General Gatot Nurmantyo was doing the rounds of the site of the Jakarta terror attack almost exactly a year ago when I met him. As Indonesia’s top general he was decked out in his dress uniform, complete with a brass-tipped walking stick to review the unfolding show of force after gunmen struck at the country’s administrative and commercial heart not more than kilometer from the presidential palace.

I say “met” but that may be overselling it. He exchanged a few words with Indonesian reporters and because I was doing some work for the Economist on the attack I jumped in, just as the scrum was breaking up.

“General, if you’ll permit a question in English, are you surprised by today’s attack?” I ask. Okay, that was a little forthright but the guy’s a general, I thought. He has been put on the spot plenty of times before, right?

His response was to glare at me as if I said something impolite about members of his family while he was strapped to a gurney and couldn’t punch me. Then, in front of other Indonesian reporters, he spun on his heel and strode away without saying a word. So, sure, I met him in the way a diver meets a shark as it swims by.

This episode occurred to me last week when news emerged that General Nurmantyo unilaterally suspended all military cooperation with Australia. The trigger was the discovery by an Indonesian language teacher on a special forces base outside Perth that spoofed Indonesia’s founding five founding principles known as the Pancasila, which mandates unity and belief in monotheism. No one in the palace was consulted of the move that shelved joint border patrols, commando training, joint patrols of the South China Sea, military aid. Within a day the decision was all but reversed.

All this got me thinking about patriotism. Arguably, the Pancasila is to Indonesians what the pledge of allegiance is to Americans. School kids here recite the five “pillars” of the republic regularly.

But then nothing is a bigger target for ridicule than someone else’s patriotism. And the fuzzy Pancasila with its call for “a just humanity” and a “democracy guided by the inner wisdom of unanimity” is a sitting duck. The spoofed Pancasila swaps out the “sila,” which is an old Javanese word derived from Sanskrit for “pillar” with “gila” – modern Indonesian for crazy. Nice.

Nurmantyo pounced. A paranoid ultranationalist rumored to have political ambitions, it would have been tough for him to resist the urge to do something. The general has mused, for example, that the cause of gay rights in Indonesia is in fact a proxy war waged by the West to destabilize the nation.

The irony is that “Pancagila” is a well-worn groaner that Indonesians quip to each other. But then that leads me to another observation: mockery of one’s country is off limits to foreigners.

Oh, and if you ever happen to meet General Nurmantyo, for heaven’s sake, speak Indonesian. I really don’t think he speaks English or at least he doesn’t want to.


Editor: Edward White