Bali, Personal comment, religion, terrorism

When opposition to the death penalty is not opposition to the death penalty

My focus isn’t generally on such immediate and potentially controversial matters but recent developments in Britain cause me to consider the issue of capital punishment. I won’t address the British problem directly, other than to describe the background. My interest is closer to home in matters that are and were similar.

Amon Kotey, left, and El Shafee Elsheikh.

The case of Kotey and Elsheikh

It’s alleged that Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, captured in eastern Syria in January 2018, were members of a four-man cell of Isis executioners in Syria and Iraq. It’s further alleged that they are responsible for killing journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines.

We all know about the despicable ways ISIS administered the death penalty.

It has now emerged that both Kotey and Elsheikh have been stripped of their British citizenship stripped, presumably because they were considered members of a proscribed terrorist organisation. Now they face a judicial process, not in Britain but in the USA, where the death penalty is likely to apply if convicted.

It’s complicated. Usually, when British citizens are charged with a capital offence in another country the UK government seeks an assurance that they will not be subjected to the death penalty. British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, has written to the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions saying:

“I am of the view that there are strong reasons for not requiring a death penalty assurance in this specific case, so no such assurances will be sought.”

Reaction in the UK where the death penalty has long been abandoned has been strongly critical of the government’s position.

2002 Bali Bombings

When Bali bomber Amrozi was sentenced to Death, Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard played the populist card, as usual. In an interview with the late Mark Colvin he said:

Some people say that I should be thumping the table and saying don’t execute the man. I’m not going to do that because I do respect the judicial processes of Indonesia. I also believe for me to do that would offend many Australians who lost people, who legitimately feel as decent Australians that a death penalty is appropriate.

Howard’s association of decency and judicial murder was Hammurabic in tone. Notions of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, this primitive sense of justice, resonated well with the mood of some. Simon Crean, Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition wasn’t much better. He said:

“The fact is he committed a crime on Indonesian soil and he faced justice under the Indonesian judicial system. I’m not quibbling with their decision.”

At the time my reaction was just, what weak bunch Australian politicians can be, such an opportunistic lot.

Only Duncan Kerr, former Attorney General, impressed me. He was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald speaking against the against the clamour for blood saying:

“Principled opposition to the death penalty cannot be switched off and on”.

Like many Australians, he expressed something I was feeling at the time when he said:

“I am torn apart by these events but nothing will remake the lives lost or repair the hurts suffered.”

In the same article Duncan Kerr also quoted Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Mick Keelty who said:

“. . . it would be better to have the bombers locked up as common criminals for the term of their natural life than to give the platform they want to incite others to follow in their footstep,” adding “Our leader’s statements not opposing the use of the death penalty may well be turned against us in tragic circumstances . . .”

Mick Keelty understood the dangers of Shahid, something that Amrozi clearly welcomed, as this image of him after the sentence shows.

Asia, environment, geography, history, indigenous, Personal comment, population

#Tigers and orang utan are important but what about the #Indigenous people?

Forest and peat fires in Riau, Indonesia Photo by Julius Lawalata, World Resources Institute.
Sound of an approaching motor bike broke a long reflection on the devastation caused by fires that have raged across Indonesia’s peatlands in recent years producing suffocating smoke haze across the region. Joining an expedition to explore the causes of the smoke haze was sure to provoke such thoughts. Here on Tebing Tinggi Island, close to Riau Province’s Kampar Peninsula had also drifted to the fire regime in my own country. In my lifetime now a few months shy of three score years and ten the great warming was undeniable.  Fire was increasing in incidence and I could only conclude that we were no longer theorising about global warming but dealing directly with it’s consequences.


Our small group parted opening the way as a solitary man on a Honda step-through moved between us. This was a common event in many parts of Indonesia, but the man rode with a small sway-back pig trussed and draped in front of him.

“Strange that he’s carrying a pig. Isn’t everyone here Muslim,” I asked the young man standing beside me.

“He’s from the forest.  His people don’t have a religion,” he replied.

“None, at all?”

“No, they believe in forest spirits.”

“Where is he going?”

“Into the forest. His people live there.”

