Blog: Indonesia is always involved in world affairs

By Taufiq Hanafi.

Although I have been far from Indonesia for some time now, I still consider myself to have the right to regard the country that is 18,000 kilometres away as my source of information, entertainment, and, most importantly, solace. To compensate for the temporary separation and geographical challenge, I connect to my faraway home by means of Twitter—a virtual, fun space that KITLV also recently entered.

Not long ago, two pieces of news that really took me back to Indonesia were trending on Twitter, in particular because the news items were surreal but true—two characteristics often attributed to this country.

The first one was the news about the nationwide rumpus surrounding Kristen Gray, an American digital nomad who had recently been deported by the Indonesian government.

On 16 January, Gray wrote a Twitter thread describing her experience of moving to and staying in Bali. She had relocated there during the pandemic last year because there was a bad ‘energy’ about the States that she had to take a break from—a reference to a constant unpleasantness that she was subject to. She had gone broke and had had to live off her savings, all while paying an extremely high rent ($1300) for her LA studio and being unemployed while living in the US. Bali, she said, was the “perfect medicine” that helped her heal from traumas and some physical ailments. What’s more, she was able to live a luxury lifestyle, facilitated by the island at a much lower cost. Her rent was only a third of what she had been paying in LA and was for a much more spacious treehouse. Using her privileged language, she was even encouraging her fellow Americans/westerners to move to Bali for their own profit, turning the island into a lab for trial and error. To add insult to injury, she insinuated in one of her tweets that she had been running all this in a business-like manner.

This is where many Indonesian Twitter users lost it. They went berserk and doxed her online to the point that her account was temporarily suspended. The doxing ranged from serious irritation to funny threats of reciprocal mass immigration—invading sidewalks in Manhattan and turning them into a market place for selling kue putu, cilok, tahu bulat, and other somewhat unhygienic but extremely delectable Indonesian street foods. Some other Twitter users promised to march to the US and start replacing all the sitting toilets in every American house with squat toilets—a much healthier means of relief.

International online media and Twitter users immediately retaliated. Through their western lens, Indonesian indignation was seen as a blunt animosity towards Gray and the identity she is attached to, and also towards westerners at large. What they don’t understand is the power dynamic expats have over ordinary Balinese, which is surely going to make Bali unliveable for the ‘underprivileged’ Balinese. (You know, the same kind of power dynamic that also applies in research practices, academia, international journal publishing and whatnot.) They also don’t seem to understand that Gray was actually spreading the same bad energy that she had tried to escape from while still living in the US. In this regard, Indonesians, methinks, are rightfully upset.

Having said that, to be fair, blame also needs to be apportioned to the Indonesian government for promoting tourism growth to the detriment of all else. The Bali office of the Ministry of Law and Human Rights eventually deported Gray on the basis that she had committed immigration-related violations, but later added that she was also charged in relation to her sexual orientation, which they thought might have caused public unrest. Hwarakadah!

The second item: in the midst of a setback for Myanmar’s nascent transition to democracy as the result of the military seizing control, Aung San Suu Kyi being detained and a state of emergency being imposed, a surreal and supposedly unhistorical event took place. And Twitter, as always, was all over it.

A Burmese woman was recording her aerobics class in front of Myanmar’s parliament. As she did so, she unwittingly captured the first moments of the military junta arriving at parliament for a dramatic takeover of power in the background to her video. According to a report from the Guardian, the woman (a physical education teacher) had filmed many dance videos at the location over the previous 11 months. She reasoned that the parliament building formed the perfect backdrop and was in total harmony with the music she was dancing to.

What she hadn’t realized was that the song, Ampun Bang Jago (literally: Have mercy on me, Champ) is an overplayed EDM-like Indonesian-Manadonese song that is jammed with social criticism. This satirical up-beat song went viral throughout South East Asia in September 2020 thanks to the video-sharing app TikTok, and has been everyone’s earworm ever since. Here’s an excerpt just in case you want to sing along:

Ampun Bang Jago (Have mercy on me, Champ)
Yeah, bom bom bom bom (Untranslatable)
Yeah, bom bom bom bom (English translation not available)
Merasa paling terbaik tapi cara kalian licik (You feel superior, but are full of deceit)
Baku rampas tahta, so pasti itu yang dorang tuju (Seizing the throne; surely that’s what you’re going for)

Had she known what the lyrics were, she would have understood how much the song served as a foreshadowing—a literary device that gives a clue or hint as to a later development of the plot. She would have been prepared for what was about to occur in that parliament building in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw. And then, perhaps, Kyal Sin (19), Khin Myo Chit (7), the Burmese angels, and some 50 other innocent citizens would have dodged the mean, malicious military bullets.

All in all, near or far, actual or virtual, for whatever outcomes, Indonesia is always involved in world affairs.

Taufiq Hanafi is a PhD researcher at the KITLV, working on fiction as counter-history. He has been working as a teacher at the Faculty of Arts, Universitas Padjadjaran, Bandung, Indonesia.

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