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

Wednesday, May 05, 2021



          Stoking the fires in West Papua


We know this order will lead to more killing, more torture, more suffering of my people. The Speaker of the Indonesian House [of Representatives], Bambang Soesatyo, has urged the Government to ‘destroy them first. We will discuss human rights matters later’.



Indonesian government censors are slipping up. Maybe they’re too hungry and tired during the fasting month of Ramadan to choke every tweet which criticises Jakarta’s West Papua crush-dissidents policies or promotes independence for the far eastern province. (Confusingly there are two provinces – Papua and West Papua, but the latter term is widely used for both.]


Indonesians seeking information that hasn’t been well washed by the Army normally have to use VPNs to bypass the blue pencils. But the statement above by Benny Wenda, Interim President of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, got through.


It follows the ambush of a motorcycle squad led by Special Forces Brigadier General Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha Karya, 50. He was reportedly shot on 25 April while heading to see school buildings allegedly torched by separatists. If correct it suggests the guerrillas have better intelligence than their opponents.


Two years ago nationalists killed 19 workers on the serpentine Trans-Papua Highway. The 4,600-kilometre road will open up land to outside settlers against the wishes of local tribes. 


Outsiders are barred so regular allegations of abuses by the military are rarely independently tested. Half the population of more than 1.2 million are Melanesians. The rest are mainly migrants from other parts of the archipelago leading to fears the nominally Christian indigenes will soon become a minority.


Last month’s killing of such a senior officer aroused the wrath of the government and army which launched Operasi Nemangkawi to find the attackers. They are believed to be from the poorly armed West Papua National Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Organization.


President Joko Widodo declared the WPNLA a terrorist organisation and ordered the police and military “to chase and arrest" all rebels involved: "I want to emphasise again that there is no place for armed groups in Papua." 


Widodo’s words were followed by Soesatyo who brought a tanker-load of fuel to the conflict with his comments about ignoring human rights, drawing this response from Wenda: 


“Amnesty Indonesia has already condemned the Speaker. In the last 24 hours, we have reports that people are fleeing the villages in anticipation of the crackdown. Helicopters are being deployed over the villages, reminding me of what happened in 1977 when I was a child.”


 As in so many fights for independence, irony is ever-present along with the bombs and bullets. Widodo’s and Soesatyo’s statements could have been delivered by Dutch generals between 1945 and 49. The Netherlands was fighting Indonesian nationalists who said they were in a War of Revolution. The Hollanders’ term was ‘Police Actions’.


Whatever the title it left an estimated 100,000 Indonesians and 6,000 Dutch dead before the conflict was settled following intense pressure on The Hague by Washington. However, the west end of the island of New Guinea stayed with the Dutch till it was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 through an UN-sponsored ballot.


The authenticity of the poll has long been challenged by Wenda and his predecessors. It was called the Act of Free Choice with 1,025 voters selected from an estimated 700,000 Papuans. 

Western media observers labelled the exercise an Act Free of Choice.  The result was unanimous support for Indonesian control.


Cynics claim the low-intensity struggle waged since then with little independent scrutiny is more about money than sovereignty. 


Explainers tag the province ‘resource-rich. That’s an understatement. The Grasberg mine, once owned by the US company Freeport, but now majority held by the Indonesian government, is the seventh-largest gold mine and the second-largest copper mine in the world. Both minerals are fetching top prices.


This is one reason why Indonesians have little sympathy for the ‘terrorists’ who are usually imagined to be puppets controlled by nameless outsiders. These sinister forces apparently want to plunder the goodies and impoverish the nation, repeating the policies of the Dutch colonialists.


The loss of another province after the East Timorese voted for independence in 1999 would further destroy the ‘Unitary State’. This concept is held as strongly as Australian politicians invoke the ‘Anzac Spirit’ to demonstrate their nationalism.


Reinforcing the international conspiracy theory is that Wenda, 46, isn’t in his homeland. He lives in Oxford after escaping from a jail in West Papua in 2003 and fleeing into Papua New Guinea. He’d been charged for leading an independence rally and faced 25 years behind bars.


With the help of European NGOs, he got political asylum in Britain where he leads a global campaign for independence.


