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, July 29, 2013


The war UGM has to win                                        

Next month (August) along with millions of other Indonesians, Pratikno will return to his roots in the mudik ritual that concludes the Ramadhan fasting month.
In Dolok Gede, an isolated village west of Surabaya, he’ll pay respects to his relatives, catch up with old friends and neighbors, and bring news from the outside world. 
In Pratikno’s case it’s a local-lad-makes-good classic. Once he worked picking worms from tobacco leaves. Now his hands mould future generations of the nation’s best and brightest.
He’s rocketed from dirt floor cottage to panelled executive suite, a stellar journey. Yet his conscience remains troubled.
“I feel guilty because others may not have the same chances,” he said. “I experienced the equality of poverty and broke through.  Now the barrier is the inequality of prosperity.”
Last year political scientist Professor Pratikno was elected Rector of Yogyakarta’s internationally renowned Universitas Gadjah Mada.  This year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Adelaide’s Flinders University. Next year he may reprise his 2009 performance as TV moderator for the presidential candidates’ national debate.
So how does a boy whose family had little money and less influence scale the academic summit?  Having schoolteacher parents committed to learning was critical.
“Unlike our neighbors we had no land and no stock,” he said. “There was only one way out – through education.”
That was limited. Classes with 13 kids were in a joglo (traditional wall-free building) with no place for books. So they were stored in the family home of knowledge-famished Pratikno. 
Despite decades of reading texts and writing theses he still recalls a short story called Nimba air, mandi sendiri.  It was about a child drawing water from a well to wash alone. 
“We didn’t even have a well in our house,” he said, “Electricity wasn’t connected until I was studying for my PhD. My father hoped I’d return home to teach – but I wanted to keep going.”
Skip the years of boarding alone far from family, selling books with Chinese friends to make ends meet, excelling in maths, winning scholarships, studying overseas – at first in Britain then Australia.
Later setting up an NGO, the Asosiasi untuk Demokrasi dan Kesejahteraan Sosial (Association for Democracy and Social Welfare), pushing for transparency and accountability in politics and public administration.
Now the question: This man has lived struggle. For him it’s not a political slogan. So how will Professor Pratikno, 51, improve Indonesia’s oldest and largest public university and the lives of its 54,000 students?
“In the past student selection was biased towards candidates from Western Indonesia, urban areas and elite families,” he said.  “This is changing. Fortunately gender bias has gone; 55 per cent are women and they’re our top students.
“I’m worried about ensuring the bright poor from remote areas have entry.  We tried affirmative action.  It failed. We need other solutions.
“At UGM I want an egalitarian campus, a closeness between professors and students. We’re promoting an inter-disciplinary approach so students are mixed in different faculties and better facilities.
“The learning environment should be quiet and humble – there’s no place for arrogance.  Yogya is friendly, particularly when compared with Jakarta.  We are multicultural.
“On their first day a student should find a friend from another faculty and religion. We are building a dormitory where the boarders will be from all faiths. We must promote tolerance.”
That may not be so easy. Last year, Pratikno’s predecessor banned a book discussion by Canadian liberal Muslim Irshad Manji following threats from fundamentalists.
More recently Professor Pratikno ignored the advice of his security section and allowed a debate on West Papua.  Violence followed.
 “Today’s student generation is so much better than in the past,” he said. “They are clever, ambitious and much more confident.
“Yet student organizations can be training grounds for radicals. I tell my staff that in the contest of ideas we are competing with other ways of thinking.
“It will be ridiculous if we fail when we have the capacity to make our values acceptable. This is our challenge. We have to win this war.”
UGM wants to attract overseas students. Australia is encouraging young people to study in Asia to build regional knowledge.  It should be a win-win.  However Indonesian study visas are hard to obtain, another example of the gap between initiators and bureaucrats.
UGM is a major research university and Professor Pratikno wants more partnerships with industry, to ensure practical developments of campus scholars’ work.  Like Jakarta transport ticketing systems, new batik dyes, landslip alerts and flexible timbers for earthquake zone homes.
In other areas there’ll be an emphasis on publishing academic papers, marketing expertise and patenting inventions.
As part of UGM’s role in society it will send a ‘White Paper’ to presidential candidates asking questions about their vision for Indonesia.  “It will be an invitation with empathy,” said Professor Pratikno.
“UGM is the most neutral place to debate national issues and bring people together on serious matters like governance and corruption. 
“We are not seeing consistency in Indonesian political leadership. Academics, scientists and technologists have been excluded from the decision making – that has to change.  Too many departments operate apart and don’t coordinate.
“Indonesia has made a peaceful transition to democracy.  We are not Egypt.  But we still have a problem at the local level where there’s sometimes violence and a refusal to accept the democratic process.
 “How can we optimize our knowledge?” he asked. “How can we link not just with business but also with ordinary people, to help improve their lives, pioneering new ways of using technology?  Hi tech, but high touch.”
Emphasising the need for cross disciplinary approach is the promise of geo-thermal technology using the nation’s natural resources.  This is being hampered not by failings of science but community resistance and political divisions.
“We have the expertise to confront these challenges,” Professor Pratikno said.  “I see UGM as a tree offering shade and fruits to benefit all.”
And deep roots, right down to Dolok Gede.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 July 13)

