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

Friday, March 29, 2019


Slow genocide in Papua?          

Slow genocide in Papua?                                              

Before the horrifying 15 March mosque massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand was best recognized for its knock-out landscapes and relaxed lifestyle.

The South Pacific islands have a population smaller than Surabaya.  On Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index, NZ usually features as the least corrupt.  On the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Register it’s also number one.

There’s another fact that’s little known – except among supporters of human rights:  NZ hosts movements backing separatists 7,700 kilometers distant. 

About 15 percent of the 4.7 million people in Aotearoa (the land of the long white cloud) are Maori and a further seven per cent Pacific Islanders.  Both groups tend to champion independence for the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.

So does retired social worker Maire Leadbeater, whose seventh and latest book See No Evil blames NZ for ‘betraying’ the Melanesians who last century were colonized by the Dutch.  However following a UN supervised referendum in 1969 the western side of the island of New Guinea has been part of Indonesia.

Leadbeater sees this as the root of today’s turmoil because only just over a thousand Papuans, handpicked by the military, were allowed to vote.

It was called the Act of Free Choice, but the author labels it ‘neither free, nor a choice’ – something young Papuans are starting to discuss as they discover histories at odds with the Jakarta version.

Leadbeater, 73, who comes from a well-known family of robust political activists, is no casual placard-waver.  She was involved in the successful quest to keep NZ nuclear-free, which led to a ban on visits by US warships. 

As a prominent barracker for East Timor’s independence she was awarded the Order of Timor Leste.

Now she’s spokesperson for Auckland’s West Papua Action Group and clearly taken seriously by the Indonesian Government.  Two years ago it appointed Tantowi Yahya as ambassador.

Yahya was one of the best known faces on Indonesian TV as host of the top-rating quiz show Who wants to be a millionaire?  Now he has the tough task of persuading Kiwis that allegations of human rights abuses in Papua are hoaxes, and that separatism is only backed by a tiny minority manipulated by outsiders.

Leadbeater won’t buy it, and in See No Evil sets out the troubled history of the two provinces which are controlled from Jakarta, 3,670 kilometers west, though they’ve recently gained some degree of autonomy.

The book, published by the University of Otago Press, was released just ahead of two major developments:  First was a shocking incident in late December when a road gang pushing a highway through the interior was ambushed.

At least 19 men were shot (reports are confusing); the army is currently hunting the killers.
Then in January a petition allegedly signed by 1.8 million Papuans seeking an internationally supervised referendum on independence was handed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Leadbeater quotes academics claiming there’s been ‘soft’ or ‘slow genocide’ over the decades with estimates of 500,000 dying of fighting, malnutrition and disease. The HIV rate is 15 times greater than in the rest of the Republic.

About one million mainly Muslim farmers from overcrowded Java have migrated to Papua, which is predominantly Christian. President Joko Widodo has regularly insisted that road building is a high priority.

Highways will benefit new settlers but the indigenous owners see development speeding the destruction of their culture.

It seems the Melanesians are doomed, like the Aborigines in Australia and Maori in NZ, to become a minority in their own land.  Entrepreneurs are moving in to fell the forests, plough plantations and plunder the minerals.

Leadbeater’s book is no inflammatory tract but a scholarly account of the region’s history and present plight.  Papua’s blessing – and curse – is to be resource-rich.

Prime is Grasberg, the world’s largest gold and second largest copper mine on the Puncak Jaya mountain.  Reserves are worth an estimated US $100 billion.

This is Indonesia’s largest taxpayer so even if the government was prepared to stare down the nationalists and give in to the separatists – which is highly unlikely - it couldn’t cope with the financial losses.

Till recently the mine was majority-owned by the US company Freeport McMoRan but the Indonesian government took control last year in a US $3.8 billion deal. The torrent of money flowing to Jakarta should now increase along with the development of downstream industries. 

It’s here that Leadbeater is in a bind.  She knows the economic reality, but acceptance would undermine her argument for change. For her a particular concern is the Indonesian government’s fondness for using military might to solve social issues.

