Jakarta Sinks as Jokowi Ascends: Will President Desert the Fortress of Batavia?

Jakarta is rapidly sinking and, in theory, soon being displaced as the capital city of Indonesia.  After his re-election as President, Joko Widodo and his cabinet have announced something that has often been mooted.  The Javanese metropolis – the most traffic-congested city on the planet – is no longer suitable as the seat of state.

Some experts believe parts of the city will be submerged by 2050, sinking as it is at up to 15cm every year. Built on marshland, the dubious stability of which is further compromised by the extraction of groundwater for civilian use, Jakarta’s fate looks doomed.

Scenes such as this flood are likely to become increasingly familiar for Jakarta’s citizens

It was the Dutch who set the scene for the leviathan of today.  In 1619 the Dutch East India Company established Batavia on the ruins of Jayakarta, having wrestled it from native control in their bid for a mercantile empire. Batavia became the seat of that empire, elegant Dutch buildings constructed on reclaimed marsh in an engineering feat reminiscent of the homeland.

For more than two centuries this was a purely commercial settlement.  Dutch traders used Batavia as their storehouse and trading hub for the luxurious goods of the Indies, the local population kept in check by force of arms and compliant Chinese immigrants.

City plan of elegant Batavia, 1780

Canals were dug and city walls raised.  But before long the call of the swampy hinterland grew stronger, the Dutch desperate to seize ever more control over the cash crops of the interior.  Batavia expanded and the environment suffered with it.

By the time the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt and was dissolved in 1800, Batavia had many of the characteristics of other colonial cities of the era.  The Dutch East Indies was duly proclaimed and, whilst trade still proliferated, the territory gradually became more of a Dutch settler state.

Dutch-built canal through Batavia

Gas works and street lighting appeared in the mid-19th century, telephone lines and electric trams soon to follow.  All the while the population expanded; native Javanese, Chinese immigrants, Dutch settlers and the mestizo offspring of colonial copulation. Batavia’s numbers had swelled to over 2 million by the start of the 20th century.

The Supreme Court building in colonial Batavia

Many rural Javanese migrated to Batavia as economic opportunities grew. With a rapidly increasing population and an infrastructure ill-equipped to deal with the influx of new settlers, poverty soared.  Unsanitary living conditions closer to the exposed marshland bred plague and other disease, cramped living quarters became the norm and crime rose.  These are issues that persist in modern Jakarta.

Whilst not without their faults, the Dutch colonial authorities did not enact the same sort of civilian co-option and repression seen in other European colonies.  An independence movement emerged in earnest through the 1920s – led by youth groups – which the Dutch did try to suppress.  However, the onset of the Second World War would be required to deliver the death knell to the Dutch Empire and allow subsequent Indonesian independence, by which time the megacity of Jakarta was already well-established.

Japan’s invasion of Indonesia in 1942 (Batavia fell in March) was, like most of its military actions, carried out in the divine name of Hirohito, their Emperor. Whilst the politicians and military leaders exercised real power in Tokyo, they invoked the Emperor’s godliness as a rallying call for their troops and the civilians forced to sacrifice so much at home.

Emperor Hirohito

It was only after Japan’s humiliating defeat at the end of the war that Hirohito publicly renounced his divine status and this week his son, Emperor Akihito, abdicated in an unprecedented public display.

Things have changed in Japan.  The Emperor is revered for his humility not his divine aloofness.

In Jakarta – the capital of the free and independent Indonesian people – the change is one of alarming consistency.  Over-populated, under-resourced, subsiding into oblivion.  The disparate people of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands have often grumbled at the disproportionate influence wielded by the Javanese, resting as it is on the symbolism and economic might of its former Dutch citadel.

President Joko Widodo – popularly known as Jokowi

If ever there was an apt moment to change this – and Palangkaraya on Borneo is the favoured location for the new capital – it surely must be now.  Whether Jokowi’s government feel they have the political will at the start of a new five year term to take this prodigious step will soon be determined.


Kim and Putin Meet Amid Scenes Reminiscent of 1949

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met in an eagerly awaited summit near the city of Vladivostok. It is the first meeting between the two and follows the recent breakdown in talks between Kim and US President Donald Trump at their summit in Hanoi.

