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

Thursday, January 23, 2014


The jumbled world of Jihad 


If the topic wasn’t so serious this would be a darkly funny book.

Sociopaths with warped religious views aren’t the stuff of humor, but many characters in The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia are bumbling fools rather than sinister deviants.

They’re more likely to blow themselves to pieces (or heaven, according to their beliefs) than their targets, prone to fight each other than their perceived enemies and forever making clumsy errors that makes detection likely.

About 200 Indonesians went to Afghanistan to train between 1985 and 1991 but found the courses were taught in English and based on Indian military training.  When young men were employed as instructors, older recruits took offence.  The laid-back Javanese didn’t like the discipline and several dropped out.

None of this forgives evil intent. A bomb in the hands of an incompetent amateur or professional chemist is still a weapon that doesn’t discriminate, as the terrorists realized once body parts were scraped off the sidewalk. After the bangs, the debate.

Is it OK to kill innocent Muslim bystanders in a mission to murder unbelievers? Suppose the innocent are women and children. 

Should war be waged afar (in Western countries) or near, in the Republic run by pluralists who won’t impose sharia law, but are still brother Muslims?

What’s jihad – a violent struggle against oppressors, or an internal wrestling with deviance? What do the holy books say?

As always it’s the interpretation that determines.  Does the end justify the means? These are questions of deep philosophy but the intellectuals are too smart to strap on suicide vests.

That’s a job best left to the misfits who have lost their moral maps and rely on others to set the compass.

Solahudin’s book was first released in Indonesian as NII Sampai JI; Salafy Jihadisme di Indonesia and reportedly well received.

It has now been published as an English translation by Dr Dave McRae of Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy.

How did warped interpretations of Islam originate, and why did they take hold in Indonesia? 

Solahudin found getting answers hasn’t been easy.  People who plot to kill seldom leave lucid explanations for their actions, or chart their progress in assembling weapons. Then there’s the disinformation.

One of the few who articulated his conversion said:  ‘From the pesantren (Islamic boarding school) my fanatical feelings towards (mainstream Islamic organizations) Muhammadiyah, NU and so forth faded and disappeared – praise be to God – and changed into fanaticism for Islam’.

Apart from court testimonies the credible local literature wouldn’t make a doorstop, leaving the author to seek primary sources.

Even more difficult.  Those who haven’t killed themselves by confusing the green wire with the red one, or been gunned down, have died of old age, for the trail goes back to Darul Islam, the movement that predates Independence.

Those who have talked have given some dates, names and acronyms for the proliferation of forums and slogans. However apart from the more recent suspects, like the jailed cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, these lists mean little to those not in the security business.

What we do get is an insight into the fragmentation, disorganization and poor focus that makes up Indonesian terrorism.  The Western media talks about ‘membership’ of Jemaah Islamiyah and other groups as though members pay dues and carry laminated cards when the truth is otherwise.

The typical terrorist is young, disillusioned or dysfunctional, and often both, with a distorted view of the world.   Where others seek wisdom, they want revenge, hoping to change society by letting blood.  Paranoia is a prerequisite.

To the rational their actions seem doomed.  What difference have their bombs made?  Little, apart from a boom in security jobs and distrust of strangers.

The 2002 Bali bombing is usually marked as the start of modern terrorism in the archipelago.   It was the biggest but not the first.

Assassination attempts were made on president Soekarno, and others planned for his successor Soeharto.  These failed when a shopper sent to Malaysia with Rp 4 million to buy a rocket-propelled grenade returned empty handed.

Darul Islam considered the New Order government to be worse than the Dutch, arguing that though the colonialists interfered with the economy they left religion alone.

Churches were targeted, usually as revenge for perceived Western abuses of Muslims overseas.  Borobudur was bombed. 

The inspiration for these outrages came from overseas, particularly the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, with the Indonesians conveniently overlooking that their counterparts in Teheran were the hated Shiites.

The problem with fanatics of all faiths is that they’re closed to compromise, seeing the world as an old cowboy film, white hats versus black. 

Despite the record of Detachment 88 and the police, who have arrested over 700 suspects and killed more than 60, Solahudin offers little solace: ‘The resilience of the Indonesian jihadi movement is impressive … (reflecting) the idea of upholding Islamic law’.

While the success of democracy and a buoyant economy may dilute public support for extremists, ideological conflict in the Middle East continues to fuel the zealots’ ambitions – and provide the next generation of terrorists with the skills to maintain their hate.