Another activist working from overseas is Indonesian Veronica Koman, 32, who remains in Australia where she came to study postgraduate law. In 2019 she won the Sir Ronald Wilson Human Rights Awards for exposing human rights abuses in West Papua. 


Indonesian authorities want her back to face accusations of sedition. An account with her name tweeted that declaring independence fighters as terrorists meant "Indonesia has just burnt the bridge towards a peaceful resolution".


Australia always denies backing Papuan separatists, though supporting NGOs – often faith-based - are operating from the continent. So far this hasn’t become a hot issue in relations between Jakarta and Canberra, probably because Covid-19 is getting a higher priority and the two nations are cooperating on disease control. 


 However, it remains a slow burner ready to flare if the death of the one-star general is followed by fierce and unchecked retaliation drawing overseas outrage. Some media are already carrying reports – sourced to the ‘Nemangkawi Public Relations Task Force’ - that nine members of an ‘armed criminal group’ were killed in a shootout three days after the Brigadier General died.


Footnote:  I first applied for a journalist’s visa to enter West Papua four years ago. It was endorsed by an Indonesian Ambassador. Despite assurances there are no problems and it’s being processed, I’m still waiting.


First published in Pearls & Irritations, 5 May 2021:




Thursday, April 29, 2021



             Handling the Ramadan Challenge




It’s Ramadan, the annual fasting month practised strictly, laxly or somewhere in-between by the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims. Living as a non-Muslim foreigner in Indonesia where 88 per cent of the 273 million citizens say they follow Islam can be physically challenging. It’s also intellectually confusing and socially engrossing.


Three hours beyond midnight and the street’s satpam (security guard) is on his regular patrol. He carries a metal bar, not to frighten potential housebreakers, but to bash the steel power poles three times. Then he shouts sahur – the meal to start the day. For after 4.27 am, the faithful will abstain from food, drink and sex, though rarely cigarettes, till 5.32 pm. That’s when sirens, like those used in air raids, tell it’s time to get stuffed.  


The times, which change marginally every day, are published on newspaper front pages.


The fact that three families in our street in Malang (East Java) closest to the ringing steel are not Muslim and would prefer to snooze is immaterial. Complaints to the local community leader would probably be heard politely, but he’d do nothing. If there are noise abatement laws in Indonesia they’re forgotten.


Also ignored are bans on the sale and use of fireworks. While the oldies pray, gangs of pre-teen boys roam the streets throwing bangers and yahooing, though rarely violent or vandalising. To newcomers they look and sound frightening though not enough to warrant calling the cops. In any case, there are none in sight. The lads don’t have access to grog. This is not Australia.


Swedish researcher Dr Andre Moller reports parents saying it’s safer to let the kids go feral because of this ancient belief: ‘When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of heaven are opened, the gates of hell are closed, and the devils are chained.’ 


So what could go awry with mobs of mini-hoons tossing crackers which they think a hoot? Only the nerves of those who first think gunfire. This is not the US.


In the first week, Malang looked more like Melbourne during a lockdown, but after seven days of no income, economic need displaced religious fervour. Restaurant front doors stay closed during daylight, though not those at the side.


 International chains like McDonald's continue to do business (ostensibly for non-Muslims) but pull down blinds so passers-by can’t see miscreants. 



In the past packs of sanctimonious thugs conducted ‘sweepings’ by trashing businesses that didn’t close – or pay. The government is clamping down on extremists since they started targeting the police.


Later as sunset looms the smell of boiling fat and smoking sate is as ubiquitous as the chanting of Koranic verses in Arabic. It may well be a beautiful language as its 422 million users worldwide attest, though not when yelled by the tone-deaf through scratchy sound systems atop mosques.


Mid-afternoon the ravenous start gathering at Takjil, a cluster of temporary stalls set up by the local government for street food. Most in the thick crowds wear masks, but social distancing is impossible.



Also unthinkable is having any intelligent conversation. The hungry are obsessed with food and talk of little else. In the final week, grumpiness becomes the norm. Menstruating women are allowed to eat and it’s astonishing how many have prolonged periods, even grannies.


