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, May 24, 2019


Whistle-blowers cheer up: someone’s listening                               

Indonesia needs to thank a long-gone guru for not expelling a cheeky student: The teacher’s reluctance to punish means the Republic has an Ombudsman who understands grievance first hand – and the importance of exposing wrongs.

Back in the authoritative 1980s school kids knew their place; they muttered privately about their elders’ failings but few dared to comment openly.

Though not Amzulian Rifai, then at the Lubuk Linggau State High School in South Sumatra.

The teenager liked to write and originally wanted to become a journalist.  More important is that he had a strong sense of justice which he ventilated in a student union newsletter.

“I criticized a teacher who’d come to the class, pass around books, tell us to read and then go out to drink coffee,” Rifai said. 

“That could have got me into real trouble, but I was defended by others and survived – perhaps because I had an outstanding student award.  But I had no idea of becoming an advocate for people’s rights to better service.

“Even later, when studying law in Australia and where I first encountered the Ombudsman during fieldwork, I had no ambition of starting a similar service in my homeland.”

So did he criticize his tutors at Melbourne and Monash Universities?  “No, everything was good.  In any case I was too busy.  My scholarship wasn’t enough – I had to wash dishes and deliver newspapers to survive.”

Rifai earned a doctorate and returned home to eventually become the Professor of Constitutional Law at Sriwijaya University, a private lawyer and a business director.  He also continued to write - 800 essays published so far.

All these profitable positions had to be jettisoned in 2016 when he shifted to Jakarta as head of Indonesia’s dispute resolution service.  This now has a shiny central city office with walk-in facilities for the dissatisfied, and branches in 34 provinces.

It employs 600 staff and eight specialist ombudsmen to handle different parts of the nation’s vast bureaucracy.

The word comes from the Old Norse meaning ‘representative’ and is still not properly understood.  Vice President Jusuf Kalla asked Rifai to find a better word in Indonesian but it has defied easy translation – as in other countries.

The idea of having an independent office where aggrieved citizens could complain about the public service and maybe get some resolution is popularly believed to be a Swedish idea from the early 19th century, though a similar system may have existed in China and Korea more than 2,000 years ago.

It started in Indonesia where the public advocate’s office was first opened in 2008, eight years after the first decree signed by the late President Abdurrahman Wahid and more than 30 years after its first introduction in Australia.

It has also spread to big companies which employ their own ombudsmen to handle product or service grievances.

The Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (Corruption Eradication Commission) gets headlines most weeks by making high profile arrests of the amoral allegedly slipping fat envelopes to win contracts and favors.

Polls show the KPK, born 2003, is the nation’s most trusted agency and has so far not lost any conviction it initiated.

However the Ombudsman has no powers to catch or charge wrongdoers leading to claims it’s just a docile doggie, chained alongside its kennel. The best it can do is to recommend that government departments polish their performances.

Rifai would not rank the agencies which listen best and take on suggestions for betterment, but did say: “The police are one of the most responsive.”

Have there been satisfaction surveys of clients?  “Not yet.”

“Chasing criminals is not our job,” he added.  “We’re a dispute resolution service.  Our task is to listen to complaints and work through mediation.”

A quick and casual check of everyday Indonesians drew puzzlement when asked about the Ombudsman, but our totally unscientific survey is backed by statistics. 

The Ombudsman’s office drew around 10,000 complaints last year, a jump from 6,000 two years earlier.  As the public becomes more familiar with their rights, so the workload increases.  A further 75 staff are expected to be recruited next year.

However the numbers fall far short of the 41,300 ‘approaches’ made last year to the Ombudsman in Australia, a nation with less than one tenth of the population of Indonesia.

There could be other explanations – Australia fosters a culture of whingeing (complaining, or what the British call ‘grousing’) while Indonesians are more accepting of errors made by civil servants; but the more likely reason is that the Ombudsman Down Under is well known and receptive.

When consumers win their stories often get media coverage.

Rifai says his officers don’t just wait for the angry and annoyed, but send out mobile units to smaller towns where they run clinics.

Most complainants are concerned about regional governments handling land ownership certificates and building permits.  The other areas are education, particularly school fees levied when public school education is supposed to be free, and health care in hospitals.

Here the Ombudsman has a ‘quick response unit’ to handle worries where a patient or relatives alleges that treatment or non-treatment might threaten a life, but non-urgent complaints seem to take forever.

Rifai defended the system arguing that it needs to be fair to both sides.  When a protest is lodged the office which is alleged not to be following the rules has to be given time to respond.

Inevitably the process is long and tedious which means some complainants give up in frustration.

Eventually both sides may end up confronting each other with an Ombudsman officer trying to fix the issue and mediate.

As in ‘he said, she said’ marital rows, reconciliation is not always possible, particularly when one side is unsure of dates and times, or hasn’t kept the necessary paperwork.

“There’s a culture of bureaucracy in this country but it’s changing,” said Rifai. “There has been a distrust of public institution and this must improve.  Honesty and trust in government and the way it deals with citizens is essential for democracy.

