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

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Treating history with grace Duncan Graham

Grace Pamungkas got fed up working for the government.

As an architect with social justice ideals she became frustrated when called on to research public housing and restoration projects, and prepare budgets.

“When the money was allocated we got only 30 to 50 per cent to do the job,” she said. “The rest went elsewhere – who knows?

“I realised I wasn’t suited to working for government departments. I wanted to make a difference, and it was clear that many public servants were not servants of the public. They were just concerned with money. It was time to move.”

This wasn’t her only bad experience with the bureaucracy. The next lesson was about cultural imperialism and it didn’t come from a textbook.

After graduating in architecture from the University of Indonesia she went to Flores with UI staff. Her job was to assist planning the rehousing of people who’d lost their homes in the 1992 tsunami that followed a 7.8 magnitude offshore earthquake.

The army was responsible for providing temporary housing, which inevitably became permanent. But many homes were left unoccupied.

“The planners were from Java and looked at the project as though the homeless were farmers,” Ms Pamungkas said. “But these were fishers, people of the sea and the houses provided were not suitable. The locals weren’t consulted, or if they were their views weren’t heard.”

Back in Jakarta she took to walking to university and work and rapidly discovered a world invisible from the tinted windows of limousines. City poor are not so obvious as those in the villages. They live in kampong burrows, packed tight, squashed into airless and unsanitary low roofed, flimsy-walled rooms, or squat in old industrial buildings abandoned by their owners.

The gap between the wong kecil, the ordinary folk, and the rich was far wider than the multilane freeways that separated their homes.

“I was concerned about public housing for the poor,” she said. “I came across the gemstone workers who live alongside the railway tracks in Jakarta and learned about their lives in a very historical area. It was just a coincidence.

“The rich can pay to build what they want where they want. But the poor have to wait for government housing and this isn’t a good standard.”

But not all the rich are indifferent to history. With noted historian and Jesuit priest Adolf Heuken, who she met at a seminar, Ms Pamungkas was commissioned by Jakarta businesswoman Susilawati to research Galangan Kapal Batavia.

This was the 300-year old Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC – the United East India Company) shipyard on the banks of the river Kali Besar. Like many Dutch era buildings it had been used as a warehouse. Despite a study construction its ill-maintained timbers had rotted and brickwork fretted.

The building has now been renovated to become the VOC – the Very Old CafĂ©. Father Adolf and Ms Pamungkas had their work published as a book, complete with quaint and ancient drawings of a busy waterway full of swans alongside wide paddocks with prancing horses – areas now densely packed with houses and markets.

The pair then went on to another book, this time on buildings in the swish suburb of Menteng.

As the child of a Dutch Reformed Church pastor helping build schools for the needy Ms Pamungkas, 39, had the benefit of living in many parts of the archipelago - and the disadvantage of having nowhere to call home.

Though born in Bandung she spent only three years in the West Java city before moving to Riau. Then it was off to Sulawesi, Sumatra again and back to Java. Although good at art and design she chose to study architecture because it offered practical opportunities, though she found her natural talents in research.

Which is what Ms Pamungkas is doing at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. While improving her English she’s investigating floating eco-houses, an idea pioneered in the Netherlands to cope with flooding.

Next year she hopes to take up a scholarship so that she can study the preservation and conservation of old buildings. To fund her studies she and her graphic artist husband Enrico Halim sold their house in Jakarta.

Her thesis, which is still under review, will look at the way the Dutch imposed their building styles and town planning on Jakarta. When the walled city proved unsuitable the colonialists had to reset their attitudes to suit the tropics, borrowing from local wisdom.

She will compare the situation in her homeland with the way the British took their architecture to rugged earthquake-prone Wellington, which is reputed to be the world’s windiest city.

The newcomers had to rapidly modify their attitudes, learning from the Maori who built to survive a harsh climate, not hang on to hard-set ideas imported from another continent.

“When I get back to Indonesia, hopefully with a Western education, I plan to teach the importance of saving our past,” she said.

“The new generation doesn’t harbor hatreds against the Dutch and are more inclined to respect historical buildings.

“History education in Indonesian schools has just been a memorising of dates and places. Studying history has meant meeting an obligation to fill marks. Sadly it’s not part of our culture now to respect our ancestors, though I suspect it was different in the past.

“Look at the way we demolished the house where (first president) Soekarno read the proclamation on Indonesian independence. Elsewhere in the world that would be a nationally important part of our heritage.

“Jakarta is a coastal city but we don’t care for our rivers and the sea. They’re just used as trash bins, bad places for poor people to live. I want to see a return to our respect for water, as we had in the past, to resurrect the beliefs of our ancestors.

“Cultural tourism is a significant business elsewhere in the world. The Dutch made a big effort, importing, for example, tiles from Czechoslovakia to beautify their buildings.