Sunday, July 28, 2013


 Getting to half way - alone    
(from left) Andreas, Yohana, Yohanes Raharjo, Kelvin Boys, Mohammad Umar and Yonas outside the rumah singgah.

This month’s (July) spectacular breakout of terrorists from an overcrowded Medan jail highlights the need for prison reform. In East Java ex-convicts are doing it their way.  Duncan Graham reports from Malang:
The initiator of a daring social experiment to help former prisoners reintegrate into society, wants his muscular compassion model taken up in all provinces.
Next month (August), prison chaplain Andreas Nurmandala Sutiono, 56, heads to Kalimantan  to help establish another rumah singgah (half-way house) based on a successful venture in Malang.
Embedded in a kampong and run by the residents, it’s believed to be the only place of its type in Java outside one in Jakarta. 
Andreas (pictured below) said he’s not asking for government handouts.  “This has to be done by, for and with former prisoners,” he said. “We have to help ourselves.”
Long before he became a Protestant minister he was irreligious, addicted to gambling, consulting mountain seers for the right numbers in illegal lotteries. 

Like many addicts he ‘borrowed’ money, reasoning he’d repay when the numbers matched.  The sum was Rp 200 million (US$20,000) and the victim a tapioca processing factory in Lampung where Andreas worked in the finance section.
The rest of the story is depressingly predictable.  Wrong number, cash gone, jail for a year.  He was 31, married with two small children.
“I was lucky that my wife and family supported me,” he said.  “I learned so much in prison.  It’s a place where the barriers of religion don’t count for much.  When I got out I decided to help those I’d met.”
He studied for the ministry and by chance discovered a talent for cooking, particularly bakso (meat ball soup), and growing vegetables.  He’s now licensed to visit jails around the country to promote rehabilitation programs, particularly raising organic produce.
In this role he said he’d advised Australian drug smuggler Schapelle Corby in Bali’s  Kerobokan  prison,  and celebrity politician Angelina Sondah,  jailed for corruption.
The State provides some support for drug users’ rehabilitation – but that’s all, according to Andreas.  Half-way houses started overseas last century, some by penal reformers, others by governments trying to contain penitentiary costs.
Despite having no knowledge of such trends, Andreas understood the need. He persuaded a Surabayan man who’d also been behind bars to donate Rp 10 million (US$1,000).
Some was used to buy simple food-processing equipment.  Then the NIMBY (not in my back yard) effect struck.
“It was difficult,” Andreas said.  “The locals didn’t want ex-prisoners in their area.  But the community leader supported me and we kept talking.
“It helped that our people cleaned up the area. Some attend the mosque and are seen as polite and pious. We have an open house – anyone can come in and see what we’re doing. I’m here to help, not convert.”
A Muslim neighbor Yohana agreed to rent a tiny four-room cottage for Rp 3 million (US$ 300) a year.  That was three years ago.  Numbers fluctuate – but currently 13 men are using the facility. The experiment is now established and appears to be accepted.
At dawn mattresses are rolled up and the house becomes a small food factory.  Dough is turned into durian and orange-flavored noodles using fresh fruit.
Cooked meals are delivered to a local school and other bulk buyers. About ten kilograms of noodles are sold most days under the brand Mie Otaki, a boil-down of the words organik tanpa kimia (organic without chemicals).
 “Citizens don’t want to know about prisoners and have fixed opinions,” Andreas said.  “They change their minds once I take them inside jails.  The churches could do a lot more to help.”

