Thais weigh peace, democracy

Protesters face off with police in Bangkok on Saturday. (Photo: The Nation)

Protesters face off with police in Bangkok on Saturday. (Photo: The Nation)

The situation in Thailand escalated from martial law to full-blown military coup around 5 p.m. on May 22. Despite new restrictions imposed by the army (especially those limiting media outlets), most Thais are sticking to their usual daily routines, and no major protests have been reported since the takeover began. But over the long run, a coup is not likely to be good for this country, as it poses another setback to democracy and economic growth. A very high-stakes negotiation is now under way between citizens and their government that will determine the future of Thailand.

I found out about the coup on my phone while in a taxi, and I immediately brought it up to the driver. “It’s OK,” he responded. “As long as everything keeps going on as usual, I don’t mind. We’re ok, you know — same-same,” he said, referring to a common Thai saying. I was surprised by his nonchalance, but from his perspective, a peaceful and stable society was more important than an infringement of his right to choose the leadership of his country. So far, other Thais whom I have asked have agreed, but this view is not universal.

The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) — commonly known as the “redshirts” — responded to the announcement differently. On Twitter, they posted, “NOW it is COUP – stand by for a retaliation from the UDD.” According to The Economist, it is likely that the coup will lead to more violence, and one friend of ours predicted civil war, but such extreme reactions are difficult to imagine amid the peace of daily life here. The potential reaction of the public is at the crux of the negotiation that this whole society is now engaged in.

Thais are no strangers to having curtailed rights, especially when it comes to speaking about their rulers. I learned from a reporter the other night about one freelance journalist who recently fled the country after being accused of making a critical statement about a high-level official. I have also heard of mothers turning in their own children for speaking ill of the king, which is a crime here. Many journalists opt to work from outside Thailand’s borders so that they can publish content critical of the elite.

Upon instating the coup, the military declared a 10 p.m. curfew countrywide and closed school for three days. They then shut down all television broadcasts, forbade meetings of more than five people, and warned journalists not to criticize the coup. Over the past 48 hours, the military has ordered the detention of more than 150 people, including key leaders, the former prime minister and academics. (The curfew is expected to be lifted, and schools to resume, on Monday, May 26.)

Despite all this, most Thais continued with their normal routines, but tensions are rising. Some Thais took to the streets to protest peacefully, shouting for the coup to end and for Army Chief Prayuth, who is acting as prime minister, to step down. In Kohn Kaen, nearly 300 miles north of Bangkok, the army stormed an apartment, arrested 23 redshirt activists and seized bombs, ammunition and other supplies.

The redshirts have reasons to be angry. In recent years, the urban elite have been successful in raising enough roadblocks to a democratically elected government that the military felt compelled to step in.

The trouble is this: Democracy is messy. The idea of democracy is that the majority chooses, and by default, some percentage of the society will be unsatisfied. In Thailand, the rural majority has consistently elected leaders aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006. As I explained in my last post, the anti-government urban elite have held protests in Bangkok over the past six months, and disrupted the most recent attempt at elections in February. After standing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was removed from office on a charge of negligence, the military stepped in with martial law, and could have enforced a peaceful transition through a new election.

Now, the coup stands in the way of the right of the majority to elect their government and has further curtailed freedoms of speech that were already weak in Thailand. It may also threaten economic growth; the U.S. has already withdrawn much of its aid to Thailand. Investors are spooked.

Peace is paramount in Thailand. The country has a stronger record than perhaps any of its neighbors of peace and stability, in part thanks to the savvy monarchs who carefully avoided colonization from other powers over the past few centuries. As a result, Thailand is also better off than most of its neighbors — GDP is higher, and more Thais have access to sanitation and electricity than many neighboring countries.

From an outside perspective, it may be difficult to understand how a society could tolerate a military takeover of their democracy and a restriction of their freedoms without rebelling. Rising up would put Thais’ prized peace at risk.

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Under martial law, Thais take little notice, but lots of selfies

Soldiers at the Phitsanulok train station in Northern Thailand, under the flags of Thailand and the monarchy.

Soldiers at the Phitsanulok train station in Northern Thailand, under the flags of Thailand and the monarchy.

This is not how I pictured martial law.

At 3 a.m. Tuesday, two days into our vacation in Thailand, the Thai military declared martial law across the country.