“If we could preserve and renovate some of the old buildings in Kota we could sell our city to the world, maybe rivalling Singapore in attracting visitors. What happened in the past is valuable for our future.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 30 June 2010)

Saturday, June 26, 2010


The pain that won’t go away Duncan Graham

Far, far away, Indonesia continues to get a bad press. Not just because of corruption, smoking toddlers and women having to wear long skirts in Aceh, but because of a tragedy in 1975.

At an outdoor memorial service in New Zealand for Gary Cunningham, the young Kiwi cameraman who was shot in East Timor 35 years ago, an Indonesian citizen privately offering apologies and sympathy approached his aunt, Pat McGregor (pictured above.) Indonesian Embassy diplomats and NZ government representatives were not present.

“There’s no need to apologise,” Mrs McGregor said as spokesperson for the Cunningham family. “It was not the fault of the Indonesian people. I was bitter at first, but I’ve got over that. However I’d still like those two involved brought to justice.”

(She was referring to former Special Forces officers Yunus Yosfiah and Christoforus da Silva who are alleged to have ordered the killings.)

On 16 October 1975 Indonesian troops invading East Timor (now Timor Leste) shot Cunningham and four other foreign journalists in the village of Balibo despite a sign on their house wall saying the reporters were from Australia. Although two were British, two were from Australia and one from NZ, all were working for Australian TV channels.

The men became known as the Balibo Five and failure to find those responsible for their deaths has been a running sore in Indonesian- Australian and NZ relationships ever since.

Balibo, an Australian feature film about the incident released last year has been banned in Indonesia, despite protests by Indonesian journalists. It was going to be shown at the Jakarta International Film Festival last December.

The film, based on books about the event and an Australian coronial inquest, claimed the men were deliberately killed because their reports would have revealed news of the secret invasion into what was still a Portuguese colony.

The Indonesian government has long claimed the matter is closed, arguing that screening the film would open conflict between Indonesia and Australia. However there was a surprise development last December when retired colonel Gatot Purwanto confessed that the men had been ‘executed’.

The Australian government has started a war crimes commission investigation into the killings – the fifth inquiry into the tragedy

Gary Cunningham, who was born in Wellington in 1947, moved to commercial TV in Australia after working for the NZ Broadcasting Corporation.

Late last month (May) about 50 people gathered in the rain on a hillside above Wellington to remember Gary and his colleagues, speak of the tragedy, condemn the Australian and NZ governments for not confronting Indonesia, and unveil a memorial bench covered with a Timorese ikat (traditional woven cloth).

Tim Pankhurst, secretary of the Media Freedom Committee, and chief executive of the Newspaper Publishers’ Association said it was important to remember that journalists faced danger when reporting wars, and needed support and protection.

So far this year 13 journalists have been killed on the job, the latest an Italian reporter in Bangkok. Last year 71 died.

Mr Pankhurst said fear of offending Indonesia had been behind past governments failing to pursue the issue. He called on the NZ government “to show similar courage and commitment” to Australia in chasing the facts.

Media professionals and human rights activists have continued to press Indonesia to prosecute those responsible for the shootings. Indonesia has continued to claim that the men were accidentally shot during a firefight between the Indonesian military and Fretilin militia.

Fretilin was the socialist resistance group, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor.

The journalists’ bodies were burned and some remains buried in Jakarta, though there are doubts that the ashes are those of the men. The men’s relatives were not allowed to fly to Indonesia for the funeral and could only attend a memorial service in Melbourne. Cunningham family members were not able to visit Timor Leste till 2003.

Mrs McGregor said support for the memorial had come from the Media Freedom Committee and the Indonesia Human Rights’ Committee (IHRC) a NZ organisation that has long been campaigning for justice for the Balibo Five.

Gary’s brother Greig Cunningham said many people were unaware that journalists put their lives at risk so viewers could get the news in the comfort of their homes.

East Timor had been a Portuguese colony for more than 200 years. When Portugal began to relinquish control in 1975 many nations, including Australia and the US, feared Communists might take control of an independent nation. After seizing control Indonesia made the little country its 27th province.

For the next 24 years fighting between Indonesian troops and East Timorese guerrillas took the lives of an estimated 100,000, Timorese and Indonesians, through warfare, starvation and disease.

In a 1999 referendum the people voted four to one to become an independent nation. Since then NZ troops have been part of the international peacekeeping force in Timor Leste.

Mrs McGregor said the news of her nephew’s death came on her silver wedding anniversary. At first the family was told Gary had died in crossfire, but later heard rumors that the journalists had been killed in cold blood.

“It was a great shock to us all,” she said. “Gary had worked in Vietnam during the war and knew the risks. He wouldn’t have done anything foolish. The government wouldn’t tell us what had happened.

“It’s important to honor him, even after all these years. We all feel just a little bit better now. Gary gave his life in the pursuit of truth.”


Monday, June 14, 2010


A war few wanted

Voices from a Border War
Robert Gurr
Wilson Scott Publishing

We all know smoking kills, though it usually takes years of inhaling toxins before the heart shudders to a halt or cancer triumphs.

