How 'bout a little Indonesian voodoo?

November 25, 2006 by barbara

by becca
(writing from Indonesia)

The direct cost to the Indonesians for the (Bush) visit was quoted at 6 billion Rupiah '" and at the current exchange rate of 9000 Rupiah to the dollar, it comes to $700,000 dollars . . . to Indonesians who make an average of about $2000 a year, imagine what that kind of money sounds like to them. One of the protest signs in the demonstrations, directed to President Susilo, read, "6 Billion Rupiah for George Bush '" None for Me. Why, Sir, Why?" Read on.


(That's "thanks be to God," as the Indonesian Muslims say, borrowing from the Arabic). George Walker Bush's visit to Indonesia passed without incident. Of course I was confident that from the Indonesian side, as far as the general person-on-the-street goes, there would be no problem. As I said in my last posting, 81% of Indonesians like the USA and a good 99% of them want peace, so I didn't think they would disappoint me and try something drastic while Bush was here. I was more afraid of extremists who might come from outside Indonesia and try to gain notoriety, much like the Malaysians who infiltrated Indonesia to plant a bomb in Bali last year.

Inside Indonesia, the government is really cracking down on anything that even slightly smacks of terrorism. The Indonesian police broke up a terrorist ring within Indonesia earlier this year. The current President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was democratically elected two years ago, is very aware that even the threat of terrorism makes bad press for his country. He has wisely led his police force to seek out and dismantle any terrorist cells.

I was fascinated when I heard that he didn't use the military to do it. Indonesian military was long spoiled by the two Indonesian dictators who ruled Indonesia for its first fifty-one years of independence, and so is irredeemably corrupt. This Indonesian President knows that he can only trust his police force to take on the terrorists. Fortunately they succeeded. All of this also means that the President knows what he is doing and is truly working for peace. We can take great comfort in that reality.

I am not saying that he doesn't have some political motives '" of course he wants US aid to continue, particularly military aid '" but the point is that, as a Muslim himself and the ruler of a predominantly Muslim country, he is not an enemy of the US and he is doing his best to fight terrorism.

But back to Bush's visit: even though the Indonesian President was accommodating and the public didn't try anything for the six hours he was here, don't get the idea that the people were happy about his arrival. The nightly news was filled with all the disruptions his visit caused and the outrageous cost of it to the taxpayers.

The total personnel used for the visit amounted to 18,000 people, both from the military and the police. Interestingly, the newspapers reported that the army troops, about 5,000 of the total, had to do their guard duty for Bush "empty-handed," i.e., without any weapons at all, while the 8,000 police carried automatic rifles. Could it be another indication of the distrust the President has for the military? I am only guessing. The police, on the other hand, brought water cannons and barricades made of barbed wire to control the demonstrations if needed. Thank God it never came to that.

One of the shocking things, repeated nightly, was that Bush had demanded they build a helicopter landing pad in a remote location '" and sadly, they decided to do it in the middle of a public park just outside the capital city. The park, known as the Bogor Royal Gardens, has served as a reserve for a vast number of natural species of plants and animals for nearly 200 years. It is a favorite destination of Indonesians from all of the country, much like America's Central Park. It is a place where families come to picnic on weekends, and couples find a hidden spot to court. There's a greenhouse on the grounds with the most beautiful and exotic orchids you can imagine.

In order to build Bush's helicopter pad, they had to destroy a couple of acres of the park, including a pond with lovely, huge, and rare lily pads. Imagine our government doing the same to a pond in Central Park. The place where the pond was has been cemented over and painted garish colors. Then, when Bush arrived, his helicopter landed on a heavily-guarded street about a mile from the park.

Can you blame Indonesians for being upset?

The direct cost to the Indonesians for the visit was quoted at 6 billion Rupiah '" and at the current exchange rate of 9000 Rupiah to the dollar, it comes to $700,000 dollars. For a six-hour visit! It's a pretty high figure to us, but to Indonesians who make an average of about $2000 a year, imagine what that kind of money sounds like to them. One of the protest signs in the demonstrations, directed to President Susilo, read, "6 Billion Rupiah for George Bush '" None for Me. Why, Sir, Why?"