The policy didn’t work in Aceh where a long-running civil rebellion only ended this century with negotiations in another country.

The author lists the many alleged abuses of human rights, corruption – including the payment of US $20 million by the company to generals - destruction of the environment and maltreatment of the population; these are all serious issues which only seem to be addressed piecemeal.

Nationalism is growing fast in Indonesia where the nation is defined as Merdeka dari Sabang sampai Merauke – free from Sabang at the top of Sumatra, to Merauke on the border with Papua New Guinea.

Any hint that Papua might secede like East Timor would cause an uprising of anger which could trigger violence.  This would most likely be directed at Australasia which conspirators believe is plotting to fracture the Republic.  Whatever the NGOs say and do, Australia and NZ governments officially recognize the Papuan provinces as part of Indonesia.

For Leadbeater there’s another alternative to maintaining the distrust, pain and volatility. She wants her country to repeat its successful brokerage of the Bougainville conflict in the late 1990s by organizing a meeting of rival factions at a neutral venue.

(A civil war on the Papua New Guinea island ended when Bougainville became an autonomous province.  A referendum on independence will be held later this year.)

She concludes: ‘Papuan leaders and Pacific peoples are waiting for NZ to put its efforts into helping to bring peace and justice to the people of West Papua.’  It could be a long wait.

First published in Strategic Review, 29 March 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 determindly 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, 29 March 2019:


The Fear of Trading Dangerously                                

In early March The West Australian published an opinion piece by Professor Stephen Smith on selling to Indonesia; it’s republished here:

It went unchallenged, suggesting that the former Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister’s views on doing business with our giant neighbour are now received wisdom.  That’s a mistake.

Where does Stephen Smith put his savings?  The question would be impertinent if the former ALP Member for Perth (1993-2013) wasn’t lecturing us on investing in Indonesia.

The University of WA Professor now has an academic salary so should not be short of a few bucks to back his words with his wallet.

His op-ed repeated the now standard government line about the Indonesia-Australia – Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA).

This says that when (and if) the Indonesian and Australian parliaments ratify the free trade deal, tariff padlocks on our neighbour’s silos and stockyards will spring open for Oz wheat and beef. Some forecast a $35 billion windfall to growers.

Indonesians must be wondering how taking down tariffs will impact their lives. Lower shop prices are unlikely. There’s been negligible commentary apart from Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto reportedly saying its ‘suicidal’ because he thinks it favors Australia.

Professor Smith talks about trade improving relationships. A worthy ambition, though few will recognise the beef in their bakso (meatball soup) came from the Kimberley.

Australians have long been battered and bored by business boosters safe on government bankrolls. They’ve been telling normally canny investors they’ve overlooked an economic Eldorado with 270 million customers next door.  Since when did entrepreneurs need their hands held?

It’s illegal for Australian businesses to bribe public officials, even overseas.  Although opportunities are ripe, the free trade champions are tiptoeing around reality: Indonesia is a market only for red-bloodied gamblers.

The nimble Japanese and Chinese have been in the Republic for decades; they’ve adapted and thrived. In this tiger territory Australians are fawns.

Apart from graft, research shows that while high tariffs are a damper they’re not alone.  Extra hazards include admin inefficiency, a flawed legal system, poor infrastructure and ignorance of the protocols and culture.

Indonesia ranks 89 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.  Australia is 13th.  On the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business register it is number 73.  Australia is 18th while New Zealand is tops.  No wonder Aotearoa attracts most Oz dollars.

Clean-hand Indonesians want their government to start purging corruptors. That might happen after the 17 April general election if reformers win, though the task will be tough.

Since Eve started marketing fruit the commerce rule has always been:  Know your customer.  Polls by the Lowy Institute demonstrate year after tedious year that Australians know little about Indonesian culture and politics – probably because so many secondary and tertiary educators have been dropping Indonesian studies.

