Asia, Australia, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam

#BookLaunch of ‘Seen & Unseen: a century of stories from #Asia & the #Pacific’


This is a Chitter Media Production, produced and edited by Adrian Metlenko, camera operators Adrian Metlenko and Evan Darnley-Pentes.

Australia, environment, geography, history, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, religion, sociology, travel

The author on “Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from #Asia and the #Pacific”

Common views of Asia and the Pacific, from the outside, often confer undue prominence to such things as typhoons, tsunami, earthquakes, malaria or even magic. While these can be confronting realities in the Asia-Pacific region beyond such differences even more remains unseen and misunderstood. Frequently unacknowledged are the influences Asian and Pacific cultures exert far beyond their borders.


Seen & Unseen: A Century of Stories from Asia & the Pacific is 29 stories inspired by one family’s experience spanning three generations of change. It blends anthropology, botany, ecology, economics, geography, history, politics and spiritual traditions. While each story is cradled in reality and crafted with a careful eye for historical accuracy, frailty of memory, the natural passing of people and the need to protect others has rendered some fictional even when they are not.

Influencing this work is an acceptance that interactions with people from our own culture are generally tangible and familiar, but when beyond our immediate culture things change. Now meaning and understanding must often be negotiated in intangible, non-rational and unseen ways. Foucault’s notion of the third space has influenced this work. Another influence is the Balinese belief that reality is an interaction of Sekala (The Seen) and Niskala (The Unseen).

Precisely what comprises the unseen realm varies throughout the region. What might be understood as mere micro ecology, in the developed world, can have spiritual explanations in some Asian and Pacific cultures. In rational secular society people commonly eschew magic as mythology or superstition, yet in parts of Asia and the Pacific what might be seen as myths and misconceptions can possess the power of reality.

The stories

I begin this journey in 1914 with Sid Thompson and D Company, a tale inspired by the little known ANMEF sent to capture New Guinea from Germany. While easily defeating the enemy unseen forces took an enormous toll. Sid Thompson also appears in Red Poppies and Janur. Several stories address changing Australian views of Japan through the encounters of ordinary people. Joss Sticks and Cracker Night and An Encounter with White Australia reveal Asian influences in Anglo-Australia of the 1950s. First Landfall and The Sublime to the Horrific chronicle my own first bumbling attempts at being in Asia. Some 15 stories are set over an 18-year period in Indonesia from the comfort of urban to life to that of forest people yet to develop the habit of money. These begin with tales about engaging with manifest cultural differences and lead into matters of more global significance. Campaign and The General Election take two Australians and Indonesian friends through a transition to democracy. An Unusual Kind Of Thunder and In The Charnel House deal directly with the Bali Bombings of 2002 while My Second Meeting With Jonathan unfolds in its aftermath. Singapore 43 years On is about returning to Singapore, a city transformed. Vietnam A War Revisited is a story of the anti-war movement and the draft told retrospectively from Hanoi. Finally, Sid Thompson returns in the more metaphysical tale Headland.

The basic and enduring interplay of the seen and the unseen worlds is of great significance to those of us from the land that’s girt by sea. While we might choose not to see, to look inwards and to rejoice in the notion that our land abounds in nature’s gifts, regional and planetary systems are unfettered by such introspective cultural constructions.


You can purchase the book now from Amazon



Aboriginal, Australia, environment, geography, history, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea

Can Australia ever have sovereign borders? We never really have and the porosity is ancient.

A simple Google search reveals that as an adjective sovereign means ‘possessing supreme or ultimate power. These words are also offered as synonyms: supreme, absolute, unlimited, unrestricted, unrestrained, unbounded, boundless, infinite, ultimate, total, unconditional, full, utter, paramount.

Powerful as the invocation of sovereign might be the simple answer to the question ‘Can Australia Ever Have Sovereign Borders?’ is no. Yet in the land that is girt by the myth of the sovereign border has the power of reality. While we Australians might choose not to see, to look inwards and to rejoice in the notion that our land abounds in nature’s gifts, regional and planetary systems are unfettered by such introspective cultural constructions.

