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

Tuesday, October 30, 2018




Foreign affairs (the political version, not dalliances abroad) is seldom a synonym for fun.

The standard photo has a line of suits trying - and failing - to look human.Their media statements, labelled ‘communique’ to maintain the mystique, are triumphs of euphemism, so bland they make laundry lists sound like Hamlet.

Few would bother to read unless they got paid well for the pain.

Yet in Jakarta this month about 5,000 early post-teens gave up a full Saturday, packing a plush central city auditorium.  They came to hear ambassadors and academics parade their theories on why governments do bizarre and sometimes awful things in the indefinable ‘national interest’.

A Dangerous Drift?  Ideas to fix a Broken World was labelled the World’s Largest Foreign Policy Conference. Who knows - does anyone keep tabs? More important is that it was free and a wild success.

The man responsible for putting diplomacy on Indonesia’s entertainment pages is Dr Dino Patti Djalal, 53, the Republic’s former ambassador to Washington.  

Veteran journalist and Tempo weekly editor Bambang Harymurti (left, with author) was among many in the crowd amazed that so many stayed till 7 pm when the norm is to drift off to coffee after the first break and never reappear.

One reason is because speakers were pushed to use real words instead of acronyms, put up solutions rather than recycle problems, and be brief and punchy. Most were. Another is that the line-up included ‘artists’ meaning TV stars, film actors - and Alya Nurshabrina.

The 22-year old model and ‘beauty queen’ (as labelled by the unreformed local press) is best known as Miss Indonesia 2018, less famous for studying international relations at university and heading a student delegation to Harvard. So she’d earned her place on a panel titled: The Return of the Angels: How the Millennials see the World and what they want to see fixed.

Asking kids - and adults listening? Revolutionary.

Close to half the Indonesian population of 260 million is under 30. The young tend to turn off politics - or the religious smears and brutal accusatory way the dark arts are conducted - but are besotted by ‘celebrities’.

Another well-baited hook was to run the millennials session late and then follow with an on-stage Battle of the Brains, a general knowledge contest involving teams of ambassadors, CEOs and the ‘angels’.

This even got the grey-hairs who’ve spent their lives maintaining tight lips to fracture the rictus and let laughs loose.

Djalal is well-known in Indonesia for using entrepreneurial flair to enliven statecraft.

His father, Hasyim Djalal, 84 and in the audience, was a former ambassador to the UN, Canada and Germany.  His second son’s first degrees were in Canada, then a doctorate from the London School of Economics. 

The young Djalal spent 27 years in government service and was a confidante of the last president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who made him ambassador to the US.

In that job he staged the world’s biggest angklung performance at the Washington Memorial with more than 5,000 participants. The traditional bamboo-tube onomatopoeia-named instruments are rattled to produce a jangling melody.

He ran in the New York Marathon, and in Los Angeles got the Indonesian diaspora together to help the homeland.  In between he probably sparked a few trade deals but these failed to ignite the media.

Then the well-educated Djalal (left) forgot the story of Icarus.  The showman turned candidate got too close to the Jakarta sun while trying to fly into the 2014 presidential election.

Down to earth and ego badly bruised, he remained keen to stay in foreign affairs.  The problem is that the big game’s played by governments.  So he started the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI), to expand Indonesians’ understanding of the world and defeat xenophobia.

The NGO runs workshops, seminars, overseas tours and this year’s Dangerous Drift? conference with 20 breakout sessions, including the heavies like climate change, multi-lateralism and terrorism - and the A-team. 

Our man Gary Quinlan was there along with ambassadors from the US, Russia, Japan, India, Canada and the EU. They ran a ‘diplomacy clinic’ to help students’ research. Where else could undergrads get such insights?

Most sessions were in English, lively and challenging.  There were flash videos, up-beat singers and enough energy to power the show if the lights had fused. 

The only damper was a 30 minute wait for the opener, Luhut Binsar Panjaitan the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, a former Army commander who then ranted about the need for discipline.  Indonesian VIPs often stage late arrivals, supposedly to enhance their status. 

Note to the gentleman: Your nation is now a robust democracy; leaders are respected but no longer held in trembling awe.

“Our mission is to promote peace and bring foreign policy to the public,” Djalal said in an earlier interview.  “That means finding out how to talk to ordinary people about these issues.  They may not seem interested but that changes when, for example, the price of imports rise.

“We want to develop understanding between nations.  Our youth exchange program with China should help reduce Sinophobia”.

A moving moment in the conference came when the North Korean and South Korean ambassadors to Indonesia, An Kwan-il and Kim Chang-beom accepted the FPCI’s Courage for Peace Award on behalf of their leaders.

The men shook hands, hugged and then spoke to the crowd in English; the kids went wild. Will they be a generation that never knows war?

Try that in Australia.  We’d probably call it a stunt.  In Jakarta it felt real.

First published in Pearls and Irritations 30 October 2018:

Monday, October 29, 2018


The injustice which won’t die 


President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo was just a four-year old when the 30 September coup led to the fall of founding president Soekarno and the rise of Major-General Soeharto as Indonesia’s second president.