According to Wednesday’s Bangkok Post, a top Army’s general said martial law would be “step one on the path to peace, which will be quickly restored.” Though one normally thinks of martial law as preceding a coup, the military has reiterated that this is not a government takeover; rather, the general is trying to convene leaders from all sides to establish a new government.

Thailand’s government has been in turmoil for months, with frequent, lengthy and sometimes violent protests erupting between vying political factions. The history is complicated, but the dispute dates to 2006, when then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by the military. Thaksin was widely popular with the rural poor, but not with the urban elite. Since then, popular elections have led to Thaksin-aligned governments (supported by red-shirted protesters). Those who oppose the populist government policies began taking to the streets in November 2013. Protests disrupted and eventually nullified an election in February 2014, and have continued in waves since.

Earlier this month, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ousted the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra (Thaksin’s sister) and nine cabinet members.

On Monday, 19 May, as we waited in a visa office in Bangkok, protesters blocked the UN building on the other side of town, commemorating a military crackdown on redshirts four years earlier, and tensions began to rise again. The next morning, martial law was declared.

From the perspective of a tourist, only one thing has changed since our lvisit last month: the appearance of a handful of military personnel in the streets. They seem to have been less busy keeping order than serving as a backdrop for numerous selfies. This morning, as we drove into the central Thai city of Phitsanulok, we slowed down for soldiers who read our car’s windshield sticker to check its registration status, then waved us on. When I asked the driver if this was related to the state of martial law, she said such registration checks were not uncommon, but were more common on holidays, when many people come into the town for shopping and tourism. The imposition seemed minor; the driver seemed totally unfazed by it.

For the Thai people, the direction of their government hangs in the balance. Thais have lived through at least 11 coups since the government peacefully transitioned from absolute monarchy to democracy in 1932. Notwithstanding the military’s stated aversion to a coup, their ability to hand power back to the government depends on the government being able to come to a solution. Parliament will need to select a Prime Minister, or perhaps, as The Wall Street Journal suggests, the military will be forced to select one for them.

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On a Javan volcano, tourists and brimstone

A porter emerges from the sulfurous mist on the path from Mount Ijen's crater.

A porter emerges from the sulfurous mist on the path from Mount Ijen’s crater.

The mountain path was wide but steep. Tourists carried backpacks with water bottles and snacks, seeking exercise and fresh air. Meanwhile, local porters carried woven baskets, carefully balanced on bamboo rods, overflowing with impossibly lemon-yellow hunks of stone. Welcome to Java’s Mount Ijen: national park, sulfur mine, active volcano.

“I can carry about 75 kilos at once,” one of the porters, Misnanto, told me. “I do two loads a day; some of the stronger men can do three.” This worker was excited to talk to a foreigner about his life. Misnanto told me he earns about 800 rupiah per kilo of sulfur — about 7 U.S. cents.

Making two trips up and down this steep mountain, Misnanto earns less than US$12 per day.

He is proud of his strength; at 75 kilos he carries a heavier load than some of his counterparts, who carry 65 or 70 kilos at a time. Some men on the trail told us they were carrying as much as 81 kilos.

Misnanto is 45 years old, but appears older due to the backbreaking work. He told me he could no longer manage three loads in a day. Though his back is strong, there is a deep divot in his shoulder where the bamboo rod of his load rests. Like all the porters, he has developed a large callus there. The lines in his face are deep; the few teeth he still has are yellowed, both effects of exposure to the sulfur-laden gases spewing from the center of the crater, whose lake is so acidic that its pH approaches zero. Twenty-six years of carrying sulfur has taken its toll.

The scene at this working national park is discomfiting, as tourists whip out their smartphones to snap photos of (or with) the porters. Yet the porters tell us that they are glad the mountain is a national park visited by hikers on weekends. On this holiday weekend the tourists seemed to outnumber the workmen, but this is rare; the mostly Indonesian tourists tend to arrive on weekends only. Visitors offer some change of scenery and the chance to make a little extra income, as they may pay for homemade souvenirs (miniature sulfur sculptures) or even photos with the porters. That additional income may make a world of difference to the porters.

More important, tourists come because the mine sits in the center of a conservation area of forested mountainside. The protected area ensures that the company cannot build roads and drive trucks right up to the crater to mechanize the sulfur extraction. Most commercial sulfur is now produced through other industrial processes (such as oil refinement). In places where it is still mined from volcanoes the process is usually mechanized, according to the BBC. Were that the case at Ijen these porters would be out of work.

