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, November 23, 2011


The Indonesian military would be determined defenders but at present don't have the appetite or capacity to be invaders.


In 2006 the two relevant Foreign Ministers, Alexander Downer and Hassan Wirajuda, signed the Australia-Indonesia Agreement on the Framework for Security Cooperation.

It took two years of negotiations to develop the document, which replaced the 1995 formal defense pact. What’s now known as the Lombok Treaty committed both nations to cooperation and consultation in defence and law enforcement, combating international crime and terrorism, and sharing intelligence.

The two countries also agreed they would not ‘in any manner support or participate in activities by any person or entity which constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other Party’.

Then suddenly last week Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and US President Barack Obama announced that up to 2,500 American Marines would be stationed in Darwin, the largest port in Australia closest to Indonesia. This newspaper described the news as a ‘bombshell’.

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa had apparently been alerted ahead of the announcement. Did this comply with the Lombok Treaty clause on ‘consultation’? Only if you embrace Australian newspeak where the word has become synonymous with informing others after a cast-iron decision has been made.

That wasn’t the only gulf in interpretation. It seems Australia’s decision to allow heavily armed foreign forces to dig in on the border doesn’t fall into the category of threatening the other's ‘stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity’.

Indonesia appears to differ. Dr Natalegawa, who was educated in the UK and Australia and is no slouch in understanding the subtleties of English, was reported as saying it could create “a vicious circle of tension and mistrust”. In plainspeak this is instability. The Treaty was designed to do the opposite.

Establishing a US base in northern Australia is meant to send a message to India and China, the two growing super-powers. But between those faraway places and the Great South Land lies a lovely archipelago, the world’s third largest democracy. This strategic zone will now have American warships, warplanes, submarines and helicopter gunships on a nearby beach – and Indonesians weren’t asked what they thought.

Perception depends on position. Living a few hundred kilometers northwest of Darwin I have a different view of plans to turn the Northern Territory into an armed camp than when I lived in Perth.

If I was still in my home state (and earlier state of ignorance about Southeast Asia) I might have thought the idea of beefy American soldiers between little me and the land-hungry masses of Asia to be comforting.

Most Australians know about their nation’s empty interior and over-populated neighbours. We’ve grown up fearing the menacing arrows of descending communism believing that only the gallant forces of the Free World could stop the evil Red Tide, just as they halted the Japanese in the 1940s.

But then we matured and it seemed that the gravity theory driving Australian foreign policy had been buried. Wrong. Last week it was exhumed and revived.

It’s been embarrassing trying to explain to Indonesians why a sovereign nation would allow foreign troops to be based on its soil, unless, of course, the host is weak, insecure and subservient to a colonial master.

That’s the obvious logic, and no end of rabbiting on about independent alliances and historical ties will shake local opinion. My friends are just a mite confused – why the US military and not the UK when Australia has the Union Jack on its flag and the Queen’s head on its currency?

It would be easier trying to explain cricket.

The Indonesian media response has been robust with commentators asking how the deal sits alongside the regular pleas for Australians to develop friendly grassroots relationships with the people next door. There’s been much talk of a new Pearl Harbor.

How would Australians react if Indonesia suddenly announced a similar number of Chinese troops being stationed in Bali? Would Canberra accept the “normal bilateral agreement” line? If our Javanese neighbors in suburban Malang invite Ambonese hardmen (the preman usually used for ‘protection’) to settle in and flex their muscles my family would be rapidly reappraising our community relationships.

Does Indonesia have territorial ambitions on Australia? It’s about as impossible to erase this deeply-embedded but absurd fear in the Australian psyche, as it is to convince the electorate that the US will not necessarily dash into the fray should the continent be attacked.

The Indonesian armed forces would be formidable defenders of their land, but don’t appear to have the equipment, funds, or enthusiasm to invade 7.69 million square kilometers. There’s no discernable political appetite for such an insane adventure. Terrorists occasionally add Australia in their visions of a Caliphate but these crackpots are on the fringe of the fringe.

