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, December 06, 2022


    Forgive thine enemies, let losers loose

LOSERS WHO WIN: Prabowo Subianto (l) and Sandiaga Uno (Kompas)

Americans will get to the ballot box in late 2024.  Such is our infatuation with US politics that by Guy Fawkes’ night we’ll have absorbed enough minutia to know more about their electoral system than ours.

Earlier the same year there’ll be another election of great importance to our future – yet so far the media has shown little interest in telling what’s going on in the nation next door. 

On Valentine’s Day 2024 citizens of the world’s third-largest democracy will decide who’ll run their nation for the next five years. Their choice could maintain the current harmony of indifference between us and them, or revive mistrust.

The man to worry about is Prabowo Subianto, adored by hankerers for the good ol’ days when leaders ruled and the masses obeyed.  Like his late father-in-law President Soeharto, the disgraced former general knows how to create myths and crush dissent.

This Alpha male could try again in the 2024 Presidential election. If he wins we’ll have an unstable authoritarian on our doorstep.

Subianto is the archipelago’s Donald Trump, a hot-tempered autocrat minus bone spurs so he has a military record.  He’s a successful businessman but better educated than the US version.

Despite having a mighty war chest and on-side media, in 2019 he lost to lowly lad Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo. 

Subianto had fought furiously for the top job. His team had viciously slandered Widodo through fictions about family history, ethnicity and religion.  Just like Trump claimed Barack Obama was not a native-born American.

Despite the slurs, Widodo took 55.5 per cent of the vote. The voluntary participation rate was 83 per cent of the almost 191 million registered voters.

Some claimed the result had been rigged, so rioted in Jakarta.  Six were killed, 200 injured, vehicles were firebombed and buildings trashed.  Agent provocateurs were blamed but none charged.

After being humiliated Subianto should have crept back to his ranch and locked the gate.

Instead, he’s travelling the world shopping for guns and bombs as Indonesia’s Defence Minister while his defeated sidekick Sandiaga Uno is Minister for Tourism.

Discovering how these losers got their jobs and kept face will test readers’ incredulity levels but might improve understanding of Indonesian politics, best done with a hypothetical.

Back in May new PM Anthony Albanese was pondering picks for Cabinet.  Home Affairs is tricky so best go for experience.  Obviously Scott Morrison.

Primary Industries demands a ruddy rural face.  So Albo rang Barnaby Joyce. Unbelievable in Oz, but reality next door.

Widodo’s benevolence and forgiveness weren’t just quests for harmony, a value well embedded in Javanese culture.  They were politically smart.

As Lyndon Johnson crudely said: ‘Better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.’

The downside is that as Defence Minister Subianto, 71, gets to spruik policies and keep his name before the public and face on TV.

Like Kim Jong-un, he’s shown surrounded by men with more medals on their chests than hair, which he seems to enjoy.

Like Putin he rides horses but keeps his shirt on; the septuagenarian flab would mar the image which some equate to Mussolini reviewing paramilitary parades atop a stallion.

Subianto has such a damaged past that in other jurisdictions he’d be forever damned.

When Soeharto fell in 1998 after 32 years running the world’s fourth most populous country Subianto, head of the ‘most highly trained killers – the Kopassus red berets’– saw a sudden opportunity.  He tried to get the departing president to make him army chief.

The bid failed and Subianto was dishonourably discharged for ‘misinterpreting orders’. He was banned from the US for human rights abuses relating to the disappearance of student activists. He then fled to exile in Jordan.

But he still had swags of ambition, a rich younger brother and mates in the oligarchy to aid his return and get into politics.

Unable to find an empty launch pad he started the Partai Gerakan Indonesia Raya - the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra). It’s dubbed nationalistic and populist.

If it has any policies other than to elect the leader, then they’re well hidden. Rural Indonesians have been promised care and recognition, but his party gets most ‘likes’ by slandering LGBTQs and warning that foreigners plan to destroy the country.  This last claim came from a sci-fi novel.


In the 575-seat lower house Gerindra holds 78 against the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (Democratic Party of Struggle) with 128.

The PDIP is Widodo’s party though the power is with its matriarch Megawati Soekarnoputri.  She’s the daughter of Soekarno, the founder of modern Indonesia and its first president. Widodo reckons his relationship is like ‘mother and child.’

