The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, May 28, 2007



A year ago today (Sunday 27 May) we were driving north back to Surabaya from Malang and had just entered the toll road at Gempol, about 30 kilometers south of the East Java capital.

Although wet-season downpours and holiday traffic could sometimes cause problems, the journey was usually trouble free. Having palmed the plastic card at the tollgate it was normally a 20-minute clear run home down the three-lane highway.

But not this Sunday.

For about two kilometers it was a first-gear crawl. The problem was muddy water on the road, though it hadn't rained for weeks.

From the inside lane we watched the flooded paddy cascading onto the bitumen as men and machines tried to channel the black ooze into a ditch.

Beyond the rice rose a giant cloud of steam, smoke and gas. The smell was sickening.

What had happened? The sweat-soaked workmen only knew that a few hours earlier mud had suddenly started gushing out of the ground in huge quantities. Alongside was a tall gas-drilling rig that had been in place several months.

Even as our tyres sloshed slowly through the slime it was clear this was no minor event. Scores of hectares had already been drowned and the water was cascading out of the fields like a river in flood.

The number of mechanical and human ditch diggers showed the company also realized this was big time serious. But official statements played down the obvious. A minor matter that would soon cease.

A month earlier I'd sought permission to visit the rig. I thought it might make an interesting business story little knowing it was soon to become an international page one event. But journalists weren't welcome on site.

Last month I re-ran the route. The tollway entrance is now closed. So is an alternative road through the village of Porong.

A major bridge has been demolished before it collapsed, undermined by the rushing waters. Thin lines of terracotta roof ridges poking above the mud show where busy villages once thrived.

The shortest way to the East Java capital now lies through jalan tikus (rat roads), the narrow, twisting, potholed tracks that link villages around Porong. On this trip there were 17 roadblocks where thugs extorted money for using 'their' streets.

Until it became torn and faded, a sign on the now shattered bridge read: "We too, are suffering" meaning the toll road operators.

They are surely losing millions but they'll survive. Not so the little folk who keep complaining that they've received inadequate compensation – or none at all.

Leaving aside who is to blame, the need for top-down total action has been apparent all along. And found wanting.

In talking to the victims one line resonates: "We hope someone will do something soon."

Hope? That's what citizens do in an authoritarian regime. In a democracy electors demand.

For an outsider it seems that the government and companies involved have ruthlessly exploited the fine Javanese cultural traits of mutual respect, living in harmony and sharing hardships.

Instead of rushing to assist, declaring a state of emergency and giving these dirt farmers and petty traders the help they need, those with the money and power have urged patience.

And what about the human rights' lawyers, religious organizations and grassroots activists who love shaking fists and chanting slogans? A few put their hands up in the early days of the disaster, but no clear champions have emerged.

Why aren't we all outraged, demanding proper assistance for these most distressed and wronged people whose right to live secure lives has been ignored?

The principles of Pancasila include social justice, where all are given care by the State. When last checked there was no budget-airfare small print reading: Conditions Apply.

When some victims went to Jakarta they didn't draw the big aggressive crowds that supporters and defenders of the anti-pornography bill raised last year. There's been no fury of the masses, no nation-mesmerizing debate.

So what lesson has been learned in the past twelvemonth? That the livelihoods and future of the blameless poor of Porong are less important than titillating magazines and what women wear. Dirty villages rank lower than dirty books.

In brief - mud volcanoes aren't sexy.

(First published in The Sunday Post 27 May 2007)



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