Endangering the primal spirits of the land

The archipelago’s first people understand God as a host of presences in the forests, on the mountains, everywhere throughout Nusantara.  Mountains, had the most important status in the spiritual understandings. Early religion frequently involved the worship of mountain deities and a belief that ancestors also dwelt in the mountains. [i]

Forests too were important affording access to a realm crowded with forest spirits.This man no doubt followed such a primal path. In Riau, his people once called themselves Batin. They lived in swidden-clearings often close to rivers trading forest products downstream as Dayak groups did. Some came to be named after their rivers and, like other beings inhabiting the forests, were often forced from their places into areas of swamp forest or secondary re-growth.

Habitat loss and endangered species were well documented, tigers and orang utan the iconic faces of this process. Yet, El Nino’s smoke haze, plaguing Singapore and Indonesia’s cities masked another tragedy the threat to Riau’s Indigenous people. Sadness and disquiet filled me.

The People

The man on the motorbike was travelling into a forested area.  It seems that, as with the nearby people of the Kampar peninsula 20kms south on the mainland, he was Indigenous and most likely related. Where forests remain in this part of Riau the Indigenous people use them for hunting, charcoaling, fishing and small-scale farming, while supplementing their incomes with wage labouring for the concessionaires (oil, gas, logging and plantations).

Most of the communities with customary territories on the southern side of the Peninsula were relocated to the northern side of the Kampar river.  This isn’t a recent phenomenon in Indonesia.  I saw it being applied back in 1988 when visiting the Mentawai Islands.  Then people were taken from their Uma on the dendritic branches of rivers and concentrated in camps near the main branches.  The same process is evident in Kalimantan.

Despite this enforced relocation Indigenous people, all over Indonesia, still go back to their territories where they farm, hunt, fish, gather herbs, fruits and resins or do a little cash cropping.

Many Indigenous people, in the Riau area will refer to themselves as Melayu at first asking but their roots lie far back in prehistoric times.  In historic times they have been ruled by coastal Hindu, Buddhist and Malay kingdoms. Often referred to as Siak by the ruling kingdoms, they adopted the generic name Batin for themselves. They lived in swidden-clearings often close to rivers trading forest products downstream, just as Dayak groups did. Some came to be named after their rivers and, like other beings inhabiting the forests, were often forced from their places into areas of swamp forest or secondary re-growth.

Habitat loss in Riau

Riau has experienced one of the fastest rates of deforestation in Indonesia. When I attended middle school, 50 years ago it was known as an area of equatorial forest and swamp of great diversity but intensive resource extraction (logging, oil and gas) and conversion of forests to oil palm and pulpwood plantations means that today the province has lost over 80% of its original forest cover.

Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact

Just as I began to write this piece I received an email from Emmanuela Shinta.  It linked to a new book

HerStory3: Championing Community Land Rights and Indigenous Women’s Leadership in Asia, published by Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact. 

Click on the cover to download your copy.

The notes on the publication read

“This book, as a compilation of indigenous women’s “her stories”, is a reflection of the conditions and struggles on the ground of indigenous women. They are the stories of Katima, Jannie, Endena, and 13 other indigenous women who are extraordinary women in their own right. They are in the hearts and minds of other women and villagers because of their suffering, struggles, sacrifices, commitments, dedication and lifetime achievements in advancing the dignity of women and indigenous peoples.

This is now the third volume of her stories to be produced by AIPP to amplify the voices and struggles on indigenous women across Asia. This year we are focussing on indigenous women as land rights defenders, in line with the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights.”


[i] Kempers, B. A. J.                  Monumental Bali: Introduction to Balinese archaeology and guide to the                                                     monuments. Periplus Editions. Singapore. 1991. pp. 4.



Parthenon Marbles, Personal comment

The Parthenon Marbles and The Fallacy of the Universal Museum

Visiting both Delphi and Olympia for the first time some years ago and then returning again to the Acropolis made the unique geography of each site very apparent. Aspect, atmospherics, elevation, geology, latitude and longitude interact contributing a special energy to each location. The still quite substantial architecture remaining is not only a testimony to the genius of ancient Hellenic design and construction, but to the dynamic relationship between complex forms, their various meanings, functions and the biophysical processes operating at each site. So, removing any element from any of these sites immediately diminishes it’s meaning.

