The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, March 22, 2019


Wells unwell so plastic pure?  A wet debate

UN World Water Day (Friday 22 March) promotes our absolute dependence on the liquid.  Duncan Graham reports from Flores, an island better known for droughts.


If you can’t see a water cooler from where you’re reading this, you’re probably not in Indonesia.

The upturned plastic kegs curiously called gallon - though they hold 19 liters which is a drop or two over five gallons – are a fixture in offices and most middle class homes.

Indonesian tap water isn’t safe to drink, so households buy bottles, or use suspect sources and then spend big on gas to boil out the bacteria which causes the runs,

But one island claims to be mining an aquifer that doesn’t need treatment and plans to   turn exporter, challenging the dominant players. 

Ruteng is a cool and tiny town 1,200 meters up the creased and crumpled Manggarai Highlands of West Flores.  The area is internationally known for the Liang Bua cave where remains of the extinct ‘hobbits’ (Homo floresiensis) were discovered by Australian and Indonesian archaeologists in 2003.

Otherwise the town is only remarkable for the architecture of its striking cathedral.

Flores is east of the ‘Wallace Line’ between Bali and Lombok, separating lush Asia from the arid Australian eco-zone.  Economies are small; the Lesser Sunda islands rely on Java for essentials and tourists for cash.

Ferries and planes from the west come with motorbikes and fuel, household goods and packaged foods, then depart largely empty apart from coffee and returning visitors. They’re drawn by dive sites and Komodo Dragons, the world’s largest lizards only found in the national park on Flores’ west end.

How to use that spare cargo space has long puzzled Ruteng businessman Agustinus Willy Djomi. (right) The answer is to export water to Surabaya under the trademark Komodo.

“People think Flores is dry, which is true when compared to Java,” he said.  “But we have huge underground lakes of pure water,” he said.

“We’ve been pumping and bottling for 20 years. Now we know there’s enough to export.  It comes up around ten to 15 degrees Celsius and has no impurities.  It’s filtered using German equipment but nothing is added.”

His company, PT Nampar Nos has been extracting 30,000 liters a day and selling throughout Flores under the Ruteng trademark. Its bottles are pressed in the factory using blanks imported from Jakarta.  There are about 100 workers, making the company the island’s biggest industrial employer.

However it’s not all pump and profit.  Expansion plans haven’t gone down well with some locals saying lifting production will drain reserves and create droughts.

Djomi refutes the charges, pointing to many private shallow wells around the town, and the vagaries of weather for irregular shortages.

Many cultures associate water with life and reject exploitation. Concerns about commercial operators sucking up and selling on is almost universal, even in high rainfall, wide-waterway countries like New Zealand.  Assertions about the health benefits and essential mineral content are also contentious.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has forced suppliers to scrub ‘organic’ from marketing material. A NZ company was fined NZ $25,000 (Rp 250 million) for advertising its product as better than plain, boring tap water.

Yet business keeps lifting, like sea levels due to global warming, even where tap water is safe.  This defies the Economics 101 principle that free goods can’t be sold. 

They can if hinting health and packaged with images of snowy peaks soaring above polluted plains, and bottles shaped like a woman’s body.

Retail prices go from Rp 1,000 for 600 milliliters to more then Rp 10,000 at kiosks in airports.

Indonesian sales, currently worth US $11,400 million according to trade figures, are expected to rise by ten per cent this year.  If the Ruteng product can get a cool place on Java’s supermarket shelves, Flores will move from importer to exporter.

That will be a tough task even with a gimmicky name. Komodo Dragons are stinking beasts so linking them to clean water could be risky. But maybe oxymorons attract.

The Indonesian market is dominated by the French food conglomerate Danone, which hardly needs advertising; its product Aqua has become a synonym for bottled water, whatever the brand.


Adam’s Ale, or Bali Belly?

It’s long been the cautious Western travelers’ basic question:  Is the water safe to drink?

If ‘Yes’ as in Australia, Singapore, much of Europe and the US then this implies the nation is modern and well run.  If ‘No’, as in most Asian countries, then the label suggests an undeveloped state.

But before you sneer because your homeland reticulates potable water purified at great cost, ponder why most isn’t used for drinking but showering, watering plants and washing the car.

Water quality varies across Indonesia.  Old timers tell of distant days when rivers were clean and swimming a joy, not a jeopardy.  Not now.  Some households tie muslin around faucets to catch the grit, and they’re the lucky ones.

Despite extension of pipelines by the regional water companies PDAM (Perusahaan Daerah Air Minum, more than 30 per cent is lost through leaks, according to Indonesian research.

