ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Indonesia : The 'Reformasi' in My Java Village

While the reform movement may have put a stop to the hegemonic position of Golkar as the ruling party, it would be an exaggeration to see the election results as a manifestation of successful resistance against the restrictions on civic rights. The leaders of the reformasi campaign in the villages were not, after all, representatives of the landpoor, but the local elite who were articulating their own interests. Real reformasi has not yet even begun in the villages.

In 1998 I returned to the village on Java where I had previously carried out field research. I found that the ‘babinsa’ showed conspicuously little interest in my activities. As the final link in the chain of command on the military side of the government machinery, it was his job to keep a close watch over all intruders. And this applied particularly to anthropological voyeurs like myself whose reports of daily life in the community might draw attention to all kinds of issues that the authorities would prefer to keep out of the public eye. At the start of my previous visit nearly ten years ago, this watchdog had accompanied me on my first rounds in the locality, curious as to what I would ask and what answers I would receive. Fortunately he soon got bored and stopped following me around once he realised I was obviously harmless. But the fact that sergeant no longer took the trouble to monitor my interactions with informants from close quarters, even at the beginning of my second visit, had less to do with my proven honesty than with the diminished interest from higher up in visitors to the countryside. The authorities’ attention was firmly focused on the cities, where the protests against the Suharto regime was gathering momentum. Unrest had been brewing in the country for some time, but came to a head in mid- 1997 with the economic crisis which was raging throughout east Asia. In Indonesia, which suffered more from the devaluation of its currency than any other country in the region, the recession caused a political crisis that brought the New Order regime to an end. Reports on the ultimate success of the reform movement tend to highlight events in Jakarta. And rightly so, because the capital is the prime place of action, in the heart of the nation state. The world is also reasonably well-informed of public support for the ‘gerakan reformasi’ in other major towns and cities. But there is next to nothing about the way in which the wave of protest has spread to the urban hinterland. The village where I conducted my local-level research can in no way be considered representative of the multitude of small-scale settlements spread over this densely populated island in the Indonesian archipelago. It is, on the other hand, possible to at least sketch the outlines of the effect of the reformasi movement on rural Java on the basis of my experiences in this one village on the north coast of West Java.

That bad times were on the way was clear enough when migrant workers employed on construction sites in and around Java or who made a meagre living selling food and other low-price wares on the streets started to return en masse to their homes. Most had no permanent abode in the city and were accustomed to returning to their villages every few weeks with their wages or with the proceeds of their petty trade. The crisis that struck in the autumn of 1997 resulted in a contraction of the economy with drastic consequences for many belonging to the reserve army of migrant workers. They were no longer needed in the cities so, unable to find work or to continue their business, they returned to their homes. It became even more difficult to keep their heads above water when, in early 1998, the subsidies on the primary necessities of life, particularly rice, were abolished, leading to a massive increase in the cost of living. The ensuing food riots provided the students the space they badly needed to bring their resistance to the Suharto regime out onto the streets. Only a few months later, the regime fell.

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top