I wondered about the value of having jobs like these. But to the miners this is a livelihood. In fact they say it is one of the better options for them.

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Indonesia’s legislative elections, even more complex than expected

An election officer in traditional shadow puppet costume helps an elderly man vote at  in Yogyakarta (photo: the Wall Street Journal)

An election officer in traditional shadow puppet costume helps an elderly man vote at in Yogyakarta (photo: The Wall Street Journal)

On April 9th, 2014, across nearly 8,000 islands, the citizens of the world’s third-largest democracy cast ballots for over 235,000 candidates in legislative elections. The Wall Street Journal called it “a massive logistical undertaking”. In this complex environment, none of the parties won a strong enough lead to run a candidate in the July presidential race (based on an election-day quick count).

The People’s Consultative Assembly of Indonesia (MPR-RI), the legislative branch of the national government, is made up of 1,000 seats in two houses. Currently members represent 9 different political parties. Today’s elections will determine the members of this legislative body. Importantly, for any party to put forward a presidential candidate, it must first secure at least 20 percent of the seats in the Assembly. If a party cannot reach the threshold, it must form a coalition to run a candidate, normally selecting a vice presidential running mate from an allied party.

In my last post I explained that three presidential hopefuls have stepped forward so far in 2014. Each of those candidates’ parties hoped to secure enough seats to nominate a candidate unilaterally, but none succeeded. Even Joko Widodo’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which media had suggested might win as much as 30 percent of the popular vote, fell shy of the threshold. According to the Jakarta Post, with this election over, political coalition talks will begin just after midnight on April 10th.

Here are the results of today’s elections according to the quick count, with reference to each party’s proposed presidential candidate:

  1. 19%, Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Joko Widodo (the popular Jakarta Governor)
  2. 14.4%, Golkar Party, Aburizal Bakrie (the billionaire businessman)
  3. 11.9 %,  Gerindra Party, Prabowo Subianto (the former military general
A woman dips her finger in ink after casting her vote during the legislative election at a polling station under the toll road in North Penjaringan, North Jakarta, on Wednesday ( Photo: Jakarta Post)

A woman dips her finger in ink after casting her vote at a polling station under the toll road in North Jakarta, on Wednesday (Photo: Jakarta Post)

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A taste of real democracy in Indonesia’s presidential elections

Presidential candidate, Jokowi, has been said to bring fresh air and new hope to Indonesian presidential politics (Photo: Times Live)

Presidential candidate, Jokowi, has been said to bring fresh air and new hope to Indonesian presidential politics. He is greeted by fans at a campaign event in West Java.  (Photo: Times Live)

For the first time, democracy in Indonesia might not be something of a sham.

We are living in Indonesia in a fascinating time, as 2014 is an election year (both parliamentary and Presidential). That might sound reasonably interesting anywhere, but in the Indonesian context, democratic elections are still somewhat novel.

After independence in 1945, Indonesia had two “presidents” — essentially dictators — in 53 years. After the departure of the kleptocrat dictator Suharto in 1998, new presidents were (legally) appointed by the legislature until, in 2004, the country held its first direct presidential election. In the 10 years since, only one man has been elected. Now, as he steps down, the door opens for change.

Thus far, three candidates lead the charge, each an icon of some sector of Indonesian culture: The former military general known for human-rights abuses (Prabowo Subianto); a billionaire business magnate embroiled in an environmental scandal (Aburizal Bakrie); and the small, quiet, man of the people, the mayor of Jakarta (Joko Widodo).

Widodo, affectionately known as Jokowi, has been touted as the front-runner by most polls. He is a favorite of international media (like The Economist) but he is challenging a powerful establishment. This is the first time that Indonesia has seen a viable presidential candidate who did not come from a small group of powerful elites, and that still makes many people uncomfortable.

As we rode through a small town in eastern Java last week, Eddie, a young man who works at a hotel, explained that he thought Prabowo was most likely to win. Eddie does not like Prabowo, but he believes Indonesians want a strong leader, and that means someone from the military.

Jokowi has earned the support of some key players in traditional politics. Popular former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, broke with Prabowo to support Jokowi when he announced his candidacy in March.