The little lad was too busy playing kelereng (marbles) around his family’s shack on the Solo River banks in Central Java to understand the political games rocking the Republic in faraway Jakarta.

Even if some relatives had sniffed the reforms promised by the three-million strong Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party - PKI), infecting the real or imagined interests of any foreparents on their offspring is an obscenity.

That the slur gets some traction among Jokowi’s more gullible opponents shows how well Soeharto’s propaganda machine worked, embedding beyond two generations an unblinking hatred of a political ideology that currently runs the world’s most populous nation.

Here’s the irony: Red China is now Indonesia’s largest export and import market and a worrying naval force in surrounding seas.  Polls suggest most Indonesians think favorably of the country helping finance their nation’s massive infrastructure program.

Yet Soeharto linked China to the coup and severed diplomatic ties - only re-established in 1990.  Not normalized is a fearless examination of the coup and the appalling pogrom which followed.

Instead it’s been left to foreign journalists and academics to exhume the past for truths the government still finds too difficult to stomach.

Dr Vannessa Hearman is an historian at Australia’s Charles Darwin University but she’s no outsider. She was born in Indonesia and has become a leading expert on the horrors.  Her doctorate was jointly awarded best PhD in Asian Studies.  

Her latest book Unmarked Graves probes the post-coup killings in East Java.  At the time about 22 million people lived in the Province; an estimated 200,000 were slaughtered and thousands more persecuted long after the PKI had been destroyed.

Teachers were targeted with around 25,000 rounded-up, interrogated and often imprisoned.  Their careers were shredded and families shattered.

In one case encountered by Hearman a couple was being hounded four years after the coup.  They kept moving but were denounced and eventually jailed, split from their kids.  Their descendants have never fully recovered.

The fact that the author uses pseudonyms shows how the decades haven’t washed out the pain and stigma.

Along with the victims’ wrenching stories, Hearman focuses on a lesser-known event - the attempted PKI regroup in South Blitar, about 800 kilometers southeast of the capital.

PKI general secretary Sudisman was caught in 1966 and put on trial.  He denied Communists powered the putsch but was executed in 1998.  Party remnants fled Jakarta seeking a remote sanctuary.  

Many were city people who would find rural life hard to take, but even barefoot and hungry was better than bullets or bars. One pragmatic asylum-seeker, tainted because he’d studied engineering in Bulgaria, reasoned: ‘It’s better to resist than die for no reason.’ 

South Blitar is an arid tortured landscape of 3,200 square kilometers between the Brantas River and the Southern Ocean  It’s creased with mountains, perforated with limestone caves, a haven for guerrillas fighting the Dutch between 1945 and 1949.

Life was tough and basic. Chairs were rare, bicycles rarer. Poverty was too simplistic an explanation for peasants favoring Communist policies.  Other factors included land ownership and the santri (pious) - abangan (syncretism) religious divide.

Hearman’s research was difficult.  Apart from finding survivors prepared to recall, she was also questioned by the police when she visited the monument featured on the book cover.  

Details she uncovered are horrifying. The army had spread the myth that female Communists had hidden tattoos, which gave soldiers licence to strip suspects. The military used villagers as spies and ordered them to kill, creating lasting guilt and enmity.

The two-month Operasi Trisula (trident) to destroy the PKI refugees involved 5,000 soldiers and 3,000 militia.  It claimed to have caught or killed 2,000 but only found 34 old firearms and some blowpipes.

The tactics were much like the Vietnam War with people digging tunnels and the army bombing suspect hideouts and slaughtering innocents.  Other strategies included the ‘fence of legs’ to comb the forest, burn huts, rip up vegetables, deport villagers to other areas and use locals to bury murdered prisoners.

Victors carve history, but time and truth erode their graven images. The statue portrays the counter-insurgency as a triumphant campaign of cooperation between disciplined soldiers and willing civilians to defeat Communists.  Hearman’s scholarship reveals other effigies which many want to keep shrouded.. 

The innocent children and grandchildren of the tapol (political prisoners) are still looking sideways despite Jokowi’s 2014 election pledge to tackle human rights abuses.  

Hearman writes: ‘In 2016, the President appointed a former army general, Wiranto ... (to deal) with the 1965 case. 

Having been indicted by the UN in 2003 for crimes against humanity that took place in East Timor in 1999 during his reign as Indonesian armed forces commander, Wiranto is hardly a likely figure for pursuing perpetrators of human rights abuses. 

The Attorney General’s office has, at the time of writing, continued to refuse to open an investigation ... on the 1965–66 violence.

Hearman’s research bold-texts the most damning question: How can the searing evidence she’s captured be ignored unless some of the guilty still hold great power in today’s democratic Indonesia? 

Unmarked GravesDeath and Survival in the Anti-Communist Violence in East Java, Indonesia
Vannessa Hearman, NUS Press, Singapore, 2018
272 pages

 First published in The Jakarta Post 29October 2018

Saturday, October 27, 2018


A woman’s place is diplomacy 

No international talkfest can be wrapped up without a bland group statement and matching photo op. The show may have been boiling to a brawl, but the closing shot cools.

But these pics also display something grins can’t erase: The gender inequality of diplomacy. 