The decades-old stories in this book of splits, plots, betrayals, pursuit and shootouts read like today’s news. Terrorism remains, an irritant rather than a movement, yet dangerous still.

The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia
By Solahudin, translated by Dave McRae
Published by UNSW Press 2013
236 pages



Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Daydreaming among the Dayaks                                 

There are two standard images used by outsiders trying to grasp Indonesia: Jakarta’s shopping malls and wayang kulit shadow puppets.

The first offers surprise – ‘goodness, we never know the country was so rich, modern and sophisticated’.  The second hints at hidden forces manipulating mysterious figures beyond the ken of Westerners. Both are trite.

Australian Dr Mark Heyward has avoided these clichés in Crazy Little Heaven – an Indonesian Journey. Instead he’s used an east-west rock and river trek across Borneo, undertaken almost 20 years ago before the chainsaw triumphed and mercury poisoned waterways.

He went to explore and help explain – at least to himself - the Archipelago’s multi-layered complexities. At the same time his venture became an interior search for direction.

Heyward was 37 and had lived in Kalimantan as a teacher with his Australian wife Jan and family before the 1994 trip, inspired in part by the epic explorations of 19th century British naturalist Alfred Wallace.

Heyward had been in Indonesia for two years so was no naïve newcomer, labelling everyone beautiful and gentle as so many Westerners do, even when being ripped off in Kuta.  He’s prepared to confront the tough stuff.

He asks an anthropologist the most difficult value he’s had to confront. ‘Dishonesty’ was his quick reply’ - letting the author canvass reasons for a trait that troubles so many Westerners, loving Indonesia but hating the lack of trust.

It’s a regular theme in the book as guides ramp agreed payments, pilfer stores and make false promises.  Then there’s the infuriating jam karet (rubber time) and what an American missionary calls ‘form over function’, the government tendency to focus on policy packaging and forget the product.

Eventually Heyward gives up and accepts the ‘frank dishonesty’, adding: ‘Living and travelling in Indonesia teaches you nothing if not flexibility of thinking’.

His mates were two Australians, two Europeans and an Indonesian. One carried dive gear.  They wore bow ties for dinner and played cards round campfires. They met a sandalwood trader who asked the obvious.

The exchange illustrates the cultural divide: ‘This is always difficult to explain’ writes Heyward.  ‘Local people seem unable to comprehend that a journey might be undertaken simply for its own sake.

‘An expedition? the chubby trader suggests. No, not really an expedition.  We just travel for fun.’

The answer is clearly unsatisfactory so they settle on a book.  Who’d risk 17 uncomfortable, exhausting and dangerous days in largely unmapped jungle, far from help, unless there’s another agenda?

A middle-age identity crisis and search for self?  Seeking sense of the bigger issues through a back-to-basics adventure? Time out with the lads to escape domestic responsibilities?  Perception through perspiration?

All these and more, plus the limp ‘fun’.   Before the trip the author’s marriage fell apart and his ‘trailing spouse’, who never wanted to live in the ‘boy’s town’ of Sangatta, returned to Tasmania with the couple’s two kids. On the real and metaphorical watershed between East and West Kalimantan he pondered his future.  The East won.

Later this Anglican bishop’s son met Sopantini, a teacher from Central Java. He converted to Islam – though nicked off for a beer during the marriage ceremonies - and started a new family.  He now works as an international education consultant and lives in Jakarta though has a home in Lombok.

As a travelogue the book moves well.  Heyward comes across as an adaptable guy worth meeting, despite smoking kretek. He has the essentials - curiosity, sense of wonder and feel for place.

These qualities sustain the reader, though the author’s habit of darting after nectar sometimes makes the boots-in-mud tramp difficult to follow. An index would have aided navigation.  Likewise a detailed map.

Knowing something of the lifestyles of Dayak tribespeople living on the Mahakam River, and migrant laborers in Kalimantan’s expanding extractive industries helps provide insights into the problems facing a nascent democracy seeking its place in the world.

What’s the connection between a pale-skinned, miniskirted shopper in a capital plaza and a dark girl with long ear lobes laden with jewelry on the steps of a stilt house?  They illustrate the Republic’s diversity, and hint of the difficulties in running the nation.

One moment he’s confronting a breakfast of boiled frogs in Kalimantan, the next analysing religion in Flores. His observations are usually interesting, though often distracting.