Some of Jokowi’s biggest fans — Jakartans — do not support his bid for president. One of my co-workers explained, “I am angry at Jokowi and won’t vote for him this year. … I voted for him to be governor of Jakarta and now he wants to abandon us. What about his responsibilities?” Many Jakartans have told me the prefer to keep Jokowi as governor (i.e., mayor), where he can make a substantial difference for the troubled megacity and its metro area, home to 28 million people. They argue that as president, bogged down by coalition politics and bureaucracy, he will lose his ability to get things done. I believe most of those people will vote for Jokowi in the end rather than watch other candidates win.

His popularity is palpable. For a politician, he tends to travel with little security. He meets with people in the streets, showing up unannounced in crowded public places or at public works projects and wearing inexpensive clothing. He is known for listening rather than talking. The public loves him, and often will reach out to touch him or put his hand to their foreheads, in a traditional Indonesian sign of respect. Jokowi has inspired an exciting energy around this campaign that may draw new voters out of the shadows.

Our driver explained that he has not voted in the past two elections. “I didn’t like any of the options before … but now with Jokowi running, maybe I will vote for him,” he said. Jokowi has also inspired the support of Indonesia’s burgeoning young population, with a strong command of social media: I actually received a campaign text message from JKW4P (Jokowi for President) yesterday. Jokowi has been compared many times to Obama, for being the outsider, ready to change the status quo, representing the youth and the modern, social media era. As a result, there are fears that he will fall into Obama’s trap as well. Shirking the status quo of vested interests is easier said than done.

This Wednesday, April 9, Indonesia will hold parliamentary elections. Presidential elections follow in July. Until then, the excitement will only grow in the story of Indonesia’s democracy. We’ll do our best to keep sharing.

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For Balinese New Year, the meaning is in the doing

A demon chases a young prince in this "ogoh-ogoh," made out of bamboo and papier-mache by children (pictured) of Pemuteran, Bali.

A demon chases a young prince in this “ogoh-ogoh,” made out of bamboo and papier-mache by children (pictured) of Pemuteran, Bali.

Today, across the island of Bali, something is happening — which is to say, nothing is happening, and that is why it’s so special. Today is Nyepi, or the day of silence, the lunar New Year celebrated in Bali’s unique Hindu tradition. For 24 hours, across the island, there will be no talking, no cooking, no eating or watching TV. Instead, there will be only quiet introspection as the Balinese practice the four abstentions: from lighting fires or lights, from work, from travel outside the home and from pleasure. The streets will be empty; the many seaports and only airport will be closed. Nyepi is universally respected across the island. In fact, in Indonesia, a nation of more than 200 million Muslims, Nyepi is a national holiday. Though it is not widely practiced anywhere else, recognition by the national government enables Bali’s 4.2 million residents one day of true silence.

Non-Hindus in Bali — whether they wish to or not — must respect the holiday, too, which is a challenge for the island, internationally renowned as a beach-party destination. Resorts go to great lengths to ensure that their guests do not disturb the serenity or violate the provincial ordinance; in fact, the provincial government of Bali explicitly discourages tourists from visiting during this time. Tourists who stay through the holiday may continue their leisure activities inside the resorts — but they may not leave. There is no transport on the streets. No check-ins or check-outs are allowed, not least because no credit cards can be charged on this day. Local civilian police mount leisurely foot patrols across the island to ensure that the rules are being followed. As one writer put it in The New York Times, Nyepi is “a holiday for the ears.”

This ogoh-ogoh was set aflame on the eve of Nyepi, March 30, near Pemuteran, Bali.

This ogoh-ogoh was set aflame on the eve of Nyepi, March 30, near Pemuteran, Bali.

Several days of preparation lead up to Nyepi. Three to four days prior (on March 29th this year), Balinese practice Melasti, holding processions at major beaches and rivers to cleanse sacred items from the temples and recharge their supernatural power. Then, on the eve of Nyepi, a ruckus erupts. In an effort to stir up evil spirits, people bang pots, pans, empty water bottles, or anything they can find. The commotion continues for the parade of ogoh-ogohs: giant papier-mâché representations of evil demons that are made by the children of every village in Bali. The ogoh-ogohs call evil spirits from every home as they are marched though the town. At the end of the parade, the papier-mâché figures are set aflame to banish the evil spirits back to their natural homes. Once the demons have been flushed out, around midnight, the silence begins. The day of introspection provides both people and nature a chance to recuperate from the impacts of modern life.

