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Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asiaby Nicholas D. Kristof
He must have been a raffishly handsome young man, with his bushy eyebrows, large coal-black eyes, high-cheekboned face, and thick mop of black hair dangling over his ears. He looked pale but improbably serene, showing no sign of the torture he had endured, and those eyes were still wide open and frozen in a final instant of surprise. He had a strong, projecting chin, but his head ended a few inches below that chin in a jagged eruption of blood, tissue, and bone. His head had been hacked off with a machete and was impaled on a bamboo stake, and he seemed to be staring at me.
I stared back. That abrupt transition from human flesh to bamboo stake wrenched my gut and paralyzed my legs. I was scared stiff. The mob that had killed him was in front of me now, the killers waving machetes and screaming Allahu akbar, God is great. There were about two dozen of them, mostly men in their twenties and thirties, all riding motorcycles slowly down the main street of the little farmtown of Turen, Indonesia.
It was a typical warm afternoon in what seemed a bucolic, prospering community. A tropical drizzle had created a shine on the beautifully paved blacktop road, but there were plenty of trees to shield people from the rain. Comfortable one- and two-story homes lined the road, their walls neatly whitewashed, their roofs made up of pleasant red tile. A few repair shops and small restaurants competed for business, and a billboard advertised "Sun Silk Shampoo" with an image of a young woman with thick, beautiful, black hair. A few bicycle rickshaws were waiting for rides and several pushcart vendors were selling fried rice and noodles. Townspeople were emerging by the side of the road to see what was causing the racket.
It seemed like any of Indonesia's tens of thousands of little villages, except that it had abruptly tumbled into savagery. Some motorcyclists were waving S-shaped machetes, two feet long and bloody, while others wielded sickles that were equally grisly. A few were clenching their fists in power salutes of victory, and they were all grinning happily, cheering and shouting, while the fast-forming crowd on the sidewalk waved back and roared its approval. In the middle of the cluster of motorcycles was a glossy black one, and its driver smiled proudly at the responsibility he had been given. Behind him on the same motorcycle was a long-haired younger man, perhaps twenty years old, his black shirt unbuttoned to the waist, his face gleaming with excitement. Black Shirt was standing up on the footrests, holding on to the driver's shoulder with his left hand, and with his right he was holding up the bamboo stake. Exultantly, he waved it all around, as if he were exhibiting a doll's head on a handle, so that everyone could admire it. Black Shirt was small and skinny, shining with his eagerness to please, and he looked less like a killer than like a proud high-school kid in the center of a homecoming parade.
I was standing under a tree to keep out of the drizzle, and the motorcyclists did not see me at first. But now the cries faded as the mob became aware of the presence of a foreigner. Black Shirt frowned, switched hands and thrust the severed head toward me, he too shouting Allahu akbar. The head was raised high, and my eyes locked on the bloody tissue, jagged and ragged, where the neck ended.
Instinctively, I transferred my notebook to my left hand and reached up with my right to feel my own neck. I massaged it absentmindedly with trembling fingers, appreciating its continuity and imagining a motorcyclist's machete arcing down on it and parting the skin.
. . .
I had come to Java not in search of a beheading but to understand the upheavals in rural Indonesia caused by the economic crisis in Asia. The crisis had begun in Thailand in July 1997 and then had devastated once-booming economies throughout the region, leaving Indonesia worst hit of all. I was staying in a town in East Java called Mojokerto, where I met Salamet, a twenty-seven-year-old rickshaw driver. Salamet was a gentle man with a round face, a drooping moustache, and a pleasing smile. Years of work as a rickshaw driver, rock-crusher, and gravel-hauler had left him as strong as an ox, and with roughly the same build. He was of only average height, but he had a barrel chest and a boxer's neck, and he might have looked intimidating if he hadn't spent so much time gently cradling his youngest daughter. He would sit back in his rickshaw, his bare feet dangling out over the footrest, rocking the girl on his knee and griping about the rising price of food.
The neighborhood seemed as placid as the nearby river running through the town, but Salamet had been telling me that tensions were mounting. One day when he was eating a bowl of noodles, he told me between loud slurps that one bad sign was the rise of sorcery. "Sorcerers are taking advantage of the confusion these days," he warned. Slurp. "There didn't used to be much black magic around, but now it's beginning again." Slurp.
Salamet referred to a series of two hundred gruesome murders in East Java, mostly of Muslim leaders whose bodies were chopped into pieces that were left hanging in the trees. I believed that some army unit was behind the killings, trying to create political instability or even conditions for a coup d'?tat, but to Salamet and most people in Mojokerto the obvious suspects were sorcerers. Javanese have always believed in black magic and sorcery, and rumors were spreading that the killers wore black and could vanish into thin air. "Those killings — that's the work of sorcerers," Salamet told me confidently. Slurp.