The last test of US resolve in this region came during the 1999 East Timor Referendum crisis when Australia appealed for American involvement. Then president Bill Clinton manoeuvred a few warships but kept them over the horizon. The tension with Indonesia was an Australian problem, and no grunts’ boots were among the international peacekeepers that trod the turf of what is now Timor Leste.

The realpolitik is that future US policy will be based on that nation’s national interests at the time and having a US Marine base in Australia will make not a whit of difference. If Washington decrees these troops will be deployed elsewhere or sent back to their northern hemisphere home, Canberra’s agreements with the US will have no more value than the Lombok Treaty.

In the meantime we Australians have to remain in this region for the rest of our existence. Better Ms Gillard puts her government’s energies into encouraging us to understand and appreciate our neighbours than being matey with the Marines.

If we really must have a US presence, then invite the Peace Corps.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 23 Nov 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


It was an evening I Nengah Latra can never forget – 3 March 1986. The 19-year old Balinese farmer’s son who had his heart set on a career in the army was taking part in a cremation ceremony.

A kerosene lantern wasn’t working properly. He opened the glass and tried to adjust the wick. Tihe lamp exploded, showering him with burning fuel.

After 42 days in the Karangase hospital Latra was sent home to his village in East Bali, only partly healed. His blistered wrist was fused to his upper arm. His fingers on one hand were webbed, like a duck’s foot, his flesh appallingly mutilated. He was tortured by pain – and bitterness.

“I was angry with God, my family, everyone,” he said. “My hopes of joining the military and breaking free from poverty were gone. I thought it was the end of my life. I was ashamed. For two years I hid, avoiding contact.”

But that’s impossible in Indonesia, particularly in a small, dirt-poor farming community. Agus Safyi, a one-legged field worker from a Yogya rehabilitation centre found the physically and emotionally twisted man and suggested he go west for training.

Latra resisted for several months. “In my village Java was another country, far away. Even if I’d flown to the US people would still say I’d gone to Java and would probably never return. There had been cases of Javanese collecting Balinese cripples promising work, but using them to beg.

“It took months before I persuaded myself that it was not a trick, and much longer to get my family to let me go. Yet my real motive was to hide somewhere else, to disappear.

“Eventually I went and it was the turning point in my life. I met these extraordinary people who were in a far worse situation, yet they were happy and productive. I realized I’d been wasting my time on self pity.”

In Yogya he was trained in radio repairs and did so well the center’s founder, New Zealander Colin McLennan, arranged for Latra to have plastic surgery.

The operation was a success and he could now use both arms and hands. The anger started to ebb. But back home he found his new abilities difficult to use. In a village without mains power few appliances needed fixing.

He returned to Yogya and after working as a cleaner learned more skills, including English and management. Eventually he joined the rehabilitation centre staff. On regular trips to Bali he searched for other disabled people who could benefit from training.

Many were victims of the polio epidemic that swept Indonesia in the 1970s. Others were congenitally crippled or had been injured in accidents. All hid their anguish from the stares of neighbors, silently seething, compounding the agony.

Their misery was twisted further by diehard cultural beliefs. Surely the families had badly sinned to be so terribly afflicted? This was their fate, and nothing could be done.

“Government statistics claimed only three per cent to the population was disabled,” said Latra, “yet I knew the real figure was much higher, with even more in Nusa Tenggara. There was a need for a rehabilitation centre in Bali, but no money.”

He put together a proposal and sent it to the British Embassy. Within two weeks the sum sought, Rp 75 million (US$ 8,000) had been granted. The governor of Bali gave a building originally set up for the handicapped, but left empty because there was no operating budget.

The large foreign community in Bali stepped in with resources and the center was a success. Then came the Bali bomb in October 2002. Most non-Indonesians fled the island.

“Our organization was unconscious,” said Latra. “I prayed to God: ‘Should I give up and close? Run away, do something new?’” But one outsider did stay in Bali, Kiwi tour operator Jan Mantjika. She helped found a support group.

