Indonesia’s Murder Melodrama Has The Whole Country Watching
The country's elite think a young woman convicted of poisoning her friend is a victim, but ordinary Indonesians have cast her as a villain.
It has been almost a year since Wayan Mirna Salihin cried out “It tastes bad” after drinking a glass of Vietnamese iced coffee at Jakarta’s Olivier Cafe before collapsing and dying within an hour. The incident must have taken the clientele of the upmarket cafe in Jakarta’s central business district by surprise since paying $4-something for a beverage — in a country where a regular glass (not cup) of coffee at a sidewalk eatery costs as little as 15 cents — should at least ensure acceptable standards of hygiene.
One of her two friends at the scene, 27-year-old Jessica Kumala Wongso, was promptly arrested and charged with murder — accused of spiking her friend’s coffee with cyanide. Despite the absence of a clear motive or compelling forensic evidence, Wongso was found guilty on Oct. 27 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The “cyanide-coffee case” riveted the nation, with live televised court hearings and subsequent evening reruns generating high ratings. With the appeal continuing, it’s likely to remain a fixture of Indonesian TV. It has also polarized the public, dividing it along class lines, with detractors and supporters of Wongso clashing on social media.
Wongso’s media profile as a sophisticated, foreign-educated, and aloof upper-class woman casts her in the role of both victim and villain to different audiences. To the urban middle class, she’s a framed woman struggling to prove her innocence. To poorer Indonesians, she’s a spoiled brat trying to get away with murder thanks to her wealth and family status — with foreign help, too.
Indonesia’s wealthy urban classes are mostly convinced that Wongso is an innocent victim of a biased and incompetent legal system. But that’s only about 18 percent of people in a country where the vast bulk of the population lives on less than $4 a day. The world Wongso inhabited — one of sipping coffee in upmarket cafes, foreign travel and education, and casual privilege — is almost fictional to the majority of Indonesians.
For these people, Wongso seems more like one of the millionaire villains in the country’s uber-popular sinetrons, melodramatic teledramas that make up the bulk of ordinary Indonesians’ viewing habits.
For Wongso’s supporters, the trial was a farce, with the prosecution making use of indefensible evidence and fallacious reasoning. They give credence to expert testimony that an incomplete autopsy showed little signs of cyanide poisoning, and that Salihin’s death could have been from natural causes. The prosecution, however, claims that the young woman’s “strangely calm” affect — which echo other mistaken prosecutions such as the Amanda Knox case in Italy — are evidence of her guilt.
Wongso’s supporters often mock how amateurish and unsophisticated the state prosecutors are during court sessions.
One example that went viral on social media was when prosecutor Sugih Karvalho, after establishing that Wongso had ordered the victim her coffee, asked, “Is Vietnamese iced coffee hot or cold?” the suave Wongso bemusedly looked at him and sarcastically asked, “Well, what do you think?”
Educated Indonesians generally see the justice system as partial, rampantly corrupt, and susceptible to tinkering by the powerful. That judges and prosecutors often take bribes is more or less an open secret in Indonesia. Corruption within the judicial system is so thorough that for a judge to secure a “cushy” posting, he or she needs to literally “buy” it from his or her superiors. For Indonesia’s educated, the anomalies in Wongso’s case constitute a credible basis to assume that the interests of justice are not being served.
But for most Indonesians, Wongso is a manipulative and dishonest villain. As the daughter of the owner of a major company dealing in imported chemicals, she is a foreign-educated member of the privileged Indonesian upper class. While her sometimes contemptuous demeanor in court may have won hearts among the middle class, it could only aggravate her image with those prejudiced against her from the outset.
That prejudice is informed by Wongso’s resemblance to the typical villain in a sinetron. Though often scorned by upper-middle-class Indonesians, who prefer imported cable television, sinetrons remain massively popular. First produced as imitations of the South American telenovelas that gained a following in the 1990s, sinetrons almost always portray the debauched lives of the rich and powerful with their intrigues and cruel injustices against an unimpeachably innocent and religious hero or heroine who will, predictably, prevail.
