New Light Through an Old Window

A new book takes a fresh look at the 1965-66 mass killings in Indonesia.

‘Constructive Bloodbath’ in Indonesia
The United States, Britain and the Mass Killings of 1965-66
Author: Nathaniel Mehr, with foreword by Carmel Budiarjo
Publisher: Spokesman Books (UK)

The noted dissident American intellectual Noam Chomsky coined the phrase ‘constructive bloodbath’ to describe the mass killings that went on in Indonesia in 1965-66. Why ‘constructive’, many people will want to know. Constructive for whom?

Chomsky’s answer is that the destruction of the Indonesian Left and the subversion of President Sukarno were primary foreign policy aims of the US and its junior partner Great Britain, both anxious to open up the treasure trove of Indonesian natural resources that another American, the writer John Gunther had called “the Big Loot of Asia” in his book Inside Asia.

But ‘bloodbath’? This sometimes seems even a little euphemistic, if I may say so, if we take into account the possible numbers killed in the army-led rampage that ostensibly was aimed at the Indonesian Communist Party but, in truth, had the wider aim of liquidating and atomizing the entire Indonesian Left, communist and non-communist, and the center too.

What were those numbers? Some have alleged the figure is as high as 2 million but we can simply never know. One of the reasons for this is very clear: many of the victims were disposed of in mass graves. As the Australian academic Dr Katherine McGregor called ‘Digging up the Past in post-Suharto Indonesia’ for a Scandinavian publication, she notes the vigorous resistance by local people in several cases to exhumation of these mass graves. Another Australian Denis Byrne has noted that in Bali, where some of the most intense killing went on, mass graves were deliberately built over; one of the projects involved was the swank Oberoi Hotel.

Suffice it to say that the numbers are large enough to justify the term ‘mass killings’ used in the subtitle of British writer Nathaniel Mehr’s well-presented book on the period.

What period are we looking at? Principally from 30 September-1 October 1965 until April 1966. Thus we begin with the peculiar events in which seven Indonesian Army generals and an army captain (Tendean) were killed by a motley group of soldiers. This has been called variously a “coup d’etat” and a “putsch” but Mehr insists it was a “mutiny”. Whatever the case it is my contention that the whole thing was a debacle, as I have previously stated in the magazine in reviewing John T. Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder.

Mutinies, no less than coups or putsches, require proper preparation and clear-sighted leadership as well as well-coordinated execution. There were none of these things.

Author Mehr has devoted some space to analyzing the mess that was the so-called Gestapu movement that led to the generals’deaths. I think he ought to have brought out the way in which DN Aidit, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) leader, was involved through a highly secretive inner party group called the Special Bureau which excluded the vast majority of the PKI leadership; the matter of backing an inner army group of plotters was never discussed even at Politburo level. This in a so-called revolutionary organization is really quite unusual.

Equally, when we look at how things actually unfolded on 30 September-1 October we see serious elements of farce that no self-respecting revolutionaries would have allowed to happen; there were pitifully few troops in Merdeka Square and no attempt was made to seal all four sides of the square, they were only lightly armed and no air cover was mobilized. Crucially, above all, PKI, then the third largest Communist Party in the world had a huge national base – Mehr quite rightly points to PKI’s substantial support among poor farmers in Central and East Java as well as among the plantation workers of North Sumatra.

Bafflingly, unless you understand that there was no attempt to mobilize this mass support in the Party’s defense precisely because the Party as an institution was not involved, no call to arms was ever made. Put simply, we can see that PKI was in fact not a revolutionary organization. It had long been wedded to a peaceful parliamentary approach.

We must examine the assertion by the scholars Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey, which Mehr accurately records here, that in fact the events of 30 September-1 October 1965 are separate from the mass killings. Indeed, it is true that there was a time lapse of weeks before the army and its Muslim and nationalist auxiliaries swung into murderous action. I am skeptical, however, that this necessarily means the two phases are separate.

