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The Last Rotting Props

The title is somewhat of a misnomer since this post represents the research base I wrote for what was to become a short story.

It was also written as an attempt to describe the political conditions operating around a project my company was undertaking for the Australian Indonesia Institute, a book entitled Geografi Australia. It was to be both a geography and history of Australia, written in Indonesian, and meeting the requirements of the Indonesian junior secondary high school curriculum. It too was published.

In the end I didn’t write a short story titled ‘The Last Rotting Props’, instead, I wrote several short stories that were published in my book Seen and unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific.

I first wrote Unspoken Realities, then used the research as part of the background for an additional three stories:

Young Partai Demokrasi Perjuangan (Democratic Party of Struggle) supporters about to join a campaign rally during Jakarta’s 1999 presidential election.

I’m moved to publish it now after the recent return of a Liberal National Party Government in Australia, and also the failure of Prabowo Subianto in the recent Indonesian Presidential race.

In that election, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo attracted 55.5% of votes, and Prabowo only 44.5%. Despite this Prabowo has launched a legal challenge against the result.

Here is my original piece


Some Australian’s imagine that we inhabit a land whose national borders confer such a manifest degree of separateness that with a judicious border protection policy in force we need make scant adaptation to the social and cultural realities of our regional neighbours. They see our regional relationships as primarily strategic. Such an outlook is most often grounded firmly in a Eurocentric sense of nationhood and in a tendency to overstate our significance as a global and regional power.

Although we are the land that’s girt by sea, this state of mind is at variance with biophysical and geopolitical realities. At best this sense of separateness expresses itself in an array of quarantine measures designed to protect our agricultural and pastoral base from harmful foreign organisms, at worst it’s a disposition that’s susceptible to fear, a search for security in rich and powerful ‘European’ friends, nationalism and triumphalism.

Eurocentrism and race

1996 was a time of change. A Liberal National Party coalition Government was returned in Australia and John Howard became Prime Minister. There were obvious reservations. These resided in Howard’s inherent Eurocentrism, his relative disinterest in the Asian region and his view that the previous government neglected the US Alliance. Given the propensity for conservative governments to mismanagement foreign policy in the past, there were profound reasons for concern.

Warning signs were clear. Domestically Howard had long played the race card. It dominated his political ideology. He challenged the very notion of multiculturalism. He was against those supporting economic sanctions against South African apartheid and ‘dog whistled’ up the pressure to reduce Asian immigration. (Colter, Dr. D. & Bolger, D. John Howard and the Race Question. Australian Political Studies Association Conference 6 – 9 July 2008 Hilton Hotel, Brisbane, Australia)

A precarious relationship

The relationship with Indonesia was precarious. Suharto’s New Order Regime was beginning to mire in increasing scandals and corruption. One of the latest was the exclusive licence granted to Tommy Suharto to produce a new car that went by the curious name of the Timor. Indonesians have a great love of acronyms and the standing joke around Jakarta was that Timor stood for Tommy itu memang orang rakus or put simply ‘That Tommy sure is greedy.’

Indonesians with any sort of aspiration for the development of a rational economic system spoke openly about KKN or Korupsi, Kolusi dan Nepotism as major breaks on development.

Anti-Chinese violence

Beginning in Thailand, the Asian economic crisis of 1997 dislodged the last rotting props supporting the Suharto regime. In the midst of the economic chaos that was quickly manifest, I was conducting a tour for a ‘university of the third age’ group through Java and Bali, while the company was also managing a three-week field placement in Yogyakarta, for MLC Melbourne. All ran as smoothly as it could but by 1998 violent scenes, not witnessed since the anti-Communist purges of 1965, erupted across Indonesia. Irregular units, akin the militia, that were so favoured as a political tool later in East Timor, rampaged through major centres. In their wake followed sustained outbreaks of looting, firebombing, and stoning of Chinese businesses along with the rape and murder of Chinese Indonesians.

Shops looted and goods burned on the streets in Jakarta, 14 May 1998

Large tracts of North and West Jakarta resembled a bombed-out war zone after the worst of this violence. Even sedate Solo failed to remain untouched with a substantial part of its commercial district destroyed.

Back in Sydney,  Geografi Australia complete, but my Indonesia based field study business in tatters, and teaching Geography at SCECGS Redlands, I felt a strong sense of connection with events in Indonesia. This was not merely because of a familiarity with the locations where so much violence was now erupting, but also because there was a large group of Chinese Indonesian students at Redlands that year. As students from wealthy urban middle-class families they were on the technological cutting edge. All had mobile phones, Internet connections and email accounts. Then at night I was often on the phone to Margaret Hulbert, a relative, who was still living in Jakarta, as well as my close friend Henky Kurniawan. By day I’d often compare notes with my Chinese Indonesian students. Events in Indonesia unfolded in real time, for all of us.