In nearby towns angry mobs began to kill suspected witches and sorcerers. And even in Mojokerto vigilante groups were organized to fight against the sorcerers, whom people called "ninja" after the Japanese warriors. Salamet joined one of these vigilante groups, and the men in it spent their days sharpening their knives and their nights roaming around looking for sorcerers to kill. They were good family men, and I went with some of them to a meeting at the local mosque where a charismatic man named Ahmed Banu was urging the crowd to butcher the sorcerers. Banu and the others greeted me warmly, made sure I was seated comfortably, and then got down to business.
"If we Muslims are being treated like animals, will we stand for it?" Banu asked, his voice rising to a crescendo.
"No!" his followers yelled back.
"If we catch the ninja, what should we do? Give them to the police or kill them?"
"So send this message to your families," Banu added grimly: "When we catch the attackers, we must kill them."
That night, I tossed and turned. Would these villagers, who had been so hospitable to me, actually attack people they suspected to be sorcerers? I wondered whether I had lent credibility to Banu by attending the meeting, increasing the chance that he and his friends would butcher strangers. Finally, I decided that it was all talk and fell into a comfortable slumber. But in the morning, my interpreter brought a local newspaper and I learned that at roughly the same time that Banu was holding his meeting, mobs a bit farther to the south had been tearing apart five men who lacked identification and were consequently suspected of being sorcerers. Two were burned alive and three were beheaded, their heads impaled on pikes and paraded through the nearby towns.
"Where did that happen?" I asked.
"In a little town called Turen," replied my interpreter, a local journalist. As I looked at the articles, I felt revulsion and fear, but in the mix there was also a large dose of curiosity. What kind of people could commit such grotesque acts? How could citizens behead their neighbors? The killings struck me as a modern version of the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials. If there were any sorcery in Indonesia, I mused, it was the economic and social alchemy that left people running around in mobs carrying human heads on pikes. The despair and social disintegration that accompanied the crisis seemed to leave Indonesians particularly inclined to supernatural explanations, particularly vulnerable to manipulation by secret army units, and particularly likely to respond with mob violence to each new threat that appeared to disrupt their lives.
"Let's go," I suggested. "Let's try to find some of the people who did it and talk to them."
It was an odd drive. In journalism you occasionally find yourself careering the wrong way on a one-way street, heading in precisely the direction that you know quite confidently you should be fleeing from. I was tense with apprehension but also soothed by the vivid green countryside we were driving through. It seemed impossible to reconcile the macabre news accounts with a landscape that was tranquil and lovely that morning: paddies sprouting rich green rice plants, dark green forested hills in the distance, occasional coconut plantations with endless rows of palms.
This was the first time in ten years that I had been in this part of East Java, and the economic development over the intervening decade was dazzling. The previous time I had bounced over rutted gravel roads in creaky old buses filled with exhaust smoke. Once a bus had simply let me off on a remote hillside where the road had washed out, and I had been forced to spend the night in a peasant's house, cadging bananas for dinner. Now, just ten years later, I was hurtling along a road that was sleek, paved, and straight, and modern cars and trucks were gliding by clean restaurants and stores. I was traveling on a modern highway to meet mobs that paraded heads on pikes.
When Dante set forth into the Inferno, he was battered by the "sighs, lamentations, and loud wailings resounding through the starless air." I was encountering my own netherworld, with its own wails and laments and cries for help. Since the economic crisis had spread economic and social convulsions through the region, Asia and especially Indonesia had been transformed into something that in its bleakest hours resembled Dante's ninth ring of hell.
As we approached Turen, traffic thinned out and virtually disappeared. We stopped at a regional police station to ask if it was safe, and a senior officer — a tall, stout man with a crisp uniform — assured us pompously that the day had been calm so far. We asked if it might be possible to take a policeman in the car with us for safety's sake, and he frowned.
"No, I'm afraid not," he said. "All the police officers are staying inside the compound here."
He hesitated for a moment, deflated, and then said: "They think it's too dangerous to go out in the streets." . . .
As I nervously probed my neck for reassurance, what rocked me was a sense of utter sadness and confusion. This was Java, a gloriously cultured land that had been civilized before Britain and whose people are renowned for their kindness and restraint. This was a nation that the World Bank had hailed as a model for the developing world. But now the Asian economic crisis had contorted it into an example of Asia at its very worst. Suddenly, theParadiso of Asia had become the Inferno.
