More protein – less rice
Australian activist Pat Walsh has had what he calls a ‘hot and cold’ relationship with Indonesia. He co-founded Inside Indonesia 25 years ago, originally a print magazine, now on-line and a must-read for anyone seriously interested in the Archipelago.
During the Suharto years the former Catholic priest was blacklisted. More recently he’s been involved in Timor Leste where he was an official observer of the 1999 referendum and later with the Commission for Reception. Truth and Reconciliation in Timor Leste, known by its acronym of CAVR
In the past two years he’s been surgically sub-editing an English translation of the CAVR report Chega! for the publisher Gramedia.
Chega! [Portuguese for ‘enough’] examines events between April 1974 when the Indonesian Army invaded the former Portuguese colony, and October 1999 when the people voted four to one for independence.
Walsh spent 28 weeks on and off slicing and dicing the text in Jakarta, making critical decisions on what terms to use. Was it an ‘invasion’ or a ‘presence’? Were the pro-Indonesia Timorese ‘militias’ or ‘partisans’?
‘Words were turned on their head and recycled to a passive Indonesian public by a submissive media,’ he writes in Stormy with a chance of fried rice.
‘[Not] a harmless exercise in semantics, the reality is that these words were actually bullets that killed.’ He quotes Voltaire: ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’
‘As I worked through the litanies of violence recorded in Chega! I found it extremely difficult to remain emotionally and professionally detached,’ Walsh writes. ‘I found myself not just reading what happened, but re-living it.’
His new book with its silly title comes across as catharsis, an attempt to purge his mind of the horrors by focussing on more cheering experiences in the Big Durian.
Walsh separates the actions of the vindictive and brutal Indonesian military from the behavior of ordinary Indonesians. He says they were duped by propaganda that turned Timorese independence supporters into Gerombolan Pengacau Keamanan [Gang of Security Disturbers]
Nobel laureate and former East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta called Chega! ‘an encyclopaedia of our history, rich in both teachings and sufferings. We must utilise its great teachings to … help prevent future crises.’
Despite such endorsements and wide distribution Chega! has yet to have a major impact in Indonesia. The new government of Timor Leste has also shown limited enthusiasm, perhaps because the report claims the Resistance was responsible for almost 30 per cent of the killings and disappearances during the Indonesian occupation. ‘I felt a proxy anger on behalf of victims at the lack of impact the report has had …’ Walsh writes.
He agrees with Ramos-Horta’s assessment, which shows clearly in the chapter titled Two sharp eyes, the longest and most important section in the book. Here we get glimpses of the clawing anxieties of a man long wracked by concerns for human rights and which has won him widespread respect and an Order of Australia medal.
The jump from victims’ testimonies and international crises to chit-chat about the people he met and the experiences he enjoyed when talking a break in Jakarta sounds like a worthwhile idea. Unfortunately it’s not original.
Westerners exposed to Indonesia tend to be dazzled by the differences. Some find them repulsive, others exhilarating and want to tell the world about cascading green paddy, sparkling-eyed maidens and everything cheap in a land with nannies that’s not a nanny state.
Walsh is no raw newbie but still finds the quirks entertaining, often charming and frequently disturbing. Foreigners can rant about the Indonesian government’s failure to protect its most vulnerable citizens, but daily encounters with a hungry beggar on a footbridge gnaw at the conscience and chew theory into shreds.
Like others who enjoy this challenging and complex country, Walsh wants to shape a new view of Australia’s giant and mysterious northern neighbor, to ‘expose … glimpses of Indonesia’s everyday hidden beauty, too often obscured by sorrows of one or another kind.’
A worthy ambition – but sadly it fails. His observations are too slight, his words too brief. One chapter is only a page long, others just two or three. This is more Facebook than book.
The short story form is one of the most difficult literary exercises mastered by few. Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill - though some believe Mark Twain - once said he wrote a long letter to a friend because he had no time for a short one.
So we get snippets about jamu [herbal drink] ladies and cheerful maids, visiting a mosque and renewing a visa – all worthy topics. He often uses these tales as click-bait, a subterfuge to illustrate an aspect of Indonesia’s history and culture hoping readers drawn by a simple domestic event might learn a little of the Revolution.
Then the effect is spoilt by reference to transient figures of no interest beyond Australia – like Joe Hockey, a former treasurer. And do we really want to know the décor of Gramedia’s office and the ‘playful gurgle of the water fountain’? Students of Indonesian current affairs would rather read an analysis of the President’s human rights record from someone who understands the complexities.
If Walsh had applied the substantial skills he used in Chega! to his stories, drawn more on his intimate knowledge of Indonesia, let his emotions loose and deleted the perpendicular pronoun we’d have the book we need from this good man.
Stormy with a chance of fried rice by Pat Walsh Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia 2015
(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 April 2016)