“The NZ Embassy endorsed Latra and I was impressed with his enthusiasm and integrity,” said Mrs Mantjika. “He understood Balinese culture. He knew what the disabled were thinking and how difficult it was to become an acceptable member of the community. But he was doing everything himself.”

Among the 202 people killed in the first Bali bomb was an Englishwoman, Annika Linden. Her grieving fiancĂ©, finance trader Mark Weingard set up a foundation to help bomb victims and also supported Latra’s enterprise.

The philosophy behind the Annika Linden Foundation (ALF) is that ‘positive action is the only way to counter the negative impact of this event’.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragedy next October the ALF will open a building in the Denpasar suburb of Tohpati to house four charities supporting the disabled.

Latra’s enterprise, now named Puspadibali (Bali Foundation for empowering people with disabilities) has so far helped rehabilitate, make and fit prosthetics for more than 1,140 people. It will be housed in the one-stop shop for the disabled, integrating services.

The present workshop will be used to repair and store wheelchairs

It all sounds good and grand, but Latra looks forward to the day when there’s no need for overseas-funded charities and altruistic foreigners to help the disabled. That’s because the government will fulfil its constitutional responsibilities to care for all citizens, and the handicapped will be accepted into society.

The Indonesian Parliament ratified the UN Convention on the rights of Persons with Disabilities last month (Oct) four years after signing the document.

Latra and his colleagues, including volunteers from Australia, hope this means action will follow, sidewalks will be made safe for wheelchairs, access to buildings will be up ramps, toilets will have grab rails and employers will recruit the competent disfigured.

In a society where staff selection is often based on youth and good looks, this climb over the barriers will be near vertical.

“That’s my dream, but it will take a long time, maybe a generation,” Latra said. “There are so many things that need to change. We often find people who cannot be trained because they haven’t been to school, so we first have to teach them to read and write.
“Ten years ago charities’ reputation depended on what they were doing for the people – now the issue is what they’re doing with the community.”

Latra no longer wears long-sleeved shirts and doesn’t keep his hands in his pockets. Curiously this means his livid scars are barely noticed. The man’s personality and unflagging advocacy dominates, pushing aside any disability. He’s married and has four children.

Does he ever think that if he hadn’t been burned he would have joined the army and might now be an officer?

“Perhaps, and I might have been killed,” he said.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 14 Nov 2011)


Friday, November 11, 2011


Siap! (Ready!) The battle cry of the 1945 pemuda. Dr Frank Palmos (centre) with East Java Governor H Soekarwo and Western Australian Trade Officer Martin Newbery at the thesis handover.


Historian Dr Frank Palmos’ claim that the 1945 Battle of Surabaya was ‘Indonesia’s Gallipoli’ might leave many Indonesians puzzled.

But his apt description resonates with his fellow Australians. They’ll immediately understand even though the ragged, ill-armed Indonesian independence fighters lost. They started as ragamuffins, but they graduated as Revolutionaries

The 1915 invasion of Turkey on the beaches of Gallipoli Peninsula by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was a debacle – but it led to the two countries’ soldiers creating their own ANZAC image and history, independent from Britain.

Likewise the prolonged stand by an untrained force in East Java was doomed when thrown against the war-hardened British and Gurkha troops equipped with tanks, planes and ships, fighting on behalf of the Dutch, desperate to retrieve their East Indies treasure.

The bamboo spear boys were determined not to let their loathed masters back when the Japanese occupation forces surrendered. They fought furiously in deadly street battles, mightily impressing their opponents.

The Allies had been misled into expecting a pushover by the Canute colonisers who couldn’t read the changing tides. The world took note. International support for a Dutch return began to ebb.

“The people of Surabaya were the first to be fully free Indonesian citizens,” said Dr Palmos. “They seized their city from the Japanese, defending it while extending the Republic’s first independent territory.

“They created a functioning civil service that went deep into East Java when Jakarta and the rest of the country was controlled by foreigners, even though Independence had been proclaimed in August.

“They had freedom for 99 days. About 100,000 eventually died, and when the Dutch took over the city was maybe 70 per cent empty.

