Letter from Jakarta: Part 2

In his second letter from Jakarta, Jeff Pulice reports on amazing events that have happened since the resignation of President Suharto -- and on the expats who stayed behind.

By Jeff Pulice
May 29, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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JAKARTA, INDONESIA -- May 22: Today, after the triple shock waves of A) Suharto's resigning, B) Habibie's taking over and C) my finding out that roughly 80 percent of the Americans here have left, it is decided that a party for visiting journalists and other hardy souls would be nice. My idea to call it "The Party for People Who Didn't Run Screaming for The Exits" is quickly and mercilessly ignored. While I might sound a bit flippant, please know that my ethnic-Chinese wife and I both agree that she should not go into downtown with me.

Stories have been coming in about what happened to my friends. It might have looked bad on CNN -- but imagine this: You're a French citizen, living here for seven years. You find yourself trapped in a burning shopping complex, surrounded by flames and looters, none of whom are smiling at you. At home, your Indonesian-Chinese wife and your two children are standing by the phone, praying with a friend, as they hear the neighborhood runners shouting out the location of the looting and burning.


"It's at the school three blocks over! They're breaking the windows!"

Then: "The church on the corner is burning!"

And finally: "They're at the corner! They're coming to this street!"

It's one thing to talk about this as an abstraction, as a plot to a film. It's another to sit down in that burned-out shopping center and fall asleep, unable to get home, not knowing if your family is dead or alive.


At Kafe Batavia, the downtown restaurant housed in a 150-year-old traditional Dutch mansion, the journalists are taking advantage of the open bar with both fists. I take pictures of them holding up the front page of the Jakarta Post, with its banner headline "I QUIT!" We sit down to talk about the future.

No one here knows anything -- we've just been reacting to what we see on the streets and read on the Net. We all agree, however, that we probably know more than some talking head in New York who might have visited Bali for a week last year and now knows everything about Indonesia.

It is quickly agreed that Habibie is probably going to be a transitional figure. The army will probably choose someone with more global respect. When? Estimates range from three weeks to six months, with one beery correspondent holding out for a year. We throw rolls at him.


We all talk about the policy changes that we might see. Yet this too is sheer conjecture -- there are too many live wires, too many loose ends. We'd like to see ethnic equality, we'd like to see complete transparency in the financial market, we'd like to see a coalition government and the dissolution of the long-standing Golkar party, Suharto's party. Membership is compulsory for military and government personnel. But again, what we want and what we'll get are probably very different. Rumor and prediction have taken the place of our day jobs.

We click glasses and toast the quiet as I think about finding new private students -- surely not all of the embassies are empty? Somebody must want to learn English, right? One fellow offers up the name of a somewhat obscure Muslim cleric as Habibie's successor. We all scratch our heads, but this man has some very good sources and I will not bet against him, not now.


After dinner and wine, we light cigars and talk about our favorite disco reopening. We wonder how the exodus of bules (the local term for white people) will affect the earning potential of the local party girls. My single friends offer anecdotes about the new marketing practices being employed: barhoppers calling and inviting themselves over for late -- very late -- "dinners." I want to find someone in the glass business to work with -- every window in Jakarta is gone, it seems. Construction and renovation companies will boom, if there really is a portion of the International Monetary Fund set aside for rebuilding our city and getting life back on track.

Later, at the Taramur disco, it's not the usual cattle-car/critical-mass situation on the dance floor, but I can see that the professional night-lifers (I'm only semi-pro) and the "business girls" and "rent boys" -- who rely on this scene for their livelihood -- are relishing reentering their nocturnal world. Dry-ice fog envelopes the dance floor, dancers whoop and grind against each other, and even I am the target of some marketing techniques (mostly having ice cubes rubbed on my chest -- why do they think this will turn me on enough to take them home?). I merely smile, sip my beer, and do the white-boy shuffle.

My cell phone rings. I duck out of Tanamur to answer it.


Another triple shock wave: Suharto has left the country. His son-in-law, the general of an elite military force, has been removed from command and may be arrested. The army, at this moment, is marching into the Parliament building to clear out the students after five days of protests.

"Are these confirmed?"

"Only the last one -- I can see it on CNN right now. The other two came from a good source."


"Have they started shooting yet?"

"No, but they look pissed and ready for a fight."

I sigh, hang my head. "Damn."

"Yeah," he answers, "welcome back to the shit."

May 27: Happily enough, that protest broke up at 5 a.m. with no bloodshed. And since then, the most amazing things are happening.


The people of Indonesia start winning a few.

Companies that mysteriously got tax vacations of up to 10 years start getting investigated.

Two political prisoners are released and more are promised.

The members of the two election bodies, handpicked by Suharto, start resigning -- willingly.


Habibie goes downtown, to the riot-stricken areas, to the burned-out shops and malls.

He tells the owners, most of whom are ethnic Chinese, that he is going to push for unity and fairness. He says that this will not happen again, and he will devote resources to helping rebuild.

He starts acting like a president.

But here's the thing, here's the moment that makes us all catch our breath: An angry store owner steps up and -- shakes his fist at Habibie, the president! Six months ago, that fist would have ended up in jail, after a few very bad hours.


There's a new rule in town: The old rules are dead.

Today, the paper says that the flood of evacuees has turned. The expats and Indonesian-Chinese who ran for Singapore or Kuala Lumpur or anywhere a plane was going are coming back. They keep looking around, waiting for the riots to start anew, waiting for the sky to fall again. When we meet, I smile and shake their hands and act reassuring. They look like they've been through a bombing raid -- and they're the ones who left.

The ex-president, I hear, is still in his home downtown, surrounded by his family -- they didn't leave, it turns out. A majority of Asian executives polled by a regional business magazine say that he and his family should be prosecuted for corruption. I wonder how that story goes down at their breakfast table.

Riding my bicycle around, pondering these surrealistic days, I find myself thinking of James Fenton's remark as the other journalists left before the fall of Saigon: something along the lines of "Won't it be nice to have the place to ourselves?"

I didn't stay because I wanted to be the last white guy in Jakarta. I didn't feel particularly brave or noble.

The truth is: I just wanted to stay. Other people stayed for their own reasons, some selfish, some foolish, some were simply too lazy to pack.

I don't want to sound too sentimental, but the people who stayed were dear to me before -- and the fact that they stayed makes them only more precious. That night at the Kafe Batavia, our eyes met -- Ah, you stayed, too -- and the wine tasted especially robust, the cigars were particularly fine, and the embraces we exchanged were stronger than they were before. Perhaps it takes a coup to really see the people you live with.

Jeff Pulice

Originally from Los Angeles, Jeff Pulice has been living and working in Jakarta for the past seven years.

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