The best are the frank accounts of marriage disintegration, and sharing Idul Fitri with in-laws in Yogya.

The least valuable, musings on the 1965 massacres and 1997 riots, add little, even though Heyward was in Jakarta when Soeharto fell.  A Further Reading list would have led inquirers into more substantial accounts.

Fascination with orang-utans and concern about the deforestation of Kalimantan gets more space than necessary. We know about these things – they’ve been given saturation cover elsewhere by experts.

What we don’t know is how six men from diverse backgrounds held together when confronted by environmental extremes, real dangers and personal challenges in a strange land.  Did the ‘group of misfits’ also experience transformations and wrestle with ambiguities?  Heyward’s discussions are internal monologues rather than campfire debates.

As a fresh expat’s initiation it’s a useful introduction to the archipelago of amazements.  It could have been a better book given ruthless editing and concentration on the real question the author poses: ‘Where are the gods?’

Crazy Little Heaven
By Mark Heyward
Published by Transit Lounge 2013
253 pages

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 20 January 2014)


Thursday, January 16, 2014


Tobacco Road- where does it end?

How does Indonesia differ from its neighbors?  Let me count the ways.

Where to start?  History, language, religion, culture, scenery …

On second thoughts that’s not a good idea. Insufficient space.  Let’s concentrate on just one – streetscapes.

Welcome to the country rated AAA - the Archipelago of Awful Advertisements.  Find a road without one means a public order gang has just ripped down an unauthorized banner.  Hang about – another crew pasting updates won’t be far behind.

The government is missing a marvellous opportunity to promote nostalgia tourism, for this extraordinarily rich and beautiful country is one of the last places left where tobacco promotion still flourishes in the wild.

Despite attempts by other democracies to kill off the endangered species, in Indonesia the aptly named baliho (billboards) thrive in an environment of political timidity nurtured by the fertile minds of powerful lobbyists.

Why gaze at mountains serene and paddy green when between viewer and view can be a baliho featuring apparently lithe and joyful young folk exploring the wilderness? That’s after gulping a lungful of toxins from a brand suggesting a clean rural lifestyle. 

Prefer to be entertained indoors? The TV ads are Hobbit quality, featuring exotic locations and clear-skinned sophisticates.  They inhabit a universe far from the prematurely wrinkled yellowgums who use the ‘exclusive’ products while pushing overladen pedicabs. 

We do irony so breathtakingly well it’s worth including in visitor brochures.  Take souvenir snaps of locals lighting up under NO SMOKING signs; video little lads blowing smoke rings at school bus stops. 

Fifty years ago yesterday (11 Jan) the US surgeon general took a deep breath and pronounced “cigarette smoking contributes substantially to mortality from certain specific diseases and to the overall death rate”.

That landmark declaration opened the war on nicotine. Among the artillery pieces were warnings on packets and advertisements.

Indonesia and others agreed, adding a ban on images showing people sucking the noxious weeds. Superfluous – the alerts reveal what’s being marketed.

Big Tobacco’s defences were breached, though only briefly.  Elsewhere the ads were bombarded with health facts and eventually outlawed, like poison gas.  The industry fought back with sponsorship of sporting and cultural events, but defences were strengthened and the enemy slowly retreated.

Though not here.

Dying to get to a rock concert?  You can, literally, courtesy of companies whose products kill more than 300,000 Indonesians annually, often in their most productive prime.

Because the research shows links between price and consumption another weapon employed has been taxation, with levies ramped across the world.

Though not here.

Taxes make up close to 50 per cent of the US $1.30 average packet price: That’s mild and mentholated when compared to nations next door.  In Singapore you cough up $US 9.70, and in Australia a king-size US $17.70. Gasp!

No wonder less than 20 per cent of adult male Aussies indulge compared with an estimated 65 per cent in Indonesia.

Yet even that heavy-calibre hit to the wallet hasn’t been crippling enough for the medical profession.  Buying smokes Down Under now requires the sort of furtive turned-up collar behavior once needed to purchase condoms.

“Excuse the fedora Sir, I just wonder if you stock any of those, you know, men things like, well, ah, you know what I mean …”

In Australian supermarkets the secret counters are backed by chests of numbered black drawers, like a columbaria.  The packets inside show ghastly pictures of cancerous tongues and rotting feet with the product name in small print at the bottom.

This June Indonesia will introduce larger text and picture warnings on packets. Next to other countries these moves are low-tar.