Twelve per cent of the population still lacks access to water in their homes, meaning it has to be carried from a village well or standpipe.

The job of lugging jerry cans of water up hills is usually done by women. Released from this toil would improve their health.

A UNICEF report claims 150,000 Indonesian children die every year through preventable diarrhea. A 2015 survey in Yogyakarta showed two thirds of water samples were contaminated with fecal bacteria.

So even if you want to save the world by rejecting plastic bottles, in Indonesia saving your family’s well being might be the more immediate priority.

First published in The Jakarta Post 22 March 2019

Thursday, March 21, 2019



Outsiders who propped their eyelids apart to watch Indonesia’s third TV ‘debate’ ahead of next month’s national elections would have concluded the campaign is bloodless.

For 150 minutes – minus about a third for commercials and promos – vice president hopeful and hidebound Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin, shared a platform with challenger and business tycoon Sandiaga Uno.

Amin is coupled to incumbent President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo; Uno supports former general Prabowo Subianto in his bid for the top job. In this show only the VP candidates performed.

The hand-me-downs used for reporting such events include ‘scoring points’, ‘going head-to-head’ and ‘landing heavy blows’.   None of these clich├ęs are relevant in analysing last Sunday’s soft encounter.  (17 March).

Meanwhile, away from the formal forum other candidates are growling and slandering, desperate to contrive a crisis to sharpen differences. They have only four weeks left.


Amin has spent his life contemplating the Koran and negotiating a way through the labyrinth of Islamic politics to become head of the peak Islamic Scholars’ Council (MUI). He presents a yesteryear image, well out of whack with those claiming their nation is modern and progressive.

He’s short, plump, wears traditional Islamic garb, and at 76 moves slowly.  He sprinkles Arabic phrases through his presentations, bemusing those who are only mildly religious, and seems ill at ease in the secular world.

His opponent Uno, 49, favors Western suits and casual gear.  He’s a slim, US-educated articulate tycoon and said to be one of the nation’s richest men. He was deputy governor of Jakarta before this try-out on the national stage, and has reportedly been a hustings hit with millennials.

Before the ‘debate’ – really a set of mainly incontestable statements about the nation’s needs – forecasters said cosmopolitan Uno would blitz his opponent with know-how from his contact with commerce and Western ways.

Yet in the contest televised live from a Jakarta hotel before an audience of the Republic’s political elite, Uno positioned himself as subservient.

But this was not the underdog role played by Australian politicians trying to dampen their cocksure supporters when ahead in the polls.

Uno started by wishing Amin a week-late birthday greeting, and ended with a sungkem, the bowed hand-kissing gesture of respect for an elder.

In between he addressed him as Kyai (scholar) and Haji (one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca).  Only gentle criticisms were offered with the rider these were not personal– tactics which would cozy him up to older voters who venerate religious leaders.

The event was over-produced with short, timed responses to formal written questions on education, culture, work and health.  The last topic was undermined by commercials for fags, showing cool lads doing daring things in exotic locales, feats impossible without a nicotine fix.

No mention by either side of curbing smoking that kills an estimated half-million every year.

Also absent was any policy on how to cure the ills that both agreed are besetting the nation.  Yes, the education system is a mighty mess.  Opportunities are everywhere in the technology age, if only the schools knew what to teach.

Two million new entrepreneurs coming soon if I get in, said Uno. Watch out Shenzen, Jakarta will become Asia’s Silicone Valley once it knows how.  Much of the road, rail and port projects now underway and funded by Beijing loans, are being supervised by Chinese engineers and technicians because few locals have the skills.

The national health scheme introduced by the Widodo government is claimed to be the biggest in the world.  It also suffers gross fiscal pains as doctors and hospitals exploit the system, raising fees and pressing premiums up.

Uno said he’ll find a solution but didn’t say what.  Amin promised more clinics and doctors, but failed to explain how he’ll get the medics out of the cities and into the backblocks where most needed.

Much was motherhood stuff – literally.  In what seemed to be a pre-planned deal, the issue of stunted growth got onto the agenda.  According to the Health Department one-in-three kids under five suffers some retardation.  The men urged breast-feeding, maternal education and regular health checks.  Who wouldn’t?

Had the two swapped sides and talking points, few would have noticed

Both candidates used jargon.  ‘Link and match’ (in English) was Uno’s favourite while Amin sprinkled his prose with thanks to God; in Indonesia the Deity is involved in temporal affairs.  Infrastruktur’ sounds important so was tossed around willy-nilly.

The imagined outsider viewing this show of bland might conclude the campaign is civilized.  Not so away from TV studios where the fake news furnace is pouring molten rumors into social media.