Yohanes Raharjo, 46, (right)  used to be showroom motorcycle salesman before he took some of his employer’s cash.  After a year inside he re-entered the world with little chance of picking up his old career.
Andreas taught him noodle-making,  which he now does with easy skill hunched over an electric rolling and cutting machine, training others so they can find work.
Apart from his reintegration program, Andreas is also campaigning to save convicted murderers Ruben Sombo, 72, and his son Markus, 40, from firing squads.  The chaplain opposes capital punishment and believes the men are innocent.
  “Many ministers are good people preaching to good people – that’s easy,” he said. “Going from bad to good – that’s hard.”

(First published in The Sunday Post 28 July 2013)

Monday, July 15, 2013


Let’s just get over it                                                               
Australia and Japan have been mightily abusing each other.  The slander has been offensive, strident and public.
The issue involves trade and traditions, sovereign rights and national identity – volatile ingredients where one spark can ignite major international incidents.
Yet no credible observer has suggested the nasty accusations made by both sides in the International Court of Justice over Australia’s bid to stop Japanese whalers will lead to conflict.  Expect nothing more serious than harsh newspaper editorials.
There’ll be no greasing of M 16s. We’ll buy Toyotas; they’ll eat Queensland beef cooked with Pilbara gas. They’ll cuddle koalas and our love of sushi will be unstoppable.
This is what ‘mature relationships’ means.  Like a good cross-cultural marriage we can disagree and speak truths, but still share the same bed provided there’s mutual respect.
Will such a happy union ever exist between Australia and Indonesia? Not without some radical changes in both countries’ behaviour.
 Indonesia Country Strategy- Towards 2025 released by PM Kevin Rudd in Jakarta this month (July) glows with feel-good jargon and happy snaps of diplomats in batik.
The Strategy tells us that there are lots of Indonesians; they’re young, have cash and live nearby.  Also they use Facebook and Twitter. 
Important had Indonesia invented the technology, but mall rats rating boyfriends on smartphones is awesomely insignificant – though teens would disagree.
Commented The Jakarta Post editor Meidyatama Suryodiningrat: ‘the report often feels like a quick list of remedies that do little to address fundamental problems that will colour the relationship’. 
Of course we should get to know each other better.  What’s the problem? Here’s the Strategy’s mixed metaphor answer, highlighting why the issues are too important to be left to officials:
‘The challenge for governments will be to strengthen our bilateral architecture by deepening people-to-people engagement.’  
Mocking this thin document, pock-marked with platitudes, is easy, but detracts from a few fine advances.  Like the BRIDGE inter-school project (backed by private enterprise), and the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies programme, driven by independent academics.
Things the Strategy daringly says needs changing, like easier visa access and tempered travel warnings, could have been done years ago with a quick pen-flick.  The need has long been obvious.
‘Seeking to improve’ and ‘work to ensure’ are just wallpaper words covering a policy of hypocrisy and distrust.
We, the wong kecil, the ordinary folk not involved in trade and security, want closer friendships rooted in mutual understanding, not appeasement and bland talk – what Indonesians call basa-basi. 