The lady was the nation’s fifth president (2001- 04),  a rest awhile period.  As VP she inherited the job when Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur) was impeached, but rejected by the public when she sought election in her own right.

To stop Subianto from taking another stab at the presidency, lobbyists have been pushing for a change in the Constitution so Widodo, 61, can hang in there for a few more years. 

Megawati has reportedly ruled this out.  She wants her daughter Puan Maharani in the Palace, but polls show voters say No Way,

The incumbent hasn’t completely abandoned the idea of staying on – clarity is not his style. However, it seems he’s shaken his head rather than nodded by obliquely promoting a candidatewho thinks only of the people’s interests that his hair grows white.’

Riddling is another Javanese trait, allowing the listener to interpret while keeping the speaker free to deny should plans go awry.

The assumption is that Widodo wants Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, 54, as his successor.  His thatch fits, but so do many others.

Pranowo doesn’t come from the elite, the military or big business.  His father was a cop and the family were hillside villagers in Central Java, while Widodo was raised in a riverbank shack.

Both went to Jogjakarta’s Gadjah Mada University, Widodo for forestry and Pranowo law.  The two show little interest in matters beyond domestic issues.

When he met Australian Ambassador Penny Williams in September Pranowo’s comments were bland: ‘Hopefully, the emotional atmosphere will become closer.’

That won’t happen without major efforts on both sides. Otherwise, Australians will be full bottle about people and events 16,000 km distant, while knowing nothing of the neighbours, what they’re up to, and why.

ABC TV has Planet America, China Tonight and India Now.  Time for Inside Indonesia.

 ·        Style note: The Indonesian media uses first names for newsmakers. To Westerners this feels smarmy, hence second names.

First published in Pearls & Irritations, 6 December 2022:








Monday, November 28, 2022



                                        A wristful of wrongs

Safely home;   Ali Yasmin and Ibu  (Photo Republica)

On some lists we’re world leaders in shame.  Like locking up and brutalizing children as Four Corners has shown – and not only our own. We’ve treated Indonesian kiddies just as badly.

Like getting algorithms to retrieve real or imagined welfare debts, it seemed a good idea at the time. Jail every Indonesian deckhand to send their ambitious mates a message: Don’t you ever dare work for people smugglers.

Like Robodebt, some Stop the Boats policies were cruel and illegal.  Now they could be costly.

Back in 2009, a wave of fear was washing over the electorate.  Scores of Indonesian fishing boats were ferrying asylum seekers – originally from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and other dysfunctional regimes – across the Arafura Sea to Australia.

The dread of invasion dictated flawed responses, a mess of ill-considered laws, displays of cultural ignorance and bad decisions.

Now the wrongs may be redressed.

Around 130 Indonesian men who claim they were illegally arrested and jailed in Australia want compensation. After years of denials and delays, the Federal Court has ordered all parties into mediation to determine damages.  The deadline is next March.

Thirteen years ago and way off the Northwest coast big Australian men in uniforms were questioning small Indonesian boys in ragged shorts and T-shirts caught on boats laden with asylum seekers. Names, addresses, jobs – all the usual stuff. But the critical query was age.

The deckhands said they were teens but had no documents.  The solution seemed smart – wrist X-rays using a 1942 US bone atlas devised for Caucasians.  The margin for error was plus-or-minus four years.

Such was the political panic that it seems no fearless official unzipped a conscience and said: ‘Hang about, this is all too shonky.  We’re Aussies.  We do the right thing – and this isn’t it.’

That moment only came in April 2010 when Justice of the Peace Colin Singer was on a routine visit to WA’s Hakea jail for men.  Under 18s are children and must be held apart from adults under the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Australia is a signatory.  So is Indonesia.

The 1,225-bed prison ‘manages male prisoners who have been remanded in custody while waiting to appear in court or those who have just been sentenced’.  So murderers, thugs, pedophiles and thieves check in-and-out of the legal terminal queue together. Around 7,000 a year are processed.

Singer was on duty for the Office of Custodial Services, an independent statutory authority charged with checking that inmates get treated decently.

