Of protests and rubber pellets

26 May 2019 / Karim Raslan

NIGHTFALL in Jakarta is much earlier than in Kuala Lumpur. The break of fast is at 5.47pm and for Dita Hidayatunnisa, a plump but animated 27-year-old teacher cum administrator from Bekasi, the lengthening shadows made her and her friends suddenly more aware of the change in the mood on Jalan MH Thamrin, the broad six-lane avenue, immediately outside the Bawaslu (Election Supervisory Agency) building in the centre of the city.

“The people around us were suddenly different. They weren’t just shuffling around like the rest of us. They seemed to have a purpose.”

Here she makes a sharp hand gesture as if she’s pushing something forward. Her manner is clear and concise. “They are wearing badges calling for the election to be rejected, carrying banners and sharpened bamboos.”

As Dita explained to Team Ceritalah, she and her gang of 15 friends had arrived by train much earlier in the day – on May 22, the day of the worst rioting. A die-hard supporter of the controversial former Kopassus general and presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, Dita had been drawn by claims (as yet unproven) of electoral fraud.

Dita is forthright: “If there wasn’t cheating, Prabowo would have won by up to 53%.”

She even has video evidence to support her views, which needless to say have been refuted by the Election Commission that declared incumbent President Joko Widodo (or Jokowi) as victor with over 55% of the votes, winning by a margin of well over 17 million.

Given the high stakes, Dita and friends made careful preparations on the morning of the 22nd – they wore face-masks and had smeared their cheeks with toothpaste, (which they believed would help in the event of teargas).

The normally bustling area in front of the squat five-storey Bawaslu building was oppressively hot and desultory at midday. There were a few scattered groups of police in riot gear and a handful of protesters listening to a street orator.

Dita remembers cheering when a speaker called for a further investigation into the alleged deaths of hundreds of polling station workers during the election count. As the evening approached, Dita noticed that the crowds had grown and that the newcomers seemed less friendly and more intimidating.

Sensing the tension in the air, she and her friends decided to leave the demonstration. By 7pm they were waiting for the train to take them back to Bekasi. For the rest of evening Dita’s WhatsApp was bombarded with hundreds of texts, pictures and links of the chaos that unfolded that night.

She – like many others – was left wondering how a demonstration that had started off so peacefully could have turned so quickly into a full-blown riot leaving hundreds injured and eight dead.

Dita’s everyday life isn’t quite so dramatic. She works at a private school cum tutoring centre founded by her father. It’s not much to look at – a few rooms in a small single-storey terrace house on a nondescript lane. It’s a family affair and her sister works alongside her. She likes to feel that they are providing educational opportunities for the people who’ve ‘fallen through the cracks’ – from security guards to school dropouts. The fees are extremely reasonable (only IDR100,000/RM29.11) just one-third of the cost of a similar course at a government school.

Running the school has been a hand-to-mouth business. To date she’s been unable to access government funds. Dita also believes that the Jokowi administration has neglected education and she is personally appalled by the ‘liberal’ ideas that she reads about online.

Her family (as with many from Bekasi and West Java) are longtime Prabowo fans. She likes his firm (tegas) public persona and she is convinced that he’d be able to overcome the republic’s racial and religious polarisation. Needless to say she’s also become a huge fan of the youthful and energetic vice-presi-dential candidate, Sandiaga Uno. For her, Ahok (Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the jailed but recently released ex-governor of Jakarta) was a polarising figure and it’s this divisiveness – to her mind – that’s far more damning if not dangerous than his supposedly blasphemous comments.

She feels that Jokowi doesn’t view people like herself (opposition supporters) as “his” people. But still she’s also taken aback by the gullibility of those who believe whatever they read online, “It distresses me and my friends every time we read about somebody getting easily provoked with an obviously fake piece of news.”

So as the capital returns to normalcy (though Jalan MH Thamrin in front of the Bawaslu building remains closed), the challenge of healing the nation will haunt Jokowi’s administration. The forces unleashed by the long and arduous campaign as well as social media will never be entirely becalmed. Certainly any attempt at bridging the divide will face considerable obstacles. The conflicting narratives are diametrically opposed. For example, Dita is more shocked by all the reports of alleged police brutality while those on the Jokowi side have praised what they see as police restraint.

Is she confident that there can be a reconciliation?For Dita the best she can manage is to “legowo” – a Javanese expression that captures a sense of passive acceptance, albeit with an open heart.