With the legislative elections only a day away I wanted to reprint what our new journalist friend Michael Bachelard wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald last week, based in part on his trip to Aceh, and assisted by—you guessed it—the staff of JMD. Remember how a few months back I was posting about trying to find a journalist to do a “Where is Aceh 10 Years After the Tsunami” documentary, hopefully focusing on Aceh Timur, our cocoa farmers, and the fight to stop deforestation and big palm oil? Well, I think Michael is going to do it. He had a good if exhausting trip, saw lost of destruction he needed to see (but was sorry he had to) and spoke with politicians, our farmers and community members, and some ex-combatants and GAM leaders. His focus this trip was on the elections, and I’m reprinting his article here (may he and the SMH forgive me for copyright infringement):
Indonesians vote one for incongruity
---Nowhere is the adage of politics makes strange bedfellows more apt
by Michael Bachelard, April 5, 2014
Running for office: the candidates. Photo: Fairfax Graphics
One-time nude model, polygamist and horror movie actress turned parliamentary candidate Angel Lelga smiles fetchingly for the camera as a succession of poor women move in to be photographed in her orbit.
They are standing on the verandah of a village house in Central Java, and Angel's immaculate make-up, pink Chanel slip-ons and high-fashion headscarf are incongruous among the chickens and dust of the rice belt.
Indonesia's parliamentary election is in full swing before the vote next Wednesday and campaign season makes for some odd sights. But the incongruities in Angel's candidacy do not end there - this celebrity entertainer with a past that is anything but orthodox is running for a conservative Muslim political party.
If elections, particularly those for a country's parliament, are a window to a nation's soul, there are some candidates who present a particularly complex and fascinating picture of the modern Indonesia.
Angel illustrates the mind-bending interface between religion, sex, morality and politics. She is running for the United Development Party (PPP), the oldest Islamic party in the country.
Its leader, religious affairs minister Suryadharma Ali, sits squarely on the right of national politics by pushing for Muslim morality to be embedded in law. In the past two years his party has suggested that alcohol be banned and that "skirts worn above the knee" be judged pornographic and thus illegal.
Yet it was Suryadharma himself who recruited Angel, whose naked torso graces an album cover by rock band Slank; who has acted in three lingerie-horror movies including The Moans of the Virgin Ghost with an American porn star; who converted from Catholicism to Islam just to become the fourth wife of a polygamous pop singer; and whose only previous political activism was chatting with the minister at parties.
Angel is one of a surprising large cohort of what the Indonesian blogosphere has derisively dubbed "caleg cantik", or beautiful candidates, recruited by a sclerotic party system for their vote-catching sex appeal. There are 50 or more running, prompting one commentator to bemoan a "bimbo time bomb" in the national parliament. In an interview as we bump along the roads of the town of Klaten, Angel asks only that we view her colourful past as part of her formation as a person.
She is in politics, she says, to reach out to more people, to have a useful life, to build villages. Why else would she run in what in Australian parlance we'd call a marginal, if not unwinnable, seat for PPP?
"If it is a difficult election to win, people will respect me more," she says.
But the contradictions embedded in her candidacy are obvious. She has begun wearing the headscarf but, asked if she would vote for her boss' mini-skirt ban, she equivocates.
"I don't want to oppose the views of Suryadarma Ali, but … we shouldn't be that narrow-minded."
On her Christian past, she insists it should not matter to Muslim voters "because religion should be personal". But she is running for a party whose reason for being is to put the religion into public policy. And in her spiel to villagers, she trumpets: "Do you want a non-Muslim running the country?"
Indonesia's sexual politics, though, are nothing if not complex. The message of political Islam may be straitlaced but a number of its politicians have been the "stars" of secret sex videos without apparent harm to their careers. Secret marriages, premarital sex and prostitution are widespread and tolerated.
Viewed in this light, Angel's many contradictions may be little more confounding than Indonesia itself.
Prita Mulyasari is also a celebrity candidate but her fame comes from social, not mass, media. A middle-class mother of three from Jakarta's outer suburbs, she was jailed in 2008 because she dared complain about her treatment in a hospital where her mumps were misdiagnosed as dengue fever.
After the hospital refused to admit its error or hand over her medical records, Prita's complaint via email went viral on social media. The symptoms of a sick health system were too familiar to many Indonesians.