The pageants are dominated by sober-suited men. The few women who make it into these parades of power are not constrained by dark dress codes so lighten the line-ups. 

Indonesia’s the biggest player in ASEAN and the only one with a woman at the top table, . Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi.

Next month (September) the world’s first conference of female foreign ministers will be held in Toronto.  The hosts will be Canada’s Chrystia Freeland a former journalist, and the European Union’s Federica Mogherini, an Italian politician.

Marsudi, 55, is the first woman FM in Indonesia’s 73-year history; she was previously  Ambassador to the Netherlands.
“We are more diligent, less aggressive than men, more patient, tolerant, flexible and good at multi-tasking,” commented her colleague Dewi Gustina Tobing, 54.

“Men used to dominate Deplu (the Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs) but the imbalance is disappearing. About 40 per cent of the diplomats are now women.  Change is underway.”

This is not some new century recognition of female talent. Like her Minister, the  Consul General to Western Australia joined the service in the early 1990s when Soeharto’s New Order dictatorship was at its peak.

In those days large numbers of women worked as public servants, but mainly typing and filing letters written by men.

On the Perth ConGen office walls portraits of Tobing’s six male forerunners stare sternly down. The Consulate opened in 1993 to cope with WA’s economic boom.  In 2010 it was upgraded to a Consulate General. 

Australia has just caught up.  Last month (Aug) the then FM Julie Bishop, the first woman to hold the job since Federation in 1901, opened a new ConGen office in Surabaya.

Bishop later quit following a shake-up in Australian politics which saw PM Malcolm Turnbull replaced by Treasurer Scott Morrison who visited Indonesia last week. He’s appointed another woman as FM, Senator Marise Payne, the former Minister for Defence.  

Strategically-important Perth has long had a special affinity with Indonesia.  The Indian Ocean city of 1.7 million is closer to Denpasar than Australia’s Pacific-facing eastern seaboard where the power resides - but 3,000 kilometers distant.

WA is the largest state in the Commonwealth.  Its population of 2.6 million equals one person per square kilometer. Tobing is not deterred - she’s getting into the remote spots to explain her nation’s history, culture, attractions and values.

 Before the Bali bombs shattered trust (the largest number of deaths 
and casualties were suffered by Australians), WA was awash with optimism driven by a mining boom and bonhomie.  

This was cemented by the 1990 Sister-State relationship with East Java.  Real yields from provincial deals are rare. This one wasn’t. 

Bureaucrats and businessfolk from  Surabaya were feted by officials and corporate heavies.  School visits became commonplace.  Learning Indonesian became cool.  NGOs helped with aid programs for disabled kids.

Dairy cattle and seed potatoes were exported and  thrived in Java’s fertile soils.  Milk 
yields doubled with the infusion of new genesand spuds did even better. 

 It was expected that further trade would be built on these  initiatives, but the energy has slumped along with tumbling ore prices and rising terror threats.

Getting sparkle back into the relationship is going to be a challenge for the ConGen. Just ahead of talking to Strategic Review she’d been in Karratha, 1,400 kilometers north of Perth yarning with schoolchildren.

“We need to improve people-to-people relationships,” she said.  “Governments can do more and we should all be taking part in the process. I want to promote openness and  better awareness of Indonesia among young people, to hear their views.”

Way to go.  This year the Lowy Institute Poll showed only 24 per cent think that Indonesia is a democracy.  Respondents split on whether Indonesia is a dangerous source of terrorism’; only 32 per cent reckon ‘the Indonesian government has worked hard to fight terrorism’.
Small majorities agreed that ‘Indonesia is an important economy to Australia’, and that ‘Australia is managing its relationship with Indonesia well’.  Overall feelings towards Indonesia were ‘lukewarm’.
Foreign Affairs is every nation’s key ministry, one face representing millions, one voice reasoning during an eruption of crises  Some countries reward politicians, military men and party donors with plumb positions overseas, but Tobing, like Marsudi, is a professional.
The mother of two tertiary students admits she’s ambitious but doesn’t display the pushiness often used by career-minded men. Instead she’s disarmingly cheerful, which may be more effective. Locals who have dealt with her say she’s approachable and open.
A Batak (North Sumatra) Protestant and the eighth of ten children from an ordinary family (diplomats were once drawn mainly from the elite) she was encouraged by her mother to study English and clearly excelled. “I like to learn,” she said. “I’m interested in people and can work well with anybody.”
She wanted to be a banker, scored Deplu in 1990, then to Birmingham for a Masters degree in Business Administration.
Postings followed in Belgium, Argentine and Korea (she speaks Spanish and some Korean).  For four years before her Perth job she was Director for American and European Intra-regional Cooperation

“When I joined Deplu hundreds were competing for few positions - now it’s thousands,” she said.  “I’ve been on selection panels - we look at character, appearance, education, a sense of balance, language skills, an interest in following the news and knowing the policy of the government.

“Applicants need a good positive attitude; even if they don’t get in these are qualities that will take them far.

“I have a very strong belief that God will give me the best when I do my best.  I know that women make very good diplomats.”


 First published in Strategic Review -'s%20place%20is%20diplomacy