Sunday, May 27, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, May 27, 2007


By Alpha Amirrachman

"You are now a grown-up. You need to learn several more facts about your family, I cannot keep this secret for the rest of my life," said Bagas' mother one morning.

Bagas asked, reluctantly, "Is it about father again? His career as a journalist?"

Bagas was now in the last semester at the school of journalism. If his father had still been alive, he could, indeed, have learned more about journalism from him.

But it was about something else. His mother said, "I'm sorry but I'm not your biological mother."

Bagas was speechless. This woman whom he had known for years was not his mother.

"Your father was murdered and your mother was thought to have committed suicide."

Bagas was stunned.

"He was a journalist at a local newspaper, as I've always told you. But there is more that I haven't revealed to you. It is about his extensive writing on a huge scandal allegedly involving the city mayor and big corporations. It was a billion-dollar scandal at a time when poverty struck the city."

"Your father was shot dead when walking out of his house. His colleagues believed that he was murdered because of what he had written. But no one had a clue about who actually pulled the trigger, fatally shooting him five times at close range in cold blood," she explained with a trembling voice.

"Your mother was on the terrace of the house and was an inch away from being killed, too, when the assassin ran out of bullets. Fortunately, you were holidaying at your aunt's house. Your mother was the only witness; she was unconscious for days. She said later that she knew the assassin."

She held her breath, "Just a week after the murder, your mother was found dead, her body hanging in the hospital room. Some believed she had committed suicide, but relatives said that she had a tough personality, so suicide was out of question."

"I was a nurse at the hospital, grabbing you when you and other family members were about to visit your mother at the hospital at the time she was found dead. I was actually the very first person who found your mother's body hanging in the room."

Bagas was shaking.

She paused a second. "To be honest, I kidnapped you, the only child they had. I was a divorced woman with no kids. I stayed at work for a month to disguise my action before I fled the city with you, my sweetheart."

Your sweetheart?

Bagas stood up, immediately went to his room and banged and locked the door. He felt as if thousands of knives were stabbing and slashing his brain into pieces.

I heard five gunshots. They sounded like a thunderbolt, breaking a peace-loving neighborhood, scaring even the fiery dogs ... Slowly blood was spilling to the ground, making it red all over. I could still smell the blood and the smoke. my father might have never heard the gunshot that killed him, but surely he must have felt the pain ... this pain.


(Many years later)

His mother was lying on the bed; four strokes and blood hypertension had effectively crippled her.

Bagas, now celebrated as the most successful media magnate in the country, sat solemnly beside her bed. His sweet-mannered wife, Anita, appeared, bringing a bowl of chicken soup, a cup of porridge and a glass of warm water.

"She looks healthier now," whispered Anita, softly. "She has been eating very well lately."

"That's good, very good. Remind me of when her medical checkup is," said Bagas.

"That would be tomorrow," Anita replied, adding that she had already bought two tickets for her and her mother-in-law to go to Singapore.

"And also tickets to go the U.S. to visit our sons next week," Anita added, referring to their two grown-up sons who were now studying at Harvard and Boston universities.

"That's good, I can't wait."

Bagas kissed the woman's cheek, and whispered lovingly, "You are always my mother."

The aging woman nodded, slowly.

However, without everyone's realizing it, she looked awfully troubled every time she stared at Bagas. There was something mentally disturbing in this sharp, unwavering man that always made her uneasy; it was like a wicked spirit disquieting her inner feeling, coursing strongly and painfully through her veins.

Forgive me ... She bit her lips, they bled.


Bagas drove his gleaming black Jaguar out of his lavish apartment block, vainly struggling to speed through the hectic traffic. He parked the car in a special space at the huge complex of his own media corporation.

He inhaled deeply. Many accused him of being too ferocious in expanding his business, and being cruel to smaller players. Being armed with the power of money and political connection raised suspicion that he never gave it a second thought to twist anything to suit his goal.

He decided not to get out of the car immediately. Stretching out his drained body and soul, Bagas couldn't wait to visit his sons in the U.S. next week, where at least he could relax a bit after having worked so hard lately.