“Corruption isn’t just a crime, it’s morally wrong.  All the mainstream religions condemn greed, and our culture doesn’t teach us to be greedy.

“Change won’t happen overnight, but having good and honest family values is very important in ensuring we all do the right thing by our fellow citizens and society.”


 First published in Indonesian Expat, 23 May, 2019:

Saturday, May 18, 2019


 Let’s go a fasting together: A rhyme for our time

Wakey, wakey, rise and whine, it’s three am and first meal time. Breaking fast will come tonight, so eat up now and do what’s right, my family dear, Bon Appetit.

For those who follow different views, we have some good - and not-good news.

The eateries you like to go, for noodles, rice, tempe, bakso, are likely shut and tables emptied, to stop your palate being tempted.

There are some folks not firm and strong, they need tough laws to show what’s wrong. Not you; this column’s readers realize, self discipline will help decide.

Do not despair, not all’s unfair, some restaurant doors will be ajar, though finding them may take you far.

The hints are subtle, no signs to hustle, just full car parks and blinds closed tight, to stop the sight, of followers of minor doctrines, gorging burgers laced with onions.

The hungry do not want to know, the goodies that the menus show, like soups and toasts, brown chips and roasts, powders from the coffee bean, topped off by lashings of ice cream.  Temptations frighten, don’t enlighten.

Carbohydrates here and there, so when you order, do beware.

These foods come fast with sodas sweet, yet water’s delicious, and also nutritious.   They fear poor health has many links, to icky, sticky, fizzy drinks.  The sugar fix that some do crave, could send them to an early grave.

Tummy pangs may bruise your will, and make you feel a little ill, so pause for one or two pulse rates, and watch the pressure de-escalate.

The question here is simple, straight, it could determine future fate:

Do you really need a meal? Or is it something you just feel you want through conditioning? Not cooling air, but social manipulating. A ritual to supply you victuals.

The devil urges ‘order soon’, life’s ticking clock strikes stroke of noon, time flies – no lies.  The moment comes but once, so choose; on now are specials – who’d refuse?

Before you open up your purse, consider reading all this verse, suppress your pangs and sighs - recall the words from doctors wise:

‘We see your waist is getting bigger, that doesn’t suit your face or figure. Statistics prove that guys your age, will never get to pension stage, unless they count the calories, and push aside the greasy fries.’

But how can this be done, you cry. Well, this month gives us time to try.

Consider who is now involved, neighbors, good friends, and rellies too, we’re told.  No need to change your faith positions, restraint is practised by all religions.

Don’t stand aloof, receive this truth.  Resisting foods but for a while, endeavor to rejig your style, t’will benefit your health - and certainly preserve your wealth.

Contemplation and restraints, helped some ancients turn to saints.  What worked for seers in earlier years, proves comforts lasting - just through fasting.

When at first you do abstain, prepare yourself for little pains, though overall come many gains.

 Your spirit will be richer, and you’ll look a better picture, on the selfies in Facebook, that your jealous friends will envy, when they’re on a feeding frenzy.

Abstaining from the food and drink, can stimulate our minds to think, about the things that matter more, than banquets, booze and cakes galore.

In any case four weeks will fly, so why not give it one quick try?  A month’s short term, so just stay firm.  And here’s a reminder - some faiths are kinder.

Romans are told they should repent, for forty days to follow Lent.  That’s twelve days extra, than for those who look to Mecca. So don’t complain about your Lot, that fellow’s wife was turned saline, because she never ceased to whine.

This witty ditty’s coming to an end, so here’s the message that it sends: Whatever holy book you read, why not peruse our common needs?  For some it’s health and being slim, for others sacred pietism.

First timers may not last, but do not fret, next time they’ll go the distance, no regret.

Forget them and us, so no more fuss, erase hate and celebrate, let’s do this thing together.  
(First published by The Jakarta Post 18 May 2019)

Friday, May 17, 2019


Prefer me above all others   
More than 16 million Australians will go to the federal election this Saturday.  By comparison with Indonesia’s razzmatazz last month, the neighbors are playing tiddlywinks.

That doesn’t mean the Ozzie system is slicker.  If the figures are close between the incumbent Liberal-National coalition, and the Australian Labor Party challenger, the result may take longer to determine than Indonesia’s Presidential race.

It’s often written that Australians have to vote, as do citizens of Bulgaria, Gabon and Greece.  Wrong.  We must go to the booth, be marked as present, collect the ballot papers and retire to the private cubicle.

Here we can exercise real people power, our triennial right to put a number against a candidate’s name.  This might help her or him head to Canberra and a job that pays a minimum AUD 200,000 (Rp 2 billion) plus allowances a year. 

Reading the research voters are showing underwhelming enthusiasm.  Many would rather spend their Saturday cleaning out the septic tank than deciding who’ll run the nation. Who’d want to vote for candidates they don’t know and might dislike, unless forced to participate?  The no-show fine is AUD 20 (Rp 200,000).