“Until recently these important events haven’t been adequately addressed by local or international scholars for a number of understandable reasons.

“Most relate to the versions of history imposed by the first two presidents, Soekarno and Soeharto. They used Indonesia’s revolutionary history to portray themselves in pivotal roles and to buttress their administrations. Neither man fought in Surabaya.”

Dr Palmos will present Surabaya 1945; Sacred Territory to Soekarwo, the Governor of East Java to mark Heroes Day. It’s an academic work but Dr Palmos is no sequestered scholar.

After mastering Indonesian in villages and kampong, in 1964 he opened the first Australian news bureau in Jakarta. Few foreigners understood the language so the young reporter became an honorary simultaneous interpreter for diplomats and journalists covering President Soekarno’s speeches.

Later he reported on the Vietnam War. During the 1968 Tet Offensive he was the sole survivor of a Viet Cong ambush that killed four journalists. His book of the tragedy, Ridding the Devils, explores his post-war return, seeking the man who shot his colleagues when it was clear they were unarmed reporters. It’s also a scarifying account of post-stress trauma.

After working in Paris and the US Dr Palmos became an award-winning TV reporter. He also translated The Sorrow of War, the story of a Vietnamese soldier by novelist Bao Ninh. The work has been judged by the Society of Authors in London as one of the best 50 translations of the 20th century.

Work on his thesis, which may be published as a series of school-level books next year, began in 1996 when Dr Palmos retired from journalism, successfully challenged a near fatal rare disease and returned to study.

He ransacked archives in Indonesia and Britain, translated more than 1,500 pages from Indonesian into English, and videotaped interviews with scores of veterans and historians, like Retnowati Abdulgani-Knapp.

Her father, Roeslan Abdulgani who died in 2005, was a Revolutionary who later became UN ambassador. He bequeathed his papers to Dr Palmos, and these became his research starting point. The author ranks the diplomat’s account of the battle – 100 Days that shook Indonesia - as the best local history.

Other sources included Suhario Padmodiwiryo (Memoirs of a Student Soldier), and Irna Hadi Soewito, author of the memoirs of Brigadier-General Sungkono, the Inspector general in the army during Soekarno's presidency.

These writers and some veterans are expected to be at today’s ceremony, but the restless Australian still wants to meet others who may have escaped his net.

“I’m hoping to draw out of Surabaya, Malang, Mojokerto, Kediri, Sidoarjo and elsewhere memoirs that are probably lying about in family drawers and boxes left by departed veterans, or with luck, by living veterans,” he said.

“My work will bring about massive changes to the Internet ‘histories’ of Surabaya of the time. Almost all the current stories on the Battle of Surabaya have to be rewritten and replaced with genuine, original research. Most of the foreign literature on the Battle is based on counterfeit or flimsy reports.”

Frank Palmos life is a template for a do-it-yourself career in journalism. He was born in rural Victoria in 1940, the son of a Greek shopkeeper. He started work at 14 as a newspaper messenger boy knowing exactly what he wanted – to be a war correspondent. But the stairs were steep in an industry dominated by Anglo-Saxons.

Fortunately he was gifted with compensations; tenacity, curiosity, and the secret of migrant families’ success – a gluttony to learn. His knack of picking racecourse winners raised cash for books and travel.

Australian columnist and broadcaster Peter Russo, who was forever badgering his Eurocentric audience to understand their Asian neighbors, pushed the young journalist to focus on Indonesia.

When his newspaper opened a Jakarta office fresh Frank elbowed aside seasoned correspondents for the job because he’d single-mindedly seized the language and grappled the culture.

He was rewarded by witnessing the great jolts of history, like the coup that felled Soekarno and raised Soeharto, and to be in Vietnam before governments learned how to turn reporters into puppets.

“I’ve long held to the belief that we should add something to the worth of the world,” Dr Palmos said. “We should add knowledge, and it should be lasting.”

Does he think he’s achieved his goals?

“Yes, I do, I’m confident of that.”

(First published by The Jakarta Post 10 November 2011)