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, February 27, 2019


    Old soldiers don’t die – they just imagine                                    

Historians and older Westerners know well what followed the 1933 events in Germany known as ‘the burning of the books.’  Few Indonesians are aware that the forceful Student Union campaign against literature which didn’t promote the ‘German spirit’, fomented fascism.  

They should because it’s happening in their young democracy and threatening its future.

Right-wing elements of the Indonesian military are on a mission to recapture the political power lost early this century under the Reformasi movement.  

They’re using several tactics; the latest is to cleanse the nation of writings which soldiers deem to be promoting Communism or don’t conform to the official line of what happened on 30 September 1965.

That night six generals and a lieutenant were murdered in Jakarta, allegedly by members of the Communist Party (PKI).  A dreadful bloodletting followed with an estimated half million real or suspected party members slaughtered.

The upheaval felled founding President Soekarno and propelled General Soeharto into the Presidential Palace where he stayed for 32 years wielding absolute power by crushing all opposition. 

He also ruled through patronage, giving army cronies ambassadorships, company directorships, governorships and other perks. At one stage 75 seats of the Parliament’s then 360 were held by appointed members of the military.

The Dwifungsi (two functions) policy entrenched the armed forces’ role in society, even giving low-ranks the right to barge through queues and demand instant service.

Soeharto quit in 1998 after student protests against his rule and corruption.   Indonesia then went through its version of the Arab Spring, introducing democracy, direct election of the President, and freeing the press. 

The police became a separate civilian department charged with maintaining internal order. Previously it had been a branch of the army.  

There are now around 500,000 men and a few women in the armed forces, plus 400,000 reservists. The police also have about half-a million. Conscription is in the law but volunteers easily fill the ranks.

Before Reformasi the military saw itself as the exclusive custodian of the nation’s values, which it determined.  Remnants of that age refuse to accept the world has spun into a new orbit and their place is the barracks.  Key among them is the paranoid former Armed Forces Commander, General Gatot Nurmantyo.

He reckons Indonesia is threatened by ‘proxy wars’ involving foreign states, particularly the US and Australia.  In his nightmare the allies are planning to invade West Papua. He reasons that’s why marines are rotated through Darwin under the 2014 Force Posture Agreement.

Nurmantyo is also notorious for reportedly saying: ‘Our (Indonesia’s) democracy at the moment is populist and led by forces through means of a vote. The many are not necessarily right.’

In 2017 he suspended all military cooperation with Australia.  His action, which appears to have been unilateral, came after a hyper-nationalist officer training at the Australian Special Forces base in Perth claimed lecturers were insulting the Republic.  The scrub fire had to be hosed down at ministerial level.

Before Nurmantyo, 58, retired last year he was being tipped as a candidate for the presidency. That didn’t happen but he continues to get coverage with weird statements about conspiracies and returning Reds.  They’re not under beds (the masses use mattresses on the floor), so they’re plotting in unnamed restaurants and dark rooms.

He’s backing another former general, Prabowo Subianto who’s standing against incumbent Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo; the official commander-in-chief has no military background.
The book seizings appear to be illegal; in 2010 the Constitutional Court overthrew the censorship laws of Soeharto’s New Order government. 
The raids have only been condemned by civil rights groups and individuals brave enough to shrug off charges that they’re fellow travelers. Widodo, who has also joined the chorus of vigilantes, has been silent.
The print enemies sought by soldiers are few and hard to find.  Occasionally there’s a wrinkled translation of Karl Marx, plus some speculative tracts by pseudonymous scribes.  The most credible alternatives to the army’s version of history are coming from overseas scholars, written in English and rarely seen.
Last year Australian academic Dr Jess Melvin published her research founded on original army documents.  Not for her the excuse that the massacres were spontaneous uprisings of pious Muslims outraged by godless Marxists.

The conclusions in her book The Army and the Indonesian Genocide are definitive:
The military organised the mass killings and supplied the weapons.  Soldiers arrested suspects and then gave them to armed mobs to torture and murder. 

The devil makes work for idle hands; the army now has little to do other than chase armed separatists in West Papua and help out in natural disasters; these strike regularly and brutally through earthquakes, tsunamis, landslips and floods.  A few officers go overseas on peacekeeping, but the rest tend to be perpetually exercising – ready for the threats.

