Tue, 06 Aug 2002

The muted salvo at the MPR which few care to hear

Mochtar Buchori

The thunderous debates at the Annual Session of the People's Consultative Assembly resembled a salvo. They were, indeed, a salvo in a political battle. I felt caught in a cross fire between two opposing camps: Those in favor of amending the 1945 Constitution, and those against it.

The language used in these debates was very abstract, and did not show any relevance to the real problems, especially those felt by people in remote places like the one I visited just two days before the grand opening of this annual meeting. From there, this salvo of rhetoric would never be heard by the people (and they wouldn't care if they did hear it) and the boisterous debates were nothing more than a muted salvo.

Two equally important, antipodal events took place within only three days -- in which I was catapulted from one world to another that is oceans away.

On July 30, I went to a very remote village in Gunung Kidul, Yogyakarta. This village is Sawur, in the subdistrict of Ponjong, some 75 kilometers east of Yogyakarta. The first 54 km of the road to this place is splendid, its surface being paved. But the last 21 km is very rough, entirely of stone and dirt. And it goes up and down a very hilly area.

The village is by no means rich, but there is not a single beggar in sight. Everyone seemed to be busy with his or her own occupation. There is one elementary school with 146 students. Now there are 30 graduates who have been unable to continue their education to a secondary school, ranging from 13 years to 19 years old. They have been unable to pursue further education, simply for economic reasons.

Out of these 30 youngsters, 24 will receive support from the district administration to continue their education, either to go to a secondary school or to go to a vocational training institution. But the remaining six students refuse to go anywhere. They have to stay home to help their parents.

The impression of the community here was of hard working people who still believe in a better future. The fact that there is electricity in this village, and that the community manages to set up its own institution exploiting the water spring and distributing the water to the villagers, so I was told, is a clear sign of the village's capacity to run its own life.

A band was playing campur sari music, modernized Javanese pop music. Members were local boys and consisted of two electric guitars, two synthesizers and a set of percussion instruments.

I looked at all this in disbelief. I lived in a nearby village when I was a small boy, and still have a vivid memory how poor this particular area was. There is no fertile soil rice field. During harvest time people from this area came down to the fertile lowland where my family lived to work for my rich aunt. And after the harvest, some of the boys and girls stayed with my aunt as hired hands. The boys usually went to school after staying with my aunt. This modest community certainly had the capacity to better its own life.

Three days after visiting this village, on Aug. 1, I attended the opening of the Assembly session in very luxurious and comfortable surroundings. The road from my home to this place is very smooth. Everyone was very neatly dressed and looked rich, very rich indeed. With the exception of a very few people, everyone looked relaxed. There seems not much to do in these splendid surroundings.

But soon after the ceremonial part of the opening session was over, the political battle started. Arguments rejecting and supporting the fourth amendment were traded. Each argument was presented in an emotional and fanatical manner.

The impression was that these representatives wanted very much to convince the public that whatever their stance is in thus matter, they have adopted it because of their love and dedication to the country and the people. They never failed to remind the great audience outside the convention hall that it is only one political scheme that can improve the life of the people -- theirs. They constantly reminded the audience outside that any contradictory scheme would lead to total collapse.

But there was no single representative who in concrete terms, related his or her arguments to the hardships that the people have to endure, especially at the lowest income levels. Every argument was presented in a very abstract theoretical frame, as if the issue of amending the existing constitution has no bearing whatsoever to improving people's lives.

Representatives used lofty expressions that seemed merely a device to obscure their indifference toward the fate of people. Yet they sounded -- unconvincingly -- as if people's welfare was the only thing that mattered in their lives.

In the midst of these querulous debates my mind quietly leaves these splendid and noisy surroundings, and wanders back to those quiet and hard working people. I think of the villagers who have given up smoking for four months to raise money, needed as collateral to match a grant received to purchase new desks and chairs for the school.

I think of my young friends, Totok and Christi of the Global Education Partnership in Wonosari, Gunung Kidul, who patiently guided these villagers to provide better educational facilities for their children. I also think of the young and energetic teacher at the village school who imaginatively guided his students to broaden their horizons without forgetting the reality around them. I think of the people's conviction that they can improve their own lives without hoping that any political party would ever come to help them.

A young teacher wrote a poem, which was read by one small sixth grader.

Part of it went: They are brought up here / ... Far from noisy demonstrations / Nevertheless they smile at their uncertain future /They wear no shoes, but they don't care/ They have no new shirts, but they do not care.../ They don't have any pocket money, but they don't care/ They smile, because today/ They no longer have to sit in nearly broken chairs at nearly broken desks Because today, they can write on smooth new desks/ They smile, even though in their house there is no chair and no desk/ Where they can comfortably do their homework.