In the face of this simplicity, I offer a very simple post. It’s pitched at secondary school level.

The ice age
During the Ice Age the seas between Indonesia and Australia were lower and also narrower than now. At this time Australia was actually connected to the land masses of West Papua and Papua New Guinea. Theoretically it would have been possible to walk between present day Darwin and Merauke in about three weeks.

Australia, West Papua and Papua New Guinea formed a continent that geographers call Sahul. The rest of Indonesia, west of Lombok, on the other side of the Wallace line, with its tigers, rhinos and elephants is part of Sunda and is closely allied with the rest of Asia. Eastern Indonesia has strong and unmistakable biogeographic links with Australia.

New Guinea including West Papua was originally a northern peninsula of Australia. Both areas have largely Australian fauna and flora. Egg-laying mannals such as echidnas, marsupials such as kangaroos and cuscus, birds like bower birds, cockatoos and birds of paradise, and reptiles such as skinks and side-necked tortoises are common.  Amongst the plants lillipilli, eucalypts and melaleuca, are all testimony to ancient links with Australia. There is even a close relative of the Huon Pine growing in the mountains of West Papua and some of the indigenous Melanesian people of West Papua have recently claimed to have seen an animal resembling the Thylacine inhabiting mountainous areas.

The Settlement of Australia
Whenever settlement began movement must have been through the archipelago to the north. It probably began around 70,000 years before the present.

The Dingo
About 4 000 years ago the Dingo appeared in Australia. The Dingo resembles the Ajag (anjing hutan) which originates on mainland Asia and Sunda. It probably migrated into Sahul, perhaps with help from people. It was probably brought to Australia by people. It is likely these people came from Indonesia or Nusantara as it was called in former times.

Ajag (Cuon alpinus)
Ajag (Cuon alpinus)


The Baiini Story
The Yirrkala people of Arnhem Land tell of a people called the Baiini who came from the north. They are said to have arrived in sailing ships as families, long before European settlement in Australia.

The Baiini built houses of stone and timber on the shore line. They planted rice which they called luda. As well as this, the Baiini wove brightly coloured cloth called jalajal and wore colourful sarongs.

It is said that the Baiini finally left Australia sailing back over the sea to the north, leaving behind their rice lands. Today a kind of grass grows on these lands; it is used as food by the Aboriginal people.

The stories of the Baiini were passed on by word of mouth. It is difficult to know whether these stories are mythology or not.

Sailings ships and monsoon winds
When people developed sailing canoes, and later sailing ships, travel by sea became possible. This probably made contact between Indonesia and Australia easier. The north west monsoons helps sailing ships travel from Indonesia to Australia. When the winds reverse direction, at the beginning of the south east monsoon, the return journey to Indonesia is possible.

The earliest recorded contact
Makassan, Bajo and Buginese fishermen regularly sailed into northern Australian waters from at least 1650. These voyages probably began during the time of the Makassan kingdom of Gowa. The Makassan and Buginese sailors called Arnhem Land, Marege, and they called the north western parts of Australia, Kayu Jawa.

Unlike the legendary Baiini the Makassans, Bajo and Buginese brought no families with them. They voyaged in fleets of 30 to 60 praus, each boat had up to 30 men on board. Their objective was to fish for trepang which they smoked. Then they carried the trepang back to Sulawesi from where it was exported to China.

Fishing fleets “fished three areas: the Northern Territory coast from Cape Don to the Gulf of Carpentaria; parts of the Kimberley coast of Western Australia from Cape Londonderry to Cape Leveque and perhaps further south towards Port Hedland; and the offshore reefs and islands in the Timor Sea.” See, Natasha Stacey, ‘Boats to Burn – Bajo Fishing Activity in the Australian Fishing Zone. Ch.4 pp58 ANU Press 2007

Their voyages were timed so that they arrived on the north coast of Australia in December which was the beginning of the wet season. They returned home in March or April at the end of the wet season.