Well, he and Anita might also continue traveling to Europe, he thought. Strolling down the road in Paris or capturing the struggling East-West mood of the Turkish hinterland.

He had been so preoccupied recently, welcoming several political and business figures at his office with election time coming soon. Those boring b*****ds trying to buy me! he laughed cynically.

He managed shrewdly to maintain his subtle political connections. Striking a balance between professionalism and political pressure and temptation is indeed mentally exhausting, but it thrilled him.

Bagas claimed that he never interfered in the editorial content of the media he led, though his staff often had to painfully exercise self-censorship when they had to report on issues relating to their own media corporation.

But that is out of my control, he chuckled, a bit haughtily.

Now he was entertaining a possibly lucrative chance to expand his business empire into neighboring countries.

Staff had recently reported to him that some media groups in the Philippines and Thailand were at the edge of collapse; his inimitable mix of entrepreneurial and journalistic instinct told him that something could be done to help the ailing media.

But that was not going to be easy. In the Philippines the political killing of journalists had always been a ritual, and in Thailand the frantic junta had always made the industry unpredictable.

But he could smell a golden opportunity -- a risky but calculated challenge, the tense negotiation, the increased political influence, the rewriting of history and the unremitting flow of money.

I could still smell the smoking gun. I could still smell the blood ... I saw a body of a slim man crumbling after five deadly gunshots. My father might never have heard the last gunshot that put an end to his life and my mother might never have seen the jerking rope that broke her neck, but surely they must have felt the pain ... this pain ...

He saw himself rewriting history.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, May 19, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman
, Contributor, Jakarta

During a discussion aired by a Jakarta radio station on August 4, 2005 veteran Muslim activist M. Dawam Rahardjo blatantly attacked the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI) for declaring Ahmadiyah teachings as hearsay.

He said MUI had no right to declare such fatwa or religious edicts that discriminate against minority groups.

He also regretted said fatwa had led to many Ahmadiyah members being attacked and their houses of worship destroyed by provoked rioters.

The discussion, however, turned ugly when some hardliners in the studio audience stood up, approached Dawam and threatened him with violence unless he stopped talking.

But Dawam has always stood firmly beside his principles.

On April 17, 2006, Dawam led hundreds of members of the National Alliance for Freedom of Religion and Belief in their march to the Ministry of Religious Affairs to protest the minister's stance on Ahmadiyah.

The minister said Ahmadiyah was a danger to the spirit of tolerance across the nation.

Dawam not only defended Ahmadiyah, he showed support for other minority groups, including Komunitas Eden, whose leader, Lia Aminudin, claims to be the manifestation of Gabriel.

Dawam visited her when she was detained at the Jakarta Police detention house and attended her court proceedings at Central Jakarta State Court.

And when Komunitas Eden activist M. Abdul Rachman was detained at Salemba prison in East Jakarta, Dawam sent him a copy of his short story (published by Kompas) to boost Abdul's morale.

The story is about the group's activism and its struggle to find the truth.

A group of hardliners staged protests in front of Kompas daily, claiming Dawam's short story insulted Islam.

"Tolerance is a key to peace, brotherhood and progress," Dawam said during the launch of a book which comprises articles written by his friends to celebrate his 65th birthday.

"Tolerance will not weaken our own belief, it will instead encourage us to understand and accept others," he said.

His tolerant attitude, however, does not come for free.

"Many of my old friends at the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) left me because they regard pluralism as a threat.

"Many wrongly accuse me of becoming a follower of Ahmadiyah or Komunitas Eden. I merely defend their existence and respect for what they believe," he said.

Born on April 20, 1942 in Baluwarti, Solo, Central Java, Dawam's interest in literary was developed when his aunt Ba'diyah would tell him stories after his Koranic lessons, including Hikayat Amir Hamzah and Flash Gordon.

His father, Zuhdi Rahardjo, a Muhammadiyah teacher and entrepreneur, never hesitated to spend money on Dawam's books.

Dawam was educated in Bustanul Athfal Muhammadiyah and later Madrasah Ibtidaiyyah Muhammadiyah at Masjid Besar Solo.

In the morning he attended the first grade of public school Al Robithoh al-Allawiyah.