We treasure being blunt. ‘Just get over it’ and ‘grow up’ are common responses when individuals clash, but know deep-down they have to co-exist.  It’s a trait with merits.
Here are some of the rocks the Strategy avoids, even while saying cultural differences need to be acknowledged.
Australians who don’t appreciate the iron grip on their neighbour’s psyche of the Unitary State, and the pride in a bloody revolution that overthrew a colonial power, will be forever doomed to misunderstand Indonesia.
Likewise Indonesians who don’t know there’s a primal fear in our DNA. It’s of descending Asian hordes, plus guilt over European boat people seizing a continent after violently dispossessing the locals. 
That’s why we let US marines use Darwin – something not mentioned in the Strategy.  Imagine a Chinese base in Kupang – a friendship gesture?
Indonesia is labelled secular, but reality is otherwise. Not all Indonesian Muslims, or Australian Christians, are moderate.  A few will say, and occasionally do, dangerous things, as in Northern Ireland. 
View in proportion and share the outrage.  Have we stopped going to Boston because it harboured mad bombers?
A functioning democracy has a robust media.  Indonesia’s press is the most free in Southeast Asia – check the anaemic Singaporean newspapers to prove the point.
Many comments will offend prickly nationalists overdosing on patriotism – Samuel Johnson’s ‘last refuge of the scoundrel’. Freedom of expression isn’t just for us – they have equal rights to sledge.
If Indonesians don’t like our simplistic views of the way they do things, then offer alternatives, like graft-free projects, altruistic politicians, and respect for the rule of law.
If we don’t want to be seen as godless, arrogant Kuta cowboys, then the solution is in our hands.
Wicked tests loom: Brain-dead Australians will get caught with drugs.  Indonesia does its laws, its way. We won’t like the penalties.   Too bad.
We’ll give sanctuary to West Papua separatists and promote their cause. Indonesians will be outraged.  Stiff cheese.
The Strategy quotes Indonesian students in Australia citing the proverb; ‘If we don’t know you, we don’t care about you.’ Check Indonesian driver behaviour for the truth of that adage.
But that’s not us. Our Judaeo-Christian heritage has given us opposite values of which we should not be ashamed.
 Which is why we agitate for the human rights of West Papuans.  If the students haven’t learned this, then they should ask for their money back.
Politicians everywhere claim probity and wisdom.  Then they speak and we learn otherwise.  Anticipate goading on either side of the Arafura Sea ahead of elections in both nations.  Treat trash as trash, delivered for venal purposes, and move on.
In 1998 Indonesians threw out a dictator and took on democracy.  It was one of history’s most impressive transitions of power, achieved without outside help and little bloodshed. 
Had it all gone wrong (consider Egypt and Syria) we might have been so flooded with refugees that Australia would now be South Java.
The Strategy says Indonesia is strong, confident and mature.  So why continue aid? We’ve just trashed $100 million on a failed replanting project in Kalimantan’s peat bogs, money better spent on scholarships. More than 10,000 have been given – fantastic.   Add a couple more zeros for real impact.
Don’t anticipate an Australia Country Strategy coming from Jakarta, one city with more than half our continent’s population. Former President BJ Habibie once allegedly described neighbour Singapore as ‘just a little red dot’ on the map. If so, then we’re just an ochre blob.

