When I moved to Indonesia in 1993, the Indonesian media and political spheres were closed shops. There were only three legal political parties and the media, particularly broadcast media, were tightly controlled. The scenes around me now, in this corner of the archipelago, reveal just how much the nation has transformed itself.
Twenty years ago, nightly news reports largely consisted of long, loving accounts of the latest factory opening by President Soeharto, the self-styled "father of Indonesian development" (the old 50,000 rupiah note carried a beaming Soeharto with this title beneath), followed by an account of the latest foreign dignitary he received and then, perhaps, sports.
There were red lines everywhere for reporters and film and television producers. Most important was to never, ever discuss in a critical tone the 1965 coup that brought him to power and the anti-Communist purge that followed, leaving an estimated 500,000 dead. There was an official narrative that everyone had to adhere to: Evil communists tried to take over and brave young Soeharto saved the day, pushing the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno, from power for having unsavory friends. End of story. Or else.
It wasn't until 2000, two years after Soeharto was pushed from power, that the mawkish 1983 romance "The Year of Living Dangerously," set amid Indonesia's 1965 turmoil, was allowed to be shown here, with Indonesians in the audience twittering at the accents of the Filipino actors when they spoke Indonesian.
Even almost 30 years later, Soeharto's regime still played masterfully with the fear and paranoia generated by the national tragedy of 1965. In that time, he built an order (which he called the "New Order") based on rigid political control. In the years after taking power he forced Indonesia's existing political parties into two super-parties that, for decades, represented the loyal (very, very, very loyal) opposition: the United Development Party (PPP) for Islamist political groups and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) for more secular nationalist ones.
And then there was the new party to rule them all: His Golkar, an acronym that means "Functional Groups."
In the early 1990s, the protest movement that would help galvanize opinion against Soeharto in 1998 was being born, though no one really understood it back then. It was much like Egypt when I arrived there a decade ago: activists hounded by the state, organizing, seeking to make links to labor unions, often getting their heads kicked in by the police or the military in what seemed like a hopeless cause.
In 1993, Soeharto made one of his great miscalculations. Though he had show-elections every five years, which his government called "festivals of democracy," both PDI and PPP were allowed some scraps of parliamentary representation as rewards for good behavior. At the time, some members of the PDI, however, were pushing to engage politics in a real way, and Soeharto's government sought to directly control the election of a new party leader. However, the PDI succeeded in naming Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno's daughter, as the head of the party.
While she had neither political skills nor governing ability of her own, a group of bright political operators seeking political change gathered around her, and were important players when the curtain came down on Soeharto's 32-year reign. Megawati ended up Indonesia's first post-Soeharto vice president and its second president, in a political era in which the country exploded from just three parties to over 100.
Today, Indonesia's raucous political environment is a stunning change from a decade ago. South Maluku, of which Ambon is the capital, is gearing up for gubernatorial elections (under Soeharto, all local politicians down to the district level were appointed by Jakarta) and the island is awash in political posters and canvassers. Judging from a few days traveling in the province, there are at least five candidates with some money behind them, and the bottoms of their billboards show the support they've aligned in each case from dozens of national parties.
Speaking to an old friend from Indonesia recently, who describes himself as a "glass half-empty guy," he nevertheless said direct local elections and a commitment to the political process has been one of the great successes of Indonesia since Soeharto. Sure, crooks often get into office, "but they end up getting voted out."
Indonesia's next big "festival of democracy" (this time, a real one) is scheduled for next year. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is being term-limited from office, and the jockeying to replace him has already begun.
The old three parties have had mixed fortunes in the years since democracy came to Indonesia. The PDI (which came to be known as the PDI-P, or "Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle") leads the opposition in parliament, with about 17 percent of the seats. Golkar, which has parlayed backing from big businesses and years of organization into ongoing support, is the junior partner in the governing coalition with about 19 percent of the seats. And the PPP? A shadow of their former selves, with 7 percent of the seats in parliament.
But I switched on the TV here two nights ago before going to bed, and came across the PPP's 40th anniversary rally in Surabaya, East Java. Having spent much of the past decade in the Middle East, and having covered the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Indonesia, I was transfixed. A crowd of thousands of enthusiastic young Indonesians, the girls in headscarves, were head-banging to the heavy metal band Jamrud, which was headlining a party for an avowedly Islamist political group.
With apologies to Mark Levine, who wrote an excellent book on the alternative music scene in the Arab world called "Heavy Metal Islam," this was the real thing. I wish I could find an online video of the show. But though its absent the PPP's green flag, with the Kabbah in Mecca in the middle waving above the music, this is what Jamrud sounds like:
And it reminded me that a unique political culture is evolving here that can consistently confound expectations and preconceptions.