Although Indonesia is challenging its southern neighbour for first prize in the vaccine stuff-up stakes with less than three per cent of the 273 million citizens fully covered to date, religion isn’t at fault. The Indonesian Ulema (scholars) Council has pronounced shots are halal. Their reasoning: The needle is thrust into muscle and not the bloodstream so nothing nutritious is absorbed. 


In a bid to check crowd-spread of Covid-19 President Joko Widodo has ordered police to stop Mudik.  This is the movement of millions of big-city dwellers heading to their hometowns to take a break with relatives and hand out presents.  



For the young, this is usually money. Lucre is indeed filthy in a cash economy, so kerbside entrepreneurs sell plastic packs of new notes. (Pic right) Snacks were traditionally gifted in hand-woven wicker baskets. Now they’re plastic and sold in shops.


There’ll be roadblocks till mid-May, though many will be avoided as travellers use Jalan tikus – literally rat roads, but meaning shortcuts through villages. Even Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin has publicly conceded the reality – the smart will get through whatever edicts are pronounced in Jakarta.


Maids, drivers, gardeners, nannies and others who keep the megarich comfortable, take off along with an extra month’s salary, for this is also a time to buy new clothes. Their employers who fear getting their hands dirty usually camp out in Singapore hotels.


Ramadan will climax on 13 May with the Idul Fitri celebrations, a week of feasting to end the fast. In Western countries where Muslims are a minority (2.6 per cent in Australia), mags run soft features by well-nourished writers on the health and spiritual benefits of doing without, along with picture spreads of exotic foods.


A less charitable version published in The Jakarta Post had the editorial board sermonising that the original ‘moral lesson’ of abstinence is that ‘we are expected to stand in the shoes of those who are destitute or poor.’ However, the iftar fast-breaking meal has become a ‘splurge’, a show-off indulgence in top restaurants.


The Prophet Muhammad’s meals at sundown are supposed to have been dates and water.

For kafir, the unbelievers who find Ramadan a time of tension and nothing like the version in the glossies, the solution is to move further east to an island where Christians rule – or cope.



With Covid crimping travel, adjusting is the only alternative in a society where minorities have rights but exercising them is pointless. So crank up the AC to lessen the din and accept this is life in Java.


On the streets of Australia whingers about Christmas slow-down risk being told: If you don’t like it, go back where you came from. In Indonesia the fasters look with pity at the forlorn foreigners not participating in the togetherness.  They offer to share and give the Ramadan response: Mohon ma’af, lahir dan batin – Please forgive me, body and soul 


First published in Pearls & Irritations, 29 April 2021:


Thursday, April 22, 2021



       The dancing’s jolly - the plot is not

Before you book a travel-bubble flight to Aotearoa, think again.  There’s knockout scenery, high mountains, clear lakes and splendid grasslands elsewhere.  Consider Xinjiang, where the roads are straight and uncluttered by campervans.   Just don’t ask about the high-wall compounds.

Till now the prefecture has been infamous for alleged human rights abuses. China has another view of its north-west region and large Muslim Uyghur population – almost half the 25 million who live close to Central Asia.

The West has focussed on what it says are Xinjiang’s detention centres filmed from satellites. The commissars would prefer you see their 100-minute scripted version shot at ground level as a Hollywood musical / road movie.

The cavorting extras in The Wings of Songs (not to be confused with Felix Mendelssohn’s 1834 classic On Wings of Song) are shown as the happiest people living in the best of all possible worlds.

Beijing’s smiley-face assault on Indonesia and its neighbours - reportedly its biggest in 25 years – aims to offset charges of brutality against Muslims by giving critics the flick. Literally.   

Three brooding musos from different ethnic groups find doting ladies while searching for the meaning of life by wandering the wilderness.  Motoring along the Karakoram Highway towards Muztagh Ada, 7,546 metres, fan girl Qing Lang feels crook. 

Her colleagues immediately diagnose altitude sickness, selflessly abandon performances and rush her to a fine hospital with caring staff.  English sub-titles top the mountain at ’11,500 inches’ proving the producers don’t care a damn about nit-picking Western viewers, though many scenes look more Rodgers and Hammerstein than Lion Dance.

The target is the weary wanting to put their feet up for an afternoon’s relief, no mental exertion required as it’s full of the familiar clich├ęs of pop cinema, albeit last century. 

