The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Focusing on Washington, glancing at Jakarta                                 

The 17 April Indonesian elections and fallout could have been big news in Australia.  According to some experts they should have been.

Instead media consumers Down Under got more of US President Donald Trump’s distant domestic political shenanigans than they did of the blood and fire crises facing their neighbor nation and its President Joko Widodo.

The result from the world’s third largest democracy staging the world’s biggest one-day election will impact many countries, but most particularly the adjacent southern continent.  

Although the times have been tumultuous, consumers of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s sound and vision news bulletins would have concluded most salient events were happening 13,000 kilometers distant in the Northern Hemisphere – not next door.

Using the ABC's website search box, ‘Widodo’ appears only a dozen times compared with 150 for 'Trump' in the same seven-week period.  'Indonesia' featured on 60 occasions.

The Australian national newspaper did better with 36 mentions of Widodo.

This survey doesn't measure story length, prominence, or note overlap. It’s a crude measure of quantity, not quality.  That doesn’t undermine the point: the gap is too wide.

The political happenings in Indonesia’s recent past appear to have been judged by news editors in Australia as minor against those in America, even though the US didn’t feature an election or resulting tumult.

Perth-based Indonesia Institute President Ross Taylor told The Jakarta Post:
“The statistics simply reinforce our Institute’s view that the only time we here in Australia engage with Indonesia through the media – or as a community – is when … something shocking happens in the rest of Indonesia.

“Our media reported how the Jakarta riots’ terrible scenes were a result of people protesting against alleged vote rigging and anti-Widodo sentiment … The main contributors to those riots were young thugs, Islamic radicals combined with disaffected youth happy to get three dollars (Rp 30,000) each to create a ‘protest'. That should have been a story in its own right.”
Australian journalism is facing crook times; an estimated 3,000 jobs have been deleted this decade, most from newspaper newsrooms as consumers click screens rather than flick pages. Rip-and-read reports, mainly from the Anglosphere, often fill space.

That leaves much heavy lifting to the public broadcaster.  The ABC is the most trusted news organization in the nation, according to Roy Morgan Research’s MEDIA Net Trust Survey.

Told that Trump was eclipsing Widodo by a factor of twelve, Corporation spokeswoman Sally Jackson responded:  A keyword in the search box does not surface all ABC coverage. It is not a reliable basis to draw conclusions from.”  

When asked what the search box misses and how searching could be refined she added: “We did a lot of coverage - both planned and breaking news … we had two reporters on the ground reporting for all platforms … and many live crosses at night. The Indonesia story was an important one that was covered thoroughly for all our readers, listeners and viewers.

That’s not contested.  The issue is the disproportionate attention and higher ranking given long term to US affairs above those in Indonesia.

Dr Andrew Dodd, Director of the Center for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University told this paper low rates of news coverage “reflect the sad fact that in Australia we are still not switched on to the great changes occurring in Indonesia.

“We are still largely ignorant of the people and parties and policies in play and why the protests are occurring. This does not reflect well on Australia’s media or population, given so much is at stake.

“Unless the story involves an Aussie backpacker doing something stupid in Bali it seems we just don’t really connect with stories in Indonesia. We’re too busy focusing on the latest idiocy occurring at the centers of Western culture - in Washington and London.”

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto had some disquieting ideas.

The former general publicly promoted Ghost Fleet a US sci-fi novel which forecasts that by 2030 Indonesia will be brought to its knees by cunning Westerners plundering the archipelago’s resources. 

It gets worse.  According to Dr Edward Aspinall and Dr Marcus Mietzner, both from the Australian National University, Indonesian democracy could die with a Subianto win.

That’s what they claimed back in 2014.  This year they analyzed a Subianto speech and concluded he believed ‘direct elections were not compatible with the Indonesian cultural character and gave a strong signal that he wishes to do away with the practice.’

The possibility of a giant dictatorship on the doorstep led by ‘a Trumpian figure who lives in a self-created bubble of imagined greatness’ according to Mietzner, should have turned Australian media attention to the islands above.

