Jakarta, Indonesia (part 3)

In the last of my posts on Jakarta, I want to briefly comment on both the help provided me by Dr. Jo Santoso while I was there, and the immediate neighborhood of my hotel, which became the site of a terrorist attack in January 2016. Dr. Santoso is the head of the graduate program in urban planning at Jakarta’s Tarumanagara University (UNTAR), and has connections with research centers on urban development in Singapore and Europe. A mutual friend at the University of British Columbia put me in touch with him before I left for Jakarta in 2012, and he very graciously took me on a tour of the city, and gave me a good deal of insight into how Jakarta has developed as a city and how this relates to the patterns of everyday life for the majority of Jakartans. I also recommend Jo’s 2011 book The Fifth Layer of Jakarta. It can be hard to find but he very graciously gave me a copy and it provides a wonderfully detailed history of Jakarta’s development in relation to the quotidian uses of urban space by everyday people in the city. He strongly advocates for a more just, people-centered form of urban planning in Jakarta and Indonesia more generally, that builds on the social, economic, and physical networks that thrive in the city’s kampong districts, though these have largely been relegated to “slum” status in contemporary urban planning, which in turn has built on capitalist perspectives on and demands of urban space and enforced a drive to evict poorer residents and clearance in favor of large investors and developers.

Two very different neighborhoods in particular stand out for me in the places Dr. Santoso took me. One was Menteng, a neighborhood of larger western-style houses and some embassies located near the main artery of Jl. Thamrin and centered on a lovely park called Taman Situ Lembang. The area is, and has long been, home to a large number of ex-pats (so foreign diplomats and businesspeople who are not necessarily staying permanently in Indonesia) and wealthier Indonesian officials and businesspeople. Barack Obama and his family lived there for a couple years in his youth, and the school he attended makes note of this. Homes are large and many are considered of historical value, and the area is full of large trees, which can be quite welcome in the tropical heat and the vast expanses of concrete that mark a lot of Jakarta’s built environment. It is expensive and exclusive, a neighborhood designed for and by colonial administration, and has maintained its relative position in Jakarta as a western-style urban enclave over the last century or more. The wider, open spaces around the homes, the design of the homes themselves, including the gated security on most of them, the public park and green space, all signal that this area is quite different from other parts of Jakarta because exclusivity and colonial administration are designed into the built environment itself.

The other neighborhood we visited was Glodok, the main Chinatown of Jakarta. This neighborhood was laid out as a network of small laneways lined largely by three- and four-story buildings, with streets much narrower but also livelier than the broader tree-lined boulevards of Menteng, and occupied by loads of small vendors and carts. As I mentioned in a previous post, the design here, with narrow streets and a density of mid-height buildings housing both residential and commercial uses, creates shade and channels breezes. The neighborhood centers on the oldest Chinese Taoist temple in Indonesia, the Wihara Dharma Bhakti (sometimes also called the Jin De Yuan), which dates back to the 17th century, highlighting the longstanding presence of a Chinese diaspora community in the city. Dozens of people were there in the middle of the day when we visited, buying incense and praying among the beautiful deep red columns and dragon carvings. Around the corner is a Catholic church dating to the 1950s, the Gereja Santa Maria de Fatima, designed in Chinese architectural style. The bustle and street-focused character of the neighborhood was a contrast with the quiet, gated homes of Menteng, and Dr. Santoso explained that Glodok, and ethnic Chinese Indonesians more generally, were targeted by rioters in the financial crisis that hit Indonesia in the late 1990s and ended three decades of authoritarian rule under Suharto’s New Order regime. Many members of the Chinese community are leading traders and businesspeople, and Chinese diaspora communities across Southeast Asia are often important nodes in international networks of trade, commerce, and finance. Such communities often remain relatively outside the mainstream of the host society and, because of their outsize economic role and international linkages, become targets of violence and riots in times of economic crisis. The Guardian ran a photo essay on the aftermath of the Glodok riots in 2016, and the lasting impact on the Chinese community in Jakarta and the neighborhood, parts of which remain boarded up and largely abandoned after many ethnic Chinese fled in the wake of the violence. Both Menteng and Glodok are very much integral parts of Jakarta’s urban fabric, though relatively unique, both within the city and in and of themselves, because of their specific and localized historical origins, development, and designs. It was valuable for me to have Dr. Santoso’s detailed explanations of these histories and the built environment, and also his guidance through the street vendors and menus of the places we ate along the way!