The hospital's response was to sue for defamation. Police became involved and, on a visit to the prosecutor, Prita was informed that under Indonesia's electronic communications law she faced up to six years in jail, meaning she must be held in custody during the investigation.
Prita was whisked away immediately and put in a four metre square cell with 12 others including a murderer, a drug addict and a car thief. She spent a week in "quarantine", sleeping in shifts and unable to contact her family.
"I was shocked,'' she says. ''I never thought it would happen. I had done no preparation. My eldest child was two years old and the youngest eight months, and I was still breast feeding the baby … they would not even let me say goodbye to my kids.''
In total she was in jail for 22 days.
A likely explanation is that the hospital paid police and prosecutors in Indonesia's thoroughly corrupt legal system to throw the book at her. Judges are likewise able to be bought and Prita lost the case at the first hearing and was fined 200 million rupiah ($20,000).
"I felt I was facing giants," Prita says. "These people with unlimited money … they control the law."
In Prita's corner, though, was another feature of modern Indonesia - the power of social media. Jakartans tweet more than anybody else in the world, and Indonesia has the fourth largest Facebook population on the planet.
An appeal, "Coins for Prita", placed collection boxes around the country. So many coins were donated that she raised 800 million rupiah ($80,000). For four years she fought the hospital through various courts until a judicial review in 2012 found in her favour.
Megawati Sukarnoputri, chief of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), also lent her support, and now Prita is seeking election in the Banten III district outside Jakarta. Her hope is that, in parliament, she could see improvements in the defamation law, the health system, the legal system and prisons.
Nearly 2000 kilometres from Jakarta, Fadlon is a candidate in an electoral race that makes lesser men quail, and shows how politically pragmatic even former deadly enemies can be when resource exploitation is on the table.
Until 10 years ago, the GAM rebels of Aceh, Indonesia's westernmost province, waged a fierce war for independence. Fadlon, a former local commander who goes by just one name, is now seeking a provincial seat for Partai Aceh, the political party that emerged from GAM.
As a local party, Partai Aceh cannot contest seats in the national parliament, so since the 2009 election it has teamed up with a national party. This year, though, Fadlon's party has made the strangest possible choice of political partner - its one-time deadly enemy, former Indonesian general and Suharto son-in-law Prabowo Subianto.
According to University of California historian Geoffrey Robinson, Prabowo's command of reserve forces in the 1990s "coincided with the onset of the worst violence" in Aceh.
Now the former general is a credible candidate for the Indonesian presidency, and his party, Gerindra, desperately needs Acehnese votes. Last month, a former GAM leader, Aceh's deputy governor Muzakkir Manaf, made an agreement with Prabowo that some call a coalition, and he joined Gerindra's advisory board. He is telling Acehnese people to vote for Gerindra in parliament, and for Prabowo as president. Prabowo, in turn, apologised for army misbehaviour during the conflict.
But the tie-up - described by some as "like oil and water" - will sorely test even the most loyal Partai Aceh supporters in an electorate that is already tense after two candidates and several civilians have been killed in political violence in past weeks. Fadlon's uncle was shot dead by the army in the 1990s but, despite the qualms of his mother, he says he supports the Prabowo deal.
"We treated him as an enemy during the conflict but now we have a peace deal [with Jakarta signed in 2005], and he says he's committed to help build Aceh," Fadlon says. "I personally trust the elite of GAM on this."
What Prabowo has promised is a secret, but Partai Aceh wants what it has always wanted - Jakarta's hands off - particularly regarding the exploitation of its natural resources. Some suggest this is what Prabowo has offered.
"We want development, but we don't what to be dictated to by Jakarta," Fadlon says. "We were told by our elite that he is committed to this agreement."
Ordinary Partai Aceh supporters, though, find it hard to swallow. Jafaruddin sells fruit in the market in Kuala Simpang in Aceh's far south-east. A former combatant, his brother was one of those who disappeared.
"I would find it difficult personally to vote for [Prabowo] for president because our relatives were slaughtered by him … he was a murderer," Jafarruddin says.
Like Indonesia itself, though, he is complex, and he is inclined by habits of loyalty to do what his old commanders say, even though he believes if they saw him on the street "they would not even give me a cigarette butt".
"Yes, I still follow them," he says, "because that is our party."