Without this law the turnout might be below the 55 per cent participation in the 2016 US Presidential election.

The estimated 80 per cent voluntary vote across this Republican archipelago on 17 April is a splendid put-down of those who say Indonesians aren’t into democracy.

Alternatively Australians can leave the paper blank, write All Politicians Are Money-grubbing Ratbags or something uglier. That might provide a brief warm fuzzy for boring it up a loathed class of wannabes, but it’s a waste.  About five per cent disfigure.

The candidates will never know the punter’s feelings as electoral workers will bin the protest.  Hint:  Don’t punch a hole in the card, as in Indonesia. 

More seriously, defacement negates your voice; it insults the millions struggling in dictatorships around the globe, desperate for the chance to vote against oppression. 

The cliché that Australia’s the lucky country is largely spot-on.  There are wide open spaces to grow megatonnes of grains for poor countries to buy, enough minerals and gas to keep the great, great grandkids surfing and boozing, free healthcare, state pensions and a largely uncorrupt administration. 

We won’t mention droughts, bushfires, the nanny state and high taxes, but you get the picture.  She’ll be right, they say.  Right?

Well not with the electoral system bequeathed by the Founding Fathers and devious bureaucrats whose motto has always been:  ‘You use, we confuse.’

Their triumph is Preferential Voting, which only schadenfreudes and psephologists (those who study elections) find orgasmic.

The rules wouldn’t have seen sunrise had the Founding Mothers been around.  They’d have had more sense.

It works (joke) like this: Australia has 151 single-seat electorates in the House of Representatives, each with around 100,000 registered voters.   Let’s put aside voting for the Senate – there aren’t enough columns on this page to explain.

Let’s take the imagined electorate of Dead Dingo Creek and its six candidates standing for one seat: Penny Pure, Hazel Nut, Bill Bludger, Pru Dence and Frank Enstein.  Because Oz is multicultural and multiethnic, there’s also perfect Sam Poerna, originally from Palangkaraya, a capital spot.

Voters number the candidates’ boxes. Penny wins 40,000 votes – or 40 per cent.  In thousands, and percentages, Bill scores 25.  Next comes Hazel with 15, Sam ten, Pru six and Frank four.

Clearly Penny has won.  She would in Britain because she’s first past the post.  But remember this is Down Under so she shouldn’t be shopping for a sober suit yet because 60 per cent didn’t want her as their member.

With me so far?   It doesn’t get easier.

Booths open at 8 am and close at 6 pm.  Then officials look at floundering Frank’s 4,000 votes.  They want to know who he’d prefer to be jetting business class around the continent now he’ll be missing out on the free tickets. 

His team gave out a How to Vote card suggesting second choices. However not everyone wants to be herded, so individuals pick their own. This creates what the beamish would call a challenge, the squeamish a dog’s breakfast.

Eventually it gets sorted with half of Frank’s 4,000 votes going to Bill who now has 27 per cent.

Nothing to Penny and 2,000 to Pru.  Her disciplined backers preferred Bill so 8,000 votes go to him.  In reality it’s never so clean, but hey, this is a newspaper feature, not an academic thesis, so let’s keep it simple.  Another joke.

The score is now Penny 40 per cent, Bill 35 per cent.

Once the bottom two have been eliminated it’s time to distribute Sam’s ten per cent - seven to Bill and three to Penny.

It’s getting tight.  Penny now has 43 per cent and Bill 42 per cent.

Finally we have Hazel’s 15,000 votes.  Her preferences are split – ten to Bill, five to Penny. 

The final result is that Bill wins with 52 per cent of the vote against Penny’s 48.

Think it fair?  Penny and her supporters don’t and now wish they’d swapped preferences with the frightful Frank and hard Hazel.  But Penny’s party claims it has principles and would not sup with devils, which ensures her failure.

Meanwhile duplicitous Bill, who has more faces than a Hydra has heads, back-slapped every rival candidate during the campaign except Penny.  He also vaguely promised to consider their flat-earth policies should he win through their preferences.

Once in Canberra Bill will suffer a memory lapse till 2022.   Unlike Penny he knows how to work the system.  That means he’s a professional politician and clearly deserves his win.

 First published in The Jakarta Post, 16 May 2019


                                             HUNGRY FOR A RESULT

Indonesian police are preparing for protests when the official results of the Presidential contest are announced next Wednesday.

Unofficial ‘quick counts’  after the polls closed on 17 April showed incumbent Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo with  a ten point advantage over challenger Prabowo Subianto.

The official slow count of boxes from the 810,000 booths across 34 provinces has enlarged Widodo’s lead to around 13 per cent with more than 80 per cent of votes counted.

All lies, shouts Subianto trying to emulate Donald Trump.  The former three-star general from an elite family believes he was born to rule, but so far has been a four-time loser.  He pitched for the top job in 2004, then for vice president in 2009 and for president in 2014 and again this year.

To fulfill his imagined destiny before being defeated by age, Subianto, 67, argues that his team has collected 3,000 examples of fraud in the voting and counting process.

