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Jakarta takes crisis in its stride

South China Morning Post - July 23, 2001

Vaudine England, Jakarta – Despite two bombs in the morning and a gathering of forces for a major political showdown today, it was hard to find signs of concern outside Parliament building yesterday afternoon.

Admittedly, that was before President Abdurrahman Wahid's decree ordering parliament dissolved, and before armed forces staged a show of might with a convoy of tanks and armoured vehicles driving through Jakarta and then gathering opposite the presidential palace.

One officer said the operation was aimed at "safeguarding the special session" in which Parliament was expected to impeach Mr Wahid. Whether the impeachment proceedings will go ahead appears to now rest with the military – and where there loyalties lie.

Even so, life in the capital prior to the announcement was running pretty much as normal. Notwithstanding the military hardware on the streets and reports of a tension-racked city and fears of violent demonstrations, Jakartans were doing what they usually do on a Sunday – shopping in the malls, playing soccer or drifting from one food stall to another.

"Sudah Biasa", meaning "already normal", was the reply from drivers, vendors and people who hang out on street corners, when asked about their country's allegedly dire political straits.

In the three years since the fall of former strongman president Suharto, these people have been used to scenes of mass protest and groups of heavily armed police.

"Those politics are not for us, we just wait and see," said a drinks vendor parked in front of Parliament building. He is determined to protect his strategic spot in the front line, sometimes caught between rows of police with tear-gas and hordes of protesters at the gates. He said the periodic convulsions in the nation's leadership were good for business.

Inside the Parliament complex, extra police were practising routines by driving their motorcycles around the compound's large fountain. Workmen were busy tidying the grounds and the sweet smell of freshly cut grass hung over the parked tear-gas trucks and a group of police on horseback exercising their animals.

Even the sight of the Indonesian flag flying at half-mast did not symbolise the death of Mr Wahid's presidency. It was merely a sign of respect for a recently deceased MP.

Next to the Parliament building is the Taman Ria entertainment complex where paddle boats take day-trippers around an artificial lake. Under the nearby flyover, police rested their plastic shields and batons, eating and calling out to passers-by for kicks. The next building is the Convention Centre and here the lack of concern of the middle and upper classes was most evident. Even though a contingent of armed soldiers slept under the eaves of the complex, a steady stream of cars dropped off patrons of the annual Indonesian Automotive Show.

Inside the exhibition, where speakers blasted out "welcome to paradise", it was chaos of a different kind from that predicted by politicians. Disco music blared inside from competing stands where people wondered about buying a new four-wheel drive or a brand new "vintage" Vespa motorcycle.

"This is entertainment, we are here for the fun. We don't care about politics," said a father of three girls who was checking out the Honda saloons with his wife.

Babies tied in sarongs by uniformed maids surrounded another extended family group heading toward the lavish Jaguar stand. They had already ignored the flashing lights and ear-crushing noise of a talk show performance at the stall for Honda and had eyes only for the sleek British limousines which cost around US$110,000.

Staff at the Jaguar stand had run out of brochures for the S-type Jaguars, but sales manager Welly Oka was unconcerned. "The crisis is only for politics, the economy is already good," he said.

The rampant consumerism on display is in stark contrast to the genuine mass involvement in demonstrations which helped bring down Suharto in May 1998. Then, the middle and upper classes donated food and drink to embattled students on the streets and set up second-hand stalls to sell off their own possessions when the economic crisis began to bite.

Now, the hard-won freedom of expression and open politics is taken for granted, almost as part of the passing parade, while the daily priorities of rearing families and having a good time come to the fore.