As an American, I am astounded by the preservation of Nyepi. In the U.S., as consumerism threatens to swallow up any “sacred” day, be it Thanksgiving or Christmas or even Martin Luther King Day, the “meaning” of our holidays has become trite cable-news fodder. Now, major retailers are open on Thanksgiving, robbing their employees of the chance for a full day of thanks, and creating greater pressure to spend the holiday shopping.

In a sense, America’s secularism has stripped holidays of their cultural uniqueness and has unified them under the cult of consumerism. Conversely, in Indonesia, a complex need for multiculturalism has carved out space for individual religions. On the raucous party island of Bali, Nyepi is a fascinating example of one culture’s sanctity being preserved against the odds.

We left Bali just before Nyepi. In our endless search for peace and quiet outside of bustling Jakarta, though, we might have done well to stay.

A Melasti ceremony takes place on the beach near tourist resorts in Pemuteran, Bali.

A Melasti ceremony takes place on the beach near tourist resorts in Pemuteran, Bali.

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Volcano’s awakening a reminder of Indonesia’s vulnerabiility

a man rides is becak through the falling ash (Reuters) (click for more photos from the Jakarta Globe)

A man rides his becak through the falling ash (Reuters) (click for more photos from the Jakarta Globe)

On Thursday night, Mount Kelud, a volcano in eastern Java, blew a plume of smoke and ash 17 km into the air.  The eruption shook the surrounding villages, which were soon covered in ash and rock. If you live in a place that has recently received about 5-10 inches of snow, just imagine ash, like finely ground stone, coating your roofs and streets.  The ash has already reached as far as 619 km (384 miles) from the volcano, and may reach Jakarta soon. It has cause many flights to be grounded and at least five airports are closed.

Mt Kelud already holds a place as the world’s seventh-deadliest volcano for killing more than 5,000 people in 1919; it may have been responsible for some 10,000 deaths in 1586. So far, this eruption has claimed three lives: Two people were killed when a shelter collapsed under the weight of falling rocks, and one from lung damage from the ash. Sadly, many more will suffer injuries, ash-inhalation, and damaged property.

When we moved to Indonesia, the threat posed by the country’s 130 volcanoes was nothing new to us. We were moving from Quito, Ecuador, where we lived in the shadow of the volcano Pichincha. We had seen smoke plumes rising above Tungurahua, an active volcano in the middle of the country, south of Quito. What I did not realize when we moved to Indonesia, though, was that we were moving to the deadliest volcanic region on Earth — far more dangerous and active than the volcanoes in all of the Andes. In recent history, Indonesia has suffered more deaths due to volcanoes than any other country, or even volcanic region. Between 1600 and 1982, Indonesia was home to 63 percent of known deaths from volcanic eruptions. Mt Kelud is not alone this month: Mt Sinabung on Sumatra (Indonesia’s westernmost island) has been erupting continuously since October 2013; yesterday, activity increased at Mt Lewotobi Perempuan in East Flores, causing authorities to raise its alert level.

All of this points to the precarious situation in which many Indonesians live.  According to the Smithsonian Institution, more than 75 percent of Indonesia’s 247 million residents live within 100 km of a volcano, the highest number of people of any of the world’s volcanic regions.  Right now, we are fine here in Jakarta, but we have resources that most Indonesians do not, including insurance. Even when the eruptions are not deadly, they create massive damage, destroying homes and crops, even poisoning land.

We hope that Kelud’s activity is over, at least for now, and those people who have had to flee can return to their homes.

Homes near the volcano were dusted with ash (reuters)

Homes near the volcano were dusted with ash (Reuters)

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Public works are too little, too late as the rainy season strikes

When it rains, it pours; in Jakarta, it floods.

Floods brought Jakarta to a halt in January.

Floods brought Jakarta to a halt in January (photo: Jakarta Post)

Last night I awoke to a familiar sound from our bathroom: drip … drip … drip. I was surprised that I could hear it over the pummeling of rain on our roof. Whenever it rains — right now, almost daily — water streams from the edge where the bathroom wall meets the ceiling, and the crown molding is, well, moldy. This is a leak that can’t be fixed; workmen have tried four times. They managed to repair a more significant leak in our bedroom ceiling, but the bathroom is somehow unfixable, especially now that the rains are under way. Stemming from a failure of forethought in the construction of the building, it is like a metaphor for Jakarta.