Another factor: Had the May mayhem continued Australia might have been hit with a flood of refugees fleeing the violence. That happened in 1998.

President Widodo has visited Australia officially three times, but the Prime Minister he most liked, Malcolm Turnbull, was deposed last year in a Liberal Party coup and replaced by Scott Morrison.  He’s infamous for riling the Republic by proposing to shift Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Relationship repairs will be required.

Next comes a new Widodo Cabinet; few Australians could name the personalities and parties involved, though they’d be familiar with key players in US politics.

Commented Taylor: “As a community, Indonesia is simply the stranger next door; yet when Australians spend time in Indonesia they realize that Indonesians are gracious people with a great sense of humor, value family and value good friends. They also aspire to the things we seek.”

Which are deeper and wider understandings of each other.  That comes through expanded media coverage of issues and individuals on both sides of the shallow and narrow Arafura and Timor Seas.


First published in The Jakarta Post 25 June 2019.

Also published in Pearls and Irritations on 12 July 2019:

Monday, June 24, 2019


                                        Roaming for relevance

Politicians and pollsters hunting the grey vote usually stalk retirement villages and pensioner clubs.

Handy because electors mustered in dining rooms and community halls tend to groupthink.  Dissidents don’t do well in confined spaces where they’re condemned to stay mum or risk exclusion.

Wrong spots.  Hucksters should stake out the hills and creek banks where independent thinkers and determined doers thrive and allegiances can be shifted – the backblock campgrounds.

These aren’t the profit-driven holiday parks with garish banners and bouncy castles, but paddocks plus basics, often run by rural community groups.  The Gun Club in Roma, the natural gas origin town of Queensland, lets blow-ins squat alongside the clay pigeon catapaults

Nearby Injune has turned its racecourse from a monthly venue into a seven-day a week stopover.  A yard behind the rail line at Salmon Gums near the west-end start of the Nullarbor Plain has been spruced up by volunteers who yarn to visitors round the camp kitchen. 

Many of the movers are also shakers, retired professional couples who’ve sent the kids packing and decided to do the same. They have cash and a determination to die being active.

This is no small cohort: As you scan this paragraph there are probably around  120,000 campers on the blacktop, cruising not racing.  That’s according to the industry which has  websites competing for dollars by offering info on secret hideouts and special de

With more than 600,000 RVs registered across the country as one pulls into the carport, another hitches the trailer and heads inland.

‘RV’ is one more US import, meaning recreation vehicle, a four-wheel-drive not used for work, caravan or campervan.  What used to be a ute with a swag can now be the Taj Mahal on several axles.

Owners spend months selecting the right beast.  Stay-a-nighers go for campervans so they only need to plug into powerpont or genset;  those planning longer stays to explore, fish or just yawn and yarn away the days prefer caravans so they can unhitch the car and potter around town.

Few are technophobes.  Octogenarians swapping news on the lastest cellphones with the equally adapt grandkids half a continent away are a common sight.  So are oldies tapping their satellite arrays with walking sticks to get the signals in line with earth coordinates.

Because they often stay on the road for years, nomads carry enough gear to keep going far beyond bowsers, mechanics and doctors.  Some, like the Sugarcity Pioneers from Mackay travel in convoys.  Insurance companies aren’t keen on covering travelers who may not pass all the cemeteries they see before getting home, so mutual help is essential.

‘RV Friendly’ signs are slowly getting pegged outside progressive country towns where the local worthies read the stats: the rest are still grousing about interstate plates cluttering favourite parking places;  like Peter Dutton’s asylum seekers, you never know what diseases they’re carrying or perversions they practice.

Local government in the RV unfriendlies tends to be in the hands of luddite hoteliers.  Like taxis getting overtaken by Uber, they see threats, not opportunities.  Following Donald Trump they blacken outsiders with lurid tales of the bush befouled and ratepayers’ facilities trashed.

The rejects love adverbs; nothing is just ‘prohibited’ – it must be ‘strictly’. Along with  Singapore, they become ‘fine’ towns with  a penalty for every offence mean minds can imagine.  A favourite sign made failure to flush a urinal an offence.  You wouldn’t want to take the piss out of the police.