This month the respected newsweekly Tempo reported that the military wants changes to a 2004 law restricting retired officers to positions in a limited number of ministries and civil institutions.
Military chief Hadi Tjahjanto was reported saying about 500 middle and high-ranking officers heading for pensions wanted to get involved in civilian life.  A curious request in the West, though not in Indonesia where the much-medalled expect sinecures to preserve their prestige.

So what can old soldiers do to ease their post-power pains but hanker for the good ol’ days and dream up menace? Authors are an easy target, though ironically few Indonesians buy books.   This is hardly surprising as so many were banned during the Soeharto era.

 First published in Pearls and Irritations 27 February 2019. See:

Tuesday, February 26, 2019


You wouldn’t read about it        
The virus of fear-politics, spread well by Donald Trump, is now infecting the Southern Hemisphere.
In Australia it’s ‘border security’, an imagined armada of desperates eing persecution and seeking sanctuary in the Great South Land.  This is being used to spook voters ahead of a general election, probably in May. 
In Indonesia it’s the sale of books which might rouse readers to favour the return of Communism as the 17 April Presidential vote looms in the world’s third largest democracy.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is warning that law changes, forced through Parliament by the Labor Opposition and Independents this month, will threaten electors’ comfortable lives.  Deep in the psyche of many is the guilt of occupying a vast resource-rich continent of only 27 million when the archipelago next door has ten times the population.
The changes allow seriously ill asylum seekers currently held on Nauru Island and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea to be transferred to the mainland for medical treatment.   Mr Morrison claims this will give the green light to Indonesian people smugglers keen to restart their nefarious trade.
There are about 14,000 Middle Easterners, mainly young men, stranded in Indonesia.  They flew into the Republic earlier this decade lured by promises they’d be ferried across the Arafura Sea. Their dreams have been thwarted by the Australian Navy turning back boats, a policy with the jingoistic title ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’.
While sailors from Down Under have been scouring the horizon for SIEVS (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels), though in reality rickety wooden inshore fishing smacks, Indonesian soldiers have been rummaging stores in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Java hunting publications they claim will endanger the state.
Their principal targets are revisions of the coup last century, which took General Soeharto from Army barracks to the Presidential Palace where he stayed for 32 years wielding absolute power.  He stepped down in 1998 after mass protests and died a decade later.
The publications tend to be histories which don’t conform to the official line of what happened on 30 September 1965; that night six generals and a lieutenant were murdered in Jakarta, allegedly by members of the Communist Party (PKI).  A dreadful bloodletting followed with an estimated half million real or suspected Reds slaughtered in a purge of the party.
The Soeharto story has always been that the massacres were a spontaneous response of pious Muslims outraged by the actions of the godless Marxists. This has been proved false through the scholarship of overseas academics writing in English. 
Some of this research is being picked over and re-worked by Indonesian authors, then printed locally in Indonesian.
Last year Canadian Geoffrey Robinson, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles released his account of the 1965 events in The Killing Season.

Months earlier Australian post-doctoral fellow at Yale University Jess Melvin published her meticulous sifting of Indonesian Army documents from the period in The Army and the Indonesian Genocide stating categorically that the slaughter was organized by the army.

There have been many earlier accounts, like the University of British Columbia professor John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder, which was translated and banned, though none quite so definitive as Dr Melvin’s work.

Governments having problems with dissidents like island solutions. Survivors of the post-putsch putdown were sent to forced labor camps, like Buru Island, 2,300 kilometers north east of Jakarta.  Here the writer and Nobel Prize nominee Pramoedya Ananta Toer was held for 13 years along with 12,000 others, mainly intellectuals and creatives.

Robinson, who was formerly with Amnesty International, called Buru a ‘concentration camp’ and ‘penal colony’. The New York Times label was ‘Soeharto’s Gulag.’ The government’s terms were  ‘resettlement projects for political rehabilitation.’ 

For a while it seemed President Joko Widodo was inclined to side with the human rights activists who have been urging an open inquiry into the events of the 1960s and a search for reconciliation.
That hope slipped away with his 2016 appointment of Wiranto as coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs.  Robinson claims the former armed forces commander has said the 1965-66 violence was ‘legally justifiable’, which doesn’t mean it was morally right.