Would not Suharto and his supporters in the Armed Forces have needed time to identify their own civilian support and organize and arm them for the task ahead? It seems sufficient for me to explain Gestapu as the long-awaited pretext. We should not let pass without comment the fact that among the most bloodthirsty groups was the NU youth wing Ansor. It was with its role in the slaughter that the NU leader Gus Dur during his tenure as President of Indonesia attempted to raise the moral questions involved. For his pains he was shouted down and judiciously retreated.

Mehr, incidentally, provides some graphic details of the killings that I had not seen before such as the use by the killers in the West Java city of Cirebon of a guillotine that “worked around the clock”. Some of the other details are too ugly to repeat lightly although Mehr is not at fault in stating them.

As he quite rightly says, “The overwhelming majority of the victims of the 1965-66 killings were poor rural people who had aligned themselves with PKI simply because it was the only
political organization that seemed at all interested in representing them, both at grass-roots level, local level and in the arena of high politics in Jakarta.” This is doubtless true but it must be remembered that even now 10 or more years into the reform (reformasi) era it is quite dangerous to say such things.

There are fanatics that will brook no discussion of the matter. If I say “we all know who they are” that is unlikely to deter them. Equally, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO), which has
been responsible for shameful book burnings of school texts that offer alternative explanations of Gestapu (I have Lombok in mind), may not take kindly to certain truths being pointed out.

The long shadow of History continues to fall, darkening the room. The room echoes insidiously with the rustle of skeletons while somewhere both far off and near ghosts stir.

Down in Central Java, where superstition is a material force, the ghosts of 1965-66 move and unsettle. And a film maker is forced by the police to close down production on a romance set in the Time of Living Dangerously. Pressure from Muslim hardliners objecting to the perceived pro-Communism of a film called Lastri. Yet another case of 30 September-1 October 1965 coming back to haunt Indonesia.

In the same week the new Indonesia English-language daily The Jakarta Globe prints a piece about surviving members of a Muslim youth organization breezily admitting to murdering suspected Communists in Central Java at that time, beheading them, smashing their crania with hammers, disposing of bodies in rivers. These men, apparently still puffed with pride, walk free.

The film maker, meanwhile, pleads for understanding and cultural activists in the historic city of Solo demand to know whether the hardliners have actually read the script. They have not, apparently.

The Muslim youth organization concerned is Ansor, a wing of NU,which as Nathaniel Mehr points out in this new book, played a major and assiduous role in the army-led mass killings of Leftists and other ‘undesirables’.

So where do Britain and the US come into the picture? I knew something of this but by no means all and was particularly interested to read Mehr’s account of the close coordination
between Sir Adam Gilchrist the UK Ambassador in Jakarta at the time of the killings – Gilchrist was more or less a cheerleader for the army – and MI6 at its Phoenix Park base in Singapore.

MI6’s Norman Reddaway received copious telegrams from Gilchrist containing blatant pro-Suharto faction propaganda that he immediately fed to a somewhat docile British print media as well as a blatantly passive BBC which fed it back into Indonesia.

We have the word of Roland Challis, a former BBC Southeast Asia correspondent for this.

The author quite rightly takes the British media to task for continuing over several decades to minimizing the scale and the nature of the mass killings. Nor does he spare British academia.

The American role, which was fairly recently highlighted again by allegations that the CIA had funded Adam Malik, perhaps needs not too much elaboration here. It had long been an aim of the Americans to get Sukarno out of the way – the Dulles brothers,Allen and John Foster, had made that very clear in the 1950s and the destruction of the PKI they welcomed warmly.

Ambassador Marshall Green, for many years a denialist, has been exposed by declassified documents provided under the Freedom of Information Act. As the George Washington University National Security Archive says, “For example, US Embassy reporting November 13, 1965 passed on information ‘from the police that from 50 to 100 PKI members were being killed every night in East and Central Java…”, and the Embassy admitted on April 15, 1966 in an airgram to Washington that “We frankly do not know whether the real figure of PKI killed is closer to 100,000 or to 1 million but believe it is better to err on the lower side especially when questioned by the press’.”