For these envious unwelcomers, camper are hoons in panel vans intent on sex and surf and with no interest in the bowling club bar.  Freeloaders must be banned, forgetting even the unshaven have to fill tanks, buy bread, cask wine and phone cards

A favourite rural myth has foreigners evacuating their bowels in botanical gardens and washing their undies with the water lilies.  Maybe there’s been the odd offender but the even truth is that most treat the environment as they would their lounge.

Having driven from Carnarvon on the West Coast to Carnarvon in Central Queensland the only sight of what seemed to be toilet paper desecrating the New England landscape turned out to be snow.

It’s equally easy to misjudge the grey nomads.  Their fashion is more Salvos than Myer.  Labourers’ boots and tatty shorts for the blokes, track suits for their partners.  This is not a market for Revlon but it is for Mercedes.

Whatever the superannuants aren’t spending on themselves they’re lavishing on their mobile homes which can often cost six figures.  According to industry stats more than $8 billion was spent on caravans and camping in 2015, a 24 per cent jump from four years earlier.

Geraldton, about 420 kilometers north of Perth is a ‘RV Friendly’ town, unusual for a sizeable city. It lets caravaners stay free overnight in the CBD, reasoning this encourages longer stays and an emptying of wallets.

Grouchtowns get blacklisted in seconds through the campers’ networks.  Nomads don’t grin and bear; with wheels and wanderlust there’s no need to stay and tolerate illwill.  Campers come from all points of the continent and even a few from overseas. They are as socially connected as their grandkids.

Many would vomit if called greenies though they’re deeply into the environment, keen to see what they never knew in their youth – Aboriginal art, protecting endangered wildflife, studying natural remedies - conservation of the endangered,  

The politicians who learn to link with this legion of  wised-up wanderers could learn how the electorate is changing.\

First published in Pearls and Irritations 24 June 2019;


Murder in Maumere                                                                  

A few shops in the largely Catholic city of Maumere sell religious icons.  Some include mottos like Jesus Engkau Andalanku (Jesus is my mainstay.)

Perhaps the faithful in the East Flores city find comfort with the phrase.  Though not in February 1966 when their religion’s earthly representatives betrayed that trust.

Five months earlier in Jakarta 1,700 kilometers to the west, a failed coup against the government of first president Soekarno had been followed by an army-organized bloodletting; an estimated 500,000 real or imagined Communists were slaughtered by militias.

The genocide had just about petered out in Java and Bali when orders came to Maumere from the army in Jakarta listing locals to be arrested.  Almost all were Catholic.

Instead of demanding their congregations be protected and given fair trials, the clergy helped the army.  Apart from administering last rites to some of the 800 or more victims, the priests stayed silent.

This little-known story of the Church failing to shield its flock, and often siding with the gunmen, can now be widely told through the scholarship of Dutch anthropologist Dr Gerry van Klinken.  In Australia he used to edit the prestigious Inside Indonesia magazine.

His latest book was to be called Murder in Maumere.  Strangely that selling title was scrapped for the prosaic but academically acceptable Postcolonial Citizenship in Provincial Indonesia, guaranteed to frighten away casual browsers.

Wrong.  Knowing this history should help ensure no repetition. It’s tragic, brutal, shaming, and a damnation of the Catholic Church.  It’s also a powerful argument for revising the government narrative of citizens’ spontaneous and unstoppable rage which still dominates, the only version allowed in classrooms.

One of van Klinken’s sources was Egenius Pacelly (EP) da Gomez, 79, and living just outside Maumere where he writes histories and studies politics.

In 1966 he was a Catholic Party activist and present at a meeting of Komop (Komando Operasi) and local officials.

They were told the Jakarta ‘instructions’ were to ‘secure’ all Communists and their sympathizers, and that political parties had quotas to fill.  There were then about 2,000 people in Maumere and maybe ten times more in Sikka Regency villages; most citizens knew each other as neighbors, through intermarriage, or casually.

A report of the meeting and some of what followed was written eight years later by Anon and titled Menjaring Angin (To Reap the Whirlwind).  Van Klinken identifies the author as da Gomez, though the Indonesian says it was later edited by others. 

