The mid-60s was a time of tumult for much of Indonesia and in East Java the face-off between the communist party and the more conservative groups, the kiyais (ustaz) of the Nahdatul Ullama, the military and landowners, had been particularly brutal.
ON AN island as densely populated as Java where poverty is so widespread, the struggle to control land and water can be the difference between life and death.
In the district of Banyuwangi at the foot of Mount Raung and on the last day of my drive across East Java’s fertile Tapak Kuda (or the horse’s hoof) that extends down as far as Bali, I happened to stop and talk with an elderly farmer inspecting his recently harvested rice fields.
The setting was an impossibly beautiful — the volcano framing the vista in the far distance as a water-buffalo yoked to a plough worked the fields nearby.
It was only later that I was to get a sense of the unevenly matched and extremely bloody struggle that underpinned this bucolic rural scene. The drive from East Java’s capital Surabaya to Denpasar in Bali can be done in 10 hours flat if the traffic’s light.
I had taken three days dropping by provincial towns — Sidoarjo, Pasuruan, Probolinggo (that had a brand new Giant hypermarket), Jember and Banyuwangi where I was to take the ferry across the narrow straits at Ketapang and land on the island of Bali, at Gilimanuk.
Over the past three days, I’d stopped at countless rice fields and kebuns (or orchards) and talked with many farmers.
I’d listen as they described the crops they planted — where there was irrigation it would be rice, though occasionally and in order to rest the soil and allow the humus to recover they’d switch to corn or sugar cane.
Away from the plains and where water was less accessible it would be red onions, coconuts, chili, cocoa, coffee and even tea as we climbed ever higher. I even passed stands of teak, mahogany and fast-growing acacia.
Most, if not all of the men I talked to were farm labourers — paid some Rp15,000-30,000 (about RM6-RM12) a day and they did whatever they could: weeding the fields or cleaning up the irrigation ditches.
Landless, their lives followed the cycle of rice planting and trans-planting: the ninety-nine days leading up to the harvest, three times a year with November/December as the monsoons started being a key period of activity.
In certain cases they actually took over the entire planting process. Then they were like “partners” as it were with the landowners being rewarded with one sixth of the harvest. For the landless, life was tough and unrelenting. A simple illness or accident, a complication in childbirth could lead to tragedy and penury.
Extra cash and savings were in short supply. As one man told me in Jember: “Pak, there’s not enough money circulating in the peoples’ economy (ekonomi kerakyatan). I need money to send my children to school. They must be clever — not like their father. They must have qualifications so that they can get a job with a regular salary.”
These men (and women) scrambled to make the money to support their families. If they lived close enough to a big town they could at least open a stall or warung selling bakso and drinks or invest the Rp600,000-700,000 (about RM181-RM211) in a trishaw and hope for a fare.
Again and again, I noted that most of them – the wong cilik (or little people) were supporters of Megawati’s political party, PDIP.
They weren’t die-hard opponents of the incumbent President Susilo — they respected him, it was just that they felt more comfortable (maybe it was hope for something better?) with the daughter of the great orator and nationalist hero Soekarno, the leader of the poor masses — the fabled Marhaen.
However, Pak Tukimin (not his real name) the farmer from Banyuwangi was different. He wasn’t downtrodden. Whilst self-effacing he also possessed a certain calm confidence. He knew his worth and there were subtle signs: he wore a neat bomber jacket and spoke with an educated cadence (I later learnt that he had been a school-teacher).
Pak Tukimin was a landowner and the sawah in front of us was itself a hectare (worth conservatively some Rp300mil or RM90,000). He indicated quietly that yes, he did have other stretches of sawah and kebun.
As people said to me wherever I went, rice-fields with their three harvests a year (a hectare could produce up to six tonnes valued at between Rp13-18mil or about RM3,920-RM5,427 each harvest) guaranteed a comfortable old age.
“I was a school teacher. I would finish work by midday so I was always able to look after my fields in the afternoons. There’s enough money to educate your children. It’s all a question of being realistic — you can’t have the latest car, be going on holiday all the time or renovating your home.”
Later, sitting on the verandah of his 1930’s era, Dutch-style colonial home I could see what he meant. It was obvious that nothing about the house — the teak doors, the heavy arm chairs and the wrought-iron fittings — had been changed since its initial construction some seventy or so years before. Despite his obvious prosperity vis-a-vis his neighbours, Pak Tukimin’s extreme modesty would have softened the stark differences in wealth.
It was hard not to be drawn by Pak Tukimin’s apparent calm — the healthiness of his lifestyle (he was a robust seventy-year-old) and the way with which he had become so at one with the land.
However, something puzzled me. Was it the strange neatness of his home — the way nothing had been changed? Was it his elusive and yet still gentlemanly manner that somehow suggested a hidden tragedy or trauma? His silent sweet-faced wife?
Finally as we talked about the past, I began to sense why I’d felt a little troubled. The mid-60s had been a time of tumult for much of Indonesia and in East Java the face-off between the communist party, the PKI with its close affiliation to Soekarno and the more conservative groups, the kiyais (ustaz) of the Nahdatul Ullama, the military and landowners had been particularly brutal.
Hundreds of thousands had perished, wiped out in village after village as neighbours turned on one another. Inevitably, the conflict took on socio-economic hue with the landed and the more religious pitted against the landless.
As Pak Tukimin said quietly: “It was a terrible time — zaman edan. I was just a young man, a newly-trained school teacher with a wife and a baby boy. Either we killed or they killed us. We had no choice...”
On an island the size of England with a population of nearly 150 million, land — especially good, irrigated land was precious.
Ownership of land marked the boundary between destitution and survival. For all his calmness and equanimity, Pak Tukimin had defended his interests like everyone else:
“They knew who we were and we knew who they were. They flew the PKI flag. We used to gather here on this verandah first, before striking...”