Popular is that Widodo is a lukewarm Muslin with a secret agenda to crush the growing Islamisation of the nation should he get a second five-year term.

Party organizers, stunned by the strength of this scuttlebutt, pushed hard-liner Amin as the VP candidate to blunt attacks.  Widodo’s first choice was former chief justice Mohammad Mahfud, 61, a moderate cleric with proven legal and political skills.

The decision nonplussed modernists, as Amin is not the face of benign Islam. He’s on record condemning pluralism and homosexuality.  Under his watch the MUI issued fatwa (Islamic decrees) against the minority Ahmadiyah sect leading to continuing persecution, murders and village destruction. 

More recently the MUI prohibited a measles vaccine which allegedly uses human and pig cells – though has suspended a total ban as there’s no alternative.

Amin helped jail the former Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama by testifying against him in a contrived blasphemy trial, which led to a two-year jail sentence.

Uno let go any opportunity to attack Amin on his intolerance.  His history won’t make the cleric welcome in the liberal West if he’s elected – which is most likely – though not if he confines trips to Arab states.

The pragmatic backroom candidate coachers know human rights are not foremost in the minds of Indonesia’s 187 million voters.  Some TV channels preferred to screen soapies rather than the ‘debate’; they probably got bigger audiences.

Australian journalist Duncan Graham writes from East Java.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 21 March 2029:

Monday, March 18, 2019



Our deepest and most sincere condolences to our Islamic friends and their community in NZ, and to Muslims worldwide on this terrible day.

Your grief is ours; whatever our faith – or no faith - we are all diminished by this evil.  We stand together to repel hate and embrace respect.  We must not let today’s horror poison our future together.

Duncan and Erlinawati Graham


Indonesia - the new Andalus?                         

‘The stories are usually wildly unhistorical but also dramatic, wacky, poignant, funny, kitschy, uplifting, invariably fantastic yet often revelatory and profoundly true. Few of them are single-track narratives.’

Confused?  Don’t expect Western reason to put everything into logical order.  For Bandit Saints of Java is about the marriage of ‘the new authority of Indonesia with the age-old authority of Java.’

The media label ‘expert’ is over-used.  An exception is Dr George Quinn, 75, author of the opening statement from his latest book. He studied at Gadjah Mada University, speaks Indonesian and Javanese, and ran Southeast Asian studies at Australia’s premier university. He first visited in 1966 and is married to Emmy Oey from Central Java.

Despite his experiences and knowledge Quinn remains ‘bewildered’, like wide-eyed students on first encountering the ancient archipelago.

This humility, coupled with humor-laced prose, snares even the most casual browser. He’s from a near-extinct species, the lesser-jargon academic.

This is the most entertaining book in English on the mystery and magic, the ‘batik-like pattern of contradictions’ of this nation since Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia Etc. (2014).

The ‘bandit saints’ are the Wali Sanga, also known as Walisongo, the nine probably Arab traders from India, who brought Islam to Java in the 15th century.

How did they oust the existing faiths of Buddhism and Hinduism, also from India?  The rout was incomplete, the earlier ‘gods, heroes, villains, clowns and ogres of the shadow theatre still cram the imagination’.

One explanation is that the newcomers, unlike Protestant missionaries, accepted existing religions and adapted. Sunan (Honorable) Kalijaga used wayang kulit performances to show ‘the Islamic reality behind the ancient Hindu stories, so persuading them to embrace the new faith.’

Another version is that Java converted because King Brawijaya married an Indochinese Muslim princess who whispered about her faith while lovemaking.  Less romantic is the suggestion that Hindu worship had become elitist and complex while Islam was simpler and accessible to the masses.

In other tales, many little known till now, the Nimble Nine changed the course of the Brantas River, shifted shape, leapt across barriers super-hero fashion, and like all sages, prophesized.

The Brantas did shift after a volcanic explosion, so facts morphed into fiction.  In one text the leading character is a walking, talking human penis who’s an opium addict and gambler.  Try that, Hollywood.

Then there’s the toddler-demon tuyul, and a menagerie of wraiths still spooking millions, as newsstand pulp mags and TV soapies (sinetron) plots prove. Superstition sells.

Quinn re-tells the folklore with wit, which he suspects may offend the more pious.  His prose never plods as it would if he kept a straight face at his keyboard.

Take the chapter on the 2010 clumsy attempt by big business and the state to demolish the grave of Mbah Priok in the heart of the North Jakarta container terminal. It’s a case study of religion being manipulated as clerics and ministers perform Olympic standard gymnastics of unreason seeking solutions.