So whatever is announced by the Electoral Commission (KPU) on 22 May he’ll not accept the result. That’s what he’s saying.

The aggressive, hot-tempered one-time soldier with a dubious human rights record has more personality defects than campaign ribbons.  Prime is his failure to understand that the new generation of voters in the world’s third largest democracy has a different view of society. 

They want competent civilians in charge and the army out of politics. Under second president Soeharto’s Dwifungsi (dual function) policy the military held reserved seats in the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR - House of Representatives) and top positions in the public service for which many were ill equipped.

Subianto’s assertion that he’s won 60 per cent of the vote is based on figures garnered by the National Tabulation of Volunteers for Changing the President.  As its name reveals, this is not an impartial organization.

So Subianto will be heading to the Constitutional Court ahead of the inauguration on 20 October.

That’s no surprise because the former son-in-law of Soeharto tried that track when he lost to Widodo five years ago. 

This time his supporters have been threatening ‘people power’ street riots.  The real version of that term was the democratic election with an estimated 80 per cent participation rate. 

Every day small numbers parade outside the KPU’s Jakarta HQ.  However they’ve toned down their feigned outrage since senior clerics from the two largest Islamic organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU - Revival of the scholars) and Muhammadiyah (followers of Muhammad), reminded them it’s time to pray, not protest.

One zealot called for Widodo to be beheaded which prompted the police to arrest.  Most of the time they’ve been watching and warning, intimidating by numbers and discipline, and avoiding confrontations like forcefully dispersing.  This significant shift in crowd-control techniques follows training by the Australian police.

Two decades ago Soeharto stepped down after men in uniform (the police were then part of the military) opened fire on student demonstrators, killing four and injuring scores

So far the Prabowo camp’s anger has also been muted by requirements of faith.  It’s now the middle of the Ramadan holy month; as the four weeks of fasting heads towards Idul Fitri in early June, the famished are showing exhaustion.

Napoleon Bonaparte said an army marches on its stomach.  So do rioters.

This is also the silly season. One failed candidate in the DPR elections, held on the same day as the presidential contest, went to a mosque and demanded back the green carpet he’d donated to win worshippers’ votes.  The huge floor covering was dumped in the street.

The death toll among people staffing the booths has now reportedly exceeded 400; Subianto’s team reckons they died not because they were old, infirm and exhausted, but because they were trying to prevent their boss from winning, so want autopsies.

Just a couple of problems with this creepy reasoning: If post mortems showed hearts and minds can be impregnated with a political virus, despots would demand drums of the stuff to infect their subjects.

The other difficulty is that the Muslim dead are buried the day they die.  The idea of relatives giving permission for hundreds of exhumations in an attempt to bolster crackpot theories goes beyond the bizarre.  Hey, that’s Indonesia, which makes the nation so engrossing.

Most diplomats and foreign observers have accepted a Widodo win and are now focusing on the likely make-up of his new Cabinet for the second five-year term.  All bets are on the low-profile Retno Marsudi, 57, holding onto Foreign Affairs so no radical shifts expected from the present ‘non-aligned’ policy.

Marsudi seemed to get on well with former Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop; how the Indonesian will cope if Labor’s Malaysian-born Penny Ying-Yen Wong, 50, gets the job will be worth watching, as Indonesia’s prurient press will likely make much of the Senator’s lesbianism.

Gays are under attack across the archipelago with Widodo’s sidekick and soon to be vice-president Ma’ruf Amin, 76, leading the prejudice.  The right-wing former NU cleric was shoehorned into standing to boost Widodo’s Muslim vote, but human rights activists fear he’ll push the nation further into conservatism.

That’s already underway.  Although the Film Censorship Board approved veteran director Garin Nugroho’s Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku (Memories of my body) for public showing, few Indonesians are getting the chance to view a movie that’s won overseas awards.

It’s being banned by clerics for dealing with LGBT issues on the basis that watching will encourage youngsters to change their sexual preferences.  With this logic violent films should be outlawed to stop viewers becoming Subianto imitators.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 16 May 2019:

Thursday, May 16, 2019


Have faith in diversity                                                    

Nofa Safitri, 24, is a Gusdurian, a supporter of the liberal values of Indonesia’s fourth president Abdurrahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid.

She decided to test her backing of pluralism by stepping outside the faith she was gifted at birth. The West Sumatran chose Yogyakarta’s Jesuit Sanata Dharma University for her tertiary education, dismissing relatives’ fears she’d be converted.

“I remember going into the classroom and seeing a cross on the wall,” she said. “I was at first concerned but five minutes later I’d accepted this was the environment.  I’m still Muslim.”

Not all are so venturesome. Readers would know of Christians who’ve never left their shoes outside a mosque, and Muslims who have never fingered holy water - both for fear of infection.  Not physical diseases, but spiritual corruption.

That’s nonsense, according to craftsman Purboyo.  From hooks on the paint-splashed walls of his Malang workshop dangle crucifixes big and small, plain and hung with the crippled body of Christ.  