Every year the rainy season comes. Every year the city is made lame as the banks of the rivers that empty into Jakarta Bay overflow, bringing mud into the homes of those who cannot afford to live on higher ground.

No one escapes the effects of the rain. Shoddy drainage systems cause the streets to flood, and traffic comes to a standstill, as somewhere miles down the line, cars are getting stuck in puddles a few feet deep. But the flooding can’t be stopped. It is caused by fundamental failures in the structure of this city.

The driver of this motorcycle- taxi asked my co-worker to get out and walk because the water was too deep. (Photo: Juairia Sitabutar)

The driver of this motorcycle- taxi asked my co-worker to get out and walk because the water was too deep. (Photo: Juairia Sitabutar)


Many of my co-workers have braved four-hour commutes in the past few weeks. Two co-workers have missed a few days of work because of flooding in their homes. Having experienced a flooded home before, she told me “whether the water rises six inches or two feet, it doesn’t matter. The cleanup is the same, because the water brings all that mud.” She spent her weekend cleaning muddy walls. Another co-worker stayed home last week because her roof had fallen in. Two days later she was riding a motorcycle taxi to work when the driver stopped and said “Sorry, please get off and walk. The water is too deep.”

They are lucky because they can afford help. Our driver’s street floods regularly. He and his wife are glad to live on the second floor of a two-story house, but his motorcycle — his only personal transport — is subject to whatever the weather brings. He often has engine trouble because he cannot keep the bike on high-enough ground. Many of his neighbors have had to leave their homes periodically.

Official figures of displaced persons fluctuate; Jakarta’s disaster management agency’s reports show 40,000 displaced on some days, 70,000 on others, but it is safe to assume that more than 100,000 people have been displaced to shelters. Other reports say as many as 250,000 have been affected.

The politicians (like the workmen at our house) promise that they are fixing this failure. But their projects mostly amount to Band-Aids. The truth is, Jakarta is overdeveloped; as a result, too much of the city is covered in “non-permeable surfaces” — in other words it’s all pavement and buildings, lacking in proper drainage. As the World Bank reported, many of the water catchment areas, i.e. green spaces, have all been “developed.” On top of that, a lack of maintenance and a lack of waste management have caused Jakarta’s canals and rivers to be perennially blocked by debris and garbage.

Major projects are being undertaken to dredge rivers and canals; more canals are being built with floodgates. The World Bank invested US$ 140 million in 2012 (three times the country’s own financial commitment) to begin a series of projects to reduce flooding (to be completed by 2017). Sadly, after decades of poor management and with major construction still ongoing city-wide, Jakartans still live under threat. When it rains, the water rises and, every few days, parts of the city flood again.

The street in front of our favorite ex-pat oriented supermarket was unpassable two weeks ago. (photo: Twitter @deasychristie)

The street in front of our favorite ex-pat oriented supermarket was unpassable two weeks ago. (photo: Twitter @deasychristie)

Since prevention is failing, all that is left is to respond and repair. The city is relatively accustomed to responding. The disaster agencies set up shelters (around 70 this year) and distribute food (mostly instant noodles) for those who have been displaced from their homes. They rescue stranded residents with small boats.

The flooding wreaks havoc on Jakarta’s already feeble infrastructure. According to the Jakarta Globe, about 3,903 road sites need repairs due to the flooding. Mostly these are potholes, and some are larger eroded sections. The Jakarta Public Works Agency has committed to repairing all of these in one week. Though this sounds like an impressive commitment, the agency explained that if high-quality concrete cannot be used, it will “fix the road temporarily with asphalt.” This does not bode well for the ability of Jakarta roads to withstand next year’s rainy season. Economic damages are estimated at over US$ 4 million so far this year, and in the long term, losses are larger. Not only homes and businesses suffer, but the city’s budget is strained by the costs of response and repairs.

When the problems run as deep as Jakarta’s, they are difficult to fix or reverse. Major public works such as those being supported by the World Bank may help reduce flooding over the coming years. Stronger enforcement is needed for building codes, and better planning is a must. In the long run, Jakarta may undergo a complete overhaul of urban planning, one that would bring forethought to the structure of the city. For now most Jakartans can only hope.