Another hilarious section recalls the strife caused when it was discovered that many mosques were not oriented towards Mecca, but Christian Ethiopia.

The open upsurge of Islam, from the benign wearing of headscarves to stirring extremism, worries many. Yet Quinn remains hopeful that the world’s most populous Islamic nation, though officially secular, could become ‘the new Andalus.’

(At the turn of the first millennium the Muslim-ruled Spanish state was an educational, cultural and scientific center famous throughout Europe.)

The few foreigners who venture beyond Bali usually follow the Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Borobudur and Mount Bromo circuit. Fears of encountering extremists or offending protocols deter straying. 

Over years of visiting venerated places the author reports only one challenge, at Surabaya’s Ampel mosque, which was rapidly reversed.

Although he’s not a Muslim, Quinn’s intimacy with Islam and Javanese culture are useful insurances. The less knowledgeable, who stay respectful and curious, seldom encounter anything more oppressive than demands for selfies.

Westerners will better understand Indonesia through seeing the Wali Sangas’ real or mythologized tombs (Sunan Bonang has four) and other holy places.  Many were sacred long before the arrival of Islam. Some are believed protected by Javan tigers, though now extinct.  Weird? Absolutely.

The sites draw millions despite ancestor worship being forbidden by the austere Saudi-funded Wahhabism that has penetrated Indonesia.

Quinn claims ‘compelling evidence that the ancient practice of saint veneration and local pilgrimage is booming’. So is the income garnered by canny local authorities charging fees to pray.

For those keen to erase their ignorance the website  gives directions to some sites.

Almost every page of Bandit Saints carries a memorable line: ‘Tradition is a suspect territory that is ripe for invasion.’ ‘The squint-eyed wariness of Java’s peasantry and the aloofness of patrician mystics’. 

‘I felt – as I always do – a powerful affection for the aural ambience of Islam. It is a very
public, very melodic ambience, as comforting and as beautiful (yes … beautiful, even when wrenched out of shape by screeching predawn loudspeakers) as Islamic architecture, dress, food, etiquette, calligraphy and decoration.’

And who could resist a chapter with the sub-head: ‘A gay saint, pushy women and Islam’?  Yet this is scholarship, not The Daily Mail.

Bandit Saints probably couldn’t be published in Indonesian lest it generate confected outrage, particularly in an election year. It is available in mainstream bookshops.

As an outsider, New Zealand-born Quinn doesn’t suffer the ‘anxiety Indonesians breathe every day in the air of public rhetoric.’ 

As a result we are enriched, inspired to visit and fortified by this pilgrim’s findings: ‘In the tangled Sherwood of Java’s cultural interior they (the Wali Sanga) wait in ambush, a stubborn challenge to the well-armed soldiers of fundamentalism.’

Bandit Saints of Java                                                                                                             
 Monsoon Books, Leicestershire, 2019                                                                              432 pages                                                                                         

First published in The Jakarta Post 18 March 2019

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


                           Should Kiwi values fly north?
New Zealand’s image has always been less coarse than Australia’s.

Both nations claim to be egalitarian. They salute the ‘fair go’, sharpen scythes to slash tall poppies and assert Jack and Jill are as good as their masters and mistresses. (The NZ Governor General and PM jobs are held by women).

Though the differences have been good for barbie banter, they lack protein. Kiwis have problems with vowels, though not with rugby.  They reckon it’s Godzone but half-a-million prefer life across The Ditch where the weather and wages are hotter and higher. There are seven sheep for every human in one place, and fewer than three in the other.

The hard rock has always been equality.  No longer. The top ten per cent of the NZ population holds 60 per cent of the wealth while the bottom half has four per cent. How to fix? Look north for an idea.


Seeking a house? Don’t venture across the Tasman.  While values in Australia are tumbling, those in NZ are whooshing ever upwards.

In Auckland, the nation’s biggest city, prices have doubled since 2010.  Other North Island centres are not far behind.  The government is now pondering a rare move, importing a policy from next door: A capital gains tax on windfalls from trading property. 

CGT came to Australia in 1985 via a Labor government; to widespread astonishment the nation didn’t turn into the Venezuela of the Pacific. However that’s what will happen if NZ follows suit, according to doom-mongers.