There are also some enigmatic Buddhas with eyes downcast, and halo-hatted saints, their beatified features staring heavenwards

The statuettes are made by carving moulds of fiberglass and silicone rubber to take the plaster bodies; the midwife’s tools include a bucket of calcium carbide and an electric angle-grinder.

Purboyo can create special designs to order and in a hurry for the homes of Catholics and the niches and nooks of their churches – seldom those of Protestants.  They prefer plain walls and basic trappings so worshippers aren’t distracted.

(An exception is the All Saints Anglican Church in Menteng, Jakarta, which has much to read on the walls should the sermon not inspire.)

On the craftsman’s paintpot-cluttered workbench are more nativity scenes than a thorough theologian could find in the Gospels. There are also enough 3D models based on The Last Supper 15th-century mural by Leonardo da Vinci to remind all that there were no women present – not even as servers - at this seminal event.

Most buyers of this art would expect the maker to be a churchgoer, well versed in the faith he portrays. Yet the religion on Purboyo’s KTP (ID card) reads ‘Islam’.  

At one level this can be seen as an example of Indonesian tolerance.  On another it could mean the fundamentalists have yet to find him.

No problems?

“No.  Why should there be?” he replied.  “At their roots all faiths are much the same.  The gap between them is very small. 

“My village (about ten kilometers outside the East Java city) is totally Muslim.  But so far no-one has bothered me. They know what I do. Radicals aren’t religious, they just want controversy.  If anyone starts trouble I’ll explain my thinking.”

This is certainly unconventional. Although officially a member of the nation’s dominant religion, Purboyo’s real beliefs are Javanese Kebatinan which pre-dates Islam.

Also known as Kejawen and Kepercayaan, it’s a complex mix of Hindu and Buddhist teachings plus animism pre-dating Islam and Christianity.  The traditional religion of Java is not officially recognized but instead classified as a cultural practise.

Numbers of practitioners are hard to find as they keep a low profile.  They seldom gather in open groups and often publicly follow a mainstream creed while harboring different ideas.  Sometimes their presence is only revealed when incense sticks are found at ancient temple sites after special nights on the five-day Javanese calendar.

Purboyo practices his doctrines alone; they involve bathing and long meditations.  He’s been to the graves of the Walisongo, the nine Islamic saints who are believed to have spread Islam in Java, though not to pray.

He doesn’t go to mountain summits or deep caves, the retreats of second President Soeharto who was raised in Javanese mysticism, but contemplates at home. 

Instead his hero is Soekarno who is buried in Purboyo’s home town Blitar.  The first President’s portraits also hang on the dusty walls.  “Just talking about him gives me goosebumps,” he said, pointing to the rising hairs on his forearms. “He’s my hero.

“Sometimes when I’m in a bad mood I find the faces of my statuettes look grim, which doesn’t please buyers.  Imagine a Mother Mary with outspread arms welcoming sinners, yet she seems miserable.  Who’d ever want to go to her? So I have to be careful when I work – which is often late at night.”

Comparison with Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker or fictional woodcarver Geppetto’s puppet Pinocchio is rejected; “There’s no spirit in my statues – they’re just that,” said Purboyo. “Magic is not involved.” 

He learnt his craft while working for an antique dealer and watching colleagues fix broken objects with fiberglass.  He eventually started his own studio and sells his products through Christian shops, competing with imports from Italy. 

Islam prohibits representations of living things, and not just people.  This has helped create a vast flowering of abstract art and colorful patterns that don’t appear in nature and can often be seen on the domes of mosques.  The ban is said to prevent idolatry and recognize Allah as the only creator.

“Muslims are allowed to have calligraphy on their walls, but my skills aren’t good enough,” said Purboyo. “So I stick to Buddhist and Catholic art.” His buyers know he doesn’t share their faiths – but seem unconcerned.

His ideas have been garnered from other followers of Kebatinan for there are no dedicated buildings or services.  Purboyo gets much of his thinking from personal discussions with another mystic.  He claims sicknesses have been cured following rituals.

Both his parents were Muslims though an older sister has converted to Christianity.  His wife Eny Juwantiningsih is a pre-school teacher and they have two children:  “We will give them moral direction but they must then find their own way,” he said. “They won’t go to religious schools.”

Reincarnation is not part of the Kebatinan belief system though Purboyo ponders the possibilities.  When he dies and gets confronted by the six doors of Indonesia’s government-approved faiths, which one will he knock?

“That won’t happen,” he said firmly.  “There are no separate religions in heaven.”


(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 May 2019)

Wednesday, May 08, 2019



Mars Noersmono has a story he’s determined to tell. It’s deeply disturbing - a tale of horror and courage, despair and resilience. 
Although primarily about Indonesia’s bloody and brutal past, it’s also a sober warning against authoritarian governments everywhere that ignore the rule of law and create civilian panic against mythical monsters to justify violence and maintain power.
The illegality and human suffering is strong enough, but this is also a first-person account of a nation’s shame.
In September 1965 a coup was allegedly staged in Jakarta by the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI), which was supporting founding President Soekarno.  Six generals and a lieutenant were murdered.
No uprising followed.  General Soeharto, who was to become the nation’s second president, took control with his authoritarian Orde Baru (New Order) administration.  This was to last 32 years.