Two conclusions might seem obvious from these economic and social upheavals: First, the Asian economic crisis was a catastrophe of historic proportions. Second, the Pacific Century is over before it began. Asia may hobble back eventually, but when people start running around hacking off each other's heads, they are not on the brink of a middle-class or an industrial revolution.
Yet those are, we think, precisely the wrong conclusions. As Zhao Yi, a Chinese poet, wrote two hundred years ago: I>gai guan lun ting. It means roughly: "You cannot rightly judge a person until his coffin lid is sealed." And although during the crisis Asia was widely measured for its coffin — and sometimes seemed to stretch out inside — it is far too soon to seal the lid. On the contrary, instead of suggesting that the crisis was a catastrophe or that the Pacific Century is over, we will over the course of this book make two very different arguments.
First, the Asian economic crisis was the best thing that could have happened to Asia. It entailed a terrible human cost, but it is also helping to destroy much of the cronyism, protectionism, and government regulation that had burdened Asian business. The crisis helped launch a political, social, and economic revolution that is still incomplete but that ultimately will reshape Asia as greatly as the fall of the Berlin Wall reshaped Europe.
This revolution is essential because for all the praise lavished on the Asian business culture, up close it never looked nearly so impressive. Sometimes it looked downright idiotic. I talked to Japanese bankers about their practice of spending thousands of dollars taking their Finance Ministry bank regulators out to $500-a-person expense-account dinners at no-pan-shabu-shabu restaurants in Tokyo's Kabukicho red-light district. The attraction of these restaurants is not the shabu-shabu, the thinly sliced beef that is dipped into a hot pot in front of the customer. Rather the appeal is the waitresses in short skirts and "no pan" (no panties). The restaurants keep water and sake high up, so that the waitresses have to stretch to reach them. One of these no-pan-shabu-shabu restaurants, seeking to ensure that customers could appreciate its "special amenities," even put mirrors on the floors. "And if you pay a tip," one official confided, "then the girl will climb on the table and lift her skirt."
Imagine the intellectual level of the discussion at these dinners. Imagine the caliber of Japan's bank regulation.
The Asian economic crisis forced a greater reliance on markets, democracy, and the rule of law. One result is that Tokyo no longer has any no-pan-shabu-shaburestaurants. The crisis also meant that Asian countries finally got first-class financial institutions — often American ones — to underwrite the industrial revolution and cultivate deep capital markets. Just as Britain's economic near-collapse in 1976 and subsequent bailout by the International Monetary Fund laid the groundwork for its renaissance over the next two decades, Asia's upheavals will gradually help clear out the dead wood and reinvigorate the region.
The second conclusion is broader: Partly because of this forced restructuring, Asia is likely to wrench economic, diplomatic, and military power from the West over the coming decades. The "center of the world," to the extent that there is one, has migrated repeatedly over the years. It was China for most of the first millennium b.c., then Rome during the Roman Empire, then China again for well over one thousand years, then Spain in the sixteenth century, then England, and finally America since the late nineteenth century. Now the center of the world may be slowly shifting again, and eventually it will settle in Asia.
The United States is incomparably ahead of Asia in information systems, business management, financial services, and entertainment industries, plus it has the advantage of operating in the international language. But the United States's share of the world's gross domestic product (GDP) peaked in the aftermath of World War II, at about 32 percent. Now America's share of global GDP has fallen to 25 percent, and it is continuing to fall despite the vigor of the American economy in recent years.
This is natural. Poor countries can enjoy "catch-up" growth rates of 5 to 10 percent per year, while mature nations seem unable to average much more than 3 percent. The upshot is that just about every forecast — by the World Bank, by the Asian Development Bank, and by private economists — shows that the East will gain considerably in its share of the global economy in the coming decades. The World Bank's forecasts show Asia's share of global GDP rising from 19 percent in 1950 to 33 percent in 1992, to 55 to 60 percent by 2025. In that year, Asia will still lag behind the West in technology, nuclear weaponry, and per capita incomes, but it will have approximately the same share of global income that the West had at its peak in the 1950s.
This shift of power to Asia is in large part a function of population: Just as the city-state of Venice could not compete with the nation of Spain, and England could not muster the power of a continental nation like America, so it will be difficult for the United States to hold its own indefinitely against the rise of countries in Asia. Sixty percent of the world's people live in Asia, and the proportion will probably reach two-thirds by the middle of this century. In contrast, 5 percent of the world's people live in North America, mostly in the United States.
From the eBook edition.Copyright 2001 by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn
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