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Superstitions About Indonesia's Disasters May Affect Political Fortunes


Beneath the veneer of modern Indonesia, ancient beliefs are strong. Some Indonesians blame the recent string of natural disasters in the country on a host of supernatural influences. A recent survey suggests many are beginning to see the country's leadership, particularly its president, as out of tune with the forces of nature, and therefore, a reason for their misfortune.

If you ask some Indonesians, signs of the supernatural are everywhere, and many believe that events in nature can portend political change. The recent fusillade of natural disasters has left the people groping for the meaning of it all. More than 170,000 people have died in the last two years due to earthquakes, tsunamis, bird flu outbreaks and volcanic eruptions.

Trying to explain their run of bad luck, many Indonesians do not see it as luck at all. The news media are full of talk about divine retribution, particularly toward the country's leaders. Most Indonesians are Muslim, but many are Christian, Hindu, and followers of other faiths.

Nurlelawati, 21, a Muslim from an area of South Sumatra rattled by a quake in the Sunda Strait last week, says the mark of supernatural displeasure is clear.

"This is the sign of a small doomsday from heaven. We were given a sign that in this world we can't just be sinful and ignore our moral duties. We have to pray a lot and deepen our religious studies."

She is not alone. A study conducted last month by Survey Circle Indonesia found that 78 percent of those polled believe the disasters represent warnings from nature. Many said the perceived misdeeds of the government are to blame.

Muhammad Qodari, deputy executive director of Survey Circle, says the results confirm Indonesians' ancient penchant for supernatural beliefs - and indicate how much politicians must pay attention to such things.

"I'm not so surprised because in Indonesia, especially Java, there are people whose thinking is not rational," Qodari said. "People are trying to find the answer, but the available answer- the scientific explanation - is just not enough."

Mystical beliefs are at the core of Javanese culture, which long pre-dates the introduction of Islam to the country. These beliefs infuse daily life; shamans, spiritual healers, sorcerers and soothsayers still command reverence and fear.

Politicians from the disgraced dictator, Suharto, to former president and Muslim leader Abdurrachman Wahid, sought advice from modern-day technocrats while they were in office. But they also freely sought guidance at the graves of their ancestors.

Qodari says no one has been more closely associated in the public mind with the recent disasters than President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also known by his abbreviation SBY.

"People associate the time of disaster with SBY's position as president," Qodari said. "If this pattern continues, I think it will narrow SBY's opportunity to be re-elected in 2009, especially if opposition starts to campaign, starts to strengthen the association of SBY with disasters."

Two months after Mr. Yudhoyono assumed the presidency in 2004, a massive tsunami swept across Aceh province, killing about 170,000 people. Two more serious earthquakes, the eruption of Mt. Merapi, outbreaks of bird flu and most recently, a second tsunami, have followed, cementing the perception of a star-crossed administration.

Political opponents - some of whom even say the President's birthdate is inauspicious - point to malevolent forces in his government. The president has been advised to do everything from slaughtering a thousand sheep to meditating in a cave to obtaining a "keris" - a sacred Javanese dagger.

Even those who do not subscribe to such superstitions know them well. Erni, 31, a Christian of Chinese ancestry, says people in her Jakarta community say the disasters are retribution for repeated massacres of Chinese in Indonesia - memories of those events are so strong that she refused to give her full name. She has heard all kinds of explanations for the elemental chaos.

"Nobody knows, nobody knows," Erni said. "You can ask them: 'What is the sin of SBY?' Nobody knows, because it's just people talking on the street: 'It must be SBY's fault. We Indonesian people are suffering for all these sins because of him.'"

Such talk has intensified since a tsunami struck Java's southern coast on July 19, killing more than 590 people. Tabloids, television commercials and neighborhood conversations offer supernatural explanations tarnishing the government's image while it struggles to deal with very real problems caused by the natural disasters.