The PKI was banned and in October 1965 the slaughter started – not of invading foreigners or armed revolutionaries – but unarmed ordinary citizens who had been peacefully (“though not uncritically,” said Noersmono) supporting their left-leaning president’s anti-colonial rhetoric. An estimated half-million died, their bodies thrown in rivers and mass graves.

The regime change was much welcomed by Western governments aware of the killings but failed to protest.  Official documents only recently released in the US and Australia showed diplomats were reporting events back to their bases in Washington, London and Canberra.

In 1965 the Cold War was at its height.  US and other troops, including Australians, were fighting a losing war in Vietnam to stop the southward spread of Communism; the abrupt and dramatic lurch to the right in Indonesian politics was seen as an end to the Red Tide.
In mid 1966 the Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt reportedly told the Australian-American Association in New York that ‘with 500,000 to one million Communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it is safe to assume a reorientation has taken place.’

The US Central Intelligence Agency was less callous. In 1968 a secret report claimed the killings ‘rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.’

Thousands of others were arrested and jailed.  They were never charged or given the chance to plead in court. Nor were they told what crimes they’d allegedly committed. 

The brightest, perceived by Soeharto to be the most threatening, were not violent men but academics, teachers, writers and artists, the people essential to build a new society. They were exiled to remote Buru Island, 2,700 kilometers northeast of Jakarta. Among the 12,000 was Noersmono.

He’s now added his voice to the call for justice with Bertahan Hidup di Pulau Buru (A prisoner’s life on Buru Island), which he started after Soeharto fell late last century and Indonesia became democratic. 
Writing was the easy part.  Noersmono spent 15 years searching for a publisher prepared to face the wrath of the government and the many powerful forces determined to stop revelations of their involvement, or their relatives’ role in the massacres. These include the army, the police and religious organizations.
Only Bandung publisher Ultimus was prepared to take the risks – but few copies get onto mainstream bookshop shelves.
“I wrote the book because I want the younger generation to understand the truth, and pay respect to those who did not survive,” Noersmono said. “We are asking for recognition before we all die – is that too much?
“Writing has also lifted the burden I’ve been carrying for so long, and that’s a relief.  My dreams are now not so bad.”

Mars with children and grandchildren
For a moment the frail 79-year old broke down: “It’s only the second time I’ve cried – the first was in Yogyakarta (Central Java) when I was telling students my story.
“It has taken so long for me to get to this point because I’ve been afraid to be wrong.  The brutality of Buru destroyed our confidence.  We feared something bad would happen if we spoke out.  We were totally powerless.”
 Noersmono’s account is not a pity-me tract in a cheap printing, but a well-written and detailed 358-page history of the vile years, the torture, how the men lived, worked and found ways to adapt.
It includes pictures of the prisoners drawn by the author who among his many talents is also a fine draughtsman. Only a few blurred and grainy photos have survived; most prison buildings on the island have been torn down, so Noersmono’s sketches are invaluable.
Now back on Buru after spending the past few years with relatives in the East Java city of Malang, he has started sketching again in the hope that his pictures can be exhibited to keep the story alive.
Cemetery of those who died on Buru
Noersmono’s journey to jail started when he was 25, an undergraduate in his final year of engineering at Bandung’s prestigious Institute of Technology.  Before heading to the West Java capital he’d studied art in Jakarta and had taken units in architecture.
His father had been educated in a Dutch Catholic school and was the head of the nation’s Post and Telecommunications Service. Though staunch nationalists the family often spoke Dutch in their large Jakarta home.  They also owned a brickworks. 
Noersmono was the youngest of four and expected to manage the company after graduating. Next above was the only girl, then two boys. 
“It was a happy family,” Noersmono said. “We were always talking about politics.  During the campaign against the Dutch after Soekarno’s 1945 Proclamation of Independence my father sent secret coded messages to the revolutionaries fighting in Surabaya.”
Like students worldwide, Noersmono was involved in discussion groups.  The most popular was Consentrasi Gerakan Mahasiswa Indonesia (CGMI Indonesian Student Organization).  It held a congress in Jakarta in late September 1965.
Noersmono was attending just before the coup took place.  “It was a frightening and chaotic time,” he said.  “We didn’t know what was happening.”
But eldest brother Zochar, who worked as a translator on Chinese texts and was a leader in the CGMI, had a tip-off or premonition.   He fled to the Dutch Embassy with his young wife and was flown out of the country, first to China and then the Netherlands where he became a pharmacist.
On 17 October two members of the local militia came to the family house.  “We knew them, they were neighbors,” said Noersmono.  “They were reasonably polite and asked us to follow them to an office, but we heard of shootings so were getting nervous.
“A few days later my parents and I were arrested. The CGMI was banned.  My Dad was to spend 18 years in prison, my mother three.  My sister and brother fled Jakarta and weren’t caught.”