Three years ago Melbourne University’s Professor Tim Lindsey reportedly said fewer Australians were studying Indonesian at Year 12 level than in the 1980s.  There’s no evidence the situation has changed.

Indonesia could get on fine without this trade deal.  There’s ample wheat from the Black Sea region, often cheaper though the haul is longer.  India is exporting buffalo meat and buyers are adapting. 

English language teachers are more likely to be from the Philippines.  Australian universities may be world class, but so are those from Europe and North America, and they’re not idle.

Tertiary education is huge in Indonesia – quantity, not quality.  Malang, an East Java city smaller than Perth, has six times more campuses.  Many are linked to religion and ethnicity – not an environment where the liberal arts and rational inquiry flourishes.

Apart from more chances to export manufactured goods, maybe even cars, Indonesia didn’t get what it really wanted in the IA-CEPA – access to the labor market. The World Bank estimates more than nine million Indonesians work overseas, remitting US $9 billion a year.  They’re dubbed heroes of the economy, helping their families and the nation.

Most are laborers, domestics and health workers in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Getting into high-wage Australia would be a coup.  They’d get to know us and vice versa.

The agreement includes a quota of 4,100 work and holiday visas, eventually rising to 5,000.  This is a sop:  Last year almost 800,000 temporary visitors had work rights. Most were from Europe and the UK.

Professor Smith writes about the need for more ‘economic studies’.  Superfluous - the needs are known.  While Australian educators ponder whether to try their luck in the Archipelago, he could use his political and economic energy to get more Indonesian students into Australia.  

About 20,000 are at tertiary-level.  According to DFAT, 721 of these are post grads on government scholarships.  That number could be expanded manifold.

Giving the smart poor the chance to learn Down Under might be a better way to help than unis risking billions in a chancy market.  And it can be done now.

 First published in Pearls and Irritations, 29 March 2019:

Sunday, March 24, 2019


Showcasing an Indonesian intellectual       

'Gus Dur on Religion, Democracy and Peace’: Showcasing an Indonesian intellectual           

How to get the golden egg without disturbing the hen?
This was a typical conundrum posed by Indonesia’s fourth President the late Abdurrahman Wahid.  Better known as Gus Dur, he was one of this nation’s most prominent theologians, a committed democrat and lover of metaphors. 

One of the eggs was reform and a return to the more accepting indigenous Islam.  This needed to be secured without arousing the wrath of the broody bird, the rigid Saudi form known as Wahhabism then becoming popular.

Gus Dur died in late 2009 aged 69.  Before entering politics he was head of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the biggest Islamic organization in the world.

His 19 months as President between 1999 and 2001 were chaotic after the fall of the long time dictator and former army general Soeharto. 

Gus Dur was a bad economist, a lousy administrator, a decent humanist and a good social reformer. He lost the top job after being threatened with impeachment.

There aren’t too many NU members who don’t have an anecdote about their former leader.  Apart from being a religious scholar the polymath was also a passionate soccer fan and all-round funny man with a sackful of jokes. He used these to start meetings and defuse tensions:

A Madurese was caught ignoring a sign banning pedicabs. ‘I saw the picture Sir,’ he told the policeman, ‘but it showed an empty becak; mine had a passenger.’

“You're stupid. Can't you read the words under the picture?’

‘No Sir. If I could read I’d be a clever man like you.’

One of Gus Dur’s favorite verses from the Koran reads: ‘I have made you nations and tribes so that you may know one another’, a robust rebuff to the parochialism preached by today’s separatists.

He wrote essays and newspaper articles till restricted by loss of sight; these were always in Indonesian though he was a self-taught polyglot.

Now the Gusdurians, the young followers of his liberal thinking, have offered some selected works to a wider audience.  Seven translators have put 13 of his essays into English as Gus Dur on Religion, Democracy and Peace.

Behind the book are the NGOs Infid (International Forum on Indonesian Development) and Yayasan Lembaga Kajian Islam dan Sosial (Islamic and Social Studies Institute).