Henky, my old travelling companion, was from a Padang Buddhist family that had converted to Roman Catholicism. A Chinese Indonesian, one of just 3% of the Indonesian population, he ran a graphic design and photography business and did a lot of work for the Catholic Church and UNICEF. Henky was also Rukun Tetangga (RT) in his north eastern Jakarta neighbourhood. I rang him almost every day through the worst of the violence.

Each day the story was the same:

Aman, kami semua aman (Safe, we’re all safe.)

Then one night I rang, and the reply was simply:

Hancur! (Destruction!)

I could elicit nothing more.

Later I discovered that a team of thugs, perhaps Prabowo Subianto’s irregular forces, or so we thought, had burned the supermarket complex, at the back of Henky’s house, on the other side of a drainage canal.

Henky spent 24 hours standing guard outside his house with a baseball bat. He’d already warned me that this could happen. Now I encouraged him to migrate to Australia, but he said there was little point as he would have to start again, and English wasn’t his strength.

On another evening I spoke with Margaret, as she sat without electricity in a darkened house illuminated by the red glow of the nearby shopping centre, now in flames.

The Habibie interlude

Under Suharto’s successor and former Vice President, Habbie, there were some notable changes. Free elections were scheduled, and political prisoners were freed, including Xanna Gusmao.

It was difficult to know whether Habbie was trying to put as much distance between himself and the corruption and injustices of the Suharto years, or whether he had always been waiting his turn to make an impact. In this environment, he seemed far from the arrogant technocrat that I’d heard speaking at the Regent Hotel in Sydney some years before.

One major factor that Habbie couldn’t easily address was the dual function – dwifungsi – of the military. It had socio-political role that guaranteed military seats with within legislature. Another area beyond his effective control were the separatist movements in East Timor, Aceh, and Irian Jaya.

The Acehenese struggle was a long one that dated from the time of Dutch colonialism, the East Timorese struggle was a remarkable and enduring resistance to Indonesian annexation, while the OPM continued to call for unification with PNG. Both Falintil in East Timor and the GAM (Garisan Aceh Merdeka – the Free Aceh Movement), were anti-colonial movements, fighting for national liberation and self-determination. The OPM seemed to have less focus but the opposition of the West Papuans to rule from Jakarta and the ill ease of many transmigrants with the human rights situation was obvious to anyone visiting the area.

Howard Government returned

Against this background of dramatic political changes in Indonesia, the Howard government was returned to power again in October 1998. Under Howard’s leadership, the government began to shift its foreign policy mix. Much of this change in settings seemed to be for Australian domestic consumption, but its impacts in the Asia Pacific region were clear enough.

Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Azmi Khalid acknowledged the validity of Australia’s peacekeeping mission in East Timor he argued that this role must not apply more widely. He said: ‘

We are actually fed up with their stance – that they are sitting in a white chair and supervising the colored chairs.

The Malaysian Democratic Action Party (DAP) leader described the Howard Doctrine as outmoded asserting that:

Asia does not want, nor has it recognized, the US as the policeman of the world, what’s more, one needing a deputy. Howard has drawn the wrong conclusion from Australia’s peacekeeping role in East Timor, which is a decision of the United Nations Security Council and not the arbitrary decision of the US.

Malaysia’s Sun daily, editorialised on Howard’s role in Asia in these terms:

We think it is folly. Indeed, it is more likely to create fissures in Asean-Australia ties than to ‘cement Australia’s place in the region’ as Howard claims it will.

A book launch

Now the book was ready to launch, but not before a teachers’ development conference program had been developed. These were exciting times. Australia was finally heading for a referendum on the monarchy and our company was finally ready to launch a publication, Geografi Australia, that had begun in 1994, survived three changes of President and an education minister there as well as a change of government in Australia.

If the postcolonial administrations had given Indonesia anything it was a bureaucracy. Departments were said to be wet or dry. This was nothing to do with their financial rectitude, as it could be interpreted from the standpoint of the increasingly deregulated market economies of the West, rather it related to how much they leaked funds. Fortunately, the Indonesian Department of Education and Culture (DEPDIKBUD) was relatively dry but like a lot of education departments, it had a well-developed hierarchy. So, we worked feverishly on the conference content, knowing that in this bureaucratised Indonesian way of doing things it would be necessary to leave lots of time up front for speeches.

The move towards democracy in Indonesia was far from smooth. Political violence and terrorism were increasing these strategies were not new. Bombings had long been a feature of the political landscape; it was the frequency and the intent that was at issue. Some attributed the recurrent bombings to military involvement, an attempt to frighten the Indonesian populace into resisting attempts to curb the military’s power in the face of a clear and imminent threat.

The greater prominence of some Islamic fringe groups such as Laskar Jihad and then Jemaah Islamiyah led others to conclude that it was these groups that were principally responsible for the bombings. Whatever the actual situation, there was confusion and uncertainty. In such a context the Howard Doctrine was at best unhelpful and at worst something that could be used by extremist groups as an example Western pressure that warranted strong measures in response.

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