Athenian Treasury, Delphi. By Millevache (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Athenian Treasury, Delphi.
By Millevache (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons
 Judging from the ubiquitous replication of the Parthenon’s geometry in so many of the world’s facades, it’s quickly apparent that it’s geometric language is readily understood across time and space, as well. Yet the space where it was created, the space it has occupied for so long is above all an Attican space and in the more general sense a Hellenic space. This is a space with a distinct history, a space so valued that people were prepared to give up their lives defending it.

By Steve Swayne [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Steve Swayne [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
This is no collection of artefacts; this is a place with a dynamic connection to the history of the Hellenic people.

In writing this I don’t wish to encourage or condone nationalism but rather to search for meaning in the fullest sense.

A narrative of unauthorised acquisition diminishing meaning

When the Marbles were removed from the Parthenon, Athens was under Ottoman occupation. Legal authority was conveyed in Firman. These were legal documents written in Farsi and signed by the Sultan.

The narrative of the unauthorised and destructive removal of the Parthenon Marbles is simple and the basic facts are these:

  • there is no original Firman authorising anyone to remove the Marbles;
  • Elgin’s team removed architectural elements from the Parthenon, an act that is in conflict with the Italian language document that is cited as a translation of the Firman;
  • the Marbles were mistreated and damaged first by Elgin and subsequently by the British Museum in its ‘cleaning’ operation;

The British Museum’s Arguments For Retention

Over time the British Museum (BM) has offered various arguments for its retention of the Marbles. In summary these are that the Marbles:

➢ were saved from the Turks, something that requires absolute acceptance of Elgin’s rationale;
➢ were saved from Greek neglect and mismanagement;
➢ were better displayed in the BM as Greece had no suitable place to display them;
➢ are free for people to view in the BM unlike the NAM which has an entry fee
➢ are owned by the world not one country and, more people will see them in London
➢ are part of a new Universal Museum allowing comparison of objects from different parts of the world and so facilitating judgements about the development of world culture.

The mere fact that the arguments have changed over the years, exposes the paucity of the BM justification for retention. Eventually, after the other arguments have fallen away, we come to the universal museum argument.

Why one should accept the taxonomy developed by the BM reborn as the so called universal museum? Why might the Marbles be better understood when compared with the BM’s collection than in the NAM?  There has never been a convincing argument advanced for this nostalgic leap of faith into the lingering imperial twilight of the BM as a universal museum.

Understanding the Marbles in the fullest sense

I contend that the Marbles are best understood in their historical and biophysical context. Here they can be readily compared with the rich collections of Hellenic sculpture that remain. What is more they can be understood in their unique geographic context, in their Attican homeland with its unique sunlight and diurnal rhythms, in a landscape shaped by the very tectonic forces that have given rise to the magnificent Pentelic marble from which they are fashioned. Here the true brilliance of Pericles Athens and the creative forces that gave rise to so much innovation can be more fully understood.

If there is need to compare the Marbles with other antiquities arises in the BM then augmented reality techniques and contemporary holographic laser and 3D technology is such that the museum could provide visitors with a portable representation of the Parthenon Sculptures.  This could be a far richer experience than anything yet attempted by the BM, a walk through digital gallery with touch technology conjuring up genuine comparisons between the worlds great cultures in a virtual world.  The merchandising opportunities are immense, partivularly with the rapid innovations in 3D printing.

At best the Universal Museum is a self serving fallacy designed to find further justification for the retention of materials removed from other lands at the height of Britain’s imperial power and permit the BM to continued merchandising and monetising the Parthenon Sculptures.

Were The Marbles Obtained Legally

In making these comments I don’t seek to endorse current initiatives directed at seeking the return of the Marble through litigation. There is little scope for this beyond amending the British Museum Act of 1963. It is still clear that the Marbles were obtained in a manner that failed to accord with accepted legal practices in the Ottoman Empire.