Anti-smoking advocates reckon plain packaging is the ultimate weapon of mass deterrence apart from banning sales.

Will it work?  The industry is now in the courts battling to preserve its brands.  Other countries watch with interest. If the companies lose Marlboro Man will have to remain in Boot Hill where he’s been decaying for decades in much of the world.

But not here without a change of political will.  Though three actors have succumbed to lung cancer, MM will still be riding Indonesia’s highways, lasso ready to snare the next generation of addicts. Baliho, cowboy!

(First published in The Jakarta Post 12 January 2014)


Wednesday, January 08, 2014


Recovering from a rebuff                                               

What does the Indonesian government have in common with bikie gangs?  Both reckon revenge is a dish best served cold.

How else to explain the restrained responses to revelations that Australia spied on a friend, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and his wife Kristiani Herawati? 
Dr Marty Natalegawa, the Australian-educated Foreign Minister and a man not known for intemperate outbursts said: “This was not a smart thing to do. It violates every single decent and legal instrument I can think of.
“It is nothing less than an unfriendly act, which is already having a very serious impact on bilateral relations.”
We braced for furious retaliation.  Would our embassy be besieged by militant mobs while the police took a smoko? Would outraged nationalists sweep hotels for Aussies ordering them out of the archipelago?  Trade bans, for sure. Maybe Boeing loads of Bali-bound tourists would be turned back. 

These things have happened before, though not this time.

Despite reports that defence and security cooperation have been diluted, and that the live cattle trade is being reviewed, the most serious response so far has been the recall of ambassador Nadjib Riphat Kesoema.

There could be another explanation for the limited action: We’re not going to be punished – just ignored. As every wannabe celebrity knows, that’s a fate too awful to contemplate.

What an insult! A rich, mature, modern nation-continent that always punches above its weight (according to Barack Obama), snubbed by a corruption-riddled infant democracy where half the citizens live in poverty.

Now hear this: We’re the US deputy sheriff in Southeast Asia, a generous neighbour giving half a billion aid dollars every year.  Why so rude, so ungrateful?  Don’t you know who we are, how important and influential?

Even though Tony Abbott has declared that Jakarta is our new Geneva, the Indonesians have left Canberra where it is, a southern branch office of the northern Anglosphere where the serious power is headquartered.

There are other distractions and all internal: Elections, inflation, poverty, corruption, inequality, intolerance ...  Foreign affairs hardly register.

The spying revelations are our collision with the rocks of reality.  We have four times more space but one tenth of the population. The Republic ranks fourth in world population statistics – we’re number 52.  Indonesians see us as we view New Zealand; a nice place to visit, but not to be taken too seriously. 

We claim to be big on human rights and equality, but treat asylum seekers as criminals.  Our responses to the health and education needs of indigenous Australians are an international disgrace.

When feeling nasty the more knowledgeable add that our nation was settled by British criminals, our culture has been imported, our lifestyle is godless and we’re closet colonialists.
The ruling Javanese are masters of refined behaviour and subtle response. Reading their emotions takes time and insights. They prefer consensus to confrontation but have long memories. Anger over our often-misrepresented role in the 1999 East Timor independence referendum still bubbles away, not far below the surface.

Eventually the toxin of spying will be diluted by time and crises new.  His Excellency will quietly book a Garuda seat south and fresh bottled water will be set out in meeting rooms. Pragmatism will rule, though wounded pride will not be rapidly healed.

This interregnum gives time to evaluate and renovate the relationship. 

First step is to appreciate that recovery is too important to be left to the lumbering politicians. They haven’t just smashed things up; they’ve compounded their clumsiness by unapologetically trashing decades of finely crafted goodwill. 

When two such different societies live so close, navigation errors can lead to a capsize if there’s no ballast in the relationship.

Instead of waiting for diplomats to start shuffling forward let’s seize the opportunity to repair.  Organisations like the Indonesia Institute could take the lead and bring together academics, journalists, businesspeople, NGOs and others on both shores of the Arafura Sea.

Our task?  To reclaim mutual respect and understanding.

What to put on the agenda? The 2012 Asian Century paper, a document that seems to have been trampled in the current disarray. Despite originating in government, reception has been generally positive and bipartisan.  A place to start.

Hang on, these things can wait, it’s the Christmas break.

Not in the world’s most populous Islamic nation. The next president might not be so friendly, and the hole we’ve dug to date even deeper.

(First published in Our Indonesia Today, January 2014)