Opposition Leader Simon Bridges heads National – NZ’s tamer version of Australia’s Liberal Party. His concern is for ‘people who work hard, who save, who invest, who take risks deserve the fruits of their labour …there is nothing fair about a CGT that fundamentally gets in the way of that.’ He has four houses.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson urged Bridges ‘to turn the hyperbole volume down a little bit … I think the Kiwi way of life is about giving people a fair go, I think it's about making sure that everyone is treated fairly ... that's what New Zealanders look for.’
Maybe, for their politics are as exhilarating as a warm beer on a hot day. Compared with its giant neighbour’s fire-and-flood rhetoric on issues like asylum seekers, NZ is a high-country lake of tranquillity. 
Listeners knew they were in totally 100 per cent pure und fentestic jandal (thong) and judder bar (speed bump) territory when they tuned into Radio National NZ in February.

Suddenly a breaking news-alert:  Stop everything:  Trump shot?  Brexit solved? Morrison seeking asylum?  Just the discovery of one fruit fly. From Queensland. Shock, horror. The furious search for his mates lit up bulletins for a week.

Rental cars carry a dashboard sticker reading KEEP LEFT – which isn’t just about road use. Although Labour leads the present coalition, its National predecessor, which lasted three 3-year terms, was so close to the centre it would put Bill Shorten and Tony Abbott comfy on the same bench. 

Led by the jovial John Key, National was hard to hate.  He even ran a flag-change referendum; though the people said no, the millionaire former banker’s reputation didn’t, well, flag. When he found the job boring he quit.

His perpetually smiling Labour successor Jacinda Ardern, 38, is using the same ‘box of fluffies’ (Kiwispeak for ‘stay calm and carry on’) approach to crises. In many countries being a young unmarried agnostic Mum would make her unacceptable - in NZ it adds to her lustre.

The lunar right seldom gets treated seriously.  NZ is usually ranked as the world’s least corrupt state according to Transparency International. (Australia is 13th). The left has found discipline. It could all turn to custard tomorrow, but these facts are on the menu today.

There are plenty of silly decisions and stupid statements.  There’s been an eruption of committees and working parties examining every problem, including house prices.  Much is more talk than walk.

Overall public debates seldom get to the gladiatorial contests staged in the Canberra colosseum. For this thank some smart decisions made long ago that Australia might consider.

NZ has a Bill of Rights (1990) – Australia is still hesitating. Aotearoa isn’t cursed with a federal system. No State governments thwarting change.  Since 1951 there’s been no upper house to revise / stuff up lower house legislation. 

NZ has the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system also used in Germany and Scotland. MPs are either elected by their constituency, or appointed from the party list. It’s complex, but two years ago 80 per cent of registered electors voluntarily voted. Seven seats are reserved for Maori on a separate roll.

Australia is still chewing over a treaty with its indigenous citizens.  NZ’s was signed in 1840 and although friction over interpretations sometimes sparks scrub fires, most seem proud of the document, preserved as a national icon in Wellington.

There’s no contest that Waitangi Day (6 February) marks the nation’s foundation.  It’s an elaborate, drawn-out event involving Maori custom, religion, pakeha (European) rituals and fun on the treaty grounds. It’s sometimes been a forum for Maori rotten tomato protests, but this year Ardern was treated with respect and given the breakfast tomato sauce duty.

Like most leaders she uses Te Reo (Maori); scores of words are being stirred into English and used in the mainstream media confusing or delighting visitors. 

So some Australians are going to find it even more difficult to understand what’s going on next door.  If they can they might reckon there’s a thung or two to learn from Kiwis in exchange for the CGT.

Australasian journalist Duncan Graham, who usually reports from Indonesia, is briefly back in NZ.

(First published in Pearls and Irritations 12 March 2019:


Saturday, March 09, 2019


Megatsunamis – the threat we can’t flee                          

No imagination needed to know why William Dampier named the westernmost part of Australia Shark Bay. 

The English explorer and naturalist would have marveled at the wildlife back in 1699. It’s still there in what is now a World Heritage Site, 830 kilometers north of Perth. Apart from the predators, thousands of dugong and dolphins thrive in the globe’s largest seagrass meadows.

Smart observer though he was, Dampier either didn’t notice the huge limestone blocks sitting incongruously on the flat surface of an island, or thought them unworthy of record.

Three centuries plus ten years later, the State’s most senior geologist Dr Phil Playford, came, saw and pondered their presence.

What he discovered should send all Indonesian coastal dwellers packing their belongings and heading for the interior right now.

The huge boulders, some estimated to be 700 tons, had been smashed off the coastal cliffs.

They were then gathered by a giant wave, chucked 250 meters inland and dumped 15 meters above sea level.  The only force that could have rearranged the landscape so dramatically would have been a tsunami.

However not like those last year in Palu and Sunda Strait.  Though devastating and tragic, they were just ripples in the sea when compared to the megatsunamis which clawed and pummeled the West Australian coast.

