In the days after Suharto’s downfall this May, a huge construction pit in the middle of Jakarta, abandoned and filled with mud, was transformed into a remarkable, and illegal, amphitheater. A ragtag group of artists and activists decided they couldn’t resist the symbolism of the pit—the very image of boom times gone bust—as the perfect setting for their extravaganza of music and political theater. Down in the slime at the bottom of the pit, they set up a huge stage, and behind it they planted an enormous sign reading “Bongkar,” which means “Tear Down” in Indonesian. The idea, one of the organizers told me, is both to celebrate the fact that the old man Pak Harto, King Harto, is gone and to show their defiance since “Reformasi,” the movement to reform the entire system, has hardly begun.
We were standing down on the stage, and all around us thousands and thousands of mostly students—the foot soldiers in what already has been dubbed the May revolt—were clambering for spots along the sloping dirt sides of the pit. As night fell, a procession of dancers appeared at the top, and, lit by spotlight, slowly descended into the mud. Drums beat, a woman chanted, and the dancers snaked their way through the pit, falling and flinging mud and hugging black papier-mâché models of human bodies, meant to resemble the charred corpses of the looters who died in the May riots. Up on the stage, a loud rock band began playing a song dedicated to the six students shot at Trisakti University. “Pak Harto, you’re finished,” the band sings. “Pak Harto, forget it. But we really need jobs.” Meanwhile, the dancers crawled out of the mud, waving splattered red-and-white Indonesian flags and banners proclaiming “Reformasi.”
Morbid and intoxicating, the scene captured the mood of Indonesia. There is the charged air of the illicit, the colliding symbolism of a dirge and a demand for a new beginning, and the jubilant sense of accomplishment mixed with fear and foreboding. Suharto, who fancied himself both a Javanese king and an Asian Miracle-style leader, the father of economic development who watched his house of patronage crumble, the authoritarian patriarch increasingly despised by his subjects, is, astonishingly, gone. The euphoria of the May days, when students occupied the parliament and Suharto went on national TV to announce his resignation, passed quickly. “Suharto’s system hasn’t changed, only Suharto has changed,” a University of Indonesia student said when I ran into him after the “Bongkar” concert. “Habibie is Suharto’s boy and now he is president. How can we call that reform?” Like that student, many Indonesians believe their country is caught in mid-revolt—between the acts, and no one quite knows just where the play is headed.
For most outsiders, Indonesia is an obscure foreign place that suddenly popped up in the headlines this spring. Paul Wolfowitz, formerly the US Ambassador, once told Congress: “It is probably safe to say there is no country in the world as important as…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.