Finally, I wanted to mention the immediate neighborhood where I stayed during my three weeks, in large part because Jakarta is not really a ‘tourist’ destination, but there is a relative concentration of tourists and tourist infrastructure in the area around the intersection of Jl. Thamrin and Jl. Wahid Hasyim. I stayed in a small hotel there (it seemed to be me and lots of Chinese businessmen, I spotted no other western tourists coming in or out of the hotel), but just to the east and south are malls, hotels, western restaurants (e.g., Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Chili’s – I tried all three, and regretted my Chili’s experience immediately and for a long time after), and a large shopping center known as Sarinah (Jakarta’s oldest). There is also a large bus stop and transfer at this intersection, so it is often clogged with heavy traffic as cars and buses wait at red lights and motorbikes weave in between. Just north are several national government buildings, including the National Palace, the American and other embassies, and the large Merdeka Square and National Monument. On January 14, 2016, several attackers who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State attacked the Starbucks at the corner of Thamrin and Wahid Hasyim, as well as a police post nearby. I spent many hours in the Starbucks that was the primary target of the January 2016 attack – when it’s approaching 100 F outside with high humidity, and you have to remain more or less ‘fresh’ for meetings with UN or embassy officials, but can’t sit in your hotel any longer, reading the news and having a cold frappuccino at the nearby Starbucks is a good option. They have free wifi and AC at least. It was always full of foreigners, but staffed by locals and some of the customers were also Jakartans, working in nearby buildings or getting a coffee before going to a movie in the attached multiplex cinema.

At least seven people died in the attack, including four of the attackers, and almost two dozen were injured, according to various news reports at the time in the Jakarta Post, the BBC, and ABC (the Australian media outlet, not the American one). While the New York Times quoted one Australian expert assessing the attack as “almost a complete failure” carried out by “amateurs,” and reported that daily life quickly went back to normal for Jakarta, most western news coverage places the attack in a larger narrative about Jakarta’s place in Indonesia as an increasingly cosmopolitan point of connection for the country with the rest of the world, about Indonesia being the world’s largest Muslim-majority country but also a largely secular state with little appetite or patience for Islamist extremism, and about this being the latest in a series of attacks inspired and carried out by Islamist radicals and extremists. But what is the connection between the January 2016 attack, which was poorly executed by locals who swore allegiance to a distant force with which they likely had little real or direct contact, and movements like Jemaah Islamiya (JI), which was linked much more directly to international terror and political networks and carried out high-profile bombings of western targets in Bali and Jakarta with multiple casualties? The Indonesian state cracked down hard on JI, eliminating or capturing much of its senior leadership, while for most Indonesians, secular governance is the norm and there appears to be little interest in the radical or extremist movements that recruit online and which have motivated or at least inspired attacks in France, the US, and the UK in recent years. Yet this is the narrow framing in most western stories. The attack signals the potential inroads of Islamic State in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and in Southeast Asia more generally, and should be seen in light of the longer history of Islamist terror in the country, directed at western targets. Indonesia looms large as a front in the war on terror for both the US and Australia, and this global conflict shapes how policymakers, analysts, media, and ultimately the wider public envisions and imagines this place. Little else is said about the nuances of Indonesian governance and religious life, or about the struggles for decentralization and democratization during and after Suharto’s regime, and the widespread support for extralegal and often violent forms of making and keeping order that marked Indonesia in the colonial and New Order periods. But these are all important for understanding the scalar and other geographic connections we may try to make between an attack on a single Starbucks at a busy corner in one part of Jakarta and other processes like the extension of international criminal or terrorist networks, promoting national security and the policing of busy urban spaces, or the uneven integration of those urban spaces and people into a global economy.

Due to travel, this may be my last post, save a few pictures accompanied by sparse details, for a few weeks. But hopefully I’ll have some new ideas and places to write about later in April.