Remember the lead character in the Peter Jackson movie King Kong picking up trucks and planes, then tossing them like tennis balls?  To get some idea of megatsunami might, make the monster gorilla ten times bigger and stronger, but minus the romantic interest and compassion it showed to the heroine Ann Darrow.
When the late Dr Playford’s research was published he said dating the rocks had shown that while most were moved between 2,900 and 5,000 years before the present, one upheaval was only six centuries ago.
The mammoth waves weren’t confined to Shark Bay.  Over time they shaped 3,500 kilometers of the continent’s northwest coastline, leaving some of the world’s largest megatsunami deposits.
These awesome events weren’t conceived in Australian waters; they began when the Indonesian Archipelago’s geology shrugged itself after its regular little lie-downs.
Playford suggested the awakenings were underwater volcanoes or massive landslips, like the slope that fell off the side of the Anak Krakatoa volcano in December.  An asteroid plunging into the Indian Ocean is another possibility.
Australia’s land mass is relatively stable; it’s not part of the Ring of Fire circling the Pacific and Indonesia. The continent’s few mountain ranges were pushed up millions of years ago.  Many have been eroded down to hills by the actions of wind, rain and sun.
There are no active volcanoes.  There have been earthquakes, but usually small and rare in built-up areas.
Around 1,000 people live permanently in Shark Bay settlements; thousands more visit during the winter months to fish and sightsee. If another megatsunami hit there’d be deaths, though not on the scale of suffering in Indonesia where millions live on or close to the coast.
The most recent megatsunami was in 1980 at Spirit Lake in Washington State when the Mount St Helens volcano exploded.  Water surges up to 250 meters were reported; fortunately this was a sparsely populated area so the death toll was only 57.
Twenty-two years earlier and also in the US, a landslide at Lituya Bay caused by an earthquake sent a 524 meters high mountain of water surging across the land, tearing down  forests in the Alaskan wilderness.  Once again there were no population centers nearby so just two perished.
But the most awesome megatsunami in recorded history was in 1833 when Krakatoa blew up in the Sunda Strait. Pressure waves circled the globe three times.
The bang was heard in Perth, 3,000 kilometers distant; it was reckoned to be four times greater that the largest human-made explosion ever. This was the Soviet hydrogen weapon Tsar Bomba detonated in 1961 at an Arctic Ocean test site.
About 36,000 may have been killed by Krakatoa and the ash fallout, which darkened the heavens for days. That number is suspect as communications were then primitive and there was no centralized disaster agency to count corpses.
Java is now the most densely populated island in the world. Even if all the early-warning system reforms promised by the government are implemented, they’ll offer no protection against a megatsunami.  That’s because there’s no coastal high ground safe against waves several times taller than the 132 meter Monas.
Consider the facts:  Jakarta is eight meters above sea level.  Surabaya, the Republic’s second largest city is just five meters, the Juanda international airport only three meters.
The nearest safe center in East Java would be Malang, 444 meters and far enough from the coast for the energy of any megatsunami to dissipate as it rushed across the land.  But the city is surrounded by mountains, including the highest in Java.
Semeru, 3,676 meters, has blown-up 56 times in the last two centuries.   It semaphores its power every morning as it puffs like a steam train.  The fine ash dusts everything, including the keyboard used to write this story.
Just a daily reminder that in this country we puny humans are forever at the mercy of nature. 

First published in The Jakarta Post, 9 March 2019


Wednesday, March 06, 2019


Papua – deal or no deal?     


Foreign “actors” are supporting Papua’s armed secessionists according to Tantowi Yahya, but he won’t name names:  “I believe this because the movement has become more orchestrated.”

Doing what – gunrunning, gold smuggling? Are they working from Australia or New Zealand, where the former TV entertainer is now the Indonesian ambassador?  Yahya jokes away attempts to put flesh on the straw man.

“It’s like someone in the room makes a smell,” he said.  “Everyone knows it’s happened but no-one will say they’re responsible.”

But the multi-talented quizmaster from Who wants to be a Millionaire? and Deal or No Deal (both on RCTI TV last decade) wouldn’t have his present job if Jakarta’s foreign-policy gurus didn’t see NZ as the locus of suspects.

The ambassador’s responsibilities also include Samoa and Tonga.  Some Pacific Islands, particularly Vanuatu, have been backing Papuan independence.

Yahya is an ideal pick to soften perceptions of a harsh administration; who wouldn’t join the famous Country and Western singer, composer and guitarist’s fan club?

This present gig is probably his toughest; pulling an applauding Kiwi crowd for a Papuan Country Road, however well crooned, is all uphill. 