All in all, Nathaniel Mehr has written a sound and readable book. There are a couple of things to quibble about: Salatiga is not in East Java but in Central Java; Malaysia did not gain independence in 1963 but in 1957. I nonetheless recommend it.

The ISBN is 978-0-85124-767-0. Alternatively you can go to www.spokesmanbooks.com for further information.

(pub. Tempo Magazine No.52/IX August 25-Sept 01, 2009)

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Chinese in Indonesia

What better time to discuss the history of the Chinese in Indonesia than Chinese New Year whilst posting at the same time regrets at the passing of Indonesia’s fourth president   Abdurrahman Wahid, fondly known as Gus Dur, a man who did much to lift the Suharto era incubus from the Indonesian Chinese?

But let us begin in Semarang and the years 1432-1434. Of course the Chinese had been coming to Indonesia from a time long before that.

Semarang, the modern day capital of Central Java, seems an unlikely launching pad for an expedition that may very well have changed the course of world history. It involved the famous Chinese eunuch admiral Chen Ho, aka Zhen He and a massive fleet of over 2000 ships which were bound for the then influential trading ports of what is now Italy; Venice, Florence, Genoa.

Chen Ho, who also went by the name Sam Po, had many of these ships fitted out in Semarang and other north coast Java ports such as Jepara. This required the deployment of Javanese carpenters and other craftsmen and we may surmise that some of those men made the fantastic voyage to Europe with the admiral, this, remember, almost sixty years before Christopher Columbus, a man of Genoa, sailed across the Atlantic and ‘discovered’ the Americas.

Aboard his massive fleet were also Asian slave women. Were any of them Javanese or Balinese perhaps? If they were some of them may have ended up in Florentine, Venetian or Genoese households as the concubines of rich merchants and that would suggest that today there are Javanese genes somewhere in the Italian gene pool!

Chen Ho is remembered today in Semarang in the temple and the mosque—an unusual combination—dedicated to his name. Perhaps the most famous of all the Chinese to visit Indonesia, he certainly left an historic footprint.

Now there is a superb new website dedicated to the man set up by Gavin Menzies.
………………………………………………..
(Source unknown: possibly draft for Insight 2009/10)

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Students swindled and stranded

A scandal involving 49 Indonesian students who sought places in Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar University has been revealed. Instead of enrolling in the Cairo university, the students ended up in Malaysia where 15 were discovered doing odd jobs to support themselves.

The students had been promised places at the most famous Arab university by a Jakarta-based education agency, the Fikruna Centre. But the group was apparently abandoned in Malaysia, having been swindled of more than US$1,000 each in initial fees and a further US$1,200 for tuition and accommodation. All had previously failed the university’s entrance examination.

In what may be an example of bureaucratic cross-purposes, Indonesia’s Ministry of National Education is not responsible for the vetting and verification of students applying for places at Islamic universities abroad. Instead, the Ministry of Religious Affairs has that role.

According to Imran Hanafi, an education attache at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur which is dealing with the stragglers, students who were recruited by private agencies without the ministry’s involvement could not go to Egypt.

Meanwhile, the Director-General for Higher Education within the Religious Affairs Ministry, Muhammed Machasin, washed his hands of the affair. Machasin told Indonesian media the government could not be held responsible for the fate of the students.

He said the ministry was only responsible for those students who passed the entrance tests held jointly by the ministry and the relevant university.

The ministry’s line is that a single-door recruitment policy, with his department administering a test drawn up by the Egyptian institution, was the best means of protecting Indonesian applicants.

Yet Machasin was forced to admit that some private education centres were still offering aspirants ‘guaranteed’ places at foreign universities: “I am sure there are still education agencies recruiting and we are going to do something about it.”