The trepang fisherman built temporary houses, dug wells and planted tamarind trees. The groves of tamarind trees which they planted exist today.

Aboriginal people, like the Yolgnu, worked for the trepang fishermen, learning their language, adopting the habit of tobacco smoking, painting pictures of perau, learning their dances and borrowing some of their stories.

Some people went with the fishermen on their return voyage to Sulawesi, returning with the next monsoon, some remained in Sulawesi.

The influence of the Macassans, Bajo and Bugis, in particular, can still be seen today in the language and customs of the people.

Listen to Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunipingu.


For a more scholarly account of the pre-European settlerment of the north and the Macassan voyages read ‘Turning The Map Upside Down’ by Regina Ganter

Trade with Australia’s European settlers
When food supplies dwindled and the colony of New South Wales faced starvation the first ship to bring relief was the Waaksamheyd, in 1790. It brought supplies from Batavia (Jakarta), including 171 barrels of beef, 172 barrels of pork, 39 barrels of flour, 4,500 kilograms of sugar and 31,000 kilograms of rice.

Traditional fishing today
Traditional Indonesian fishermen continue to visit Australian waters. They fish around the reefs and islands between Australia and Indonesia. Although these are now Australian waters traditional Indonesian fishermen are granted fishing rights. In return for fishing rights they must use traditional sailing boats and traditional fishing techniques.

Ashmore reef is a group of three small islands. It is a National Nature Reserve, administered by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service. No fishing is permitted in the reserve, but fishermen are permitted to land on West island to obtain water. The reef was known to Macassan, Bajo, Bugis and Rotenese before it became part of Australia.

Australia's Environmentally Sensitive Maritime Border
Australia’s Maritime Border

Natasha Stacey writes that “During a visit to Kupang in 1803, Flinders obtained information linking Macassan trepang fishing activity to ‘a dry shoal lying to the south of Rottee [Rote]’ (probably Ashmore Reef) and met a number of Macassans on the coast of northern Australia in the same year (Flinders 1814: 257). 2 Since Ashmore Reef has a supply of fresh water and a sheltered lagoon, it has long been an important ‘staging post’ for Indonesian perahu on their voyages further south to other islands and reefs (Fox 1998: 117). Matthew Flinders learned of the existence of Ashmore Reef in Kupang.” op cit page 59

Aboriginal, Australia, history, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea

A few thoughts on teaching about #Indigenous #Australia

A short while back I started reading The Greatest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia. What a remarkable book this is. Its author, Bill Gammage, systematically deconstructs the convenient myth of Aboriginal backwardness in this excellent history. He accumulates layer upon layer of historical source material, drawn from the casual observations of European explorers and settlers who started to move out into the world’s greatest estate from 1788 onwards.  He also uses observations from earlier European visitors as well.

“Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos” by Joseph Lycett, from the National Library of Australia. Intention to published notified.

Amongst the visual resources of early Australia Gammage relies on the work of the work of Joseph Lycett ‘Drawings of Aborigines and scenery, New South Wales‘, ca. 1820. Lycett’s work wasn’t new to me when I encountered it in the book I’d seen it before in various texts. What I’d always found interesting about it was the clear sense of order in the Australian landscape that Lycett chose to conveys. Mistakenly I’d always interpreted that sense of order an artistic imposition of a European way of viewing the late 18th and early 19th century landscape of Colonial Australia. Not till I read Gammage’s work did I begin to understand that Lycett and others were recognising and recording the order of Aboriginal land management.

Gammage use of the term ‘estate’ is purposeful and its also ironic. An estate is area of land, in the European sense of 1788 it was an extensive area of land in the country, usually with a large house, owned by one person, landed gentry or aristocrat. The term also implied management of the land, of a sequence of steps responding to seasons, of certain land having certain purposes or uses that might change through the seasons. It suggests an orderly system for managing the ownership, exchange and inheritance of land implying that appropriate laws were in place and that there was a general acceptance of the rule of law.