He later continued his study at public elementary school Loji Wetan in the morning and Madrasah Diniyah Al-Islam in the afternoon; Junior High School and Senior High School in Manahan.

His first poems were published in Harian Abadi and he mingled with many writers, including Kustiowismo, Aslamah Jasin, Sogijono, Abdul Nur Adnan, Lasti Fardani, Ken Suheni, Darmanto Jatman, Elrlanda Rosi Ds., Husin Landicing, Jussac MR.

Some of these writers "disappeared" after 1965 due to their involvement in Indonesian Communist Party's cultural wing Lekra.

Dawam was later awarded the American Field Service (AFS) fellowship to study in Borah High School in Idaho, U.S., among others, due to his involvement in PII (Indonesian Islamic Student) association.

But instead of becoming a poet and after distancing himself from many of his friends involved in Lekra, Dawam enrolled at Faculty of Economics at Gadjah Mada University where he was involved intensively in Islamic Students Association (HMI).

He established a Marxism Study Club with Arief Budiman, Sritua Arief and Farchan Bulkin.

After completing his degree in economics, he stayed at Bank of America for two years as a trainee officer.

He switched to renowned research institute LP3ES, where Nono Anwar Makarim was director.

He was further involved in many grassroots development projects supported by Friederich Naumann Stiftung.

At the age of 38, Dawam became its director.

He edited and wrote several scholarly works during his time at LP3ES including Insan Kamil: Konsepsi Manusia Menurut Islam (Insan Kamil: Human Conception according to Islam (1985), Pergulatan Dunia Pesantren: Membangun Dari Bawah (The Struggle of Pesantren: Development from the Grassroots), Esai-esai Ekonomi Politik (Essays on Economics and Politics) (1983), Pesantren dan Pembaharuan (Pesantren and Modernism) (1984), and Perekonomian Indonesia: Pertumbuhan dan Krisis (Indonesia's Economy: Growth and Crisis (1987).

Dawam was awarded a professorship from Muhammadiyah Malang University in 1993 and was involved in the formation of ICMI. He became rector of Universitas Islam '45 (UNISMA).

Scholar Franz Magnis Suseno said Dawam's spirit for tolerance developed because he viewed religion as not theory or ideology, but a force to lift up those who are marginalized and exploited.

The mushrooming of non-government organizations in the 1980s is inseparable from Dawam's struggle to introduce and implement "people's economy".

It is because of his colorful career as an Islamic and NGO activist and trained economist -- as well as his evolving perspective toward religions -- that Dawam has evolved into a genuine pluralist who defends the rights of religious minority groups including Ahmadiyah, Komunitas Eden and Syi'ah.

He is against the bill on anti-pornography because he it would restrain creativity and kill the plurality of Indonesian culture.

Dawam may no longer be psychically strong but his mind is still active. He is still able to produce numerous short stories and essays despite his hospitalization.

And his voice remains critical and as outspoken as ever.

Especially when he sees his countrymen being marginalized or ill-treated.

Daniel Dhakidae, his long time friend at LP3ES, said Dawam might forget people's names, a long time habit -- but one thing he will always remember and stick to is justice.

Friday, May 11, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, May 11, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman, Contributor, Jakarta

In 2003 Dutch historian and anthropologist Henk Schulte Nordholt made a film about a community near Ciliwung River in Kampung Melayu, East Jakarta, that had been devastated by floods.

Four years later, Nordholt went back to the same place to film and was astonished to find that the community was completely back on its feet.

"I admire how Indonesian people manage to survive during difficult times and cope with such disasters. I have a deep sense of respect for Indonesians," Nordholt told The Jakarta Post last week, days after he visited the Kampung Melayu community for the second time.

Nordholt, younger brother of noted scholar Nico Schulte Nordholt, is working on a project called Don't Forget to Remember Me: An Audiovisual Archive of Everyday Life in Indonesia in the 21st Century. The project is sponsored by Leiden-based Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology (KITLV), where Nordholt is head of the research department.

KITLV and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) signed a formal agreement to jointly create an innovative archive of the everyday lives of people in eight locations around the country. The locations are Jakarta; Delanggu, in Central Java; Payakumbuh, in West Sumatra; Kawal village, on Bintan island; Sintang, in West Kalimantan; Bittuang, in Sulawesi; Ternate; and Surabaya.