The indirect cost is harder to estimate. For 16 hours, from sun-up (6:00 am) on the day of his arrival (at 2:00 pm) until 10:00 pm that night, the entire public transportation system in the area was shut down, putting countless people out of work for the day. Similarly, all the roads within a two-mile radius of his visit were closed beginning on Sunday for his visit the next day '" meaning all the street sellers were out of business for two days.

My friend Muhammad Nazif, complaining about what he felt were the most deleterious implications of Bush's visit for the average person, pointed out that when you live hand to mouth, whatever you earn in a day is all that enables you to eat for that day. No income means no food. For two days, an untold number of common people simply didn't eat.

So even though they didn't react violently, the Indonesian people did not appreciate Bush's visit and many participated in demonstrations throughout the country right up until his helicopter carried him away. I want to repeat that all the demonstrations went peacefully '" nearly all had been conducted in an organized manner, and their leaders had registered with local officials and the police in advance for permission to demonstrate.

The day before Bush arrived, I drove through the city of Banda Aceh, which was the one hit hardest by the tsunami of 2004. I saw a small demonstration at the main mosque. There were only about 60 or 70 people, both men and women, and they protested peacefully. But their handmade signs expressed their indignation in broken English, declaring, "Go Hell Bush."

Others decided to use more subtle tactics to express their displeasure. It has been widely reported '" although it may be urban legend '" that some witch doctors on the island of Java used something equivalent to voodoo on Bush. They reportedly engaged in a ritual where they took chicken blood and chanted certain things directed at him. But they only did it to make him get sick to his stomach and feel dizzy '" in other words, to make him uncomfortable physically and maybe unable to perform his official duties '" but not to harm him further than that. Indonesians like to repeat this story with some relish '" a sort of passive way of acknowledging and satisfying their anguish about Bush's visit without actually causing lasting damage.

At the official level, the reactions varied.

The leaders of the most influential Muslim group in the country, Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Council of Islamic Scholars), felt that there was no need to demonstrate against Bush, believing that if his visit would be constructive for the people of Indonesia, then there was no reason to refuse him. They had been afraid that Bush was coming to try to tell Indonesia what to do. But after a meeting with the Indonesian President, they had been reassured that there were only five items on the agenda: health, education, overcoming poverty, disaster preparedness, and technological development. The Muslim leaders noted that all of these issues related directly to the well-being of Indonesians.

Another important Muslim named Hasyim Muzadi, who is on the Governing Board of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP*), had been invited by the Indonesian President to join in welcoming Bush to Indonesia. He refused because of his role in the WCRP. He felt that his presence would appear to justify the US government's interventionist policies around the world. However, he also decided not to participate in demonstrations. (*The WCRP, which is headquartered at the UN in New York City, is described as the "largest global coalition of representatives from the world's great religions, dedicated to an enduring mission to stop war, end poverty and protect the earth.")

My overall reaction to all this fuss over Bush's visit is a general disappointment with the US press for their slanted coverage in the days leading up to it. I kept seeing headlines like, "Indonesians cannot rule out terrorism during Bush's visit." The negativity was upsetting because it completely ignored everything that I have described to you in this posting and the last one '" the calls for peace by all the leading Muslim groups; the well-orchestrated and legal, registered demonstrations; the huge cost to Indonesian taxpayers for the short visit to ensure Bush's safety; the sacrifice of the land inside the park; the sacrifice of their daily means of earning a living '" none of this was reported.

The US itself cannot rule out terrorism within its own borders. Who can? That's the nature of terrorism. I find it very unfair that the press made it look like it was a shortcoming of Indonesia, when in fact the people were trying so hard and did everything they could and then some to protect Bush. And they were successful.

I must confess that, along with most Indonesians, I've had a few chuckles about the possibility that the man who created so many headaches for Indonesia might have had a bit of a stomachache while he was here.

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