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What a garden does to people MALANG - However we approach the end of the year, it may be clear that my garden here in the tropics still looks fairly green. Some of you may have been following that via internet and probably you enjoyed the always green garden. However green is relative, when I don't give extra water during the dry season, that green will be gone pretty quick.

There are always people to be found who think they have to complain about everything that is strange to them or what they possibly don't have themselves. My garden was named a purely colonial idea. I can tell you that I'm not a colonial and my family has not even set a foot here during the Dutch colonial period. Why that relation is made with my hobby is not clear to me. I don't expect to get a clear answer as well, because that kind of persons have little or no knowledge about the way I spend my time. Maybe that's for the best as well, because such people among your 'friends' doesn't make you happy as well.

For now my garden can still be seen on the internet, amongst them on two forums, in two languages. Always good to know for those who like to see it. However I simply had a lack of time over the recent weeks, it is about time to put some new pictures online there as well. With the arrival of the wet season the garden starts to grow and flower in much more places. But this is all just on the edge of what I wanted to write about this time. It can get a whole lot worse than these childish complaints from some people.

A garden in Malang

At the end of November I was in Malang to arrange some formalities. As usual when I visit Malang, I have the privilege to spend my time with a friend there. That saved me time to look for a hotel in the first place, but the value is the fact that this person already lives in Indonesia for decades now and so he is closely watching the Indonesian society, maybe sometimes undesired, but that's how it usually goes here.

Residents living around the garden had closed of the garden with ropes and signs earlier that week. The residents also put a banner there with calls of protest from the community.
Residents living around the garden had closed of the garden with ropes and signs earlier that week. The residents also put a banner there with calls of protest from the community.

Just before a tropical downpour started over the city of Malang, I was asked if I wanted to join in to observe a location just a little while away in Malang. Something took place there and my friend had been informed about that before. At that time it still looked like something small, but the situation had escalated rapidly after that. Not that he is a police officer or something, far from that. In fact he was nothing more than an observer, someone that could give attention to a certain thing and bring it to the media if he would. Always good to know if you want to give some attention to something. This story however would end differently.

It wasn't the countries botanical garden, but it was in fact a small city garden in the middle of one of the residential areas of Malang, designed by architect Thomas Karsten. A model of a residential area was copied a few times and was originally designed to hold a melting pot of residents, however it may be clear that the 'local' population could not afford houses like these. The city gardens as well as well as the houses still exists today, however it always remains the question for how long, because conscience of the past is something that lacks most people here.

The Taman Kunir, as the little city garden is named and where the story is about, is a piece of green in the city which roughly measures 25 by 56 meters. Not a big area, but because it has a wide and quiet street around it and then the large houses on a fairly big piece of land, this garden helps create a nice atmosphere in the area. The 'green' that is present here is a number of trees, one of them a waringin (a tree seen as 'holy') Furthermore there are newly planted trees and the park was in pretty good condition because it was maintained by the neighborhood itself. Of course it can be better, but that is not only the case for this garden.

At a certain moment the local government decided it was time for something new. The departing mayor from the PDI-P party is busy - like Soekarno - do erect some buildings so the next mayors of Malang will know who built these structures. Fortunately it's not about a 'penis in erection' like the one in Jakarta (officially that thing is named the National Monument or Monas). No, this mayor has a special thing for small buildings for the local government.

This garden was next on the list, at least half of the garden designed by architect Thomas Karsten would be removed to be replaced by a small government office. The other half of the garden would remain a city garden and nothing else would change in the neighborhood. That was it according to the people we spoke to, but who were they? And by who were they sent? And why? That was a pretty interesting story.

The neighborhood

The evening that we got to the scene, fresh air after a downpour around the clock of four-thirty in the afternoon, the street was bustling with activity. I already got excited a little bit about what was waiting for us now, residents had already had a meeting with my friend a few days before. I expected to be able to meet with the same people again for a short meeting, but things went slightly different than expected. Trucks had already brought sand and stones to the city garden and people had also started making trenches.

Strange that they had already started, since the neighborhood, the residents directly around the park didn't have anything to say about this and above all they could not agree with the construction of a government office in their city park. According to their drawings, the office would take the entire park and traffic would increase in the still closed-off streets. That is something people rather don't have when you live in an area which is secured by fences, gates and private security.

The residents who created one barrier against the construction of the building were no longer to be found in their streets in front of their houses. Two days earlier they had successfully forced out the yellow dump trucks with their sand and stones. Now these building materials had been successfully dumped, including some kind of special security.

We approached the group and it soon became obvious that none of the residents was outside, also there was not a single person greeting us in a way we could have expected here. No, in contrary, we were inspected and soon people started yelling to each other. The blue Kijang stopped almost directly in the middle of the groups of motorbikes and people. Clearly no residents with their uncut hair, short pants and pale shirts.

When getting out of the car I directly made some pictures. I already sensed that the atmosphere was totally different than two days ago, when I wasn't there myself. Within a few seconds there was contact with some people out of the group of fifty from outside. That they were from outside the neighborhood was very clear by now. Contact didn't exist in the form of a friendly handshake or a welcome greeting. No, directly there was shouting, directly without even a single one of them knowing who we were or what we were planning to do. Probably my big camera around my neck caused some kind of journalist alert, while I'm not a journalist at all.