Indonesia’s own higher education system faces a similar problem. It is not uncommon in the big cities to find private institutions offering preparatory courses that ‘guarantee’ entry to leading campuses such as the University of Indonesia. This, needless to say, is a source of corruption with administrators potentially involved in kickbacks and other levies.

The Fikruna Centre affair should be a focus for the country’s energetic Corruption Education Commission (KPK), one of the success stories of the post-Suharto ‘reform’ period. Legal action against the owners would appear to be appropriate and the KPK currently has the religious affairs ministry in its cross-hairs over alleged embezzlement of pilgrimage funds.

There is then the argument that all overseas university placements should be handled by the national education ministry. The religious affairs ministry’s role also raises the question of which department should handle the placements abroad of non-Muslim Indonesian students, bearing in mind the Chinese who are largely either Buddhist or Christian.

Equally, it might be argued that the national education ministry should provide counselling for students intent on overseas study, as well as supplying them with up-to-date information about back-up services in the host countries.

(pub. University World News Issue:060  25th January 2009)

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Higher education and ethnic Chinese

The Chinese form a huge diaspora around the globe with its biggest concentration in Southeast Asia. Sizeable Chinese minorities exist in Indonesia, the largest numerically in the region; Malaysia, where they form the biggest non-Malay cohort; Thailand, where they have generally assimilated and are often difficult to differentiate from the Thais; and the Philippines. Singapore, meanwhile, is a Chinese-majority state.

Chinese connections with Indonesia, where there are 5-6 million out of an estimated 230 million (last census 2000), go back many centuries. The Srivijayan empire of southern Sumatra, a regional power until the 11th century AD, attracted Chinese as it was also a major centre pre-Islam of Buddhist learning.

The coastal and other kingdoms of Java were long-time ports of call for the wandering Chinese seaborne merchants and adventurers, most famously the eunuch Admiral Chen Ho. A temple in Semarang and a mosque in Surabaya are dedicated to this extraordinary figure.

In Dutch colonial times, the Dutch East India Company, VOC, integrated the Chinese into the colonial economy. They were deployed as rent and tribute collectors, a fact that should be recalled when debating their position. In the 19th century this put them seriously at odds with the Javanese peasantry whose directed labour grew export crops that greatly enriched the Netherlands’ economy. This is the historical source of the scapegoating of the Chinese.

Periodically, they have been the targets of ethnic violence, most recently in 1998 when rioting in Jakarta and other cities brought down the Suharto New Order dictatorship. Serious looting took place in the Jakarta Chinatown as well as gang rapes, which have been attributed to ‘men with military haircuts’ in many reports.

Despite their conspicuousness in the ranks of the wealthy, it is a myth that all Chinese Indonesians are rich. In West Kalimantan province (Borneo), where in some towns they outnumber the Malays, Dayaks and others, many are singularly poor and Chinese families there are known to offer their daughters as mail order brides for Taiwanese. Equally, in Java pockets of poor Chinese are to be found.

The New Order discriminated against the Chinese in many forms. Coming to power in the ferocious anti-Leftist bloodbath of 1965-66, Suharto sought, on the one hand, to stigmatise the Chinese as a ‘fifth column’ of Communist China while, on the other, to mobilise Chinese-Indonesian capital for development.

Mandarin was outlawed and the majority of the Chinese chose to adopt either Javanese or Christian names to blur their identity. Two of the best-known Chinese Indonesians are the great badminton players Susi Susanti, the first Indonesian to win Olympic gold (Barcelona 1992), and Rudy Hartono, arguably the finest shuttler ever, winner of eight All-England singles titles. International success in badminton brings on tremendous public enthusiasm and, as observers quickly see, the Chinese players are miraculously purely Indonesian in the public eye.

Meanwhile, a large number struggled for decades to acquire Indonesian citizenship documents. Their effective foreclosure from most areas of public life extended into higher education.

Paradoxically, the authoritarian New Order brought about a considerable expansion of the higher education sector, notably in the form of private universities. At the same time it policed the campuses in various ways.

