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In Indonesia, ‘development’ means suffering

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Indonesia Betrayed consists of accounts of the pro-democracy movement-and the challenges it faces-at the grassroots level in the resource-rich lowlands of South Sumatra. This area floats on oil, produces coal and minerals, and supports rich forests and plantations. Even so, the very exploitation of these resources has degraded the environment, fostered abuse of power, and impoverished the local population.

To illustrate this paradox, or why the abundance of resources results in misery, the book's second chapter tells the stories of student activists who joined with farmers and workers in their struggle against the injustice of New Order and post-New Order ‘development'. After this, the question "Who Owns the Land?" is addressed. Following colonial principles, the state is considered to be the owner of all the forest land of Indonesia-and so it is free to do there as its rulers deem fit, even as it destroys the livelihood of local citizens.

In "No Forests, No Future", the above considerations gain depth through case studies of the activities of the NGO Indonesian Environmental Forum (WALHI), and how foreign investors and Indonesian moguls always prevail by means of ‘security forces', the intimidation of the population, and a highly corrupted system of justice. In a different setting, these themes are elaborated under "Struggling for Workers' Rights", in which the state is shown to use its power to criminalize all those who protest when it deprives them of livelihood and resources. How such blatant ‘policies' are sustained is illustrated in "‘Where's My Cut?' The State and Corruption", where it is also stated that the structures and persons that maintained the New Order have merely lengthened their tentacles down to the newly decentralized levels of government. This is further demonstrated in "Local Autonomy", the implementation of which may, under rare conditions, offer some relief to the population concerned, even as the locally powerful will be tempted to co-operate with exploitative outsiders.

In "Islam and the Quest for Justice", we see how Islamic organizations have responded to the opportunities of the post-Suharto era. However, Islam is not a united front. It has occasional corruptible leaders, whereas certain other factions are isolationist and may favour fundamentalist solutions to the country's woes.

These substantive chapters are set between a "Prologue" and a "Global Context". The first offers a summary account of the Revolution of 1848 in Paris when the under classes rose to claim the right to work and democratic government. After initial success, it didn't last long before the reaction took over again. The author sees parallels between the conditions that caused the fall of the monarchy in 1848 and the pro-democracy movement in Indonesia in 1998, although she is hopeful that, despite the reactionary takeover, a more democratic and socially just government is in the offing. This hope inspires the concluding chapter on "Indonesia in Global Context" in which we are assured time and again that, "Free-market utopianism must be abandoned. Truly democratic and accountable government involves participation by farmers and workers in planning for a future that puts human development and welfare first." (190)


Fired by compassion and indignation, the above tale of suffering, injustice and greed becomes a fine piece of investigative journalism. Whereas such descriptions have the merit of ‘setting the data straight', they fall way short of the author's claim that her analysis "has the virtue of providing an integrated understanding of a complex reality". (12) Her steadfast refusal to apply or develop any theory makes that the reader will not see the wood for the trees and get pedantic recommendations for conclusions.

The books snappy title, Indonesia Betrayed, is not elucidated. Does she mean that the Republic's early ideals of building a just and prosperous (adil dan makmur) society based on the rule of law (Negara Hukum) in which the voice of the suffering masses (Ampera) would be heard? Perhaps, perhaps not; who is betraying whom or what is being betrayed dangles in the air, and it is left to the reader to fill in the blanks. And so it goes throughout the entire book. Through not theorizing how a predatory oligarchy maintains it hegemony; how the process of decivilization has corrupted country and society to the marrow [1] ; how religion prospers when people are deprived of power and justice; why it is a bane for the ordinary man when ‘development' strikes a resource-rich region; or even why ‘democratization' would be the panacea to end all exploitation, we remain stuck with pedestrian platitudes that do not provide any "integrated understanding of a complex reality". To learn or understand as much as this book offers, one might as well read Ayu Utami's novel Saman (1998), which is much more fun to boot.

Niels Mulder is a retired independent researcher of Filipino, Javanese and Thai culture, currently working on his field biography, such as Doing Java; an anthropological detective story. Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 2006, Doing Thailand; the anthropologist as a young dog in Bangkok in the 1960s. Bangkok: White Lotus, 2008, and Professional Stranger; Doing Thailand during its Most Violent Decade. Bangkok: White Lotus, 2009.


[1] On this point, Indonesian authors have produced a rich if depressing literature. For a discussion of Mochtar Buchori, Sindhunata, SJ, Leila S. Chudori, Seno Gumira Ajidarma, and later, Umar Kayam, Sindhunata, SJ, and Ayu Utami, see Niels Mulder.2000. Indonesian Images; The Culture of the Public World and 2003. Southeast Asian Images; Towards Civil Society? respectively.

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