A Spirit Raging

12 Nov

This article (by yours truly) was first published in Monsoon- The publication of the ANU Asia-Pacific Studies Society in the Autumn edition 2011. As part of the Island Southeast Asia special feature some of these stories may be a bit familiar.

Incredible India. Malaysia- Truly Asia. It’s slogans like this which invoke emotions and passion in a traveller when making their way through the mazes which are the major airline hubs of Asia. Compare this to the tourism campaign of our closest Southeast Asian neighbour and a country I truly love- Wonderful Indonesia. Sure it is pleasant but it’s not the kind of awe-inspiring, drop everything and buy a plane ticket slogan that I’m sure the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism was aiming for.

Unfortunately Indonesia is a country that for many Australians presents all sorts of negative connotations thanks to DFAT and Today Tonight, and the word wonderful is quickly replaced by words such as terrorist or fundamentalism. While there is no doubt Indonesia faces its problems, such comments are unfounded and in no way reflect the significant progress made by Indonesia in the past decade.

Now let me introduce you to the Indonesia I love, an Indonesia far removed from the drunken, hedonistic paradise of Bali. Indonesia is a country which screams diversity, with hundreds of ethnic groups coexisting in a single country. This still creates social and cultural problems however the positives derived from this diversity speak far more loudly than the negatives. It is this diversity that I experienced while studying at an Indonesian university in a small town in Central Java. Within 100 kilometres of this town there were ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples (Borobudur and Prambanan), modern cities and tiny villages which still followed traditional farming practices. All of these places hold memories that will stay with me forever from sitting in an unusually empty Prambanan and contemplating life at sunset, trekking through tiny villages and seeing farmers who had most likely been working the same plot for half a century with betel stained teeth and shy smiles to having a tropical infection pulled out of my arm with very little anaesthetic in a surprisingly modern hospital in Semarang. (Capital of Central Java Province)

Indonesia is a nation which is strongly patriotic as is evident through its history and fierce battle for independence. My first visit to the country was just after the passing of former President Abdurrahman Wahid (or Gus Dur to the population) and witnessed a country awash with respect for a man who was largely ineffective as a President yet highly revered as a figure of post-New Order reformasi (reformation). The sight of a nation adorned with the merah putih (national flag) was repeated on my most recent visit following the tragic loss of the Indonesian National Soccer Team to their arch-rivals Malaysia in the final of the 2010 ASEAN Football Championships. This patriotism reaches from the state ideology of Pancasila taught from an early age at school to the national emblem, the Garuda seen everywhere from government buildings to the bumper stickers of the scooters which clog Indonesia’s roads.

This is a country of resilience, where hardship is a part of daily life for millions across the archipelago. Following the devastating eruption of Mount Merapi in October-November last year there is still an immense hope for the future. I was slightly worried however by an Indonesian friend who told me, “If the house starts shaking in the middle of the night don’t worry it’s just a cold lava avalanche from the eruption going past.” Driving through the areas which were hardest hit by the eruption leaving many dead, some of the only reminders are the blackened scars on houses and the newly erected signs which warn of the danger from hot gas eruptions. Another case of this was buying petrol from a roadside stall for my scooter in an isolated village and being served by a man with most of his skin covered by horrific burns yet battling on to keep earning a living, a fitting symbol of an Indonesia which doesn’t give up.

Indonesia is a country which cannot be encompassed in a single word. From the repetitive, hypnotic pattern of the gamelan, the enchanting, mysterious Javanese dance or the aroma of a rich Beef Rendang to the wild traffic, rich youth culture and the blaring dangdut, a truly unique music style which one must learn to love. This is Indonesia- colourful, beautiful, diverse and rich in culture, history and suffering and a nation which should be allowed to liberate itself from the negativity heaped on it by Western governments and media.

Note- I never explained the title in the original article. It’s a quote from Sukarno in 1945 “Independence can only be obtained and secured by a nation that has its spirit raging with determination: "independence or death" I think it’s a powerful quote

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