The report concerns ‘human beings, society and their relations with the Creator ... a search for something that if seen clearly, might be best called meaning.’

But how to find meaning in slaughter at the hands of fellow parishioners with nods from those wearing cassocks?

Van Klinken tries to answer that devilish question through the mind of a Western educated social scientist.  His endeavors are not alone:  In 2015 Dr John Prior, a British-born priest who came to Eastern Indonesia in 1973 and is now in Maumere, co-edited an essay collection titled Berani, Berhenti, Berbohong (Dare to stop lying) with philosopher Dr Otto Madung.

Da Gomez has read the book and rejects explanations for the 1966 violence such as rising nationalism, lay criticism of the Church, hostility towards traditional regal rule, factional politics, old hates and supernatural fear.  Boiled together at a time of national uncertainty they created an environment where some locals took revenge for past wrongs.

Instead da Gomez will only say (to this reviewer) that the sole cause was the ‘instruction’ from Jakarta.

One who rejected state orders was Father Fredrik de Lopez who demanded his people be released.  So the army contacted his bishop and de Lopez was moved to a seminary.  Although his protest failed he didn’t die for his defiance. 

This showed the cowardice of his colleagues who used the defence of ‘we’ll be killed if we don’t cooperate’.  None sought sainthood.

They’d also been indoctrinated through strident Catholic teachings, largely driven by foreign priests, into believing that Communism was satanic. They didn’t differentiate between the ideology, open to challenge through better ideas, and those who liked party policies such as land reform, but weren’t card-carrying members. 

After the killings van Klinken writes of da Gomez: ‘The bloodshed had not left him cold’. On a visit to Jakarta the Indonesian was verbally attacked by Florinese students and accused of complicity.  This led him to join a group wanting to ventilate the atrocities and name the main killers.

For this action he was jailed and today is still reluctant to speak out, referring questioners to chapters in Berani, Berhenti, Berbohong, including one by van Klinken in Indonesian.

“I never took part in the killings, or saw them, or the bodies,” da Gomez said. One of  many unmarked mass graves is 300 meters behind his house, but he says he never visits.

The first section in van Klinken’s book tells the story ‘forensically’ largely through the life and death in prison of Jan Djong ‘the district’s republican rebel’. 

It then locates the events within a set of theories about former colonized societies adjusting to self rule when old structures fall and there’s much jostling to fill the vacuum.

This is interesting but tends to dampen the hot horror of what happened in Flores.  The text will find a snug place in university libraries overseas, when it’s most wanted scorching desks of local students seeking their nation’s real history.

“We need Gerry’s book in Indonesian and we need reconciliation,” said da Gomez.  “The initiative should come from the Church.”  Van Klinken said a translation is being considered by an Indonesian publisher. 

Postcolonial Citizenship in Provincial Indonesia, by Gerry van Klinken
Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2019
152 pages.

 First published in The Jakarta Post 24 January 2019

Tuesday, June 11, 2019


                                   Past their use-by date but still in charge

They ignore the local statistics, but hang on to the exceptional example, Mahathir bin Mohamad.

Next month the Malaysian Prime Minister will turn 94 and although he earlier promised to hand over to Anwar Ibrahim, 71, that has yet to occur.

So if a nonagenarian soufflĂ© can rise twice (Mahathir retired in 2003 after 22 years in Putrajaya’s Seri Perdana) and continue to run a  majority-Muslim nation, why not the hustlers next door?

Indonesia’s gerontocracy controls an archipelago where the median age is about 30, blocking the next generation of talented democrats from steering the country towards the rule of law and away from paternalism and corruption.

Mahathir is the role model for sclerotic politicians in the world’s fourth largest nation when challenged on their fitness to govern.

Jakarta’s megarich oligarchs who dominate Indonesia were already deep in the venal  mire when wee Joko Widodo was squishing his toes in the mud of Central Java’s Solo River.