The richer Chinese chose, where they could, to send their offspring overseas, particularly to neighbouring Singapore. That meant overcoming the twin obstacles of their not having either Mandarin or English.

One upshot of this through the late 1980s and the 1990s was a surge in the number of language courses in cities such as Jakarta, Bandung, Medan and Surabaya where most offered English. Many of the Chinese signing on were particularly keen to take TOEFL programs in the belief that this would facilitate entry into Singaporean, Australian and Canadian higher education institutions.

The quality offered in many of these language courses was seriously in question, however, as the schools sought to make quick bucks through employing unqualified or inexperienced expatriate instructors.

Those Chinese attending Indonesian universities have tended to favour either the Christian or the purely private ones. A good example is the Christian Atma Jaya University in central Jakarta’s financial district. Hence, the better state university campuses still only have a small ethnic Chinese presence, if any at all.

If Chinese student figures have been generally low on the better-known campuses such as the University of Indonesia, so too have the numbers of ethnic Chinese Indonesian academics. Probably the best-known such academic was the dissident sociologist Arief Budiman, who went into exile in Australia during the New Order.

Arief is fondly remembered by Lucas Edward, an extrovert Chinese Indonesian assistant editor at Tempo, a current affairs weekly, who was a student at the private Satya Wacana University, a Christian campus in Salatiga, Central Java.

Currently, perhaps the best known Chinese Indonesian academic is Professor Meily Tan of the University of Indonesia which has a small but growing international student presence, including those from mainland China.

The post-Suharto decade has seen much of the incubus of anti-Chinese discrimination lifted in Indonesia with, for example, the ending of the ban on the use of Mandarin and the barongsai lion dance. Nonetheless, full integration in education, including the universities, seems a little way off.

(pub. University World News Issue:045 21st September 2008)

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The apostrophe’s malaise

Just what is it about the humble apostrophe or rather the ‘s that causes so many problems? In Carl Chairul’s otherwise sharply written piece for Sunday Post’s “By The Way” column we have, “…as soon as they receive their Volvo’s.” As soon as they receive their Volvo’s what? Its (see, no apostrophe required here) door handle? Its key? It’s amazing what a pickle this little bit of punctuation causes.

I am reminded of a sticker there used to be on the back of some cars (no apostrophe required) here that read “”Menteng F.C. Fan’s Club””. Who was this lone supporter of what must have been the world’s most under-supported football club? Did he take his dog along for company?

The apostrophe s denotes either possession and attribution or elision, a letter missed out as in “It’s a lovely day for it”. In Carl’s sentence above it appears to suggest possession or attribution when none makes any sense. Quite clearly, the writer is simply referring to Volvo cars (as opposed to car’s) in the plural. In that case there is no need for an apostrophe!

This plague of misplaced apostrophes – the apostrophe’s malaise, if you like – has, sad to say, spread just about everywhere, and can be found in the UK as much as in Indonesia. It has a name, the grocer’s apostrophe and can be seen on many a British shop sign these days. Out with it! And off with their head’s, er, heads!!

(pub. The Jakarta Post 20th March 2001)

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Minangkabau

Piquant Food, Shimmering Music and National Heroes

In the Dutch city of Leiden, famous for its university, is a place name that should make Indonesians proud: Sjarirstraat. The street was named in honour of one of the most famous sons of the province of West Sumatra, Indonesia’s first Prime Minister, Sutan Sjahrir.

‘Sutan’ is an aristocratic title used by the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, to which Sjahrir belonged. However Sjahrir was, rara avis in Indonesia, a socialist. Leiden also played host to Indonesia’s first Vice-President, Mohammed Hatta. Both Sjahrir and Hatta were men of astonishingly broad learning, and amongst the few beneficiaries of a university education under Dutch colonial rule.