Within a few seconds, some of those yelling men gathered around us. What we think we are going to do here and that kind of simple questions. Directly is flashed through my mind that it was probably best to stay low-profile in this kind of situations. Especially if there is more than one person attacking you with words it's best just to interact with just one of them and to put the others on hold for a moment. I wasn't the only one to think that way. From the beginning that is how the conversation between us and the group was held.

The local government, who pays these preman to secure the area around the garden from it's residents, also supplied free liquor and food.
The local government, who pays these preman to secure the area around the garden from it's residents, also supplied free liquor and food.

Between the freshly dug trenches remained some plastic and a banner that was put there by the residents just last week. The trenches looked to be bug randomly, just around trees and other vegetation. The light post was not removed yet as well and was even burning at the time of our visit. It seems that someone was in great hurry to construct this office here. It seemed to me that it was merely pure provocation. The garden now also features packaging of food and a number of empty bottles of liquor. That's another worry, drunken Indonesians.

After the most sharp edge of the shouting men were removed, it was clear who we had to deal with, a group preman (rent-o-criminals), paid to monitor the situation here. Later we heard that they arrived together with the same yellow trucks that were trying to bring sand and stones for the second time. Ever since then they were present there. We had clearly crossed their borders, seen their very fierce reactions.

That there were drunk men in the group was already clear. Not a big problem, as long as they give you chance to reply to their load of almost senseless words. One of them found is necessary to state that he found is ridiculous that after 350 years of colonization there were again Dutch people in his neighborhood. That required a strong answer. "It was more than 350 years". He stayed quiet and slowly left the group, lighting a cigarette.

The conversation went on and more people went back to their group. Probably not the most clever of them, since the conversation was held at a fairly high level. Especially from our side - I didn't have to talk too much and my Indonesian is far from perfect - peace was radiated in the hope to cool down the entire group. This was succeeded far before the sun went down. The group got smaller and smaller and motorbikes were started. The working day had passed quite some time ago, only the unexpected arrival of two Dutch persons caused some delay. Today's supply of liquor was gone, the last cigarettes were lit quickly. It was enough for today.

Who is what?

Directly after this hot confrontation we sat down at one of the residents who lives directly at the city park. We were received with a cup of coffee and noticed that the remaining few out of the big group also started to wrap up their working day. The neighborhood settled down for the night and we could repeat and discuss the fight of words that had just ended with the residents.

In between the conversation a petition was handed over in which money was collected to pay for the 'security' forces from the neighborhood. These men were already present, but they were with to few men to do something. It was time to hire some extra men, probably for a next time when the situation escalated again. A petition like this probably brings in a lot of money, since most people oppose the construction of any building on the green spot, but security in the neighborhood also decreases with the presence of 'alien' forces.

The men which we had just clashed with were the preman rented by the local government. They originate from one area in the city - Sukun - where a group well-known preman lives. Until as far as Jakarta they are known for their actions together with local governments. They clean slum areas to give way to big construction projects in the city.

The men that had the conversation with us, and maintained until the end, proved to be from a part of the Indonesian armed forces known as Kodim. Rented for a few hours a day to keep an eye in name of the city government. This only became clear to us when we were rounding of the conversation. Because of many years of experience in Indonesia, my friend already knew how to fetch some information. That's how they blew their cover. Another given fact is that these men were all armed, especially those from Kodim. And then it wasn't just a screwdriver, to be clear.

Other people who joined us during the conversation were people from reserse, a part of the police, but it almost functions like a paramilitary movement. These are the people who make the violent and difficult arrests, but the way they work resembles that of the American way of headhunters. These people are not scared of violence and will take any action needed to reach their goal. Often they are people from lower social environments which have little or nothing to lose. They can earn some money by watching after the government's actions and they get free food and liquor as a bonus.

At the end

That same night I headed back to Yogyakarta. I already had the feeling that I needed to spend some more time about this. I realized I had been in a pretty dangerous situation earlier that day, however I didn't feel fear for a moment. Maybe it was too unexpected, or maybe it was just the fact that there was someone with me which can talk to that kind of people on the same - or maybe on a higher - level. I agree that looking back is easy; nothing happened, but what if a word had been misunderstood? It could have turned bad as well.

After a day of hard work under tight security the city government succeeded in transforming the garden designed by Thomas Karsten into a sawah that is waiting for it's next cycle of rice, freshly ploughed.
After a day of hard work under tight security the city government succeeded in transforming the garden designed by Thomas Karsten into a sawah that is waiting for it's next cycle of rice, freshly ploughed.

Back home I received additional information. It was just a matter of time of course. The driver of the blue Kijang had received a threat from some people out of the group at the moment we were talking to the entire group of people. One of them told him in Madurese that it was better not to go here again because then something bad could happen to the car and more. And it would be easy to trace it, wherever it was.

That was something we didn't notice at al. Probably these drunken people didn't really know who they were talking too. It was just a matter of several days before the driver and some friends brought a less friendly visit to the Madurese guy. He was easy to trace since he lived partially in the same circuit as the group of preman at the street earlier that week. With some talking and a short visit to the house the case could be closed. It was made clear that threats like that were not to be accepted. In combination with the house visit, it might be a clear signal to the then drunk Madurese guy that he should back down when he wants to threat a driver of a Dutch person talking about a piece of government land. He only receives a little paycheck for it as well.

Posted in General @ 11 December 2006 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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