This may be tiresome agitprop, but for audiences fed up with blame and shame politics and thrust into distrust of the media by Trump’s ‘fake-news’ attacks, this is welcome escapism, courtesy of Red Bollywood.  It’s also a watchable laugh-out-loud pastime – though that’s inadvertent.

Few will stay for the credits to discover the Party Committee Propaganda Department CPC (Communist Party of China) funded the fun – and if they do, who cares?  Capitalism plays this script too.

The commercial film business thrives on taxpayer support.  Last July Scott Morrison spent AUD 400 million to lure foreign film and TV productions Down Under.  The US military helps with locations and equipment for films like Top Gun which has so far grossed AUD 470 million, three times its production cost. Producer John Davis said the movie was a recruiting tool for the Navy.

Seen this way, The Wings of Songs is a recruiting tool for the hearts and minds of millions of Asians who might mildly wonder whether US demonisations of its rival are true or beat-ups.

Indonesians are avid watchers of plot-thin sinetron (soapies) where scripts are in the teleprompter minutes ahead of the takes.  The industry is dominated by Indian producers in Jakarta who’ve developed the mind-rot virus and spread it far.

The Middle Kingdom has seen the style – soft drama works better than hard threats. (Indonesians already get Chinese travel docs on their small screens so know how lovely the land).

Now the big screen is being used to explain the social engineering policies behind non-Han minorities allegedly working as forced labour in vocational training centres / boarding schools / concentration camps.

Up to two million are locked into coarse buildings cornered by watch towers, according to the US State Department.  Some former detainees claim they’ve been indoctrinated, sexually abused and forcibly sterilised.


This month China’s ambassador Cheng Jingye told Canberra journos criticism was based on “Western lies”, “fabrications” and “anti-China forces”.


CPC operatives say that in Xinjiang they are trying to thwart the spread of religious extremism and separatism.  This line resonates with Indonesians fearing terrorist attacks; the populace is regularly reminded to watch for threats likely to fracture the ‘Unitary State’.

The Wings of Songs can be seen at no cost on the Web.  It was shot in and around Kashgar, the Silk Road city where most of the 720,000 occupants are Uyghurs. 

Naive viewers wouldn’t know the folks’ faith because the women are bare-headed and the blokes booze.  The yellow-walled Id Kahn, the largest mosque in Xinjiang and an allure for serious tourists, doesn’t get to display its 15th century architecture.

Also absent are the grim-visaged police who star in covertly-filmed docos standing under banks of rotating CCTV lenses. Instead we get a feast of colour in the markets where all fare is wholesome and the only cameras are smartphones in the clapping crowds.

Quin Lang effuses with a line worthy of the late satirist John Clarke, aka Fred Dagg, who moved from NZ to Australia: “I was attracted here by various minorities and cultures.”

Professor Anne-Marie Brady, an expert in Chinese politics at NZ’s University of Canterbury reportedly reckons the Xinjiang offensive is the biggest international propaganda campaign on a single topic she’s seen in 25 years of research:

“It’s shrill and dogmatic, it’s increasingly aggressive. And it will keep on going, whether it is effective or not.”

After guffawing at Beijing’s dodgy version of an open multi-cultural society, a heretical worry lingers: The Wings of Songs flutters with flaws, but maybe the producers know more about handling public perception in Southeast Asia better than we too-smart cinephiles.

 First published in Pearls & Irritations, 22 April 2021:

Saturday, April 03, 2021






Among the terms aligned with good urban design, like heritage preservation, planning and taste, there’s one that sits awkwardly: Money.

When a developer’s sole intent is to build big, brash and cheap, and authorities don’t care, we’re left with kitsch – and that’s not a good look to start anyone’s day.  For the streetscape belongs to all – not just those with rolls of rupiah.

Fortunately some regional governments recognise that reality.  Malang is one, though like the curate’s egg it’s only good in parts.

Past administrations have swung between extremes on street furniture. Quality design is either a waste of funds (lamps made of bent water pipe), or a necessary expense (elegant roadsigns including old names) to set the tone for tourists.  Scrap metal statuary representing mythological figures is replacing the crumbling concrete clowns promoting family welfare values.


It’s easy to slander the Dutch for the way they managed ‘their’ East Indies colony, but let’s recognise their creativity in architecture.  Sadly it started late. Hilltown Malang was once a retreat for Europeans keen to escape the humid coast.  The quality of their surviving homes, schools, churches, hospitals and public buildings suggests an age of affluence.

Engineer Herman Thomas Karsten was town planning consultant between 1930 and 35 and responsible for the layout of Jalan Ijen, Malang’s version of LA’s Sunset Boulevard, plus scores of public and private buildings.

The accommodating avenue is flanked by thick-walled, high ceiling houses to cope with the heat. The peak rooves are a nod to traditional joglo design.   Karsten married an Indonesian and identified with Java. He saw himself as a social engineer conscious of the environment, trying to incorporate local values rather than transplanting Amsterdam’s gabled canal houses to the tropics.


His work doesn’t offend – it blends. 

Karsten was lucky to be working when the Art Deco movement was underway.  He was also emboldened to embrace the indigenous after Queen Wilhelmina belatedly declared her colonial subjects should be treated with the decency enjoyed by Netherlanders.  This was a substantial shift from the drive to exploit and plunder.  Known as the ‘ethical policy’ it was reflected in the second of Malang’s two alun-alun (town squares).

The grand plan almost came to ruins. In late July 1947 the KNIL - Royal Netherlands East Indies Army - launched Operation Product assault on the city during the four-year War of Liberation.

Partisans responded with their ‘Ocean of Fire’ campaign torching scores of buildings to stop the invaders occupying key sites.  Some, like the austere Cor Jesu Catholic High School on the road from Surabaya were eventually repaired.  Others were demolished.

One of the arsonists’ targets was the Malang City Hall (Balaikota) which lost part of its roof to the flames. It was built in 1929 with the motto Voor de burgers van Malang (for the residents of Malang), a democratic statement for a monarchy. The building dominates the Tugu alun-alun though it’s not in any way confrontational.

As the first square in the heart of the city turned into a cluttered commercial hub, the need to give the government some dignity led to a new alun-alun though this time developed as a circle around a pool and gardens. 

The effect is marred by the use of artificial flowers, a mockery of the spectacular variety of blooms which thrive naturally. They weren’t planted (if that’s what the tasteless do with plastics), on the generous centrespread dual carriageway.  This leads from the railway station and makes a grand entry statement.


It’s wide and squat with the repaired layered central roof resembling ancient mosques before Saudi-style domes became popular.  It doesn’t press itself on pedestrians in the way more recent and taller offices with plate glass and flat concrete, seemingly to intimidate:  Beware – we’re the bosses dispensing permits; you’re just the grovelling supplicants.

Alongside is the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (People’s Representative Council], maintaining the elegance and profile of its neighbour.  It looks historic, yet it was completed seven years ago in the style of the adjacent Balaikota, proof that not all administrators are Neanderthals.

The up-market Tugu Hotel dominates a corner together with the Splendid Inn, which would deserve the title if given a makeover. That’s happened with the next building heading down to the twisting Brantas River which has cut its way through the volcanic topsoils deep down to bedrock.

Wisma Tumapel was built as a hotel in 1928, named Splendit, then used by the Japanese military between 1942 and 45.  It was firebombed by the revolutionaries in 1947, repaired, named Graha as a guest house for visiting academics and then abandoned to the ghosts who are always seeking free accommodation.

Another example of owners with taste putting aesthetics ahead of avarice is the Shalimar Hotel, formerly a social centre where the colonialists feasted, dance and celebrated a life that was soon to crash with the Japanese invasion.


After the war it became the State radio station, then a hotel.  In the last few years it has been refurbished.  Set in the suburbs it’s unbothered by the clamour of the city.

Away from the civic centre and the ancient kampongs Malang has sprawled like a toddler in a toy shop, bashing and building with no apparent plan.  The new suburbs have mock English monikers -  Royal, Gardens, Heights, Majestic ... though few warrant the titles.

To see design deserving such names check the legacy of Karsten and his colleagues who tried – and largely succeeded – to trump cupidity with sensitivity.

First published in Indonesia Expat, 3 April 2021: