. He often gave titles to each of his state of the nation addresses, and on August 17, 1964 he chose the title “Tahun vivere pericoloso,” taking inspiration from an Italian phrase he was reportedly fond of quoting. Sukarno’s speech on the 19th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence was not hyperbole with regard to the year that was about to come. It truly was a dangerous time for both Indonesian citizens and their leader; under Sukarno, the country had a negative growth rate (inflation was over 600 percent), there was hardly any foreign reserve, and the country had a national debt of over $2 billion. Basic necessities like food supplies and electricity were uncertain on a day-to-day basis. Part of the reason why things were so dire was because Sukarno was more focused on crushing neighboring Malaysia, seeing it as a British neocolonial state, as opposed to matters close to home such as the Indonesian economy. His Konfrontasi led Sukarno to withdraw Indonesia from the United Nations, a near unprecedented move at the time.

And this was just the buildup to the dangerous year in question. The events that followed were even worse; starting in October 1965 somewhere between half a million and a million Indonesian citizens were killed by an amalgamation of the military, death squads, and civilians. A million more were arbitrarily detained. Many were tortured and stigmatized for the remainder of their lives. This was not just a “year of living dangerously” in Indonesia. It was perhaps the most dangerous year the Republic of Indonesia had ever experienced.

The next epoch of living dangerously occurred after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Until this point, life in Indonesia had improved drastically throughout Suharto’s 30 years of being in power. Poverty had been reduced and basic health and education services became more accessible. By 1969 inflation was in single digits, almost unbelievable compared to what it had been only a few years earlier. Development of the country’s industries, namely oil and raw materials, led to an economic boom and stabilization. As one scholar put it, Indonesia under Suharto was proof that “not all regimes born out of the barrel of a gun are bad.”

All of this is not to say that Indonesia was perfect during Suharto’s rule. There were major problems in Suharto’s New Order regime, including corruption, human rights abuses, and overt militarized rule. However, things truly fell apart in 1997 with the Asian monetary crisis. The Indonesian economy collapsed, with the Indonesian rupiah losing 30 percent of its value. The country was once again bankrupt, unemployment rose dramatically, and the Indonesian populace began rioting in the streets. Chaos ensued and over 1,000 civilians were killed, students disappeared, and rapes and sexual assaults were rampant. The main targeted group, the ethnic Chinese Indonesians, had their homes and businesses burned. Many were forced to flee the country. Suharto, desperate for economic support, turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout. In the end, after all the violence and disorder, Suharto stepped down in May 1998. Indonesia would now enter an unprecedented era of democratic reform and decentralization.

Now once again, Indonesia is in the middle of a “year of living dangerously.” Trouble started with mass protests in May 2019 over the presidential election results. Protests happened again later that year when public outrage erupted over suggested amendments to the Criminal Code, such as outlawing consensual sex between non-married couples and making criticism of the president illegal, to name a few. Then came something else that makes this dangerous year unique compared to the mid-1960s and late ‘90s: the coronavirus.

While some governments have proven more adept at handling this disaster, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration seems to have mishandled the pandemic from the start. Researchers were skeptical for months as Indonesia reported no cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, especially as Indonesian cities had direct flights daily to Wuhan, China, where the virus was first discovered. Only on January 23 did the Transportation Ministry suspend flights. Moreover, in February, Jokowi’s Health Minister Terawan Agus Putranto told Indonesians to “not worry” and “just enjoy, and consume enough food.” Later that month, the same minister proclaimed there was a simple reason for the country’s lack of infections: prayer. Jokowi himself later admitted that there had been a lack of transparency with relaying virus information to the public.

Now, with a shortage of testing supplies, ventilators, and manpower to help combat and abate the spread of COVID-19, Indonesians around the country are wary of what is to come. As of April 6, there have been close to 2,500 recorded cases, with 209 deaths, although many question the validity of these numbers. One research study suggests that the reported numbers may only account for 2 percent of the real infections in Indonesia. While no official lockdown has been issued at the time of this writing, and with one of Indonesia’s biggest holidays around the corner, where last year an estimated 20 million people traversed home, there are serious concerns over what could come next. Furthermore, with many jobs expected to be cut and businesses closing, Indonesians are once again living dangerously.

Will Doran is an independent researcher of Southeast Asian affairs currently living in Jakarta. He is a graduate of SOAS, University of London.