The ambition of giving their hero’s wisdoms to the world is fine, and the book important, offering many stimulating observations. But sadly it will get rejected by some potential buyers put off by sloppy English, even on the back cover blurb:

‘Not much people know that Gus Dur wrote many reliable and high quality articles … (he) does not simply rejects negative ideas about Islam, he also proposes and advocates positive ideas about on the other hand.’

We get the gist; Gus Dur’s fans will read this book anyway and forgive the errors, but this is 2018 and the public expects English of the quality they find in this newspaper.

The uncommitted curious will put it back on the shelf. Two proof readers are listed in the credits. I doubt they read the book.

However the rest of us should, if only to lift our spirits, to remind us of the complex diversity of Islam, a faith so often portrayed in the West as violent and intolerant.

Gus Dur was an eclectic reader as confident with the holy books of other faiths as with his own, often quoting the Bible.  In 1985 - when Soeharto’s authoritarian New Order government was at its peak – the cleric gave a sermon about the ‘Revival of Islamic Civilization’ and asked ‘is it happening?’

His conclusion was positive - though this was before urgers for a caliphate donned suicide vests and rode into crowds: ‘The richness of (Islam’s) heritage from its deep perception on (sic) a true place for humanity in life, to its great tolerance make a strong base for the Muslims to sail through the revival process.’

These are qualities we need now.

Gus Dur’s second daughter Yenny is a prominent public figure helping maintain her Dad’s legacy. But at the moment there’s a dearth of dynamic elders from outside the family offering the world a counter view to the ugliness of demonstrations against those of other faiths.

Into the gap have jumped the myopic polemicists.

What might Gus Dur have said to supporters of the so-called Reuni 2/12 in December? If true to form he would have condemned their celebration of getting the ethnic-Chinese Christian former Governor of Jakarta, Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, jailed for blasphemy.

This law has been erased from the statutes of most modern nations; it’s better covered by prohibitions on individuals deliberately and maliciously causing egregious offence, and not just against faith.

The black-banner wavers around Monas have struck fear into the hearts of Indonesia’s minorities and dismayed the Republic’s foreign friends – something Gus Dur would have opposed with conviction.

He wasn’t just a thinker – he physically confronted crazed mobs who’d fired churches.

His essay The Republic of Earth in Heaven: Another side of religious motives within social movements, written 35 years ago is apposite today.  He warns of ‘an endless process of fragmentation … diversity sacrificed to revolution’.

The revival he sought was not through terror, but the art, literature, architecture and learning that once enriched the world, making Islam universally admired.

Gus Dur on Religion, Democracy and Peace
Gading Publishing, Yogyakarta, 2018
142 pages

(First published in  The Jakarta Post J Plus 23 March 2019)

Friday, March 22, 2019


Wells unwell so plastic pure?  A wet debate

UN World Water Day (Friday 22 March) promotes our absolute dependence on the liquid.  Duncan Graham reports from Flores, an island better known for droughts.


If you can’t see a water cooler from where you’re reading this, you’re probably not in Indonesia.

The upturned plastic kegs curiously called gallon - though they hold 19 liters which is a drop or two over five gallons – are a fixture in offices and most middle class homes.

Indonesian tap water isn’t safe to drink, so households buy bottles, or use suspect sources and then spend big on gas to boil out the bacteria which causes the runs,

But one island claims to be mining an aquifer that doesn’t need treatment and plans to   turn exporter, challenging the dominant players. 

Ruteng is a cool and tiny town 1,200 meters up the creased and crumpled Manggarai Highlands of West Flores.  The area is internationally known for the Liang Bua cave where remains of the extinct ‘hobbits’ (Homo floresiensis) were discovered by Australian and Indonesian archaeologists in 2003.

Otherwise the town is only remarkable for the architecture of its striking cathedral.

Flores is east of the ‘Wallace Line’ between Bali and Lombok, separating lush Asia from the arid Australian eco-zone.  Economies are small; the Lesser Sunda islands rely on Java for essentials and tourists for cash.

