Here Thar Be Monsters!

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15.8.10

Merdeka!

Got the flag hung out just now. Tuesday is Indonesia's 65th independence day. It'll be a national holiday and there'll be neighborhood parties with games and gatherings. Of course, this year, it falls smack in the middle of Ramadan, so anything involving food and beverage will have to wait until after sundown.

A popular item on the agenda of many Indonesians is to visit the graves of the heroes. There are national cemeteries dotted around and folks buy red and white flower pedals to cover the graves. Many have direct relatives (grandfather, father, husband) buried there. The revolution is still in living memory. One 80-year-old woman has told me stories about the war. The revolution is still a powerful reminder of the empowerment of the people.

In so many ways, Indonesia is the mirror image of the United States. The US went on to develop an entrenched two-party system, that effectively means no choice. Indonesia went the other direction with about 40 parties currently vying for power. The US fractured itself into Various-Americans and spends a lot of effort dividing itself asunder, while Indonesia struggles to build a single identity from a very diverse population. Indonesia still reveres its revolutionary heroes, while the US has developed a kind of schizophrenic self-loathing regarding its Founders.

The similarities between Indonesia and the US are striking. They are both about the same physical size, though Indonesia is a lot wetter. They have about the same population and are composed of a wide variety of people with differing histories, languages and cultures. Both countries have vast natural wealth and great natural beauty. Both aspire to a republican form of government composed of semi-autonomous regions in confederation. But that's where things diverge widely.

Imagine a scenario in which the native Americans had risen up and kicked out the European invaders and you would have Indonesia. After centuries of exploitation by wave after wave of foreign invaders, the native population came together to cast off the oppressive occupations of China, Arabia, Portugal, Japan, and the Netherlands. Nation after nation has tried to control and profit from the incredible wealth of resources that are contained within the archipelago.

Indonesia consists of around 20,000 islands, ranging from the massive Borneo down to the cartoon-style "one coconut tree on a sand bar." All of the land areas where created by chains of volcanoes, many still actively creating new land today. The primary islands are Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan (Borneo), Sulawesi, and Papua or Irian Jaya. Borneo is shared by Malaysia and Brunei, which take the northern third or so. Papua is shared with New Guinea, and tiny Timor L'este takes part of a small southern island (the name means East-East, in Indonesian and Portuguese). Otherwise, Indonesia has no land borders.

The country is dominated politically and culturally by Java. The capitol is in Jakarta, which is the largest city in Indonesia, with a population of approximately 12 million. In the same way that New York dominates the media nad culture of America, Jakarta does the same in Indonesia. Television programs center around the city and Javanese culture dominates the drama and humor. Western Java (Jakarta and environs) also get the bulk of infrastructure development, with modern highways, mass transit, and so forth. Road conditions outside of Java are spotty, at best.

For this reason, many of the outlying regions resent Java. Many folks grumble about all the focus on Java and the lack of funds to improve roads and utilities. Many areas experience regular black-outs, which are relatively rare in Jakarta. Travel in most areas is tedious, if not downright hazardous due to poor roads, especially in the rainy season. It has also led to sometimes violent secessionist movements, such as in Papua, Aceh and successfully in Timor L'este. There is even a somewhat contradictory situation where people regularly protest for more jobs and better conditions, while at the same time moving to Jakarta to find them. This leads to additional pressure on the government to develop other areas, if for no other reason than to alieve the congestion caused by the mass movement of people to the city.

To its credit, the current administration led by President Bambang (SBY) has done quite a bit to open trade blocks, grant regional autonomy and decentralize the power ctructure. It is helping, as areas like Medan, East Kalimantan and northern Sulawesi have experienced good growth in both tourism and general business and trade. There is a move to build more airports so make getting around easier and faster. Communications have exploded in the past ten years with the introduction of cell phones and WiFi. There are even road projects underway to improve ground transportation. So there is hope.

Indonesia is governed by Dutch law, which comes from Napoleonic law, and thus resembles Louisiana law somewhat. There is a healthy spinkling of Sharia, and in some regions like Aceh, it is the law of the land. Muslim men are allowed to have up to four wives, as long as he can feed and care for them at some minimal level. One advantage that everyone can share are very low bank rates for loans and credit cards. Sharia forbids usury, so the gross abuse of interest rates seen in the US does not exist here.

The government is unicameral and parliamentary, with the many parties receiving seats based on votes, and then forming coalitions once seated. There is an upper-level advisory body that acts like a cross between a Senate and a Cabinet. These ministers advise and enforce policy. One advantage of the system is that it keeps the number of laws passed to a minimum because of all the disagreement within the House. This is in stark contract to the US where both parties trip over themselves to pass laws, if for no other reason than to show they are doing SOMETHING. The Indonesian laws that i have read seem fairly clear and concise, without all the mumbo-jumbo lawyering and obfuscating that goes into US law. Yes, there is indemnic corruption at all levels of government here. Every official is on the take and even competing branches feed each other. To my point of view, this is refreshing, as it is open, obvious and everyone knows it. In the US, they spend inordinate amounts of time and effort trying to legitimize the whole thing, ehich really just makes the situation worse. About the only thing that can get you in real trouble here is terrorism and drug-running, and the drugs can go away also, for a large enough sum.

The list of good and bad goes on and on. Indonesia has its problems, like any other country. As a whole, it has an inferiority complex, though. They have been told for so long that they are a third-world or developing country, that they still think there are better places "out there." Many are surprised to hear that the US and Europe are not all that different, and in recent years the gap has narrowed significantly. Part of it is also due to hundreds of years of servitude to wave after wave in invaders. They are still opening their minds to the possibilities of freedom, even as the West is selling itself into slavery.

It is exciting to live in a country where there is still a future and where people are just starting to dream really big. Here on the eve of 65 years of independence, and with a newly invigorated sense of Self, Indonesia is poised to be a powerful influence in the coming 100 years. It's wealth and creativity make it a powerhouse, if it doesn't squander the opportunity. Its internal differences are a strength, if harnessed for ideas rather than divisiveness. It is one of the few countries worldwide that is experiencing vigorous grouth right now. So the cards are stacking in favor of Indonesia. All that remains is to play them well.

Happy Birthday, Indonesia! And many happy returns.

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