Saturday, December 11, 2004

Wheel Street's Public Forum

By Andreas Harsono

MANADO, Indonesia, Dec 11 (IPS) -- Lalampa is a delicious rice cake made of glutinous rice. The steamed rice is rounded around a piece of fish meat, wrapped up with banana leaves and barbequed in charcoal heat. It is finger-sized, rather oily and tasty, but also a little bit sweet.

Lalampa is usually consumed while one has tea or coffee. It is popular throughout Minahasa, a region in northern Sulawesi, which is a predominantly Christian area in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country.

In North Sulawesi, some of the best lalampa sellers can be found in Manado city's Jalan Roda -- a crowded downtown alley -- where more than a dozen ‘warungs' or food stalls cater to office workers, middlemen, students and activists.

Yuni Husain, a bank clerk, said that she likes to drop in Jalan Roda in her after-office hours. ‘'Everybody is equal here and the ambiance is comfortable,'' she told IPS.

‘'The prices are fair; the crowd practically knows one another. People also call it the third-level DPRD,'' said Muin Sumaila, a high school teacher, referring to Indonesia's two-pronged local parliaments, namely the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Daerah or the House of Regional Representatives, known by its acronym DPRD. The provincial parliament is called DPRD Level I and the city council is DPRD Level II.

Indeed, Indonesia has no DPRD Level III, but Sumaila's joke has a ring of truth in it.

Many government officials and other public figures have to visit Jalan Roda to meet its customers. Politicians, artists, public intellectuals -- including the internationally recognised Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid -- also visited this alley to test their ideas. Their talks are mostly about self-governance and public welfare.

In mid-2000, Aif Darea, a journalist-cum-activist made a breakthrough in Jalan Roda. Darea was then working for ‘Radio Al Khairat' FM 102 MHz, the largest Muslim-based radio station in Manado.

He decided to launch a weekly political talk show in Jalan Roda. Every Monday from 7 am till 10:30 am, he broadcasted live from a small table in the Warung Pak Hari stall. That was his talk show platform, transmitting lively political conversations from Jalan Roda.

‘'I also added a speaker so that the programme could be heard outside the ‘warung'. People were very proud if they could talk on radio,'' Darea said, adding that he usually invited one or two commentators and four other sources to talk in his show. On-lookers and other ‘warung' patrons would sometimes also join in.

Warung Pak Hari is one of the Jalan Roda ‘warungs' that sells the delicious ‘lalampa'. It is always crowded in the mornings and evenings. Next to Warung Pak Hari is a billiards place. Some other ‘warungs' also provide space for their customers to play cards. There is also a brothel whose small entrance is located next to Warung Pak Hari.

‘'I have known Warung Pak Hari since I was a kid selling newspapers or scavenging around for plastic bags. I sometimes slept in this ‘warung' and called the couple that owned it Papa and Mama,'' Aif Darea said.

Jalan Roda customers are mostly Muslims. Sumaila is a Muslim from Tidore Island. Yuni Husain's father is an Acehnese while her mother is a Javanese.

Most customers come from Gorontalo, a predominantly Muslim region south of Minahasa, or Bolaang Mongondow, a Muslim enclave inside southern Minahasa.

This religious affinity in Jalan Roda started since it was established in the 1930s when cattle traders from Gorontalo parked their bullock- carts in the neigbourhood while selling their cattle in a nearby market. Roda literary means ‘'wheel'' in Indonesian Malay.

The Jalan Roda visitors also share a general feeling that they are a minority inside a Christian enclave, although Minahasa itself is located inside a huge Muslim country.

Many of the Jalan Roda visitors are also critical toward the social structures in Minahasa. Most Gorontalons are traders or street vendors. The Minahasans control the bureaucracy, the academic circles and the military while the Sangihes, who are mostly Christians, become shop keepers or restaurant waiters.

‘'The Gorontalons also want to climb the social ladders. There is a feeling of being marginalised. There is the hegemony of the Minahasans,'' said Suardi Hamzah, a Gorontalon activist, who is a regular customer in Jalan Roda.

Friko S. Poli, an editor of the Komentar daily, a newly-established newspaper whose founding editors were mostly Minahasans, denied such an allegation, saying that one might see it as a discrimination but such a view ‘'underestimates those professions (street vendors).''

Poli believes that the Manado government has to enforce the law, including sometimes eradicating street vendors, but strictly on a legal basis. The street vendors, he stressed, were not removed because of their ethnic or religious backgrounds.

The Minahasans themselves always feel that they are a tiny minority whose total population is less than one percent of the whole population in Indonesia. Between 1957 and 1962, the Minahasans were involved in an armed rebellion against Jakarta but they lost and more than 3,000 of their people were killed.

In 1999 when Christian-Muslim violence broke out in the Maluku Islands, killing nearly 10,000 people, many Minahasans established militia groups. Their leaders did not have confidence that Jakarta could contain the violence from engulfing Minahasa.

The largest group is Brigade Manguni, whose members in black uniforms are frequently seen on the streets of Manado. Their presence, although not directed toward the Muslim minority, created quite a stir among the Muslims.

Suardi Hamzah helped his fellow Gorontalons forward their demands to the Jakarta government, in 2002, indicating their desire to breakaway from North Sulawesi in the form of a separate administrative region.

They succeded in their campaign. Gorontalons today have their own province, separate from Minahasa. But activists like Hamzah became frustrated when the new DPRD Gorontalo elected a notorious businessman to become its first governor.

‘'I'm not returning to Gorontalo as long as Fadel Muhammad is still governor,'' said Hamzah.

Reiner Ointoe, a lecturer at Manado's Sam Ratulangie University, himself a regular Jalan Roda visitor, believes that the street is a public forum in which outrage and criticism could be channeled.

This forum, he said, does help to maintain civil liberties in Manado.

[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)

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