Despite his business and music successes (he once sold ten million records), Yahya knows fame is fickle when good intentions get twisted. In 2013 he visited Palestine and Israel, reckoning Indonesia could help with the ‘two-state solution’ to the conflict so people can live “free of fear”. 

His good intentions damaged his career as extremists campaigned against him. “I don’t regret going but I do regret the hurt felt by some Muslims,” he said.

The knocks to Yahya’s messages on Papua keep coming. In December hundreds in Java were briefly arrested for celebrating Papua’s ‘independence day’.  He said many reports of the action were “hoaxes”.
In January a petition allegedly signed by 1.8 million Papuans seeking an internationally supervised referendum on independence was handed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
This month pictures of the police torturing a man with a two-meter snake went international. (The police later apologized and said they disciplined the officers.) 

On the day Yahya spoke to The Jakarta Post two Papua NGOs announced they’d boycott the 17 April elections alleging continuing human rights abuses.

The most serious event came late last year when 19 or more (reports are mixed) road workers were killed, allegedly by armed separatists now being pursued by the army. Yahya condemned the violence and stressed that humanitarian concerns had to top economic issues.

President Joko Widodo has regularly insisted that development of the two provinces (Papua and West Papua) is a high priority.

Yahya, who has visited Papua six times, defended the transmigration program which has seen about a million settlers move to the region of 4.4 million because they established new lives and brought fresh skills.

He dismissed suggestions that the Melanesian culture would be diluted by the newcomers and stressed indigenous values and faiths would be respected. “The aspirations of the people are most important,” he said. “We must listen.”

It’s unlikely Yahya’s ‘actor’ comments would have been made by a career diplomat shackled by protocols. However the ambassador was appointed from outside the Department of Foreign Affairs so has more freedom. 

For ten years he was a Golkar politician, first representing his home province of South Sumatra and later Jakarta.  His qualities include media skills and forcefully articulating the Indonesian government’s claims that even if all is not yet well in Papua, things are getting better.

Yahya handles all charges with equanimity: “It’s a work in progress. There are misperceptions of the situation – people are being misled. Papua was part of the Dutch East Indies. The 1969 Act of Free Choice confirmed Papua as Indonesian.” (A UN referendum of 1,025 leaders selected by the Indonesian military chose to join the Republic.)

He won’t countenance comparisons of Papua separatists’ struggle with the four-year guerrilla campaign against the returning Dutch colonialists after Soekarno declared independence in 1945.

Officially Australia and NZ recognize the provinces as Indonesian.  NGOs are independent. There’s a small though energetic group in NZ, including Protestant and Catholic Churches, campaigning on alleged human rights abuses. Maori and Pacific Island communities in NZ are also supportive.

Some cheer on separatists, though there’s no proof yet they’re doing more than firing off media statements and holding demos.  But they do draw the media.

Spokesperson for the Free West Papua Campaign is veteran activist Maire Leadbeater, 73. 

Her latest book See No Evil, subtitled ‘NZ’s betrayal of the people of West Papua’, is a scholarly work, prominently displayed in central Wellington’s premier bookshop.

Yahya says he’s read the book published by Otago University Press:  “The first three chapters are factual but the rest is propaganda.”  He hasn’t met the author, who formerly lobbied for a free East Timor, but says he would talk.  (Leadbeater said she was “open to consideration” of an invitation.)

Despite the obstacles Yahya perseveres.  He’s given the embassy’s reception area a Papua theme and has met local members of the London-based All-Party Parliamentary Group on West Papua.

As a politician in Jakarta Yahya showed he was more than a tenor in a ten-gallon hat by savaging Australia over halting asylum seekers transiting Indonesia, hoping to reach the Great South Land.

The ‘Pacific Solution’ aims to halt the traffic by turning back the boats and sometimes paying skippers to obey. Yahya called the policy ‘illegal, offensive and an affront to democracy.’

“I still hold that position,” he said. “All parties should sit down and discuss the issues. We have about 14,000 people in Indonesia who don’t want to be there. But I can’t see any solution right now.”

Which is how the Papua problem appears, though Yahya is not about to change his tune: “There’s no question about it. Papua is part of the Unitary State.”

First published in The Jakarta Post 5 March 2019


Wednesday, February 27, 2019


    Old soldiers don’t die – they just imagine                                    

Historians and older Westerners know well what followed the 1933 events in Germany known as ‘the burning of the books.’  Few Indonesians are aware that the forceful Student Union campaign against literature which didn’t promote the ‘German spirit’, fomented fascism.  

They should because it’s happening in their young democracy and threatening its future.