The Indonesian Army is claiming that even though the Communist Party is officially banned, only they can stop the PKI’s resurgence, so an authoritarian policy is essential, which includes burning books.  Yet this is illegal, according to a 2010 Constitutional Court decision which overthrew Soeharto’s censorship laws.

The boat-banning Australian Government says the 1,000 men left on Manus and Nauru will never be allowed to settle in Australia.  (Some proven refugees have been accepted by the US in a swap deal with South Americans.)

Opponents of the island camps call them ‘hell holes’ (the official term is ‘Regional Processing Centre’).  The detainees wait in a political limbo hoping some other country will come to their aid, or that conditions will improve in their homelands and it will be safe to return.

That seems as remote as the islands.  According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees more than 65 million people have been ‘forcibly displaced worldwide because of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.’

With those number the fate of a few hundred in the far-away Pacific rocks no boats in Europe and North America.  A New Zealand offer to take 150 a year has been knocked back by PM Morrison claiming they could eventually get citizenship and move across the Tasman.

Cynics also note that closing Manus and Nauru would deny Australian politicians the stick to whack their opponents in an election season.  In the spirit of not letting the facts spoil a good yarn, the government has stayed silent on revelations that in 2017 almost 28,000 people sought Australian protection visas.

But they came individually, smartly dressed and by air, often masquerading as students or tourists before seeking sanctuary. It’s not an image terrifying voters like that of a fleet of over-crowded boats heading Down Under.

Do fear campaigns still work?  We’ll know in about three months.


First published in Strategic Review, 26 February 2019:

Monday, February 25, 2019


Seas rose, islands appeared, cultures evolved                                

When an author sets to write ‘the history of the world’s biggest, most important archipelago … from its birth following the last ice age to today’ readers wonder about this ambition grand.

What’s it to be – a set of encyclopedias in academic jargon?  Or quirky gleanings that lure, but whose superficiality frustrates?

Empire of the Winds is option three, ‘deep history’. This means linking multiple disciplines, like anthropology, linguistics, archaeology and others to assemble the story of human evolution.

Clues might include ceramics recovered from an old wreck, language patterns, and similar cultural practices in widely distant locations suggesting some shared ancestry or migrations.

Author Philip Bowring calls his area Nusantaria, a slight expansion of an ancient term for the mysterious collection of islands and islets, atolls, reefs and peninsulas, bays and cays which have bubbled up across the Equator. Nusa comes from Sanskrit and means ‘island’.

He steers his ideal through the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines; sailing closer to scholarly papers than magazine features.  His book is a drop anchor where shelter offers to check the references, rather than a go-to-whoa adventure story. 

This is a substantial work drawn from limited resources.  Few books have survived and decoding weathered inscriptions is a tricky task. Nusantaria is not Europe with its great libraries and well-preserved writings.

The difficulties in getting to the truth are shown in this story about the Singasari monarch Kertanegara, whose name is well known in East Java.  He died in 1292.

Writes Bowring: ‘He was said by one later chronicle to have engaged in alcohol ­fuelled tantric sexual practices which led to his downfall. But another chronicle described him as an ascetic, erecting a statue of himself as a meditating Buddha.’

Educated as an historian at Cambridge University, Hong-Kong based Bowring, 76, is a journalist who has been working Asia for 46 years – and as a yachtsman sailing some of its seas.  So he knows a few facts – and some fictions uncovered by his intensive research.

Academics have long puzzled about the fall of the Majapahit Kingdom, roughly 1300 to 1500; at its height it controlled much of Southeast Asia through maritime trade, military action and statecraft, apparently giving the citizens a good life in a land of abundance.

Bowring discards the volcanic explosion theory for the fall.  He blames feuding families and Islam pushing down from the north-coast cities where it had been brought ashore by traders.

Trowulan, on the 320-kilometer long Brantas River, the East Java center of the Kingdom, was destroyed in 1478 during a war with Muslim Demak.  The survivors moved east, which is why Bali is now largely Hindu.