Gammage isn’t casual in applying this term to the Australian landscape, at the outset he explains there are three facts on which this book rests:

1. ” . . . about 70% of Australia’s plants need or tolerate fire (ch3).  Knowing which plants welcome fire and when and how much, was critical to managing land.  Plants could then be burnt and not burnt in patterns, so that post fire regeneration could situate and move grazing animals predictably by selectively locating the feed and shelter they prefer.”

2. This meant that grazing “animals could be shepherded in this way because apart from humans they had no serious predators.”

3. “There was no wilderness.  The Law – an ecological philosophy enforced by religious sanction – compelled people to care for all their country.  People lived and died to ensure this” (1)

The underlying principles of land management in this greatest of all estates, he condenses this into three basic rules:

  • Ensure that all life flourishes
  • Male plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable
  • Think universal, act local. (op cit 94)

“What plants and animals flourished where related to their management. As in Europe the land was managed at a local level. Detailed local knowledge was crucial. Each family cared for its own ground, and knew not merely which species fire or no fire might affect, but which individual plant and animal, and their totems and Dreaming links. They knew every yard intimately, and knew well the ground of neighbours and clansmen, sharing larger scale management or assuming responsibility for nearby ground if circumstances required.”  (2)

Uncovering Indigenous pasts in the present

This past winter has been a time of reading, research and digital construction for me. After developing a research unit on the Sioux’s survival, last year , I turned my attention to building a short unit on Aboriginal survival. I wanted this to be a learning project that avoided the generic introduction, typical of many school text books, that imposed a homogeneity to the life of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (ATSI) history before contact. It was also necessary to ensure that the sections dealing with Contact and Post Contact history were constructed so that students were encouraged to draw on the rich digital resources that are now becoming available. I built both the Sioux and the ATSI units learning units using a template supplied by the NSW Teaching and Learning Exchange (TALE) managed by the NSW Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre

Front page of the learning unit built in PowerPoint

One frequent problem with school texts is their use of the term ‘Dreamtime’, as something that happened back in antiquity that was all ‘done and dusted’ by the time the ‘ Whiteman’ arrived and is now only represented in song and dance. It’s true that some contemporary Aboriginal Australians accept this terminology, but for others  The Dreaming is ongoing just as creation is on going.  It didn’t only happen back then but is still unfolding now. My challenge was to allow my students to experience the Dreaming in this sense.

Several things help in conveying this sense of the presence of Creation, there are probably many but I chose:

I’ve probably said enough about The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia so it’s the other three areas I’d most like to explore.

Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia (MAIA)

I’m not certain just how this work is received by Indigenous Australians, none that I’ve spoken with have been critical of the work, but to date such conversations have been limited to colleagues. Needless to say this work attempts to cover vast subjets.  It need to be explored for one to gain a sense of just how much it attempts. Probably the most important understanding I’ve derived from the book, to date, is the background on The Dreaming, that I’ve already addressed.

The MAIA attributes early attempts to describe The Dreaming to Baldwin Spencer.

Reading through the atlas I learned that the term ‘Dreamtime’ was started by an English anthropologist, Baldwin Spencer.  Dreamtime is Baldwin’s translation of an Arrernte word altyerre which means both ‘time of creation’ and ‘dream’.  From this this limited meaning the idea of the ‘Dreamtime’ was developed. The term is widely used all over Australia by many Indigenous people as well as non-Indigenous people – to refer to the Indigenous time of creation.  However, in many – even most – Indigenous languages, there is no connection between the word for ‘dream’ and the word for ‘creation time’, and some Indigenous people object to the use of ‘Dreamtime’.  Torres Strait Islanders do not use the term.

