Sun, 26 Jan 2003

Romain Bertrand: Explores the inner world of RI democracy

Kunang Helmi-Picard, Contributor, Paris

Indonesie: la democratie invisible. Violence, magie et politique a Java, by Romain Bertrand, Editions Karthala, Paris, 2002.

Romain Bertrand is a member of the French Center for International Studies and Research (CERI) and his political analysis centers on Indonesia, more specifically on Java.

Regarded as one of the promising young analysts on Indonesian issues, Bertrand is a regular advisor to the French Foreign Office. He has recently published an essay on what he calls the "invisible democracy" in Indonesia. A fair part of Bertrand's analysis is based on close studies of a wide range of Indonesian press reports from 1998 to mid-2002, besides personal interviews conducted in Central and East Java in 1999 and 2000.

Bertrand's previous research about the formation of the colonial state of the Dutch East Indies had already alerted him to the presence of the mystical texts of Javanese royalty. These concerned the ability and duties towards the invisible world entailed by those acquiring the power to rule, as well as by the social obligations which all members of Javanese society are required to fulfill.

The author observed two parallel series of phenomena which occurred during the past few years of intensive socio-economic transformation in Indonesia: the rapid expansion of public debate accompanied by the persistence of the social imagination of the invisible.

His attention was also caught by the increasing cases of intercommunal violence which have been ongoing since the fall of Suharto in Indonesia, many apparently sparked by rumors about sorcery and other mysticism. Stories of witchcraft, spirits and demons reflect traumatic experiences due to growing social inequality, the break up of traditional family structures and the emergence of new forms of social violence such as street crime and illicit drug addiction.

In the first part of his essay Bertrand attempts to reconstruct the political atmosphere of a Javanese kampung on the outskirts of a city, in this case Karangkajen, south of Yoygakarta. This was done using interviews carried out in Central and East Java. Here he endeavored to show that the mystical dimension of politics in Indonesia was common to both those in power and those being governed. In fact, particularly on Java, this enables the ordinary citizen to "communicate" with local and national elites.

Furthermore, Bertrand also discusses the existence of an invisible background to social life known as dunia gaib, or mystical world, which is only accessible to those who master supernatural knowledge and certain physical techniques. Supernatural knowledge includes divinatory sciences such as numerology and astrology important to those who govern. It also implies the significance of voyages of initiation such as those who pass through dangers to renew powers of healing or that of alelana, or one who goes on pilgrimage to holy places to develop his/her faith. It also may include the search to gain exceptional physical force which one is said to become invincible by practicing "magical" techniques known as kanuragan.

In Karangkajen, the stories of encounters with fiendish creatures such as the white monkey or thuyul, a spirit in the form of a naked boy, serve to illustrate the expectations, preoccupations, desires and fantasies of the inhabitants of this village. Those who are perceived to flagrantly ignore their social obligations, often because they belong to a different ethnic minority, besides being accused of dabbling in magic to obtain sudden wealth, are subject to rumors which often leads to public lynching.

Members of any community are expected to be modest, respect communal solidarity and redistribute excess wealth by means of charity and pious acts, or amal jariah. At all times an individual is expected to decline his origins, or asal-usul to the satisfaction of those who question him. Here Bertrand joins James Siegel in pointing out that the question of social identification is of eminent political importance on Java.

The second part of Bertrand's essay deals with the advisors in the supernatural world to Indonesian leaders. Bertrand discussed Soeharto and his history where he tried to be perceived as a dukun, or shaman, beginning with Kyai Daryatmo when he was but 13. Later it was said that Soeharto procured various pusaka, or magic charms, and objects to ensure the longevity of his rule. Humardhani headed a group of mystics and wise men who placed offerings at various sacred spots on Java among other rituals intended to maintain Soeharto's power.

Bertrand goes on to examine the invisible allies of President Abdurrahman 'Gus Dur' Wahid such as the nine Saints of Java, or Wali Sanga and his visible allies like Kyai Munif. Gus Dur was also said to possess a panoply of magic skills. Bertrand called attention to the belief in magic powers within the Nahdatul Ulama (NU) as proved by the declaration of Gus Maksum -- a rival of Gus Dur -- before the 30th Congress that he had recruited a large number of jinns, good spirits/white magic, to protect the participants against witchcraft.

Gus Maksum cultivated close ties to the paramilitary branch of the NU youth movement also known as the "paranormal section" of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle led by Permadi who also came under scrutiny. Permadi, who had predicted Ibu Megawati's ascension to power briefly became a special advisor to Gus Dur.

Nevertheless, Permadi heralded the advent of Megawati Sukarnoputri as the Ratu Adil, or queen of justice. She prepared herself for the serious task of governing Indonesia by practicing tapa bisu, silent meditation, and cultivating her spiritual and moral forces. This preparation was reinforced by pilgrimages to the tombs of Islamic saints, visiting important Balinese Hindu/animist temples and consulting various paranormals. Bertrand noted that many Indonesian leaders undertook political pilgrimages, or ziarah, to substantiate their claims to power.

However well-anchored the kasekten, or spiritual power, of a political leader to be able to combat his invisible enemies may appear to be, it also obliges the same leader to live up to this public role: "In other words, he who 'plays at being a saint', is obliged, at least in the public manifestation of his way of life, to become one and to stay so."

Bertrand concludes that advisors in the supernatural - astrologists, wise men and other soothsayers - are no less present in Europe and North America as on Java.

In France, for example, there are now more exorcist priests than ever before. For Bertrand when magic is taken into consideration on Java, it is a vision eminently liable to excite suspicion of the prevailing political authority. This suspicion allows for the exposure of social injustices and the call to order of arrogant notables, but at the same time if it does introduce lucidity, it can also lead to violence.

Bertrand's 210-page essay on Indonesia: the invisible democracy - Violence, magic and politics on Java has not yet been translated into Indonesian nor into English. Although this would prove to be a difficult task, one hopes that this might soon be the case because his observations are of great interest. However, even for French readers Bertrand's style tends to appear convoluted, and at times, the theoretical subject is difficult to understand.