Allure of signs hard to overcome

Earthquakes, storms and eruptions could be connected and traced to man’s strengths, and Merapi has been blowing hot and cold on the merits and strength of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama arrives today in an Indonesia that has just endured three natural disasters in quick succession: a massive flood in Wasior, West Papua, a tsunami on the Mentawai islands off the west coast of Sumatra and Merapi’s ongoing eruptions.

The tragedies have revealed the fragility of human existence as well as nature’s brute strength. And in Indonesia, nature is both abundant provider (witness the cornucopia of natural resources not to mention the richness of Java’s volcanic soil) and destroyer (2004 tsunami).

Moreover, Java’s 30 or so active volcanoes remind us at all times of the immense tectonic forces coursing and buckling just under the earth’s crust: the proverbial “ring of fire”.

Given the randomness and suddenness of nature’s interventions, the incredible fertility of the volcanic ash, as well as the vast number of people exposed to such danger (130 million alone on Java), is it any wonder that so much of Javanese culture appears to revolve around these predominantly silent but deadly sentinels?

Towering over Jogjakarta and its verdant ricefields, Merapi is among the most active and unpredictable of Java’s volcanoes.

A good example of its unpredictability and danger is encapsulated in the events of mid-2006. At the time, Merapi had started erupting. Everyone’s attention was focused on the lava flows and vast billowing clouds of ash and debris.

However, observers were confounded when on the morning of May 27, a murderous earthquake tore its way through the peaceful villages of Bantul – far to the south of Merapi – leaving the volcano to fall silent once again.

In such an environment, with nature so deadly and fickle, man has inevitably sought to create an overarching logic.

Myths and legends have grown up linking Merapi with the equally turbulent waters of the Indian Ocean – the waters that churn at the black sand beaches of Parangtritis.

Indeed, a metaphorical line was thought to exist, connecting Merapi to the north with the Sultan of Jogjakarta’s keraton (palace) and the seas, ending in the fervent embrace of Ratu Kidul, the queen of the South Seas.

As such, natural phenomena – earthquakes, storms and eruptions – could be connected and traced to man’s strengths, though more often to his foibles: poor leadership, immorality, greed or cruelty.

Certainly, Jogjakarta occupies a privileged place in Indonesian history – a status that far outweighs its size politically or economically. The city has a well-deserved reputation as a centre of opposition to the Dutch colonial powers.

Indeed, in the 1820s, a scion of the Jogjakarta keraton Prince Dipone­goro was to lead a doomed though heroic insurgency against the Dutch. And in the struggle for Independence after the Second World War, Jogjakarta became the fledgling republic’s capital when the Dutch seized Jakarta in January 1946.

Famously, the young foreign-educated Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX was to welcome the Republican forces with open arms.

He even turned over his keraton to what was to become Indonesia’s leading tertiary educational institution, University of Gadjah Mada, prompting one adviser to say: “the Revolution won’t break down the doors to Istana because they have already been opened wide”.

Later, in the Suharto era when questions of legitimacy were always being raised about the strongman’s leadership, his ability to manage these mystic forces was considered to be a major aspect of his wahyu, or power.

Indeed many saw Merapi’s eruptions in 1997 and 1998 as harbingers of his decline and inevitable fall.

Since then, Reformasi has altered the equation. Sovereignty now lies with the people. Mystic forces have evaporated in the face of 24-hour TV news coverage.

Men and women are voted into power, leaders retained and charlatans ejected. Science, the advent of technology and the overwhelming flows of real-time information have accelerated this shift.

Nonetheless, natural disasters have often shown the Indonesian people at their best as they rally around to support the victims.

For instance, Twitter and Facebook have been at the forefront of fundraising. The speed of aid provided for victims has improved tremendously, although it has been much slower on the isolated island of Mentawai.

Society is quickly mobilised and resources directed with eagle-eyed accuracy courtesy of social media networks.

The three tragedies have inevitably led to a flurry of insinuations about the merits and strength of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s leadership.

Most have been rightly brushed aside, though the President – all too aware of Jogjakarta’s iconic status – has shifted from the capital to oversee the relief efforts (there are at least 289,000 refugees) in person.

Established religions have sought to turn us away from superstition.

Still the allure of signs and symbols is hard to overcome and if nature continues to surprise us, there’s no doubt we’ll be drawn once again to interpretations laden with myths and legends as we gaze upward at the volcanoes that make Java so enthralling and yet unknowable.

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