A doctor told Singer the jail was housing kids. ‘I thought this impossible. I had great faith in the Australian justice system and believed it to be fair,’ he said at the time. ‘Then I saw them - they were Indonesians, pre-pubescent frightened children, certainly not men.’

Singer knew. He’s a businessman who has worked in the oil and gas industry in Indonesia since 1989 and is married to an Indonesian.

Among the kids he spoke to was Ali Yasmin (also known as Jasmin), from a tiny island east of Flores. ‘He was alone and clinging to a fence, clearly traumatized,’ Singer recalled.

He claimed 60 juveniles were in WA’s adult jails. The government said there were none because Yasmin and others had been confirmed as adults by the wrist scans.

Two years later the Australian Human Rights Commission published An Age of Uncertainty, an inquiry into ‘an inherently flawed technique’. It said the wrist test had been publicly condemned by specialists and professional medical societies as ‘unreliable and untrustworthy.’

Singer said he got the impression that nothing would be done that might disturb relations with Indonesia, then at a high following a successful address to the Australian Parliament by former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.  Then the media got involved.

In 2013 a TV journalist found Yasmin’s family and the boy’s school records.  These showed their son had been born in 1996, meaning he was 13 when arrested.

The documents couldn’t be used as evidence because they weren’t legally verified.

The people smugglers safe in Jakarta had already got their cash.  Undeterred they continued selling high-price passages to Australia while the beardless youngsters they recruited were doing time to ‘set an example’ – and show voters the government was tough. 

Yasmin worked in the prison laundry.  Regulations were changed to stop the Indonesians from sending their meagre earnings to their families. (State jails are used to house federal prisoners.)

Further petty malice was devised to show Canberra wouldn’t slip into solicitude.  Some repatriated kids were dumped in Bali with no means of getting back to their remote homes.  Only after the International Organisation for Migration got involved were escorts provided and fares back to the villages.

In court proceedings watched by this writer the accused were labelled ‘X’ because the system doesn’t recognize – or care – that many Indonesians have only one name.  That includes the nation’s first two presidents.

Proper legal procedures may have been followed but the rules don’t include common sense. Why didn’t the Indonesian government scream outrage and fan an international crisis?  And why weren’t there more agitators?

Singer wouldn’t stop. The doubts about age got too loud to ignore. Yasmin and 14 others were released ‘on licence’ in 2012.  Five years later the WA Court of Criminal Appeal quashed his sentence. 

Yasmin is now back home, married and a Dad.  The class action is in his name.

The average time spent in detention by the Indonesian kids was 31.6 months.  Egregious errors were eventually recognised but not righted.  Despite all the current legal busyness, there’s no certainty the Indonesians will be recompensed for their misery, fear and lost years.

Imagine the outcry if an Australian child had been locked in an Indonesian slammer. In 2011 then Prime Minister Julia Gillard got involved in the case of an Australian teen arrested in Bali on drug charges.

The boy was briefly detained and then repatriated after a furious media campaign.  

 ‘Yasmin is an Indonesian hero,’ said Singer.  ‘He helped the others settle in.  He calmed things down in jail and acted as an interpreter.  He’s had a horrendous time but his resilience has been spectacular.

‘In all this I found most prison staff to be compassionate.  My criticism is for the bureaucrats, politicians and lawyers who turned away from their responsibilities and ignored the rights of children.’

Next year we should know if the government will front up to its faults.  Or will we need a royal commission? 

 First published in Pearls & Irritations, 20 November 2022:

Sunday, November 20, 2022



Why wait for paradise? Enjoy now, die later

As the end draws near and the dullness of suburbia hardens like arteries, retirement wakens old dreams.  If only we’d been more adventurous, quenched fear and risked the odds.

Now there’s a chance to reset life -  spending what years remain in magical, mysterious Bali, not as a come-and-go tourist but as a settled resident. Every day in the laid-back tropics, beach in the morning, siestas after massage and helpers so cheap you’ll feel guilty and want to double their salaries.

Australian pensioners might keep getting payments, though reduced.  Ask Centrelink because the rules are complex and forever fluid. Should things go wrong Perth is 200 minutes away and flights are daily.  

Countries with holiday spots that lure foreigners like earning by stamping passports rather than shipping ores.  Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore offer ‘second home visas’.  Now Indonesia’s getting into the game.

