How the mores of Indonesia’s largest ethnic group shape its politics

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NOTOH A BAT in the bush just like the Javanese, an ethnic group from the most populated island of Indonesia. Chronicling their mores in 1960, Clifford Geertz, an American anthropologist, noted that proposals for arranged marriages often begin with the groom’s father visiting the bride’s family and saying something as vague as, “The frost in the morning means rain in the evening”. More metaphors ensue as the conversation slowly winds to the point. The future in-laws then retaliate with false protests, saying that their daughter is unworthy. This ritual is repeated several times. When the bride and groom finally meet, direct eye contact is avoided and no one talks about the wedding.

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Indonesia is a vast archipelago with hundreds of ethnic groups spread over approximately 13,000 islands. But the Javanese dominate, with 95 million inhabitants, or 40% of the population. There are many peculiarities in the Javanese culture, from shadow plays to tempeh, a fermented soybean meal. The Javanese language is the 12th most spoken language in the world. Javanese traditional religion mixes Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. To this day, the Sultan of Yogyakarta, a Javanese royal, throws nail and hair clippings into the sea and a volcano every year to appease the gods.

Most notably, the Javanese have a distinct label. “We are a polite people who don’t like conflict,” says Prabandari, a Javanese from Yogyakarta, considered a center of Javanese culture. His friend, a Javanese businessman, says he finds the arguments so distasteful that he can’t bring himself to bargain. Asih, a Javanese teacher, complains that she is expected to “cover up” her true thoughts. Geertz tells the story of a husband who wanted a divorce but found it inappropriate to say so. Instead, he inflamed an old feud between his wife and a villager and, without saying anything directly, did not take his wife’s side. She soon left him, in what he considered a triumph of politeness.

Javanese are also spoken softly. Ellia Wamese, a student from Maluku, an eastern province, remembers giving a presentation to a group of Javanese. Although he spoke at what he considered a normal volume, they believed he was furious and screaming.

Java plays a disproportionate role in economics and politics. It is home to Jakarta, the capital, and generates 58% of GDP. Party bigwigs tend to be Javanese. Their aversion to conflict helped create a parliamentary system run by consensus rather than majority rule. Cross-party committees shape laws and the budget. This means that law-making can be tediously slow and often ends in an unclear compromise.

Political parties have only the vaguest of ideologies and tend to line up behind the president of the day. The coalition supporting Joko Widodo, the current president, known as Jokowi, is likely to win 60% of the seats in the new parliament. His predecessor managed 75%. And ahead of his re-election in April, Jokowi was considering an alliance with Prabowo Subianto, who ran against him in 2014 and ended up running against him this year. This would have eliminated the need to hold elections.

This week, after the official election results were released, Mr Prabowo’s supporters staged protests in which at least six people died. This mess, too, is very Javanese: what better way to show that a ruler is illegitimate than to prove that he cannot preserve peace and harmony?

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Polite and Powerful”

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