So much has happened since – the rise and fall of a European colonial power, the Japanese invasion, the birth of the Republic and now democracy.  Yet what Bowring calls ‘Majapahit glory’ is still part of Javanese culture. The national motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (unity in diversity), is not from a holy book, but a Majapahit-era poem.

He adds: ‘The memory (and myth) of Majapahit and its empire in Nusantaria remains at the heart of modern Indonesia’s sense of identity, generally overriding Muslim identity and an historical basis for a state created in its present geographical form by the Dutch.’

That won’t sit easily with the fundamentalists who think their faith is unadulterated.  But as anyone lucky enough to have witnessed Javanese village ceremonies, where modern practices and curious rituals seem to synthesize, will know Bowring is right.

To modern travelers the idea of an island life sounds romantic and exotic, though less so since last year’s devastating tsunamis.  The archipelago was created as the oceans rose between 20,000 and 7,000 years ago, drowning fertile low-lying land, now under 40 meters of saline seas.

The rising waters separated people who over time developed their own cultures and languages, enriching the nation.  Before that the more adventurous would have walked between what are now islands, or paddled craft across narrow straits.  Curiously the squid-shaped Sulawesi always seems to have been apart.

Some survivors turned from farming to fishing; others learned how to clear, cultivate and irrigate hillsides, which the Javanese do so well. 

Nationalists love to pinch legends of real or imagined heroes and elevate them to models which they think modern people should emulate.  The Chinese have long promoted the expeditions of Zheng He (1371 – 1433) but Bowring says many ‘facts’ are not.

The admiral is supposed to have commanded a fleet of massive ships, each measuring 137 by 57 meters, which he used on vast journeys demonstrating Chinese might, navigation skills and technology.  The parallel today is its Belt and Road infrastructure program.

Bowring rubbishes this story because a wooden ship with even half the fabled dimensions would not have survived open-sea storms. 

Before He, and at the end of the 13th century, a Chinese fleet did land on the north coast of East Java and troops headed inland. The soldiers were asked to help sort out a few squabbles but were outsmarted by the Javanese and forced to flee.

In the confusion some were left behind; the most adaptable integrated and so started the multi-ethnic society we have in parts of the Republic. 

Empire of the Winds reads well but it’s more reference book rather than ripping yarn, even though the tales are rich enough to challenge Kipling. Religions, cultures, cities rise and perish.  Bowring lists 38 states which no longer exist. How did they die? There’s a mine of stories here.

The author’s journalism used in his past career as an editor and commentator could have been better employed.  The book includes maps and plates needed to understand the text, which brings us up to date with today’s politics.

 ‘Geography is destiny,’ concludes Bowring. ‘The tide has turned, and modern Nusantarians are beginning to sense their own common identity.’

The do-nothing ASEAN grouping of ten disparate nations undermines his optimism. Individual countries are trying to cope with China; they need the money and trade but don’t want to become client states.  If there is a ‘common identity’ it’s Sinophobia.

China was the challenge centuries ago to Nusantaria. It remains so today.

Empire of the Winds, by Philip Bowring                                                                             IB Tauris, London, 2018                                                                                            317 pages 

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 25 February 2019)                                                                              

Monday, February 18, 2019


Disturbing the troubling silence                            

It must be galling for Indonesian historians to see outsiders like Canadian Geoffrey Robinson poaching in their paddock with splendid success.

Many locals fear to hunt themselves.  If they beat the undergrowth too vigorously to flush out the events of 1965, they’re likely to be accused of fomenting strife or being painted as sympathisers of the still banned Communist Party.

Foreign academics face similar risks but are less vulnerable; if things get hot they just fly home to campus calm, while their Indonesian counterparts may face threats to their careers, their reputations, their persons even.

Such is the power of propaganda, wielded so effectively by second president General Soeharto, that Robinson spends space dissecting the techniques in The Killing Season.

Despots everywhere seeking to turn their image from persecutors to protectors will find this a textbook in rewriting history.

That was never the intention of the professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, but his research is so thorough the details are clear. 

The first step is to gag the press and declare an emergency to by-pass the rule of law.  The second to publish only one story which can’t be independently checked, the third to organize mass supporting rallies chanting one simple slogan.