Game? It can be fun for the open-minded and well-prepared.  There are goodies aplenty in the Island of the Gods, but mortals need to know the rules.

On 25 October Indonesia announced a new long-stay visa targeting well-off retirees.  Details should be online before the New Year. But don’t sell the car and give the furniture to the kids yet because their bureaucrats, like ours, don’t always meet deadlines.

Bali got more than a million Aussies a year BC (Before Colid) and numbers should lift following positive publicity from the G20 diplomacy show.

If wanting solitude think beyond Kuta and Ubud.  The new visas may include ten other holiday zones across the Republic to lessen pressures on Bali.  Details on this official site. 

If intrepid, start clicking. Forget tourist brochures. Ignore sellers, seek tellers. Aussie academics’ knowledge is often online.  

Even atheists should check faith as religion is serious stuff in Indonesia and sometimes hazardous.  Bali is the only province where Hinduism is prominent, and the citizenry no longer dazed by outsiders boozing in the streets and wandering malls in crop tops.  

Elsewhere Western casual dress may draw more glares than smiles, and coldies hard to find.  Indonesians are keen to please and generally tolerant but expect respect for local customs. Thieving is rare and usually opportunistic rather than planned. 

The annoyance of harga bule,  the practice of jacking prices for white-skinned shoppers, is best handled with a joke and walk-out.

Immigration is a national responsibility so Jakarta rules.  Whatever the final regulations, expect extra demands, though these are unlikely to be in the Australian stratosphere. (It costs $4,240 just to apply for a permanent resident visa.) 

Officials can deport without using the courts.  No rights to prolonged appeal procedures, so the choice could be on the plane or in the slammer.  Lawyers willing to defend aliens are hard to find. Immigration advisors abound, but best DIY using official sources.


Reboot before the hard drive fails.  Make friends with the community, volunteer your skills and learn the language. Embrace differences. It’s all rewarding.

Now the small print.

Little is known about the new visa so far:  You’ll need a bank account holding at least two billion rupiah. Exchange rates rise and fall like politicians’ reputations, but to make life simpler average out at $1 = Rp 10,000.  

Hopefuls will need to show they have $200 grand or more. Whether that’s per person or couple will be critical. Another question: Must the sum stay intact?

Outsiders can’t open accounts in Indonesia.  Will Australian bank statements be acceptable - or a deposit in an Indonesian trust account?  Don’t know.

What we do know is that the visa will allow a stay for up to ten years, but beware: Non-citizens can’t own property so without an Indonesian spouse in a solid relationship, or trusted business partner you’ll have to rent.

In Australia, tenants pay weekly or monthly, but Indonesian landlords usually demand the full contract amount up-front.  Caution - the housing market is poorly regulated.

That doesn’t mean that most Indonesians are crooks. The percentage of con artists and shonky operators is probably no higher than in Oz.  The difference is that Indonesia lacks strong consumer protection laws and dispute settlement tribunals, so if there’s a falling-out the foreigner will most likely lose.

A clue to charges: Similar schemes to entice ‘digital nomads’ (WiFi laptoppers running faraway businesses from poolsides) cost Rp 3 million per person for a visa with work rights.

Long-term stayers have had to buy private health insurance. The government Medicare-style scheme is only for locals.

Medical care has improved greatly this century and horror tales of dirty hospitals and sloppy docs (which we also have Down Under) are less common.

Your correspondent’s contacts with GPs, specialists and hospitals in the public system have been professional and outcomes satisfactory. Encounters and experiences are rarely universal, only rough guides. So far mine have been more plus than minus, even with guys in uniforms.

An edited version was first published in Michael West Media on 20 November 2022:

Friday, November 18, 2022


       How did Dag die? The Indonesian connection

More than six decades after his plane crashed it remains the great Cold War mystery: Was UN secretary-general (1953-61) Dag Hammarskjöld (above) killed by sabotage, a technical fault, pilot error or air attack?  If he was assassinated who was the mastermind?

Dr Greg Poulgrain, who teaches Indonesian history at the University of the Sunshine Coast, suggests the Swedish peacemaker was killed under directions from the US Central Intelligence Agency’s hard-right director Allen Dulles (1893-1969). 