Right-wing elements of the Indonesian military are on a mission to recapture the political power lost early this century under the Reformasi movement.  

They’re using several tactics; the latest is to cleanse the nation of writings which soldiers deem to be promoting Communism or don’t conform to the official line of what happened on 30 September 1965.

That night six generals and a lieutenant were murdered in Jakarta, allegedly by members of the Communist Party (PKI).  A dreadful bloodletting followed with an estimated half million real or suspected party members slaughtered.

The upheaval felled founding President Soekarno and propelled General Soeharto into the Presidential Palace where he stayed for 32 years wielding absolute power by crushing all opposition. 

He also ruled through patronage, giving army cronies ambassadorships, company directorships, governorships and other perks. At one stage 75 seats of the Parliament’s then 360 were held by appointed members of the military.

The Dwifungsi (two functions) policy entrenched the armed forces’ role in society, even giving low-ranks the right to barge through queues and demand instant service.

Soeharto quit in 1998 after student protests against his rule and corruption.   Indonesia then went through its version of the Arab Spring, introducing democracy, direct election of the President, and freeing the press. 

The police became a separate civilian department charged with maintaining internal order. Previously it had been a branch of the army.  

There are now around 500,000 men and a few women in the armed forces, plus 400,000 reservists. The police also have about half-a million. Conscription is in the law but volunteers easily fill the ranks.

Before Reformasi the military saw itself as the exclusive custodian of the nation’s values, which it determined.  Remnants of that age refuse to accept the world has spun into a new orbit and their place is the barracks.  Key among them is the paranoid former Armed Forces Commander, General Gatot Nurmantyo.

He reckons Indonesia is threatened by ‘proxy wars’ involving foreign states, particularly the US and Australia.  In his nightmare the allies are planning to invade West Papua. He reasons that’s why marines are rotated through Darwin under the 2014 Force Posture Agreement.

Nurmantyo is also notorious for reportedly saying: ‘Our (Indonesia’s) democracy at the moment is populist and led by forces through means of a vote. The many are not necessarily right.’

In 2017 he suspended all military cooperation with Australia.  His action, which appears to have been unilateral, came after a hyper-nationalist officer training at the Australian Special Forces base in Perth claimed lecturers were insulting the Republic.  The scrub fire had to be hosed down at ministerial level.

Before Nurmantyo, 58, retired last year he was being tipped as a candidate for the presidency. That didn’t happen but he continues to get coverage with weird statements about conspiracies and returning Reds.  They’re not under beds (the masses use mattresses on the floor), so they’re plotting in unnamed restaurants and dark rooms.

He’s backing another former general, Prabowo Subianto who’s standing against incumbent Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo; the official commander-in-chief has no military background.
The book seizings appear to be illegal; in 2010 the Constitutional Court overthrew the censorship laws of Soeharto’s New Order government. 
The raids have only been condemned by civil rights groups and individuals brave enough to shrug off charges that they’re fellow travelers. Widodo, who has also joined the chorus of vigilantes, has been silent.
The print enemies sought by soldiers are few and hard to find.  Occasionally there’s a wrinkled translation of Karl Marx, plus some speculative tracts by pseudonymous scribes.  The most credible alternatives to the army’s version of history are coming from overseas scholars, written in English and rarely seen.
Last year Australian academic Dr Jess Melvin published her research founded on original army documents.  Not for her the excuse that the massacres were spontaneous uprisings of pious Muslims outraged by godless Marxists.

The conclusions in her book The Army and the Indonesian Genocide are definitive:
The military organised the mass killings and supplied the weapons.  Soldiers arrested suspects and then gave them to armed mobs to torture and murder. 

The devil makes work for idle hands; the army now has little to do other than chase armed separatists in West Papua and help out in natural disasters; these strike regularly and brutally through earthquakes, tsunamis, landslips and floods.  A few officers go overseas on peacekeeping, but the rest tend to be perpetually exercising – ready for the threats.

This month the respected newsweekly Tempo reported that the military wants changes to a 2004 law restricting retired officers to positions in a limited number of ministries and civil institutions.
Military chief Hadi Tjahjanto was reported saying about 500 middle and high-ranking officers heading for pensions wanted to get involved in civilian life.  A curious request in the West, though not in Indonesia where the much-medalled expect sinecures to preserve their prestige.

So what can old soldiers do to ease their post-power pains but hanker for the good ol’ days and dream up menace? Authors are an easy target, though ironically few Indonesians buy books.   This is hardly surprising as so many were banned during the Soeharto era.

 First published in Pearls and Irritations 27 February 2019. See: