Press missed the story in Suharto ouster

With a passion I had never heard in his voice, Hok, my Chinese hairdresser of many years said: "Oh Bu, write about how it's safe here, not like CNN says, people starving, looting, and robbing. We are losing tourism and investment due to belief that the situation in Jakarta applies to all of Indonesia."

His plea was later echoed in the highland village where I have worked as an anthropologist since 1981. "Why does the Voice of America report that the situation in Indonesia is so bad?" one man asked.

I arrived in Padang, the capital city of the Indonesian province of West Sumatra, on July 17, two months after the May riots in Jakarta unseated President Suharto. Although the plane from Singapore was filled with international surfers headed for a newly discovered surfing Mecca off the coast of West Sumatra, Padang was virtually empty of tourists. I was not surprised, given the State Department's advisory warning me to stay away. However, I knew from advance calls to friends that all was well in West Sumatra. I didn't realize, however, how passionately the people felt about the news reports keeping foreigners out of Indonesia.

The cultural diversity and vastness of Indonesia are missing from media reports of Indonesia's crisis. What I found in Padang and Central Sumatra where I traveled without encountering a trace of danger, contradicts most of what I read in the Indonesian and American press.

Instead of revolution sponsored by a few from the privileged classes and despair sparking widespread violence, I found people speaking out in the cities and organizing in villages to claim "rights" guaranteed by the Suharto democracy but denied by his corrupt government. People talked about "reformasi damai" (peaceful reform) with an excitement and outspokenness unparalleled in any of my years in Indonesia.

The provincial movement I observed was a continuation of the student movement that brought Suharto down in Jakarta. People said that during the May student demonstrations they clustered around village TVs watching members of their children's generation in action. Padang students followed suit and occupied the provincial Parliament building. "They climbed up to the roof and sat there," one woman told me incredulously but with apparent delight. "They lived there for one month, just like in Jakarta," she said. In June, villagers started seeking redress for past wrongs at the suggestion of local organizers, some of whom came from Jakarta.

Unlike journalists, I had the luxury of spending six weeks observing the reform movement as I traveled through Central Sumatra (West Sumatra and Riau provinces). Wherever I went, the people I wanted to see (elders and experts in oral tradition) were more often than not engaged in village-wide meetings with government officials or officers of multinational corporations. The goal of these meetings was always the same: compensation for the seizure of ancestral land by the Suharto regime (in some cases amounting to hundreds of thousands of hectares).

It is too early to tell where the reform movement is headed. It could easily lead to another form of Suharto-inspired oligarchy rather than the grass-roots participatory democracy I observed in Central Sumatra. The dark cloud on the horizon is inflation. Offsetting this trend and possibly diverting national civil war is the new wealth enjoyed by farmers in rice-rich areas such as West Sumatra.

Whatever happens, the dominant slogan of the new times - end collusion, corruption, and nepotism - will not go away. People want their rightful share in the economic miracle produced by Suharto's policies. Seen from Central Sumatra, Suharto's mistake was not the institutional infrastructure he constructed but the naked greed that permeated the economic-political-military machinery of his New Order.

Peggy Reeves Sanday is a professor of anthropology who studies the matriarchal society of the Minangkabau people.

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Originally published on October 1, 1998