The Australian academic’s theory has been given weight by the little-noted release in August of a UN investigation into the death of Hammarskjöld and the 15 passengers and crew on 18 September 1961. 

The chartered Douglas DC-6 started from Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) where it had been parked unattended.

It was heading to cease-fire negotiations in Ndola between UN forces and local militia when it smashed into a forest in Zambia (then Rhodesia) during the landing approach.

The 100-page UN report recommends further disclosures from governments, including the US and UK which allegedly hold unreleased air traffic records. Poulgrain suggests the altimeter records be re-checked and technicians traced.

The UN investigation led by former Tanzania Chief Justice Mohamed Chande Othman, was initiated by new info about the tragedy.

A 2019 Danish documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld suggested the DC-6 was harassed by a small fighter plane during descent, though it seems no bullet holes were found in the wreckage.

Researchers on the film told Othman of documents from the South African Institute for Maritime Research.  Despite the benign title, it’s claimed this was a pro-apartheid clandestine militia linked to a foreign intelligence agency,

This information surfaced apparently by chance during South Africa’s 1998 Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings. Chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu released a folder from the National Intelligence Agency.

Inside were letters referring to a plan to assassinate Hammarskjöld and involving Dulles. It was called Operation Celeste (heavenly, as in celestial).

Othman never saw the originals so they haven’t been authenticated. This is despite several requests to SA authorities.

The UN inquiry’s other source is Poulgrain’s 2020 book JFK vs. Allen Dulles: Battleground Indonesia.

The author interviewed two UN officials, the Irish intellectual and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien, and Australian diplomat George Ivan Smith, ‘Hammarskjöld’s right-hand man’.

They claimed the Secretary-General had been intentionally killed. Smith asserted there were two CIA planes on the Ndola tarmac waiting for Hammarskjöld’s flight, one full of communications gear, though it’s unclear what this implies.

Poulgrain also cited 14 inquiries on US intelligence activities led by US Democrat Senator Frank Church (1924-84).  Some referred to Operation Celeste and this extract:

‘UNO is becoming troublesome and it is felt that Hammarskjöld should be removed. Allen Dulles agrees and has promised full cooperation from his people.’

Most theories about the plane crash involve hostility to Hammarskjöld’s mediation efforts during the Congo civil war (1960-65) following the new nation’s liberation from Belgium.

Poulgrain links the alleged assassination to Indonesia.  He says Smith revealed that before heading to the Congo, Hammarskjöld had been focused on the sovereignty of West New Guinea.

The Indonesian Republic under first President Soekarno wanted to seize the resource-rich western half of the island of New Guinea, then Dutch territory.

 The dispute was eventually resolved in 1969 through a referendum (‘An Act of Free Choice’). The Indonesian military selected 1,025 village chiefs who voted to join the Republic.

Poulgrain suggests that Dulles as head of the CIA wanted Hammarskjöld removed because he favoured ‘the independence of the Papuan people.’

His policy was supported by President John Kennedy but opposed by Dulles who was also involved with a company that had discovered massive gold deposits in West Papua, now the Grasberg mine.

Dulles (left) was a heavy-duty anti-Communist Republican who specialized in forceful regime changes.  Under his rule, the CIA engineered coups in Iran and Guatemala and failed assassination attempts against Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

A US Senate investigation found Dulles responsible for the death of Congo PM Patrice Lumumba in the same year Hammarskjöld died.

The disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by CIA-funded Cuban exiles led to Dulles forced resignation.

Hammarskjöld was the opposite, a poet and philosopher as well as a diplomat.  He was posthumously awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

London University researcher Dr Susan Williams, author of Who killed Hammarskjöld? called him ‘a courageous and complex idealist, who sought to shield the newly-independent nations of the world from the predatory instincts of the Great Powers’.

After the Swede’s death Kennedy commented: ‘I realise now that in comparison to him, I am a small man. He was the greatest statesman of our century.’

Former Democrat President Harry Truman told a journalist Hammarskjöld ‘was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said 'when they killed him'.’  He would not elaborate.