(First published in On Line Opinion, 15 July 2013)


Sunday, July 14, 2013


Curtain raiser for Soekarno's anti-Malasia campaign

For proof that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron, The Brunei Revolt is your book.
It’s supposed to be a serious account of insurgents rising against the sultan’s rule in the former tiny British protectorate clinging to the North Borneo coast.  The rebels, influenced and maybe directly supported by Indonesia, failed miserably.
The brief encounter that cost 55 lives with almost 3,300 men taken prisoner was a curtain raiser for Sukarno’s Konfrontasi campaign against the creation of Malaysia.
The Brunei experience should have served as a warning to military adventurers driven by ideology. The Indonesian military’s heart was never totally in the fight; once Sukarno had been deposed by Soeharto, Konfrontasi quietly disappeared.
This is the sort of history that academics and old colonialists enjoy but the rest of us find tedious.  Do we really care how many rounds a Bren gun fires or how the Mark V .303 performs?
Yet this book is full of laugh-out-loud moments as author Nick van der Bijl retells the farce and underlines what most of know by instinct – that armies succeed through happenstance rather than masterful planning.
This was a quality in short supply in late 1962. Although rumors had been rolling, the British only found facts when an old woman asked the police to release her grandson from the army.
When asked ‘which army?’ she produced his green uniform complete with the buffalo insignia of the pro-Indonesian North Kalimantan National Army (TNKU).  The police then found most supplies of green cloth had sold out in the markets.
There were dozens of other indicators that trouble was marching. Soekarno was becoming more belligerently anti-Western. The 14,000 Indonesians working in plantations were probably communist sympathisers. But intelligence was either not shared or ignored.
So senior officers and some troops headed back to Singapore for Christmas, only to hear that rebels in Brunei had attacked strategic buildings and kidnapped oil company employees and administrators.  The troops were rapidly retrieved from their golf clubs, parties and families.
Many thought the alert a training exercise or a mistake – a view reinforced when a commander was told to fly to Brunei but given a map of Kuching by an intelligence officer.
When a proper map was found in Brunei it was aligned west, not north.
Another soldier, learning how to use an unfamiliar weapon while flying fired four shots through the fuselage.
Men loading a Land Rover were told to drain the fuel tanks – yet the vehicle had to be ready for instant action once the plane landed.
A warning banner designed for riot control was discarded because it was often unfurled upside-down causing laughter rather than fear, or got blown away.
The silliness wasn’t limited to one side.  TNKU troops stalking a police post stumbled into a drunken Chinaman in the darkness whose abuse woke the defenders.
When British aircraft approached a TNKU controlled airfield they met no resistance.  The rebels saw the colors red and white on the tail and assumed the plane was Indonesian.
Insurgent vehicles identified themselves by flashing headlights three times – a code quickly used by the British to lure the rebels into ambushes.
Further south in Jakarta the left-leaning author Pramoedya Ananta Toer called the British action ‘reprehensible’.  However the West applauded the speedy crushing of a pro-communist movement at a time when it was feared all Southeast Asia might fall.
The TNKU uprising, led by A M Azahari who had trained as a vet in Java and fought against the Dutch, failed for multiple reasons.  The men were poorly armed (many just had staves and shotguns) and ambivalent about their cause. 
A people’s revolution it was not.  The masses did not arise. Confronted by disciplined Gurkhas hundreds surrendered. 
When the guns stopped firing, attention shifted to Sarawak, Sabah and Peninsula Malay where British Commonwealth troops fought communist insurgents and Indonesian invaders.  The Sultan of Brunei rejected the opportunity to join the new Malaysia and opted for independence, though this wasn’t consolidated till 1984.
He could do this because of vast oil reserves. This tiny authoritarian and charmless Islamic kingdom of only 400,000 people has a per capita income of around US $50,000 (Rp 500 million), and relies on Indonesians to do most of the manual work.
Author van der Bijl, a former British intelligence officer, gets some things wrong.  He calls Indonesia’s first president ‘Ahmed Sukarno’ and describes the Indonesian government as ‘communist’.  He seems more at home with firearms than politics.
Although there’s ample military minutia to excite armchair warriors, these details can be zipped past with no loss of storyline.
Compensating is an occasional droll line.  An officer in Singapore tried to requisition a Comet ferrying soldiers and their families back to UK for Christmas and use it in Brunei.  Writes the author:   ‘RAF movements staff were not entirely in favor of his proposal.’
He cross references to the 1982 Falklands War, which he has also researched, and the way mistakes made and lessons learned in Borneo impacted in the South Atlantic, though the environments and politics were entirely different.
More significant is that the jungle warfare experiences of the British were useful when the US and its allies started fighting in Vietnam.  However looking at the final result in the former Indochina, it’s clear some military intelligence didn’t translate.

The Brunei Revolt                                                                                                                   
 By Nick van der Bijl                                                                                                       
Published by Pen and Sword, 2012                                                                                           222 pages
(First published in The Sunday Post 14 July 2013)