"Discussions, feedback and evaluations for the archive were conducted by LIPI staff, and the first four years of recording -- 235 hours of footage -- has been handed over to LIPI," he said.

"We focus on the history of certain places, and every four years return to them to record what transpired while we were gone."

Nordholt and his crew filmed people shopping in Pasar Baru in Jakarta; at an intersection in Payakumbuh, West Sumatra; a street in the village of Kawal, on the island of Bintan; a market in Bintuang, in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi; a train station and bus terminal in Surabaya; early morning gymnastics classes in Bittuang; a flag-raising ceremony at a primary school in Sintang, West Kalimantan; a jumatan (Friday prayer) in Kawal; the production of kitchen utensils in Delanggu, Central Java; as well as interviews with a local politician in Payakumbuh, a sweeper in Jakarta, a traditional architect in Bintuang and a schoolgirl in Sintang.

"People are always willing to cooperate. They like the fact that we don't film famous figures, because they say that they -- the ordinary people -- are also important. Researchers and film-makers will get a lot of use out of the archive," said Nordholt, adding he hoped the project would last for at least 100 years.

The project is a work of visual anthropology, focusing on history, but using anthropological methodology.

Nordholt believes that exploration of the history of everyday life and challenges in setting up new sources and analytical approaches is important for Indonesian historians. In the past, official historiography generally followed government procedure and was either an account of the events under Indonesia's first president Sukarno, or a developmental narrative observing the accomplishments of the New Order regime.

Such approaches hinder advanced explorations of social history and leave "ordinary" Indonesians devoid of any significant role in their own history.

Born on June 13, 1953, in De Bilt, the Netherlands, Nordholt's love for Indonesia can be traced back to his own family's history.

His father, H. G. Schulte Nordholt, served as a civil servant in Kefanmenanu, West Timor, during the colonial period in the 1930s. During the Japanese occupation, his family went through a turbulent period and was forced to return to the Netherlands.

"My father started a new career teaching history at a high school in the Netherlands. He later taught at a university and became an anthropologist," recalled Nordholt. "He never pushed me to study Indonesia, but I always knew that he wanted me to."

His father gave him a ticket to Indonesia as a high school graduation gift. Nordholt came to Indonesia for the first time in 1972, with Bali as his destination.

"There was no electricity there, but it was so beautiful and romantic. I was really in love (with Bali) at first sight. So, I decided to conduct research there. The 1965 killings in Bali intrigued me: How could so much violence and cruelty occur on such a beautiful island?"

Nordholt said his father was thrilled when he told him of his plan to enroll in Indonesian studies. He completed his MA degree in history (with honors) at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in 1980 and PhD (with honors) at the same university in 1988.

"After Bali, I focused on rural crime, the system of jago (strongmen) in rural Java and how the jago became kaki tangan (proxy hit men); a remnant of the colonial system. You might say that preman (hooligans) are the grandchildren of the jago," Nordholt said.

"Beauty is something that you see at first glance, but behind that beauty you may find violence, tension and conflict. I was very intrigued as to whether or not there was a certain system to this violence, as is it not part of the culture, but is inherited from the colonial experience," Nordholt said, adding that many in the Netherlands refuted his argument.

"Decentralization was a top-down operation lacking any fundamental discussion. Neo-liberal ideology (argues that) less control from the state means more democracy, less centralization means good governance and less state control means a stronger civil society. But this is only in theory. International funding agencies such as the World Bank ignore the fact that the big winners are actually the local elites, seasoned bureaucrats, new businessmen and aristocrats."

He said he was optimistic about the vitality of electoral democracy in Indonesia. "But there needs to be a more substantial, institutional democracy implemented. Indonesia still has a long way to go."

He is convinced that Indonesia will remain united.

"Although they have many differences, Indonesians also have a lot in common. If you look closely at the ways in which they express themselves, such as in seminars -- in the opening speeches, at snack-time or during discussions -- it still convinces me that Indonesians really do have much more in common than they are ready to admit..."