Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, July 1999)


As we go to press people’s favorite Megawati Soekarno Putri is poised for victory in Indonesia’s first democratic election in 50 years — even Jimmy Carter was spotted at an Ubud cock-fight. Bali voted overwhelmingly (85%) for the mild-mannered Mega, daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Soekarno. During the lead up to the election local artisans worked overtime creating fanciful banners, flags and T-shirts in the Balinese spirit of freedom of expression through art.

While the world anguished the Indonesians got on with business — the business of fully closing the door on the repression and corruption of the Soeharto years. Even the ultra-conservative Singapore Straits Times got into the spirit and started referring to Soeharto, the man voted most powerful in Asia by Asiaweek in 1998, as "disgraced former president." As the poll results started coming in, the often humorous New Straits Times of Kuala Lumpur suggested, in a banner headline, that "Megawati’s victory has nothing to do with REFORMASI".
"Oh yeah!" screamed one local pundit, "What’s the reason then? Girl power?"

There were very few ugly incidents during the campaign period — the nation was united in ignoring the thugs paid to undermine the process. "Whatever it takes," said one schoolteacher interviewed by CNN on the eve of the election "we’ve put up with so much suffering since last May’s riots and now we just want a free and just society."

During the lead-up to election day TIME magazine issued an explosive Indonesian election week special detailing the holdings of the former first family around the world. Saint-like luminaries such as Ibnu Soetowo (who, allegedly, turned Jakarta’s Central Park into a private fief-dom) and Edwin Suryajaya (Father of the Turtle Island Country Club project) are quoted decrying the corruption of the old regime. "TIME is money" cracked the former strongman Soeharto when asked for a reaction to the article.

There were a few final incidents of unspeakable ugliness that marred the euphoric mood: one on the island of Banda Besar, which sent the friends of the Spice Islands into deep despair. The Van der Broeks, the last perkeneer (Dutch plantation holders) family on the island of Banda Besar, were butchered in their home by crazed religious fanatics — a 350 year-old vendetta finally played out.
As treasured heritage houses burned in Banda the tourists flocked to Bali, undeterred, thank God, by the convoys of paramilitary flag-wavers. One incident in Kuta, blown out of all proportion by the snide Australian press (why are they so often so wide of the mark, and gutter-level sensationalist, about Indonesian affairs). The incident threatened to upset the calm but cool-nerves prevailed — the non-Balinese vendors, who had been blocking the footpaths for years, did not return once "taught a lesson" (red burning buggies on the beach) — the Kuta homeboy vigilantes quietly moved their attention back to the topless bathers.

I found myself in Paris on Election Day with Indonesian friends. I visited the World Press Photo exhibition (held in the fabulous new I.M. Pei-designed ‘Carousel du Louvre" in the Francois I-era embankment level of the venerable palace-museum) to view the photos of last year’s May riots in Jakarta. The big prints, horrifically graphic and gut-wrenching, in that austere setting made us all choke with the memory of those tense few weeks when anarchy threatened many parts of Indonesia.
One year later the country is riding the crest of a wave of democracy. Daily President Habibie shows his determination to fight the old ways. The Attorney General has resigned, exposed by an independent corruption watch; the television stations are now run by young professional free-range liberals ("CHANGE IS NATURAL: INDONESIA!" extols the testing pattern on cable T.V.); and presidential hopefuls with real platforms (not just the heels) debate amicably and intelligently on prime–time T.V. Even President Habibie goes candid and coy with CNN hearthrob Rez Khan. The country’s image, and Balinese tourism, gets a huge boost by this well-timed, well-intended media exposure — the country’s first media affair since 1960 images of President Soekarno, pounding his fists, Kruschev-style, were amongst the most newsworthy beamed around the world during television and Indonesia’s infancy).

Today the images are of Rocky Horror Megas, "Apocalypse Now" Megas, Junoesque Megas as St.Joan of the Archipelago," Thatcher-esque Megas with shoulder pads and big hair; Mega as Diana, the huntress and Mega as Hamlet with her father’s ghost ever present.
Australian artist Stephen Little sends a portrait of Mega as Mother of the Year — a gift for his Bali-based artisans; from Paris, painter Richard Overstreet sends photos he took of the Mega-posters around Sidemen in East Bali (a Mega stronghold, as Mega’s father sought spiritual advice from the present prince’s father during the battle of independece).
This month the Stranger presents a bouquet of PESTA DEMOKRASI photographs. Merdeka!!!

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