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Khusnul Nurdiana

A hardscrabble life     

In the clouds above sit the business tsars, but atop the media mountain are the newsmakers.
On the foothills below squat journalists, recording the triumphs and misfortunes of us all, and the fancies and foolishness of those on high.  Sometimes we write of their good deeds and noble aspirations; mostly we report their villainy.
Further down in the steaming floodplains where the ink river ends, grind the smallest yet most essential cogs in this mighty industry:  The peddlers of print.
If Khusnul Nurdiana (Ana), 37, and the thousands of other newspaper sellers across the archipelago fail to flog our words, then the whole edifice will collapse.
Ana knows how tough her task.  Seven days a week she stands at a junction in Malang, East Java, most daylight hours, hoping passing motorists see the screaming headlines and stop to buy.
“If there’s a big news event then I might make Rp 50,000 (US$5) a day profit,” she said.  “Normally it’s half that sum.
“Politics seems to attract, then football and the economy. I sell near a university and a rich suburb.  Scandals and artists seem less important – they can get that from television. They can also get their news from the Internet.
 “I read the papers and discuss the news with customers.  I like to talk, express my concerns and opinions.  That surprises some people.”
It wouldn’t if they knew her story, a classic Indonesian tale of crippled talent and endless struggle.  Her father, a pedicab driver in Surabaya, died when she was three.  Her mother worked in a plastics factory.
Bright and ambitious Ana won scholarships that took her through to high school.  She loved English and had private lessons, but is now rusty after years of little use.
She wanted to teach in rural schools (“so I can encourage village children to be educated”), but her mother needed money for her other two children.
So Ana’s dreams were crushed by hardscrabble reality long before her potential could be realised.  She sold cosmetics in a mall, unafraid to chat with foreigners and use her language skills.  Later she worked in a Gramedia bookshop where her thirst for knowledge could be slaked a little.
Then came the economic crisis.  She lost her job, then found another in Malang.  She married and has two children. 
“I will wash clothes, clean shoes, do anything,” she said.  “It was stressful. I tried selling fruit salads, but because we don’t have a fridge the unsold food rotted.
“So I then sold newspapers outside shops while carrying my daughter, but got moved on.  Then I found an ideal place outside the gates of the PLN (Perusahaan Listrik Negara - State electricity company) office.
“The manager gave permission provided I kept the site clean.  He also said no-one else had survived there for more than three months.  I’ve been selling for more than eight.”
Before sunup the family of Dad, Mom and Afifah  (daughter Alisah, 7, stays with relatives) rides a motorbike ten kilometers from their rented home to Ana’s patch under a sono (rosewood) tree.
Before husband Agus Sutianto, 30, heads to work in a local supermarket’s fruit section he retrieves a crude timber frame hidden behind a building and ties this to the trunk with twine.  Ana goes to an agent to buy newspapers and magazines, which are then pegged for display.
Ana is not alone.  Afifah, 3,  plays with a radio or looks at the children’s comics.  These show wide-eyed princesses floating in a fantasy land of towering castles and pale-skinned youth, glowing with promise.
The tabloids feature ‘celebrities’ flaunting their baubles, breasts and spoilt kids.  Wherever this world of frippery and fads exists, it’s as distant as Mars from the crush and toil of Jalan Danau Sentani Raya.
The site may be ideal for sales, offering motorists a long view and space to stop, but it’s no place to park a kid. There’s little shade. Burning rubbish and car exhaust fumes set pedestrians coughing.  The background noise is as shrill as some covers, with horror and haunting stories the loudest.
The upside is access to a PLN toilet.  The negative is staff thinking they have the right to read without paying.
Ana wants to buy a lock-up rombong (small shed), like one selling cigarettes just two meters downroad.  Here little Afifah would be safe and snacks could be sold.
A two-meter long rombong would cost about Rp 5 million (US$ 500).  A cheaper alternative would be a kaki lima (five feet – a mobile food stall) for a third of the price, but no shelter from sun and rain.
All the couple’s earnings (Agus gets Rp 1.5 million (US$150) a month) go on paying bills so advancement opportunities are limited. 
Ana doesn’t grieve for what might have been. “I wanted to go to University, but how was that ever possible?” she said. 
“Now I want the best for our daughters.  I want them to be independent, not exploited.  With a good education you can get knowledge that will serve till you pass away.
“I want honesty in government and transparency in decision making. I want to know how the rich get their money and where the taxes go. I used to support the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Prosperous Justice Party – PKS), but not now we know the leaders are corrupt.
“I’m not into escapism. I’m not interested in entertainment, gossip and sinetron (soap opera) news– everyone has their headaches.
“All Indonesian children should have the best education opportunities, wherever they live.  The government’s job is to help the poor and distribute wealth fairly, but we should also be prepared to change.
“Religion is important to me. It should be about tolerance. Terrorism is not Islamic teaching.
“We have the will and conviction to do better.  I don’t accept that our destiny is written and cannot be altered. We must believe that things can be better.
“I know that God helps those who help themselves.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 8 July 2013)