After spells in Jakarta jails, in 1970 Noersmono and 500 others were shipped to Buru on a five-day voyage.  They were never told where they were heading; by then they’d heard of the genocide, so were in great fear.

The government line has always been that the killings were spontaneous reactions by outraged pious peasants who hated the godless Marxists and could not be stopped.

This story has now been well buried by overseas academics like Australian Dr Jess Melvin – who state categorically that the slaughter was carefully organized by the army.
Her certainty is based on original documents she was given in Aceh - by the military. 

It has long been suspected that the papers exist, but the young doctoral student trounced all senior academics just by asking at an army office.  Her book about the find, The Army and the Indonesian Genocide, published last year, has rocked historians in Indonesia and overseas.

The genocide was engineered through a secret police unit with the Orwellian title 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 all Muslims – Christians were also involved, particularly on Flores and islands further east. 

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. Soeharto’s propaganda unit had created an environment dense with hate.  It coined the ominous term Gestapu for the coup and wrongly claimed the generals’ bodies had been mutilated.  .

Once on Buru the men, who had already been stripped of their civil rights, suffered further indignities. Noersmono’s shirt was stenciled number 493.  With a few basic tools they were ordered by armed guards to clear the forest and build their barracks.

Behind Mars is the site of his former house

 “For the first two months we had nowhere to live except the open air,” he said.  “We lived on rice porridge and whatever protein we could catch or gather.”
The prisoners were labeled tapol, an acronym for tahanan politik – political prisoner and held for up to 13 years.    
The tapol have never been compensated for wrongful imprisonment. Their plight has still to be officially recognised. Present President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, who originally pledged to open discussions, visited Buru in 2015 but used the opportunity to urge farmers to improve  rice yields.  He said there’d be no inquiry.
Noersmono’s son Dwinura agreed – though with bitterness.  “This is not South Africa,” he said.  “There’s no Nelson Mandela driving the airing of history. 
“I’m proud of our father and we want his good name restored. He didn’t hurt anyone or steal anything – so what did he do to end in prison?  I want recognition of the wrongs done to so many who committed no crimes.  The army stole Dad’s land in Jakarta;  there’s been no compensation. There’ll be no reconciliation, no national apology as in other countries like Australia.  This is Indonesia.”
Dwinura and his two brothers were born on Buru in the 1980s after his father married the daughter of another tapol and stayed on the island after release.  About 200 others also remained.

“There was nothing left for us back in Java,” Noersmono said. “Our ID cards included the code ET identifying us as ex tapol.  This ensured we were shunned by employers, friends, and neighbors – and sometimes by relatives who feared guilt by association.”
The tapol were only partly free; they were kept under surveillance, had to report regularly to the police and were denied property rights and work in the public service.
Once the camps were closed the Orde Baru government started a transmigration program moving poor farming families from overcrowded Java to Buru where they were given land to grow crops.
The newcomers took over the jungle clearings opened up by the tapol, accessing their homes on roads cut into the interior by the former prisoners who received nothing.
Noersmono became a contractor using the skills he’d learned at university and built his own house.  He also designed and supervised the construction of a Rehoboth Presbyterian Church named after a pioneering chapel established in West Virginia (US) in 1786.
The Buru church was fire-bombed by Muslim mobs during the 1999 nation-wide ethnic and religious riots following the fall of Soeharto the previous year.  Funds have now been raised for its renovation which is already underway.
The prison camps were closed in 1980 after pressure from overseas governments hearing of the abuses.  Change was also hastened following the publishing of The Buru Quartet.
The novels, banned till recently in Indonesia, are by the late Pramoedya Ananta Toer who was held for 13 years on the island.  Although forbidden to write and denied pens and paper ‘Pram’ still managed to produce his fiction set in the Dutch East Indies at the start of the 20th century.   The books are about a young man named Minke and his growing awareness of colonization; nowhere is ‘Indonesia’ mentioned.
Pramoedya died in 2006 and is the only Indonesian writer ever nominated for a Nobel Prize.  He was sent to Buru for having ‘Marxist-Leninist thoughts’ and denied writing materials. 
 He composed and memorized his works and kept them fresh by reading aloud to fellow tapol at night. When he eventually got access to paper friends helped smuggle the manuscripts to Java where they were printed in clandestine workshops.

The Buru Quartet was also secretly translated into English by Australian diplomat Max Lane and became internationally famous. Pram kept writing once back in Java; his later books further exposed Indonesia’s dirty war against dissenters. 

Buru should be a journalist’s heaven. The isolated Indonesian island, 13 times larger than Singapore but with less than 200,000 residents, bristles with stories of tragedy and inspiration, saturated with politics.  The custodians of the tales are keen to speak, have their photos taken and give their real names.

“I’ll tell you what happened,” said Diro Oetomo. “I want the world to know.”  He also stayed on Buru, married and opened a shop.  The man would be a tobacco company’s pin-up boy, a heavy smoker all his life, but still fit at 83.

