Indonesians Who Don't Throw Rocks
CILEBUT, INDONESIA — Just like any other day, Rajab weeds the earth beneath his pine-nut plants, feeds the goats, checks on the fish in his pond, and splashes a bucket of river water over his back when the sun is too hot even for his tanned, lean body.
Unlike many city folk, Mr. Rajab isn't too concerned with the drastic price hikes imposed last week as a cure for Indonesia's economic ills. "Yes, the price of fertilizer has gone up, and the bus tickets and the paraffin for my stove, but I also get more for my nuts," he says with a twinkle in his eyes. "It balances out. I don't really feel the crisis yet.
"These people in the government, they are all engineers and professors. What am I? They probably know best how to deal with these problems. They have run the country for years."
Because Rajab's television broke a few days ago, he had yet to hear of last week's violence in Medan, on the island of Sumatra. Several people were killed in four days of rioting there after fuel prices rose about 70 percent.
While news from Indonesia focuses on urban riots, in most villages calm prevails. There's barely a hint of rebellion against leaders who both built up the economy and helped lead it to crisis.
Rajab, who like most Indonesians has only one name, reflects that calm when he talks about the student demonstrations in the capital, Jakarta, an hour from his village. "That's all right, too, as long as they don't run amok," he says. "We need a government dialogue with the people. Maybe something good will come of that."
During his 32 years in power, President Suharto has made great progress in easing the lives of farmers such as Rajab. He has improved roads and irrigation, offered subsidized fertilizer and rice seeds, and opened schools and hospitals. The economic crisis has taken a bite out of these blessings, but few expect the farmers to turn against the government anytime soon.
Contrasts of Java
Then again, this is Java, one of the most crowded places on earth. One hundred million people, half of Indonesia's population, live on an island that is only 600 miles long and 100 miles wide. Most of the rice paddies around Rajab's farm have made way for houses, and his neighbors are not farmers but commuters and traders.
Every day many of them take the train to Jakarta, passing some of the largest and most active student campuses. Hundreds of riot police and soldiers camp out along the tracks, ready to quell any protest. High school students pelted passing trains with rocks last week. Most Indonesian villagers are anything but isolated from the the tension that pervades the major cities.
"Cities, villages, it's the same," says a Muslim owner of a small food stall opposite the Cilebut train station. "We all watch TV, we all read the same newspapers. We all feel the crisis in our wallets," he adds, pointing at his stomach, "and here too.
"Prices are going up, and I don't have as many customers. The ojek [motorcycle taxi] drivers used to eat here, now they eat at home. The commuters, too, they need the money for the train fare.
"We all want to get rid of Suharto, we agree with the students. We don't hold protests yet, Alhamdulillah [Thank God]," he says, with a fearful look onto the streets, where police informers might just be eavesdropping. "We, the little people, don't have the guts to protest. The students, they are the kids of the elite, they know they can get away with protesting. We just get arrested and that's it."
The villagers of Cilebut felt the pain of a sudden rise in prices for fuel and public transport as quickly as they would in the big city. Within hours after the government announced a cut in subsidies and raised fares, the drivers of minivans in Cilebut almost doubled their prices, causing passengers to protest. Many drivers, confused, simply stopped driving for fear of seeing their vehicles torched by angry villagers. Two days later the dust had settled and they were driving again, raising fares about 40 percent.
The price of paraffin, used by the poor in stoves and lamps, similarly shot up on the first day but settled about 25 percent higher than a week before. While the people of Medan rioted and students in many cities protested the price hikes, much of Indonesia reacted with resignation to the most daring economic reforms to date.
"Everything is still available," says Edi, a masseur in the neighboring village of Bojong Gede. "If shortages arise, maybe then people will get mad. We can still eat. If our stomachs are empty, maybe we will protest."
The restrained response to the price hikes in most cities leads some diplomats and analysts to conclude that Suharto's government may well survive, even though in Western countries no government could survive such an economic crisis.
"There is a lot more inertia and resilience than you'd think," says one Asian diplomat. "They just make do with less. They all grumble, but they won't grab a placard and take to the streets."
Suharto unpopular but strong
While Suharto's popularity has sunk as deeply in the villages as in the cities, diplomats say, he still controls the Army simply because most Indonesians, soldiers included, shy away from drastic action. "Like any Javanese, they just want to wait and do as little as possible, hoping the problem will go away by itself. There will be riots, in one town or another, and the military will move from town to town to suppress them. But it will just muddle on," the diplomat says.
Many assumed that Suharto's main hold on power - an elaborate network of patronage where top officials get and pass down favors such as trade privileges and access to government contracts - would collapse along with the economy.
"But the patronage is still there," the diplomat says. "The sums that are handed out are just smaller. But there is no alternative income for bureaucrats. They still come to work even if they don't get paid."
Soma, a guard at a market who rode the train past Cilebut, says he's watched students demonstrate on the streets of one city, Bogor, and saw hundreds of unemployed workers join in. "Me? No, I don't have the guts," he says. "And I still have to earn my dinner. If I protest, I don't earn money. That's how it is for us little people."