Ferries and planes from the west come with motorbikes and fuel, household goods and packaged foods, then depart largely empty apart from coffee and returning visitors. They’re drawn by dive sites and Komodo Dragons, the world’s largest lizards only found in the national park on Flores’ west end.

How to use that spare cargo space has long puzzled Ruteng businessman Agustinus Willy Djomi. (right) The answer is to export water to Surabaya under the trademark Komodo.

“People think Flores is dry, which is true when compared to Java,” he said.  “But we have huge underground lakes of pure water,” he said.

“We’ve been pumping and bottling for 20 years. Now we know there’s enough to export.  It comes up around ten to 15 degrees Celsius and has no impurities.  It’s filtered using German equipment but nothing is added.”

His company, PT Nampar Nos has been extracting 30,000 liters a day and selling throughout Flores under the Ruteng trademark. Its bottles are pressed in the factory using blanks imported from Jakarta.  There are about 100 workers, making the company the island’s biggest industrial employer.

However it’s not all pump and profit.  Expansion plans haven’t gone down well with some locals saying lifting production will drain reserves and create droughts.

Djomi refutes the charges, pointing to many private shallow wells around the town, and the vagaries of weather for irregular shortages.

Many cultures associate water with life and reject exploitation. Concerns about commercial operators sucking up and selling on is almost universal, even in high rainfall, wide-waterway countries like New Zealand.  Assertions about the health benefits and essential mineral content are also contentious.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has forced suppliers to scrub ‘organic’ from marketing material. A NZ company was fined NZ $25,000 (Rp 250 million) for advertising its product as better than plain, boring tap water.

Yet business keeps lifting, like sea levels due to global warming, even where tap water is safe.  This defies the Economics 101 principle that free goods can’t be sold. 

They can if hinting health and packaged with images of snowy peaks soaring above polluted plains, and bottles shaped like a woman’s body.

Retail prices go from Rp 1,000 for 600 milliliters to more then Rp 10,000 at kiosks in airports.

Indonesian sales, currently worth US $11,400 million according to trade figures, are expected to rise by ten per cent this year.  If the Ruteng product can get a cool place on Java’s supermarket shelves, Flores will move from importer to exporter.

That will be a tough task even with a gimmicky name. Komodo Dragons are stinking beasts so linking them to clean water could be risky. But maybe oxymorons attract.

The Indonesian market is dominated by the French food conglomerate Danone, which hardly needs advertising; its product Aqua has become a synonym for bottled water, whatever the brand.


Adam’s Ale, or Bali Belly?

It’s long been the cautious Western travelers’ basic question:  Is the water safe to drink?

If ‘Yes’ as in Australia, Singapore, much of Europe and the US then this implies the nation is modern and well run.  If ‘No’, as in most Asian countries, then the label suggests an undeveloped state.

But before you sneer because your homeland reticulates potable water purified at great cost, ponder why most isn’t used for drinking but showering, watering plants and washing the car.

Water quality varies across Indonesia.  Old timers tell of distant days when rivers were clean and swimming a joy, not a jeopardy.  Not now.  Some households tie muslin around faucets to catch the grit, and they’re the lucky ones.

Despite extension of pipelines by the regional water companies PDAM (Perusahaan Daerah Air Minum, more than 30 per cent is lost through leaks, according to Indonesian research.

Twelve per cent of the population still lacks access to water in their homes, meaning it has to be carried from a village well or standpipe.

The job of lugging jerry cans of water up hills is usually done by women. Released from this toil would improve their health.

A UNICEF report claims 150,000 Indonesian children die every year through preventable diarrhea. A 2015 survey in Yogyakarta showed two thirds of water samples were contaminated with fecal bacteria.

So even if you want to save the world by rejecting plastic bottles, in Indonesia saving your family’s well being might be the more immediate priority.

First published in The Jakarta Post 22 March 2019