The early indications are that the meeting proceeded positively, with lots of friendly gesturing and declarations of mutual trust and support. Putin rather amusingly stated that “We need to restore the power of international law, to return to a state where international law, not the law of the strongest, determines the situation in the world”. Hypocritical yes…but pointedly aimed at Mr Trump nonetheless.

That the exchange was “very meaningful” – to use Kim’s phrase – is hardly surprising given how much is riding on the outcome.

North Korea needs economic relief, hampered as it is by international sanctions relating to its nuclear weapons programme.  For the Russians, it is another opportunity to undermine American prestige and take the lead in de-nuclearisation talks, something of significance to Moscow given the country’s shared border with North Korea.

North Korea and Russia share a short but significant border

Kim and his government have returned to a more bellicose stance in the wake of Hanoi, blaming the Americans (and particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) for derailing talks, even though they offered little in the way of concessions themselves.  There is a degree of desperation – or at least hopefulness – in Kim’s visit to see Putin, with the stakes seemingly higher for him than his Russian counterpart.

To an extent, it is reminiscent of the meeting between Kim’s grandfather – North Korean founder Kim Il-sung – and Joseph Stalin in 1949 when the nascent communist state was feeling increasingly imperilled by the US-backed democratic government in South Korea.

Kim went to Stalin cap-in-hand and asked for assistance.  In a transcript of the official Soviet notes from the meeting, Stalin is apparently disinterested.  His responses are short, sometimes receptive other times dismissive.  He doesn’t seem to profess a great interest in supporting North Korea yet knows that as the leader of a new communist world he is somewhat duty bound.

Typical exchanges from the meeting are as follows:

Comrade Stalin says fine and asks in what amount they need credit.

Kim from 40 to 50 million American dollars.

Comrade Stalin – fine, what else?

Later we get:

Comrade Stalin asks in what currency they wish to receive credit.

Kim answers in American dollars.

Comrade Stalin answers that we do not now calculate in dollars but we calculate in rubles.

It’s clear who is in charge.

Putin is likely to be similarly lukewarm to the North Korean advances.  Russia has enough issues – both domestic and foreign – to consider without having to worry about North Korea.  Yet as the de facto lead (along with China) of the anti-America cabal in international politics, Moscow necessarily listens.

Of course, the true nature of Kim’s trip to Moscow in 1949 is obscured by the officially sanctioned notes. Stalin’s military and economic support ultimately gave Kim the confidence to invade his southern neighbours and push democracy on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of annihilation. Only a full-scale American invasion prevented the Seoul regime from collapsing.

Kim Il-sung with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1958 – the North Koreans attempted to straddle the Sino-Soviet split when it came

Putin’s support – along with that of Chinese President Xi Jinping – may embolden Kim Jong-un to stay his own course, albeit within the constraints of sanctions.  Neither Putin nor Xi want a nuclearised Korean Peninsula but it is highly likely that they see such a scenario as preferable to a unified Korea under democratic leadership, backed by American military power on Asian soil.

Unlike Stalin, whose gambit in 1949 was free from nuclear implications and the ire of the UN Security Council, Putin must exercise caution.  It is therefore likely that the proclamations of the Vladivostok summit will be just that…kind words.

What material difference it will make to Kim Jong-un and North Korea is debatable and it leaves the young leader with a conundrum.  Does he back down to American demands in the hope of retaining a limited civilian nuclear capacity and sanctions relief?  Does he throw his lot in with China and Russia knowing that their end goal is not too dissimilar to that of the US?  Or does he chuck his cap at the lot of them and plough on with nuclear and missile development, hoping that the terrifying thought of nuclear Armageddon will weaken the resolve of the world powers?

Kim’s pursuit of a nuclear arsenal has won him an oversized seat at the negotiating table

With an impoverished populace that is gradually being exposed to the outside world through covert channels, and a vast military hierarchy that needs continually appeasing, Kim Jong-un’s next move is not as straightforward as that of his grandfather.

Breaching the 38th parallel in the future will have far more severe repercussions for both the North Korean regime and the world at large.