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  • Eliza Vitri Handayani's Ubud launch cancellation & a peaceful good-humoured protest...

    After warnings from local police, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2015 has had to cancel the launch of Eliza Vitri Handayani’s novel From Now On Everything Will Be Different. The festival organizers have kindly kept open an invitation for Eliza to attend the festival, which she has accepted. Each day she will wear a t-shirt with different extracts from her novel as a form of peaceful protest. We will  republish the extracts here each day. 

    Please show your support for Eliza Handayani by sharing within your networks and don’t be afraid to order a copy of her novel via Amazon, Book Depository or direct from the press.

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    Several months before Rizky graduated college in 1998, students took to the streets to demand an end to the corrupt New Order regime. The rupiah had collapsed, people were losing their jobs, and basic necessities were expensive and rare. Rizky’s family, who were used to recreational shopping, had to go to wholesale stores and buy cheaper brands in bulk. Three days a week they replaced meat with tempeh and tofu.

    He read reports about the demonstrations in magazines and newspapers, but they always blurred the demands written on the students’ posters and banners: implement reforms to end the economic crisis, reshuffle cabinet, elect a new pr—

    In March, as Rizky was preparing for finals, the General Meeting of the People’s Representatives were under way. Younger leaders of the house were brave enough to suggest a modest change: break with the three- decade tradition of nominating only Soeharto as president—let’s have more than one candidate this time, and let’s vote, even if the majority still

    end up voting for Soeharto. When news reached campus that the military was allowing students to talk at the General Meeting, Rizky joined other students and their professors to discuss what they would say.

    The following week the students made a declaration on campus, demanding the government to reduce prices, restore sovereignty to the people, and elect a new national leader. Soon they heard news of solidarity from other campuses—in Surabaya students were demanding economic and political reforms and an investigation into the wealth of state officials, in Bandung students held an open stage for the people to voice their concerns, in Yogyakarya students rallied around campus, rejecting Soeharto and demanding the government stabilize the economy. More and more campuses were participating—in Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, and elsewhere. Many held open stages and mounted theatrical or musical performances about the people’s hunger and the General Meeting that was costing billions. Some opened markets offering rice, milk, and vegetable oil with deeply discounted prices. The people joined the students, their common cry were “Reformasi” and “People Power”. The commander of the armed forces went on TV and warned the students to be polite and confine their protests within campus walls.

    Instead, the students marched into the streets. Rizky joined thousands of students from all over the country, their shouts and demands rang through highways and government buildings. The military and the police beat them, gassed them, arrested them. Dozens disappeared. Still, the students returned to the streets, shouting and chanting. One morning Rizky woke up and found that his mother had locked his bedroom door from the outside. “You will not go out to protest again. I can’t spend another day worrying sick if you’re gonna come home alive.” She brought him food and water through the window bars, along with empty plastic bottles for him to pee in.

    The following days Rizky stayed at home out of consideration for his parents—he was after all their only child. He noticed that newspapers and magazines had stopped blurring the demands printed on the students’ posters and banners. TV stations were airing live coverage of the demonstrations. But then the shootings and the rioting began. Gas stations, banks, and shopping malls were looted and burned. People were trapped inside and burned alive. A week after the riots had died down, Rizky’s parents allowed him to go to campus again. There he helped treat women with shattered pelvises and swollen faces.

    Funeral marches for the fallen students were held in many cities and towns—Medan, Padang, Samarinda, Surabaya, Ujung Pandang, Jayapura. TV stations stopped obeying orders to soften reports of the protests, except one station owned by Soeharto’s family. The students then decided to flood the House of Representatives complex. On campus Rizky was busy borrowing buses and cars to transport students. Tens of thousands were camping there, climbing on the building’s green butterfly-shaped roof, picnicking, and hanging effigies of the president. Rizky saw students running like crazy and kissing the earth to thank God after Soeharto announced his resignation. Rizky dove into the reflecting pool and floated there, listening to the cheers and prayers sounding louder and louder and staring at the arching clouds that looked like the smile of God.

    The weeks and months that followed were sizzling with optimism. Everywhere there was an eagerness for change. His university held a symposium on ways to move forwards and the speakers were all fresh faces, not the musty New Order experts anymore, and they were coming up with ideas that people wouldn’t even whisper before—publishing alternative versions of history, pornography versus freedom of the press, whether a federal rather than unitary state would be a better form of government for the country. On the streets people hung posters demanding the trial of Soeharto and a new election. At night Rizky went to wild celebration parties. Amid all this, Julita returned to his world with a half-page profile in a Sunday newspaper, on a page dedicated to emerging artists.

    Her photographs of the protests and surrounding events punctuated the article: a protester ripping his shirt and baring his tattoo-covered chest before lines of special riot police, a writer handing out photocopies of his banned book on the streets, five women covering their faces with the sign ‘Do Not Rape, Native Indonesian Muslim’, on the charred remains of a shopping center three street children showing off brand-new toys from the stores they had looted, by Trisakti University a young woman putting flowers and a poem on the ground still wet with blood, a student launching paper airplanes from the roof of the parliament building.

    Rizky finds the photos in his box and carefully separates a few stuck together with mildew. He peers at each portrait—faces momentarily stopping whatever they were doing to beam their souls at the camera. How was it possible that these people, who a few months before would have censored their own children’s school reports for fear of drawing attention to themselves, now proudly showed themselves in these photographs? Where did they, after decades of silence and obedience and fear, find the courage to protest? How did these people, so used to submitting to fate, decide that they could break the course of history? The protests impressed him profoundly as the first confirmation that one could indeed bring about change. He will never forget how, along with the sound of thousands of students marching, he heard God whisper in his ears, “You too can change your life’s course.”

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    Eliza Vitri Handayani, 'From Now On Everything Will Be Different', pp.17-21.

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