Music for tolerance     

Her age is right, she’s keen and all is ready.  But this union can only be consummated by lovers of gamelan.
Last night (Sat 6 July) the 18th annual International Gamelan Festival opened in Yogya at the Plaza Ngasem with performers from Banyuwangi, Yogyakarta, the US and Singapore.
Today (Sun 7 July) the largest overseas contingent of 25 players from New Zealand, and three other groups from Yogyakarta, will hit the gongs and strike the metalophones.   It is the first time that Plaza Ngasem, the refurbished traditional bird market with a 300-person capacity, has been used for public events.

A Practise for perfection: From left (in jilbab) Sekar Setyaningrum, Desyana Wulani Putri and Sari Utami Haryaningtyas.

“The theme this year is ‘ready and has to be married’,” said architect and organizer Sari Utami Haryaningtyas.  She has been involved with the festival for the past 12 years. 
“I’m glad that other countries enjoy our music – I just wish more young Indonesians shared our love of the gamelan instead of Western pop. Globalization has changed the mindset of Indonesians.
“Although Yogya is the heart of Javanese culture many students come here from across the country and don’t know or understand the gamelan.
“I fell in love with it when I was a child and learned how to play at school. We used to hear gamelan on the radio all the time – now it’s rare and it’s Lady Gaga on the airwaves.”
Her fellow volunteer, musician and dancer Desyana Wulani Putri, is the daughter of the late Sapto Raharjo, the famous Javanese musician who founded the festival.
“My father used to say that the spirit of the gamelan is not an object, but unity,” she said.
“The instruments are just the medium. What we do and make together is important. The development of art and culture can be done through the marriage of forms and ideas.  This festival is helping to maintain my father’s vision.”
Academic researcher Sekar Setyaningrum, who has been helping with the festival for 13 years, said gamelan players had to listen to each other and work as a team. 
“There are no individual stars and no director,” she said.  “We have to be tolerant.  Everyone is equal. The spirit of the gamelan should be in our daily lives, in our blood and as a nation.
“I’m not worried about foreigners stealing our music.  It can’t be separated from Indonesian culture and that’s not easily understood.” Traditionally a gamelan orchestra had at least 42 players.  However the costs involved have forced groups to slim down.
There are now gamelans active in at least 35 countries overseas.  Some, like the NZ School of Music’s two groups, Balinese and Javanese, are supported by universities and Indonesian embassies keen to promote indigenous culture.
Budi S Putra, director of the NZ Gamelan Padhang Moncar, has been in NZ 16 years.  He said this was the fourth time Kiwis had performed in Indonesia.  He rejected the idea that foreigners playing gamelan in Java was like taking apple pie to Americans.
“I always tell audiences that we come here because we love the culture,” he said.  “But I also tell them not to ignore their own music, but to keep it alive.”
NZ ethnomusicologist Professor Jack Body, who studied in Yogya as a young man, said the gamelan was being played it at least 35 countries overseas with hundreds of orchestras in the US alone.
“No self-respecting campus would be without a gamelan,” he said.  “Pak Sapto helped make it international because he was such a good networker.”
Musicians from Malaysia, the Netherlands, Japan, France, Australia and the UK have attended past festivals but the economic crisis in Europe and the proximity to the fasting month of Ramadhan had restricted travel.
Another factor has been the wealth of other cultural activities underway in Yogya this month, particularly the opening of the Maritime Culture arts exhibition last night (Sat 6 July) that is attracting buyers and critics from abroad.
Gamelan performances in Yogya tonight (Sun) start at 7.30 pm and entry is free.  “We don’t want sponsors telling us what to do,” said Sari.  “This is a community event with new works being performed.”
The NZ gamelan will go on to perform in Solo between July 10 and 14 (including a street show) and then to Malang and Bali.

First published in The Sunday Post 7 July 2013