Director of the BM Neil MacGregor argues that Elgin removed the Sculptures lawfully. He conveniently avoids the absence of legal documentation by alleging that the documentation had to be surrendered at the time of export. Interestingly he doesn’t refer to the export document as a firman. An Italian translation of the so called firman has been used in the past in an attempt to prove that Elgin was authorised to remove and export the sculptures. The document in question is actually a poor translation of an Italian translation of what is alleged to be the original Ottoman document.

It now seems almost certain that Elgin’s documentation was not a Firman but merely a letter purportedly signed by Kaimmakam Seyid, Abdullah Pasha, the Deputy to the Grand Vizier or Yusuf Ziyauddin Pasha.

Important in any discussion of legality is the fact that the Ottoman Empire was a theocracy governed not by legislative bodies but my sharia law. Under this system of governance authority to interpret the law was vested in the Sultan. He was also able to issue decrees, provided they were consistent with sharia. These decrees were known as Firman.

A valid firman must contain the following elements:

  1. The emblem of the Sultan, his official seal or tugrah

    Tughra of Selim III Sultan at the time Elgin was removing the Parthenon Sculptures
    Tughra of Selim III Sultan at the time Elgin was removing the Parthenon Sculptures
  2. An invocation to God or da’vet tahmid

    A Firman issued by Selim III showing the invocation to God written  above the tughra.
    A Firman issued by Selim III showing the invocation to God written
    above the tughra.
  3. the Sultan’s monogram;
  4. mention of the officials to whom it was addressed;
  5. specific and formal phrasing; and,
  6. the date according to the Hijri calendar set out in full.

The document used by Elgin in an effort to establish his authority before the House of Commons enquiry in 1816 did not contain these features.

Neil MacGregor also maintains that moving large pieces of marble would have been difficult and obvious and implies that this is an indication that Elgin’s actions were approved. In fact there is no evidence that the authorities understood what was contained in the shipment at the time.

history, Parthenon Marbles, Personal comment

Exploring #Parthenon, Pericles and People with 21st Century Digital Tools

Late last year I attended an international gathering, the 2nd Colloquy on the Parthenon Marbles titled Parthenon an Icon of Global Citizenship. My contribution focused on ways of employing the tool kit of 21st Century digital strategies in teaching about Ancient Greece, and about the Parthenon in particular.

Keynote was the software  I used to produce this work.  Since it’s only partly revealed in the accompanying YouTube video you can access a full version of the presentation here in Google Drive.

My aim was to demonstrate opportunities for Constructivist and Connectivist approaches employing 21st Century digital tools. My curriculum focus was the new Australian National History Curriculum, but this approach can be applied to any systemic or school based curriculum. Augmented reality apps and the opportunities inherent in effective use of Google Drive were highlighted in the second part of the presentation.

At the outset I must declare my bias.  I firmly believe that the Parthenon Marbles should be returned to Greece.  They were not legitimately acquired. They have been placed in gallery where they are interpreted in a manner that is unable to acknowledge, or address, their original and dynamic relationship with the entire work from which they were stripped.

Recently the British Museum has been attempting some retrospective justification of this stripping away of the Sculptures’ meaning by applying a new taxonomy. A self-serving exercise this reframes the Parthenon Sculptures as a valuable part of a Universal Museum. Unfortunately, this recent iteration merely imposes a form of imperial taxonomy on the Sculptures and many other exhibits in the BM.

So my work is partisan, but the digital techniques I’ve demonstrated are entirely transferable and might be applied to any area of curriculum.

Here is my presentation. Sorry about the sound quality.

Australia, environment, geography, history, Personal comment

Unravelling the Mystery of Lake George: the vanishing lake

After a morning of working in the garden it’s a relief to be out of the wind. Right now it’s blowing at 50 km/h and gusting to 59km/h. In the spring wind gusts stir up a lot of fallen flowers and pollens, so all the while I was working outside digging, sweeping and planting I had an irritation in my nose.  It goes with the season.

The view from the Federal Highway, east, across Lake George.