It was my great good fortune some years ago to work as an English teacher in a Jakarta language school, ILP, with Sjahrir’s daughter, Upik, and to be invited by her to the family home on Jalan Cokroaminoto in the Menteng district of the capital. My jaw slackened in some amazement at the huge size of her late father’s library – Sjahrir had died in exile in Zurich – and I was much warmed by the sight of it. From pictures I have seen of Hatta’s library, I know I would be equally impressed by his collection.

Two Minangkabau men of great culture then. The really interesting thing about the ethnic group from which they came though is that it is, unlike most Islamic societies, matrilineal in nature (if not exactly a matriarchy as such). Property is passed down through the female side of the family and this means that you can expect to find Minang women to be assertive in business and money matters.

The Minangkabau people are indeed known throughout Indonesia for their sound commercial sense, but above all for their cuisine, the ubiquitous Nasi Padang, otherwise known as Nasi Kapau Asli, famous for its luxury of sauces and piquant tastes. Because Minangkabau people are Muslim, their diet contains no pork. However beef, chicken, fish, prawns and vegetables all figure prominently.

A few years back, I met a chef from Manchester in the UK and his Irish wife on Jalan Jaksa, Jakarta’s backpacker street. I told them that if they really wanted to see or taste real Indonesian food they should try Nasi Padang. We duly trotted along to Restoran Famili in Kebayoran Baru, where, upon entering, Jeff exclaimed, “Look at that greedy so-and-so!” A lone Indonesian diner had about twelve different dishes in front of him. “Aha,” I replied, “wait until you see what we get!” And so it was that we were served an enormous smorgasbord of dishes, including some delicious sop buntut (oxtail soup) and my new friends were delighted.

I could equally well have taken them to Natrabu on Jalan Sabang in Menteng, where they used engage in the endearing habit of asking foreigners where they were from, and, if they had the appropriate flag, planting it on your table; a miniature of course. In my case, it was the Union Jack, so any Indonesians would have known that I was British.

At Natrabu, which is a contraction of National Travel Bureau incidentally, the waiters and waitresses all wear traditional costumes. As kebau means buffalo, it should come as no major surprise to find that the female waiting staff’s head gear is in the shape of buffalo horns, very idiosyncratic. Both men and women wear gorgeous Sumatran songket fabrics, songket being one of the world’s most advanced forms of embroidery and common to the Malay world.

Natrabu also holds evening-time cultural performances, at which you can hear the shimmering metallic xylophone music of West Sumatra, which, to my ear at least, is very pleasant. The dance forms, like many in Indonesia, are very stylized and mannered but graceful all the same.

I might equally well have taken my new friends, Jeff and Bridget, to Jalan Kramat Raya and the all-night Padang stalls down there, where I have been going for many years, a lone bule forager. The noise from the traffic is a bit of a put-off perhaps, but the food is fantastic, especially the soups.

West Sumatra is also famous for the beauty of its mountain scenery. The area around Lake Maninjau is especially outstanding and, coming as I do from Britain’s Lake District, its vistas and its cool highland air has an immediate appeal for me. Nearby Bukittinggi is perhaps the heart of West Sumatra, a beautifully-set mountain town that is well worth a visit.

Situated where it is, the province of West Sumatra is prone to tremors and frequent seismic events but that alone surely doesn’t explain why three million or so Minang people choose to live outside the area. Many Minang people live in Malaysia and Singapore, where you can also get some terrific Padang food.

The Minang are a dynamic folk indeed. The matrilineal system empowers the womenfolk to some extent and Minang women have occupied some lofty posts in Indonesia. One of my acquaintances, Ibu Nasti R., an ex-academic at the University of Indonesia and, like Sjahrir and Hatta, a bibliophile, runs the East Jakarta-based Wandering Books Foundation. This small but impressive initiative tries to instill the reading habit in Indonesian children. Like Sjahrir and Hatta and that not-often-spoken-of Indonesian revolutionary, Tan Malaka, ‘Bu Nas’ is committed to ideas.