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Three years after quake, Christchurch slowly rebuilds

A mix of construction sites and condemned buildings in the Christchurch central business district

A mix of construction sites and condemned buildings in the Christchurch central business district

To escape Indonesia’s humid tropical climate, we met Katherine’s parents for a vacation in temperate New Zealand.

New Zealand and Indonesia share at least one thing in common: a high level of seismic and volcanic activity. As I write this, Mount Sinabung on the Indonesian island of Sumatra continues to spew ash and gases, as it has for months (forcing 19,000 people to evacuate the area on New Year’s Eve).

Reconstruction plans for the Cathedral are hotly debated, while the bishop hopes to tear down the original building, citizens want it rebuilt.

Citizens are lobbying to save the Christchurch cathedral from demolition, and reconstruct what was left after the quake.

On New Zealand’s north island, we visited bubbling hot pools cause by magma flowing close to the Earth’s surface. We also visited the city of Christchurch, on the south island, which was devastated by a series of powerful earthquakes and aftershocks between September 2010 to June 2011. The biggest quake, in February 2011, all but flattened the city’s central business district.

Like Indonesia, New Zealand lies along colliding tectonic plates along the Pacific “Ring of Fire.” Regions like this contributed to the very existence of both nations: Indonesia’s islands are mostly made of volcanoes, pushed out of the sea as one plate is shoved underneath another, forcing magma out through the Earth’s crust. New Zealand’s mountains are still being pushed upward by the Pacific and Australian plates. The specific nature of this zone makes for fewer volcanoes, but still causes great releases of energy­ — such as the earthquake that struck Christchurch in 2011.

A Foot Locker sits frozen in time; spray paint on the window indicates that it was cleared for survivors on February 26, 2011.

A Foot Locker sits frozen in time; spray paint on the window indicates that it was cleared for survivors on February 26, 2011.

Christchurch could now be described as an inspiring ghost town. For a full year after the 2011 quake, downtown was closed to civilians as safety workers went from building to building, identifying unstable and dangerous sites that would need to be demolished; cleaning up rubble; extracting crushed cars, etc. After the damage had been assessed, the city began building new bridges to replace those that had collapsed, before letting civilians back into the area now dubbed the “red zone.”

Today, downtown Christchurch is an expanse of empty lots amid the few remaining high-rise buildings — about half of which are empty, rendered uninhabitable by the quake. Those buildings seem frozen in February 2011, when people ran out the door and never returned. After search-and-rescue crews had spray-painted the “OK” sign to signify that a building was clear of survivors, the buildings were closed and roped off for public safety. Only official crews with permits could enter buildings in the city center. One Starbucks sits vacant, the oversized chairs and tiny tables are now piled with dust; nothing has been served in almost three years.

A mall made of shipping containers brings life back to downtown Christchurch.

A mall made of shipping containers brings life back to downtown Christchurch.

However, the newly vacant lots have sparked a creative twist on local life. Gap Filler, a non-profit citizens group, is bringing life back to downtown by creating activities in the empty lots. A café made of wooden shipping pallets has sprung up in one of the lots; in another, a musical playground has been built out of a variety of construction materials (of which there are many in Christchurch at the moment). A makeshift boutique mall has also been built — made out of shipping containers. Painted in bright colors, the container mall has become a popular retail and restaurant space in an otherwise barren area of the city.

The town is making use of the destruction to redesign itself as a green, livable city. Children have even been consulted to design public playgrounds. A new trolley line is now open, and plans for bike lanes and walking paths are being implemented. These creative and resilient Kiwis (as New Zealanders are called) have turned a tragedy into an opportunity. The public activity around downtown suggests that life will return to the city center. Today, Christchurch exists in an eerie limbo, but in 10 years, I predict it will be a model of urban planning.

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Glitz, wilderness and dirty hands: Indonesia’s top three contradictions is hosting a competition, and this is our entry. If you like our blog please support us, by posting a comment. 

A sign in a public restroom reminds patrons not to wash their feet in the toillet

A sign in a Jakarta public restroom reminds patrons not to wash their feet in the toilet

Indonesia is a unique country of contradictions and contrasts — a place with extremes and seemingly no middle ground. Some clashes result from a mix of cultures trying to negotiate as one nation others from endemic corruption and poor policy. Though examples of these dichotomies seem endless, three stand out as the most overarching or emblematic. In my view, these are Indonesia’s top three contradictions…

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