All this strong dry wind heralds an El Nino event and a period of dry conditions which causes me think of drought and the iconic indicator of such events, Lake George.  It’s somewhat of a mystery lake. I can only recall seeing it full for a short period, for the most part it’s dry with a few muddy puddles after rain. This last La Nina period it’s started to fill again, but nowhere near the bank full stage I’ve seen it in the past. It’s a bit of a mystery. The draining of Lake George is always a good sign that were entering an El Nino period of the southern oscillation (ENSO).

A Link with China

Once people suggested that Lake George had a subterranean link with China.  The popular myth asserted that it was conditions in China which determined its water level.  Of course this fanciful notion has long been dismissed.  A useful source on this is Gary Jones ‘Inside Water’ blog. In my experience, tour coach captains, often not renown for their accurate local knowledge, have added to the apparent mystery over the years embroidering layer upon layer of fanciful explanations for the lake’s appearance and disappearance.

Lake George Water Facts

With a catchment of 954 square kilometres, 16% of this occupied by the lake. It’s a small system just 25 kilometres long, 10 kilometres wide, very shallow and, for a lake in eastern Australia, very salty. Unless there’s significant rain in the catchment, it seldom has much water. Just 10 minor tributaries feed the lake, which sits at 1350 metres asl.

While the means annual rainfall in the area is 750mm it does have appreciable amounts of water in La Nina periods, if rain is falling in the catchment.

Lake George, 25 kilometres north-east of Canberra, has a catchment area of 984 square kilometres. Ten minor tributaries feed the lake, which has no surface outflow. The only data I could find for these was for the 25 Km long Turallo Ck which at the time of writing had a depth of 0.62 metres and discharging at a rate of 32.9 ML/day around 80% of it’s bank full flow. The NSW department of Primary Industries Office of Water, provides some real time data on Turallo Creek.

The Lake’s Murray Cod Industry

In the 19th century there was actually a fishing industry on the lake.  Well, perhaps industry is somewhat of a misnomer. Murray Cod were translocated from the Molonglo River to the Lake George area in 1848.  This stimulated a fishing industry, but this must have been in a La Nina period. The population that developed in Lake George was used as a source to stock the Wollondilly and Cox’s Rivers and Mulwarree Ponds near Goulburn in the Nepean Catchment .  For the reference on this see Species Summaries: An Analysis and Summary of Historical Information on Native Fish.

A new capital for a new nation

Reporting in the Canberra Times on March 12 this year, Ian Warden made an inspired contribution to the lake George saga.  He reminds us that “Mystical Lake George, once upon a time one of Canberra’s rivals as the chosen spot for the federal capital city”.  Reading this piece reminded me that I’ve actually seen the plans for the proposed national capital site at Bungendore.

Plan shewing proposed Federal Capital site in the locality of Lake George.

An expedition to Lake George

On Tuesday I head off to the lake. My son and I will attempt to paddle our kayaks on what water there is. This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity, something he can tell his grandchildren about. Hopefully I’ll be able to join the conversation as well.

Whether or not we succeed is problematic.  The lake seems fullest at its eastern edge, but this area is surrounded by private land holdings and I don’t know whether we’ll gain entry.  Still there’s a good chance we will, since this shoreline, rather the low line of hills above it is the site of a major wind farm.

Wind Farms

I took photograph at the top of this page from a bus moving at around 100km/h back in late July. I appreciate the hues but I’m also rather taken by the wind farm in the background.  Wind farms appeal to me.  Perhaps it’s just from a childhood fascination with those Southern Cross wind pumps that dotted Australia’s arid landscape.  There were always displays of at agricultural shows in Sydney, the Royal Easter Show to be precise.

Wind farms are a controversial topic, but I really enjoy them.  There’s a small wind generator not far from where I live.  More about this in my next post.

Australia, history, Parthenon Marbles, Personal comment

The #ParthenonMarblesAustralia Website is Now Live

Last night the new website of the International Organising Committee – Australia – For The Restitution Of The Parthenon Marbles, was launched at the Athenian Restaurant, Sydney.   Designed by Dennis Tritaris from Orama Communications, I believe it represents a new standard in website design.  Dennis has created a website that has the potential to make full use of Web2.0 tools to mobilise the truly global nature of this issue, connecting those of us who care about restitution without regard for national borders.  The new website is an expression of the international focus of the Australian committee.