The nation is ostensibly run by this mild-mannered commoner and just re-elected seventh president of the world’s most populous Muslim nation.  The son of a woodworker with no soldierly ancestors was four when Indonesia came close to suicide. A bloody anti-Communist coup and resulting genocide toppled founding President Soekarno and put the abstruse General Soeharto in charge for the next 32 years.

By the time Widodo graduated from the University of Gadjah Mada in 1985 with a degree in forestry, he presented as an unexceptional lad with interests in business, and later local government.

At that stage Soekarno’s daughter Megawati was boiling to revenge Papa who died in 1970, but her ambitions were brutally squashed by Soeharto. Three years after he fell she became the fifth president.  She was the nation’s first woman leader but a feeble figurehead, largely governed by the army during her term (2001 – 04). 

She tried twice to re-enter the Palace; in 2009 she campaigned with  this year’s contender Prabowo Subianto as her sidekick, but was locked out by unimpressed voters.

Now 72 she runs the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (PDI-P) the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, and the country’s largest party. It’s supposed to be secular, but that doesn’t mean an absence of Islamic politics.
Knowing Megawati would likely loose again, the PDI-P reluctantly nominated Widodo, then the can-do Governor of Jakarta. Soon after winning in 2014 he was being publicly humiliated, told who was the dahlang manipulating the shadow figures, and who was the puppet.

At the PDI-P’s national congress everyone present heard Megawati say: ‘As the extended hands of the party, you are its functionaries. If you do not want to be called party functionaries, just get out!’  The President stayed silent.
The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Harcher commented: ‘It was, in all, a brutal and calculated putdown … He (Widodo) now finds that he has no dignity serving her (Megawati), yet he cannot rule without her.’
For Megawati, Widodo is just keeping the Jakarta White House aired and tidy while her daughter Puan Maharani orders new furniture ahead of moving in next decade.  Recent changes in the Constitution restrict presidents to two five-year terms;
Maharani, 45, is Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Cultural Affairs, a position where her talents have been kept well hidden.
Unless there’s an eruption of enthusiasm and fresh ideas to dazzle the electorate she’ll be wasting her time briefing decorators.
Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – SBY  (2004-2014) is another dynasty planner.  Now 69, he’s trying to hoist his sons into the Cabinet where one can saddle-up for a tilt at the presidency.
Agus, 41, a former major, helps run the old man’s Democratic Party. Edhie, 38, was educated at Perth’s Curtin University and has a seat in Parliament.   Indonesian presidents can choose independent technocrats and members of other parties to serve as ministers.
Subianto was sacked from the army in 1998 for ‘misinterpreting orders’. This year he lost his fourth stab at public office.  After Jakarta thugs failed to change the result with rocks and Molotov cocktails, he’s turned to the Constitutional Court, alleging fraudsters conspired to deliver an 11-point loss.  The commentariat has written off his chances.
Late last year he dithered about nomination and looked sick.  But as a superstitious high-born Javanese megalomaniac he may well try again if the moneymen are persuaded.  He’ll be 73 in 2024; his only child Didit works in Paris. Like Widodo’s three kids, the fashion designer has shown zero interest in following Dad.
Black hair-dye comes in flagons to Jakarta where businessman and Vice President Jusuf Kalla,77, looks perpetually middle-aged;  his successor, slightly younger hardline Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin is not so vain, and for now lets his grey locks show. 
Army leftovers continue to influence.  Subianto gathered a platoon of retired parade-ground warriors to bolster his campaign, including SBY.
Widodo’s team includes Wiranto, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, and Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs.  Both are 72, former top generals, dyers and close advisors to the President.
Also looking awkward out of uniform are Defence Minister Ryacudu, 69, and Widodo’s chief of staff  Moeldoko, 61.
Democrats and human rights activists fret that the remnants of Soeharto’s dictatorship  are still on stage, in the wings, directing and producing in rehearsal rooms, wistful of the days when voters clapped continuously.
Shrewd players would note the shrouded skeleton with the scythe has a permanent walk-on role, so head for the exit.  Instead the power-greedy focus on Malaysia’s Mahathir, once labeled ‘recalcitrant’ by Paul Keating.  They’re in the front rows.

 First published in Pearls and Irritations, 11 June 2019