Then determinably ram the lies hard in schools and the cowed media year after year till they’re considered an established truth and doubters damned as heretics.

In January 1966 American academics Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey were among the first to question the army’s techniques and version of what happened on the night of 30 September 1965. Six generals and a lieutenant were murdered in Jakarta, allegedly in a Communist Party bid to seize control of the nation.

This was at the height of the Cold War.  Australia and the US were still fighting in Vietnam in a failed bid to stop Communism sweeping south, so did the West engineer left-leaning founding President Soekarno’s fall and Soeharto’s takeover?

The Cornell University researchers were banned from Indonesia but their scholarship – later known as the Cornell Paper continued, alerting the world to the genocide that followed the attempted coup.

Robinson acknowledges his colleagues whose dogged pursuit of the truth has resulted in two separate versions of the past – the one accepted by most Indonesians and the absolutely different story understood by foreigners.

There’s no shortage of books published overseas about the coup, but none quite so engrossing as The Killing Season.  Robinson writes that his interest began at Cornell in the 1980s:

‘I am still sickened and outraged –all the more so because the crimes committed have been all but forgotten and those responsible have not yet been brought to justice.’

Why? Because some of the guilty are still alive and their families hold such powerful positions in society that they can continue to prevent justice from being served.

But they can’t stop people like Robinson speaking out and his writings getting into the Republic.  Now they can be read by the new generation, better educated than their parents, less likely to uncritically swallow the government’s line.

This has always been that the killings of an estimated 500,000 real or imagined Communists, which followed the alleged coup, were spontaneous reactions by outraged peasants who hated the godless Marxists.

This story has now been well buried by Robinson and others – like Australian Dr Jess Melvin – who state categorically that the slaughter was carefully organized by the army.

This was done through a secret police group called Kopkamtib (Komando Operasi Pemulihan Keamanan dan Ketertiban - Operational Command for the Restoration of Security and Order.)

The men swinging the machetes and firing the rifles supplied by Kopkamtib weren’t just pious Muslims – Christians were also involved. 

Robinson reports an account of a meeting in Flores, a largely Catholic island, where the army officers distributed names of people to be ‘secured’.  He quotes an anonymous source:

‘(This) was the moment that Catholic leaders started losing their grip, or to put it more strongly, they had already abandoned Catholic principles.’

In Jakarta a Jesuit Dutchman Joop Beek, who may well have been a CIA spy, organised Catholic Action students to stamp out Communism, which they did with great fervor. 

The killings are often described as ‘executions’, which sounds swift, legal even.  But many prisoners were viciously tortured, with women being mutilated and raped. How could such things happen in a culture of respect and conservative values?

Some participants look back with guilt and regret; others justify their actions by saying the times were so turbulent issues were black and white – for us or against us. The army had created an environment dense with hate.

Survivors were sent to forced labor camps, like remote Buru Island.  Here the writer and Nobel Prize nominee Pramoedya Ananta Toer was held for 13 years along with 12,000 others, mainly intellectuals and creatives.

Robinson, who was formerly with Amnesty International, calls Buru a ‘concentration camp’ and ‘penal colony’. The New York Times label was ‘Soeharto’s Gulag.’ The government’s terms are  ‘resettlement project’ for ‘political rehabilitation.’  The prisoners were never charged, and after release were watched and restricted.

Robinson has listed the many individuals and organizations moving Indonesia towards reconciliation. But other forces have been pushing back arguing that the past should be forgotten.  This is ironical when every year the nation remembers those killed by the Dutch, though not those murdered by fellow Indonesians.

For a while it seemed President Joko Widodo was inclined to side with the HR activists. 
That hope slipped away with his 2016 appointment of Wiranto as coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs.

Robinson claims the former armed forces commander has said the 1965-66 violence was ‘legally justifiable’, which doesn’t mean it was morally right.

Wiranto cites no court decision to back his view; it means nothing to the victims’ families seeking recognition that the State systematically committed terrible wrongs on its citizens.

Though most will die before that happens, they’ll know writers like Robinson will keep the issue alive until the demands for truth get too loud to ignore.

The Killing Season, by Geoffrey Robinson                                                                          Princeton University Press, 2018

First published in Asian Currents 18 February 2019;