Geoffrey Gurumul Yunupingu

Alerted to this wider sense of Dreaming I began to listen more intently to the songs of Geoffrey Gurumul Yunupingu. Several things started to emerge when I did this but two were particularly significant for me.  I began to realise that I understood some of his lyrics. While Yolgnu languages are from the Pama-Nyungan family of languages and have connections with other Aboriginal languages there’s also an Austronesian influence in Yolgnu languages. The same influences can be found in Indonesian and in low Balinese for example, a language in which I’ve a small vocabulary. I can’t say whether this influence is from connections with the Macassans and the Bugis alone or whether the connections are more ancient. It seems reasonable to me that this wasn’t the only contact across Manbuynga ga Rulyapa (Arafura Sea).

What I understood amounted to mere words and occasionally fragments that I could guess at, but it focused my attention and caused me to look more deeply into his lyrics. It was then I began to realise that he is often singing about The Dreaming, that for him it is in the present as well as in the past. One song that strongly appealed to me is Baywara. The lyrics of speak for themselves.

Here is an example of his work and extraordinary presence. Djarimirri concerns his own creation “I am a child conceived and carried by Wititj a rainbow child ” Wititj is the Ancestor Rainbow Python.

(1)  Gammage, B. – The Biggest Estate on Earth – How Aborigines Made Australia. Allen & Unwin. 2011. pp 1-2 

(2) op cit pp. 3


Australia, geography, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Torres Strait

Drug resistant #tuberculosis confronting #Australia’s border security

With the emergence of the concept of a Nation State the world moved beyond tribe and clan, entering a new era in which the notion of the state rested on largely imagined and unsustainable historical constructions. Now in Europe we are witnessing the gradual end to such naive notions but in island nations such as Australia the illusion not only persists but can assume a large and unhealthy position within our domestic political agenda. Developing a sense of realism and effective border management, freed from the simplistic notions of border protection, is essential if both the political and actual health of our nation is to be sustained.

Developing the correct policy mix and response to developments in our region, rests on a clear understanding of just how Australia fits into it’s biogeographic and cultural context. None of this is simple, we’re bound to make mistakes. This post is about one such mistake, one that can still be easily avoided and one that can still be addressed with one small tweaking of our policy response.

The enthnogeographic realities of the border region
Back in August 2010 I wrote more extensively about the general issue of our borders in a post entitled Indonesia and Australia: perceptions of border security from the land that’s girt by sea. To anyone who read that post, or has reflected on the matter of Australia’s physical margins it will be clear that both biophysically and socio-culturally there is constant interaction between Australia and what surrounds us. Traditional fishers from the Indonesian archipelago continue to visit Australian waters while our border with Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a culturally arbitrary one.

A treaty, commonly known as The Torres Strait Treaty between Australia and PNG describes both a seabed and fisheries boundary between the two states.  It is a response to the porosity and enthnogeographic realities of the border region. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has a posted a most comprehensive website addressing this issue.

DFAT has published a map outlining the two boundaries.

Seabed and fisheries jurisdictions and the protected zone

This is no ordinary border, whatever the understanding most Australians might have this is a border that concedes in a most undeniable manner, the transitional nature of the border between Australia and PNG.  The border region includes a Protected Zone.  This is an area of the Torres Strait recognised by Australia and PNG as having special characteristics.

The Protected Zone is a recognition that Torres Strait Islanders and the coastal people of PNG need to carry on their traditional way of life. This geopolitical construct is a recognition of the realities. It permits traditional people from both countries to move freely (without passports or visas) for traditional activities in within the zone.

DFAT explains that:

Torres Strait Islanders are allowed to travel north into Papua New Guinea as far as the 9 degrees South latitude line just north of Daru. They are also allowed to visit Parama Island and the villages of Sui and Sewerimabu.

Traditional inhabitants from the nominated thirteen Papua New Guinea coastal villages are allowed to travel south into Australia as far as the 10 degrees 30 minutes South latitude line near Number One Reef.

Traditional activities under the Treaty include activities on land (such as gardening, food collection and hunting), activities on water (such as fishing for food), ceremonies or social gatherings (such as marriages) and traditional trade.