“We made cigarettes from papaya leaves and lit them by rubbing dry sticks together to make fire.  I’m whispering because walls have ears.  After you’ve gone someone will come round and ask what I’ve said.
“Did we ever hope for release?  Never.  All we thought about was when and how we would die.”
Hundreds perished of starvation or killed themselves, usually by hanging or drinking pesticides.  After a particularly brutal guard Pelda Panita Umar was murdered in 1972 by a tapol, 42 were killed in retaliation, said Noersmono.  There’s a memorial to Umar but no recognition of the tapol.
In the Savana Village cemetery are 150 graves. A few have headstones but most are unmarked mounds.  More than 300 names of the dead were collected by Pramoedya and published privately but many more remain unknown.
Despite almost two decades of democracy and the abandonment of oppressive rules governing the ET’s rights, intimidation persists. It’s no longer “the pointed finger as powerful as a pistol” as Oetomo said, but it’s still sinister and it starts at the island’s Namlea airport.

This is served by a 30-minute daily flight from the regional capital Ambon to the east and capital of the Maluku Province.  These islands, long plundered by the Dutch for cloves, sit just under the equator.

They have long and bloody histories going back centuries, but today are peaceful and part of the Republic.  This is not a special zone governed by regulations which don’t apply in the rest of the nation.

However the terminal has more than airline staff; it’s thick with police, soldiers and Intel (intelligence service) plain-clothes officers.  They ignore Asians but focus on white-skin arrivals, questioning motives, gathering documents, reporting back to their superiors and distressing the visitors’ local hosts in their private homes.

In this intimidating environment it takes courage to be seen with reporters.  The ETs no longer care but their families do. No parents want their children teased at school for having big black combat boots on the porch.  The Red Bogeyman still stalks the land.  During this year’s Presidential election campaign Widodo’s rivals suggested with no proof that his late father Widjiatno Notomiharjo had been a PKI member.
In Indonesia discussion groups about Buru and the genocide have been closed down by the police.  US-born British director Joshua Oppenheimer’s films about the genocide, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence have been shown openly abroad and won awards.  In Indonesia they’ve only been screened covertly.
While Indonesian authorities try to keep Pandora’s box well locked, arguing that release will inflame community tensions, the story has already escaped, largely helped by activists. They took Indonesia to the International People's Tribunal at The Hague, which found Indonesia ‘responsible for, and guilty of, crimes against humanity’.
The verdict was flicked away by the government. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu reportedly responded: ‘Why listen to foreigners? Foreigners should listen to Indonesia’.  Which is what the Tribunal had been doing.
Locally Komnas HAM (Komisi Nasional Hak Asasi Manusia), the National Commission on Human Rights, doggedly persists in publishing reports and reminding politicians that the stain on the nation remains, but most scholarship comes from overseas.
Last year Canadian Geoffrey Robinson published a potent account of the time titled The Killing Season.  The Financial Times ranked it as ‘one of the best books of history in 2018.’

The author describes Buru as a ‘concentration camp’ and ‘penal colony’; The New York Times called it ‘Soeharto’s Gulag’. The government’s terms were  ‘resettlement project’ for ‘political rehabilitation.’ 

Robinson, now a professor at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), was a student of the late Benedict Anderson and Ruth McVey at Cornell University.  They were the first to question the Indonesian army’s account of the coup and killings.

Their analysis, which came to be known as the Cornell Paper, was discredited by the Indonesian Government and its authors banned.  Which ensured their views got an even wider audience.

Robinson has maintained his mentors’ fire: ‘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.’

Attempts were made in 2015 (the 50th anniversary of the coup) by academics, journalists and the victims’ families to ventilate the history and begin a process of reconciliation.  That has largely not happened.

On the same year police threatened to close down the internationally-famous annual Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in Bali if it promoted books about the coup and genocide.  Participants were outraged, the foreign organizers modified their program to appease, but discussion continued.
“I still don’t know why I was arrested,’ Noersmono said. ‘You ask them.  Was I a Communist?  I don’t understand Communism – are you talking Russian, Chinese or Indonesian?”
Noersmono is a Protestant.  He says his faith helped him through the ordeals. Another factor may have been his lively mind observing and recording everything, and his curiosity in local technology, like crude stills to make eucalyptus oil.
“There was no support from Indonesian congregations,” he said.  “We were not executed because the churches overseas were concerned with the human rights abuses and broadcast our plight. Gradually curbs were relaxed.”  Eventually the men’s families were allowed onto the island.
Once free Noersmono married Nursilah, 59, whose father was a tapol  “If I hadn’t been sent to Buru I would not have met my beloved,” he said.
 “I’ve always tried to be cheerful and see the positive.  But I cannot forgive Soeharto - not just for what he did to us, but for the way he destroyed the spirit and character of our nation that had been built up by Soekarno.
“As historians say – if we don’t know our past we are doomed to repeat the mistakes. I have seven grandchildren. I never want this to ever happen again to them or my country –or the people of any other nation.”