But back in 1963, lighting up in the jungle during Soekarno’s Konfrontasi offensive against newborn Malaysia could have meant death was just seconds away.

That’s because the Indonesian soldiers continued smoking kretek (clove) cigarettes while trying to infiltrate Sarawak and Sabah, giving away their locations to the keen-nosed troops tracking them, according to these accounts from the men who were there.

It was a lesson learned too late, indicating not just a lack of authority but also that the Indonesian army, which was largely using irregular militia, didn’t really have its heart in the job.

It’s widely believed that the Ganyang Malaysia (Crush Malaysia) campaign had been launched for domestic political purposes, diverting attention from economic problems.

Soekarno had earlier been indifferent to Britain giving its colony independence. Then he changed his mind and started arguing that Malaysia was destined to become a puppet state. Konfrontasi ended quietly after Soeharto became president.

The four-year undeclared war cost Indonesia 590 lives. More than 770 men were taken prisoner. By contrast the British Commonwealth forces supporting the Malaysian federation lost 114, most of them Gurkhas.

Australian and New Zealand troops were involved and took the opportunity to refine their jungle warfare techniques. These were later applied in Vietnam – though not always by US forces who seemed not to have learned the importance of stealth and discipline, radios off, hand signals only, no after-shave and no smoking.

The Viet Cong did not make the same mistakes.

Also important was winning the hearts and minds of the locals. The phrase has now been corrupted by cynicism but in the Borneo border fighting it had real meaning.

Without the help of the ferocious Dyaks known as Iban, and who were often hostile to the Indonesians and enjoyed collecting their heads, the Commonwealth forces would have been floundering in the swamps and lost in the dense tropical forests.

The Iban had families on both sides of the border so could move around easily, though not always safely. They were used in psychological warfare, taking false messages to the Indonesian military, such as warning them to beware of minefields that didn’t exist.

The egalitarian Ozzies and Kiwis respected the Iban culture, paid the people to work, gave them medical supplies and won their loyalty. By contrast the Indonesian militia were reportedly brutal.

Brigadier Robert Gurr was head of the 1st Battalion Royal NZ Infantry Regiment fighting in Borneo and in this book he’s collected the stories of the men he commanded. There are only a few minor attempts at balance – these are the accounts of the victors.

That doesn’t mean they’re non-stop Boy’s Own Annual yarns of gallantry and smart soldiering. There are plenty of tales of stuff-ups and incompetence. Some of the worst casualties on the Malaysian side were not inflicted by Indonesians but by helicopter accidents.

Other problems included communication systems failing and mistakes in translation. There’s also humor. A commander about to evacuate a limping soldier found the man had put his boots on the wrong feet in his rush to withdraw.

One Kiwi in the midst of an ambush was surprised to hear the Indonesians calling out in English: ‘Come and get it British!’

“At such times life becomes like a slow-motion movie,” the soldier said. “I recall being intensely irritated that Indonesian intelligence should be so bad it could confuse a New Zealand infantry company with a British one.”

Of course the Border War was no chuckle time. Jungle warfare was nerve-wracking, brutal close-quarter combat where the enemy could suddenly appear, fire, and then vanish behind the dripping green curtain.

Some in the Commonwealth lines wondered what they were doing so far from home risking their lives in mud and malaria for a political sideshow.

But this was also the era of the great Communist scare when Australians felt particularly vulnerable. The West was terrified that Soekarno was turning his country into a Communist state and had to be stopped.

Although there’s evidence the Indonesian military was unhappy with their president’s leftist leanings they found themselves on the same side with Communist guerrillas also fighting to destabilise the Malaysian Federation.

Technically the Commonwealth forces were not supposed to enter Indonesian territory to avoid inflaming the international political situation. They had to wait on the Sarawak side for the Indonesian soldiers to cross over or parachute in before they could attack.

Inevitably such rules were ignored. By entering Kalimantan, making contact and then retreating, the pursuing Indonesians were lured over the border and trapped.

The troops were also not allowed to bombard Indonesian bases with artillery “unless the enemy acted aggressively.”

The Indonesians tended to operate in groups of 20 to 30 men and had no such restrictions on their movements. Until the later stages of the conflict they were the numerically superior force.

Thirteen years after Konfrontasi ended, good relations had been restored between the former combatants. One NZ officer attended the Indonesian Staff College where he met some of his one-time enemies. He reported that he was impressed with their honesty:

“Amidst laughter tinged with some sadness I would be regaled with the hardships they suffered in Kalimantan. They (the Indonesians) existed on very limited supplies over very long and extremely complicated supply lines and communications, but they were still able to fight with determination.”

By contrast the Commonwealth forces were backed by artillery, air power and good support with munitions, food and medicines.

There’s clearly a need for histories telling the Indonesian side of the conflict. It wasn’t the greatest moment in the Republic’s history but it deserves recognition for the courage shown by the men on the ground supporting their country.

(First published in The Sunday Post 13 June 2010)