The restoration of the Parthenon

Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles is probably the world’s most well-known cultural property dispute.

Legal Opinion

A significant body of legal opinion acknowledges the illegality of Britain’s retention of the largest part of the Parthenon Marbles. George Bizos,  Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis, Professor David RudenstineChristopher Hitchens, and Michael J Reppas, just to mention a few, note the illegality.

Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis’ opinion is summarised at the Elginism website in a report by ARTINFO, published: August 29, 2008 which reads:

A professor from the University of Crete has called into question the sole document that the British Museum has found in recent years to support its legal ownership of the Elgin Marbles, reports the Times of London.

According to the museum, the 1801 document is an Italian translation of an Ottoman firman, or license, in which the Sultan’s grand vizier was authorized to permit the Earl of Elgin to take the sculptures. Elgin took the marbles between 1801 and 1805, and Britain’s argument has long been that the move was legal, because he asked for permission from the Turks, whose empire ruled Greece at the time. They also say that he saved the sculptures from likely damage and deterioration during the Greek-Turk conflict.

But Professor Vassilis Dimitriadis, a specialist in Ottoman law, now says that the original firman, on which the translation is based, could not have been legal, because it is missing the Sultan’s emblem and signature, and an invocation to God. Dimitriadis claims that, by law, only the Sultan could issue a valid firman.

Another examination of the legal issues and developments in international law can be found in a paper ‘Cultural Property and the Shortcomings of International Law: A Case Study on the Looting of the Parthenon‘ by Michael J Reppas Esq.

There’s not time to cover the entire range of legal opinion on this blog, but in essence many lawyers point to the absence of any legitimate documentation sanctioning Elgin’s removal of the Marbles from the Parthenon.

Far deeper than legalities

Of course the matter is far deeper than legalities.  My friend Emanuel J Comino AM often reminds me of the significance of the Parthenon as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in the city-state of Athens, birth place of democracy.  This is really the heart of the matter.  All would do well to consider the gravity of the Elgin’s act which in cultural terms is an affront to the city-state that gave us the very notion of democracy.  This temple of Athena was the centre of a state that developed the very foundations of a political system that so many of us take for granted and that our Greek friends are privileged to hold as a centre in their cultural tradition.  The inner strength afforded by such a noble history is constantly revealed in Hellenic character and traditions.  Such strength can be observed in the ability to retain a cultural focus despite Τουρκοκρατία (Turkish rule) from the 15th century until the declaration of Greek independence in 1821.

The removal of the Parthenon Marbles is an affront to these traditions and an affront to democracy.  In case we are in any doubt about the nature and character of that democracy, I leave the last word to Pericles.  In his funeral oration for those who fell defending Attica from the Spartans he wrote:

“For our system of government does not copy the systems of our neighbours; we are a model to them, not they to us. Our constitution is called a democracy,because power rests in the hands not of the few but of the many. Our laws guarantee equal justice for all in their private disputes;

and as for the election of public officials, we welcome talent to every arena of achievement, nor do we make out choices on the grounds of class but on the grounds of excellence alone. And as we give free play to all in our public life, so we carry the same spirit into our daily relations with one another. We acknowledge the restraint of reverence;

we are obedient to those in authority and to the laws, especially to those that give protection to the oppressed and those unwritten laws of the heart whose transgression brings admitted shame.”

“We are lovers of beauty without extravagance, and lovers of wisdom without effeminacy.

We differ from other states in regarding the man who keeps aloof from public life not as “private” but as useless; we decide or debate, carefully and in person, all matters of policy, and we hold, not that words and deeds go ill together, but that acts are foredoomed to failure when undertaken undiscussed.”

In a word, I say our city as a whole is an education to Greece, and that our citizens yield to none, man by man, for independence of spirit, many-sidedness of attainment, and complete self-reliance in limbs and brain.

Men of the future will wonder at us, as all men do today. We need no Homer or other man of words to praise us”.

“For you now, it remains to rival what they have done and, knowing that the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart, not idly to stand aside from the enemy’s onslaught”.