So, you can see that for all its conservatism (a fact that visitors should always be aware of) Minangkabau society is really quite atypical. The next time you arrive at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport remember that Hatta was a Minangkabau. Likewise, when you are next in Menteng in Jakarta, and passing along Jalan Sutan Sjahrir, recall that he too was one of this proud, cultured people of West Sumatra.

(pub. Insight)

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Sundanese

Sundanese? Don’t you mean Sudanese?

It’s an easy enough mistake to make I suppose, only one letter is different but that ‘n’ is absolutely critical. No, there are no comparisons to be made between the Sudan, Africa’s largest nation with its great stretch of the River Nile and its deserts and the Sunda region of West Java with its volcanic massifs and mountain forests.

All that the Sudanese and the Sundanese have in common is that in both cases the majority of the people are Muslim. But it was not always so in the Sunda lands. Before the arrival of Islam, the region was home to a strong Hindu culture under the Pajajaran royalty and Islam only took root there after a considerable struggle.

Living in their mountain fastnesses, the Sundanese spoke a very different language to their Javanese neighbours, had different dances and musical styles and ate rather different food. Try saying ‘Hiji dei’ at the Warung; it’s Sundanese for one more (‘satu lagi’ in Bahasa Indonesia or ‘setunggal maleh’ in Javanese).

The music of West Java differs greatly from that of Central Java. The ethereal mazy Javanese gamelan is paralleled but not copied by the Sundanese Degung with its more plangent, up-beat tempos. Degung, unusually for Indonesian percussion music, is often played by women.

Sundanese dance covers a wide spectrum and includes the amazing raunchiness of Jaipongan, a form that religious conservatives may have in their sights. Jaipongan features rapid, unpredictable changes of rhythm set against what to a Western musical ear sounds like a dissonant accompaniment.

I first encountered this effervescent music and dance style in a Dangdut bar on Jakarta’s Jalan Blora some twenty-one years ago and was, as a British friend had predicted, astounded. It is quite, quite unlike anything you will hear or see anywhere else in the archipelago.

The Sundanese, like their Javanese neighbours, take costume seriously and Sundanese women often dress gorgeously. This can be seen in the courtly dances of the Ronggeng, which, in times long past, were entertainment for the aristocracy. Nobody speaks today of such a class stratum in Sundanese society, except in and around the port city of Cirebon, which is known to Indonesians as ‘Kota Udang’ (Prawn City).

Cirebon is a gentle, slow-moving location famous for its Kraton or sultans’ palaces, of which there are four, a fact clearly indicating past power struggles in the region. Clearly, none has the power and influence that a single royal title-holder would have.

Famous in the artistic world for its wooden mask dances or Topeng, Cirebon has rightful claims on its Sundanese heritage. These have in the past been advanced by cultural activists such as Enoch Atmadibrata but modern observers wonder whether Cirebon’s rich culture can much longer withstand the ravages of contemporary life. Topeng has few practitioners today, more’s the pity.

Most youth in the Sunda region look elsewhere for their cultural inspirations, to punk and to Sundanese Pop music as well as to the Tarling Dangdut that emanates from Indramayu, a region neighbouring Cirebon.

One artefact of the Cirebon area that seems likely to survive, however, is its local Batik designs which are widely sought. Clouds are a favourite motif on Cirebon Batik. Visitors can have great fun bargaining in the workshops in and around the city, which has also long been a centre for the production of rattan furniture, much of it for export.

One cannot pass through West Java and not try the food. Surprisingly, for such a mountainous region, fish plays a big part in Sundanese cuisine but one of the reasons for this is the local practice of keeping fish ponds. A culinary must is Ikan Mas Pepes, which is a freshwater fish baked with spices in a banana leaf…it fair makes me drool!

Lately, Sundanese food has undergone a renewal of interest amongst the wider population and one cannot pass up the chance to try the excellent buffets at Bumbu Desa, a franchise with several Jakarta branches and Saung Gading in the Sarinah complex in Central Jakarta.

Wilijeung Sumping!

(pub. Insight)

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