A clearly frustrated Othman thinks the truth has still to be found.  His report urges the UN to continue pushing its members to release info he sought:

‘The passage of time has not reduced the significance of this matter to the families of the victims of flight SE-BDY, who died serving the noble aims of the UN.

‘Nor has it become less important for the organization itself that a true accounting of history be made.

‘My assessment remains that it is of the highest probability that specific and important information exists, but that it has not been disclosed by a small number of member states.’

First published in Pearls & Irritations 12 November 2022:








Thursday, November 17, 2022



The city that throbs with fury       



Malang won’t stop grieving, defiantly and messily.

Normally this would rile authorities, but their tolerance of the banners of hate draping the historic East Java city suggests Indonesia’s democracy hasn’t sickened so badly as critics claim.

Six weeks after one of the world’s worst stadium disasters, crude signs slamming the police for the deaths of 135 soccer fans – including 33 children - still hang from overpasses and trees.

In the province’s second-biggest city even the walls of the local legislature stay defaced.  So do police boxes at traffic intersections pasted with handbills.

Those in English shout F… Police, and We hate Cops! The majority, hand painted on black shrouds shriek in red lettering: Usut Tuntas. 

The translation ‘investigate thoroughly’ lacks the anguish of the original. The mourners say their real message is telling the police: Get your f…… act together!

 ‘Malang’ also translates as ‘unfortunate’; that meaning has come to pass. The normally pretty and green hilltown is ugly and angry.  Unmoored streamers, soaked by heavy afternoon rains and ripped by winds add to the bleakness.

November 10 marked 40 days after the stampede at the Kanjuruhan Stadium.

It was also Hari Pahlawan (Heroes Day) recalling the 1945 Battle of Surabaya against British troops trying to reinstate Dutch colonial control of the provincial capital.

The bravery of teens armed with bamboo spears fighting for the new republic has become Indonesia’s birth-of-nation legend.

This month tens of thousands closed Malang streets to commemorate both events, one with pride, the other with anger. They shouted: We want justice, then laid 135 black biers, many with victims’ photos, around a circular central park before the City Hall.

The stadium calamity erupted on the evening of 1 October when upset local supporters invaded the pitch after their team Arema lost 3-2 to its bitter rival Persebaya Surabaya.

Although the first fence-jumpers weren’t violent police overreacted. Cellphone videos seem to show tear gas grenades fired directly into the overcrowded stands.

Under this chemical assault, throngs rushed to the stairs and gates, with some reportedly not fully open.  Scores were trampled, crushed, asphyxiated.

Reuters reported the government demoted or suspended several officers controlling stadium security. The arena will be demolished and other grounds audited for safety.

Listyo Sigit Prabowo heads the national force of 450,000 plus a million Senkom Mitra public order volunteers.  He’s directly accountable to President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo who has launched a ‘fact-finding team’.  This is one of at least five inquiries, some being run by the police

There’s no evidence the police general has offered to resign, or that he’s been asked.

The heartfelt loathing on Malang’s streets is understandable and worrying. Trust in the impartial delivery of law and order is essential for the just operation of civil society.

The police have slowly become more professional since splitting from the army early this century, but remain infamous for their ‘scandals, violence and corruption’  according to a podcast by Murdoch University lecturer Dr Jacqui Baker.

Widodo claimed that before the Kanjuruhan tragedy public trust had risen to 80 per cent. That statistic is suspect. In her Internet audio Baker asserted that many see the police as ‘parasitic, predatory actors’ who don’t provide the services people need.

In a staged show of resolve before a room sweating with 559 top cops, Widodo demanded more professionalism and accountability.

Baker, who says there’s a crisis of policing in much of the world, was unimpressed with Widodo’s speech because the core issues of corruption, military involvement, independent oversight and separation of services were not addressed.

First published in The Interpreter 17 November 2022:

Monday, November 07, 2022



To the Europeans and before them the Arabs and Indians, the lure of the archipelago was resources and trade.

That’s still the case as exports of coal, gold and minerals needed in batteries and electronics are powering the Republic’s economy ahead of its neighbours.

But the islands have something else that can’t be tipped into barges and stuffed into containers, yet precious beyond mountains of dollars.  History, and at last we’re becoming aware of the riches.

With no names and few facts, we’ll have to construct a story  - which is what archaeologists are doing all the time, like detectives on a cold case.

