Indonesia in 1997-1999 was a country in a heavy turbulence. As the 32-year rule of dictator Suharto came to an end, rules of laws were collapsing, long-frozen conflicts that were suppressed under the chill of the dictatorship were re-emerging, and violence were triggered across the vast archipelago with many believed that the country was on a verge of break up like Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.
And during this dark period of time the author, Richard Lloyd Parry, travelled around the country as a foreign correspondent and obtains his story directly from the people who suffered from the chaotic mess, as well as experienced it directly himself. And right from the beginning it is immediately clear that Parry has a flair of writing in an exquisitely descriptive manner, which is key for painting the big picture.
First, his bone-chilling report on the Dayak-Madura conflict in West Kalimantan, where he witnessed first hand the level of violence so eerie it made the content of that Joshua Oppenheimer documentary “Jagal” arguably looks like child play. Parry’s coverage gives the feel of real tension like in the movie Hotel Rwanda about the genocide, but with an added twist of black magic, trance, cannibalism, and beast-style massacre. In fact there are many instances when I had to stop reading and gasp to myself holy crap what did I just read? One of them was a very tense point where Parry himself was just one bite away from almost forced to engage in cannibalism.
Second, as the effect of the economic crisis started to creep into society Parry found himself walking in the streets of Yogyakarta and Jakarta, covering the mass student protests against the crisis including the one in Trisakti that culminated in the shooting of the students by the police and triggered a massive riot the day after. Parry then continues with seemingly almost minute-by-minute account of the gripping sequences that eventually lead to the end of the 32 years of New Order.
And third, in the aftermath of the resignation of Suharto, Parry went deep into the jungle in East Timor to be embedded with the guerrilla fighters, and provides the story of the independence movement straight from the freedom fighters’ point of view.
In between the reporting Parry inserted vital backstories to provide us with the bigger context, such as the cultural dynamics in Kalimantan, the effects of the 1997 economic crisis as the mother of all triggers, Indonesia’s political map, an excellent short biography of Suharto (with plenty of fresh information that I, an Indonesian growing up during the dictatorship, had never heard of before), as well as background descriptions of the inner workings of the mystics in Java, complete with all the Javanese prophecies and the few stories of wayang which curiously came to be reflected in real life.
True to Indonesia’s nature, history is never clear and blurry at best. Even the account of what really happened in 1965 coup that gave rise to Suharto has never really been resolved even today in 2021. Yes, they say history is written by the victors, and thus it does makes one think that with the New Order’s dark truths still concealed, was the “regime change” in 1998 really occur or the same regime is still pretty much in control today only with different clothing since the resignation of Suharto?
Naturally, any historical analysis on Indonesia during this period of time are all asking the same questions. Was it really a regime change? Who gave the command to shoot the students? Was the riot and the looting and the rape orchestrated? Why Suharto never went to trial? This is where the book plays its enlightenment role, where Parry addresses these questions with commanding certainty and convincingly pointing to very solid arguments and even proofs. It’ll all make perfect sense once you read the book.