Business dealings and employment for money are not allowed as traditional activities under the Treaty.

Micro-organisms a challenge for border security
In March, 2008, Director of the Australian National University’s Masters of Applied Epidemiology Program at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health Professor Paul Kelly went on record saying that:

The Torres Strait and Australia are running the risk of  a TB epidemic, particularly from the virtually untreatable multi-drug resistant (MDR) and Extensively Drug Resistant (XDR) forms 

In May of that year the Australian Medical Journal published a report stating that as early as 2006 it was known that there was a rising incidence of TB in the Torres Strait and changing TB patterns in Far North Queensland.  The report explained that there was:

Evidence of rising incidence of TB in the Torres Strait and primary transmission of MDR-TB within the Western Province of PNG suggests the potential for a major public health crisis, with the possibility of MDR-TB spreading to northern Queensland.

It called for urgent efforts to increase resourcing, to find further cases and provide appropriate treatment with follow-up for all visitors and residents living in the Torres Strait Protected Zone.

The report also explaind that while Australia has one of the lowest incident rates of tuberculosis (TB) in the world, with rates around 5–6 cases per 100,000 population the. . .  health status of Papua New Guineans is one of the lowest in the Pacific region, and TB is one of the three leading infectious diseases causing death in PNG, with an estimated mortality rate of 42 deaths per 100,000 population. The estimated annual incidence of all forms of TB in PNG is 233 cases per 100,000 population. 

The response on the ground
The Torres Strait Treaty excludes health matters as a valid reason for travel under its freedom of movement provisions, but inadequate medical services in PNG encouraged people from Western Province to travel to the Torres Strait Islands in search or medical care. Both Commonwealth and Queensland health resources seem to have been used in the filling of a PNG health services gap that could have serious consequences for Australia. In July 2008 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) 7.30 report carried a story on the growing problem. Peter McCutcheon reported that almost . . .  every day, villages from the mainland of Papua New Guinea take a short boat trip to Australia. Some live less than five kilometres away from Saibi, one of the northern most Australian islands in the Torres Strait. 

McCutcheon cited a spokesman from DFAT as saying that : “The free movement provisions of the Treaty do not … permit travel specifically for health purposes. We need to balance this carefully against humanitarian considerations and ensure that all health risks are appropriately addressed.”

A Senate Committee of inquiry
Ultimately there was a Senate Committee of inquiry into this problem.  The Committee made five recommendations, but these are some of the more important ones:

1. The committee recommends that through the Package of Measures developed by the Health Issues Committee, the Australian Government continue to support PNG initiatives to establish new, or improve existing, health facilities in Western Province so that PNG nationals no longer need to seek health care in the Torres Strait.

2. The committee recommends that the Australian Government give serious consideration to measures that would further facilitate the proposal for greater cross-border involvement by Australian health professionals in both the provision of services and capacity building on the PNG side of the border.

3. The committee recommends that the Australian Government use the Papua New Guinea–Australia Partnership for Development to detail the assistance it is providing to PNG to improve the delivery of health services in the southern part of Western Province and to ensure that projects undertaken in this region are appropriately monitored and evaluated during implementation and after completion.

4. The committee recommends that to improve accountability and transparency of Australia’s development aid spending, AusAID’s Office of Development Effectiveness (ODE) conduct an analysis of Australia’s funding in relation to Western Province in the Torres Strait region.

5. The committee recommends that the analysis mentioned in the previous recommendation also look closely at the extent and effectiveness of AusAID’s cooperation with Queensland Health and consider ways to ensure that their work in the Torres Strait region is seamless across the border and that their operations and funding complement each other.

The ABC’s new program 7.30, reported again on the issue.  Peter McCutcheon observing that the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments have decided to shut down vital tuberculosis clinics in the Torres Strait. Experts now fear that the problem could spread to the mainland.  Sadly, this wasn’t one of the Senate Committee’s recommendations.