In another melodramatic twist, Salihin’s father is a big name in the country’s plastics industry. The murder case pitting two rich families against each other has given rise to speculation that the murder was the result of a business rivalry between the two clans.
Wongso’s debauchery was further reinforced by Salihin’s father’s claims that she had made sexual overtures to his daughter, the evidence being a string of intimate SMS texts. Given that most Indonesians view homosexuality in a negative light — the LGBT community ranked first in an August survey as the most disliked group among the country’s Muslims — the story that Wongso was a rejected lesbian who exacted revenge on her “would-be sexual victim” only confirmed her guilt. It does not help that the Indonesian media’s LGBT coverage almost exclusively focuses on criminal cases, such as the notorious serial killer “Ryan.”
The cyanide coffee saga is thus life imitating art — or at least television, which is why most Indonesians were so intent on making sure Wongso did not go scot-free. In a sinetron, such a villain would use all the privileges at her disposal to subvert the natural order of things. It almost explains why they were not bothered by the almost total lack of motive in the case. The prosecution accused Wongso only of being angry at comments her friend made about a former Australian boyfriend. In the world of the sinetron, after all, villains act out of pure black-heartedness.
Poorer Indonesians are also implacably nationalistic. Indonesian nationalism, as with most post-colonial countries, is often tinged with xenophobic and anti-Western sentiments. The decision by Wongso’s defense team to invite two Australian expert witnesses — forensic pathologist Beng Beng Ong and toxicologist Michael Robertson — to testify may have impressed wealthier Indonesians, but it offended the patriotic pride of many ordinary people and aroused their suspicions. Why bring in foreigners? Aren’t our people just as good? Are they all conspiring together?
Early in the case, there were rumors that the Australian government was willing to share Wongso’s criminal records while studying in Australia only on the understanding that she would not face the death penalty. The press often alludes to her status as a permanent resident of Australia. And the Australian expert witnesses arguing in her favor did not help allay the fear of foreign intervention at work.
That paranoia — or defensiveness over their shoddy work — extended to law enforcement. Ong was arrested and deported by Indonesian Customs after testifying at Wongso’s trial on the charge of misusing his tourist visa. They had conveniently forgotten that Ong had been called upon in 2002 to help with the forensic identifications of the first Bali bomb victims while on a tourist visa as well.
Behind all this, though, is the struggle between Wongso’s family and Salihin’s. While the two families do not make the list of Indonesia’s top 10 richest, they are filthy rich by the urban wealthy’s standards, at least rich enough to “buy the law.” The fight between them is a drama that even those convinced of Wongso’s innocence can enjoy.
Indonesians have a proverb that goes, “When two elephants clash, the mouse-deer caught in between is doomed.” In Salihin’s murder case, however, two elephants are locked in a struggle while the tiny mouse-deer get to be the spectators. For the average Indonesian, this is a moment of sweet irony.
Watching giants grapple at each other’s throats without being trampled underfoot yourself does not happen a lot in a country where the political and economic elites hold the reins, often at the expense of the rest.
Ultimately, tragedies like Salihin’s death are seized upon by Indonesians because they expose the vulnerabilities of the country’s upper class and bring the hope that things can go awry, even for the giants.
While more and more Indonesians are joining the ranks of the middle class, the top of society remains sealed off. The Indonesian upper class, a mere handful of rich families, invariably keeps people out of their ranks through business cartels and other monopolies.
Ordinary Indonesians sitting at sidewalk cafes remark that the case has dragged on for so long simply because the opposing camps are equally matched in wealth and influence. They tut and tsk and speculate how much money has been thrown down the drain, while thinking the legal fees alone would bankrupt them.
In the meantime, Indonesia’s police and prosecutors are happy to have the spotlight on Wongso and her family, not on themselves, and to grab easy credit by fighting supposed foreign interference. The judges, for their part, fret because they have no jury to blame, under the country’s continental legal system, if their verdict is overturned on appeal or the public’s whim shifts. The whole thing makes the perfect setting for a national real-life melodrama. What more could anyone ask?
Photo credit: BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images