Let’s call him Agus, the unknown hero.  Late last decade he was working on the Malang end of the toll road linking the Central East Java hilltown with the provincial north-coast capital Surabaya.

Maybe it was a slack day, or the crews were waiting for more concrete. Perhaps he needed to relieve himself so wandered into the scrub where he noticed a red brick.

So what?  Despite forests of signs warning locals not to dump rubbish, rivers and uncropped land are popular tips, so building rubble would be nothing unusual.

Except this brick was much larger than the standard, and Agus was blessed with that most desirable but underrated quality - curiosity.

He picked up the brick, found others, spoke out - and now we know of another temple site.  How old, how big, what name - there are more questions with the answers depending on funds for excavation.

In the nearby hamlet of Srigading workers on another site are being paid by a local businessman who was told of a mound in the centre of a flat field of sugarcane.

The villagers called it Cegumuk - meaning something stuck in the throat, so maybe someone once heard a noise. It was just a nuisance.  Then a wise one reasoned the rise might not be a geological feature.  They were right.

Now it’s a government excavation that’s already yielded artefacts from a thousand years ago, Java’s golden age. Literally, for the top of an urn made from the yellow metal has already been discovered.

The site is most likely a temple from the late Mataram period, the Hindu–Buddhist kingdom that ruled much of Central and East Java between the 8th and 11th centuries.

Archaeologist and dig supervisor Wicaksono Dwi Nugroho said: ‘‘Under the topsoil was a large linga and yoni carved from a rock which isn’t found round here’.  He thinks the red-brick temple probably stood 11 metres high and covered a ten-by-ten-metre base.

 ‘Moving the yoni aside revealed a shaft about three by three metres. So far we’ve retrieved three statues, some clay pots and a broken ceramic plate which was probably traded from China.’

A yoni represents the goddess Shakti, the linga its masculine counterpart. The Encyclopaedia of Hinduism defines the icons as ‘the union of the feminine and the masculine that recreates all of existence.’ Although Srigading is largely Muslim, the yoni has been sprinkled with blossom and wrapped in white cloth.

Opening the mound has led to supernatural sightings. Locals told one reporter of ‘strange events’ near the temple and a ‘large black man towering up to more than two meters ... sitting cross-legged on the rock ‘like a ‘guardian’.

The Hindu kingdoms collapsed in the 16th century. The reasons are contested - the spread of Islam, breakups in the ruling families, power shifts or volcanic eruptions. The survivors fled east and mainly settled in Bali which remains Indonesia’s only Hindu province.

The holy places were abandoned, plundered by treasure seekers and builders seeking bricks. Jungle creepers soon masked the remains.

For much of the 350 years of colonialism, the Dutch were more interested in guilder than curiosities. But between 1811 and 1814 Thomas Stamford Raffles was the Lieutenant-Governor of Java following the Napoleonic Wars.

A refined Englishman who spoke Malay, Raffles was bewitched by the traditions and masterpieces of architecture and engineering the Dutch had ignored. 

His 1817 The History of Java, describes the story of the island from ancient times plus its mores, arts, beliefs, geography, flora, and fauna. It’s available online.

When the Dutch regained control they started recording sites and shipped statues to Leiden where many still await repatriation. After the 1945 Declaration of Independence preservation of the new nation was more important than conserving history.

Now a younger generation is recognising the earlier centuries and venerating pre-colonial heroes, like Majapahit era prime minister Gajah Mada (1290-1364). One of the nation’s most prestigious universities carries his name.

The early kingdoms are becoming the foundations for Indonesian nationalism, according to Indonesian historian Dr Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan:

‘Faced with the diversity of languages, customs and religions in the archipelago, leaders … turned to the pre-modern past to find powerful states (as) precursors of modern Indonesia.’ They chose Majapahit.

The palm-leaf manuscript Nagarakretagama, written in 1365 claims Majapahit had 98 tributary states from Sumatra in the west to New Guinea and included Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, southern Thailand and the Philippines’ Sulu Archipelago.

Once taught that everything started in 1945 we’re now learning that Dutch colonialism was but a hiccup.  Or Cegumuk.

First published in Indonesia Expat, November 2022: