Tag Archives: Amnesty International

Indonesian executions should have taken no one by surprise

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Andrew Chan (left) and Myuran Sukamaran, two of the eight convicted drug smugglers executed by firing squad in Indonesia. Photograph by Jason Childs/Getty Images courtesy of theguardian.com

No one familiar with Indonesia’s history should be in the least surprised at the indifference its government displayed to world leaders and human rights activists pleading for the lives of the eight drug traffickers executed by firing squad earlier this week.

For all its exotic charm and hospitable people, there is a ruthless, vicious disregard for the sanctity of human life that runs through many of Indonesia’s institutions, in particular the army, who have kept its rulers in power for much of the modern state’s existence and remain a force to be reckoned with.

Two episodes in the country’s recent history stand out. The first are the purges of the mid 1960s, when gangs, supported by elements of the army, went on the rampage to eliminate undesirables ranging from communists, trades unionists, government officials and teachers to anyone suspected of leftist leanings, or simply someone the local gang warlord didn’t like the look of. By the time it ended, around half a million people had been slaughtered by these militias. The bloodbath, depicted in the recent Oscar nominated documentary “The Act of Killing”, attracted almost no attention from the outside world at the time.

The second episode, also largely ignored by the international community, was is the 1975 invasion by Indonesian forces of East Timor, which forms the jumping off point for my novel Francesca. This completely unprovoked annexation resulted in a quarter of a century of oppression before East Timor finally gained its independence in 2002, at an estimated cost of a third of the population.

Suharto may be gone, but with stuff like this in your country’s DNA, you’re not about to lose any sleep over machine-gunning a few coke dealers, however spurious the evidence against them or mitigating the circumstances.

To me, what stands out is the shocked response from a world that by and large remained utterly indifferent to these twin tragedies in Indonesia’s recent past. Granted, communications then weren’t what they are now, but it wasn’t that long ago that Indonesia was able to wage genocide on the entire East Timorese population and get away with it. Australian Prime Ministers weren’t recalling ambassadors or engaging in personal pleas to the President to stop the killing. Eventually Indonesia did succumb to outside pressure, once they realised the war wasn’t worth the resources they were expending waging it, but it took a while. Too long for many.

Francesca opens with a scene in which President Suharto is outlining his plans for Timor to the then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger and President Ford. In a dialogue drawn from records in the President Ford Library, both Ford and Kissinger, who know exactly what Suharto’s plans entail, happily give him the green light to proceed, requesting only the Indonesians wait until the Americans are back on US soil.

Returning to last week’s events, it’s hard to conclude anything other than the uncomfortable thought that what really galvanises the international human rights community is that some of the condemned drug smugglers were Australian citizens. In other words, people whom rich, articulate westerners could understand and identify with – a son, a brother, a sister perhaps gone astray, fallen into bad company, made some poor choices, but still a human being nevertheless deserving of mercy and understanding. Unlike the faceless victims of East Timor.

Francesca, a seventeen year old Timorese girl, encounters the same thing. As the capital city of Dili burns around her, she witnesses Chinese traders being lined up and shot for… well, being Chinese traders; women being raped then murdered for… well, being women; Timorese citizens being burned to death in their homes for being… yes, you’ve guessed it, Timorese citizens. When she finally escapes, she enquires as to the fate of a group of Portuguese nuns she knew. Assuming the worst, she is surprised to be told they were airlifted to safety by an Australian helicopter.

Not because they were nuns, but because they were western nuns.

Francesca is available at http://viewbook.at/francesca

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War is over… not quite yet

You hear it everywhere as we approach this time of year – in the shopping malls, on the radio, the optimistic crooning from John and Yoko’s classic: “War is over, if you want it”. Seems like we don’t want it, or not enough anyway.

I don’t think there’s been a time in recorded history when someone, somewhere hasn’t been fighting, killing someone else. Some months ago the British Army thought 2015 might be the first year in a century when it wouldn’t be involved in a conflict somewhere. With events in Syria, Iraq and Iran unfolding as they are, that hope looks less likely by the day.

Iraqi Freedom

Image courtesy of soldiersmediac

It’s easy to get war fatigue, to throw up one’s hands in despair and tune out of it all. For me, it’s the civilians caught up in war, especially the children, who haunt me most. Here’s an extract from my novel Francesca, shortly after the heroine’s home town of Dili, capital of East Timor, was invaded by the Indonesian army just before Christmas 1975…

“Checking for soldiers, she set off along the street. With her awkward gait and instinctive caution, progress was slow. She took the back streets, avoiding the main thoroughfares where troops were most likely to be combing through houses. Halfway down the street adjacent to hers a kampong dog, its curled tail high up in the air, stood in the middle of the road gorging on a corpse whose entrails had been ripped open by machine gun fire. Pieces of flesh flicked out from the dog’s greedy mouth and when it glanced up at her she saw its entire snout was covered in bright red gore. The dog stared her down, reluctant to abandon such a feast. Enraged, Francesca reached down, picked up a stone from the gutter and hurled it at the animal as hard as she could. The stone struck the beast square on the shoulders and it jumped with a sharp yelp, scurrying away from the corpse as Francesca reached for another stone. It was a futile symbolic gesture, she knew, the dog would return to finish off its grisly meal the moment she was gone, but she had needed to do something to take a stand against the horror unfolding all around her.
She continued her shuffle in a broad northerly direction through the routes she knew so well. There was an eerie quiet to these normally bustling back alley ways and side streets. Shops were either boarded up or spilt open, their contents looted by the invaders who could only carry so much and had discarded the rest. Where were all the inhabitants? The machine guns had kept up their sporadic firing ever since she had left her house, presumably shooting at someone. She wanted to bang on the shutters to see if anyone was inside, to find out what was going on, but she knew she couldn’t.

Eventually, she reached an alleyway that led out onto the harbour and she stopped, her heart racing in terror. An Indonesian platoon was directly in front of her, less than fifty yards away, marching at double time to the command of an NCO jogging along at the side. Rifles were shouldered, as the troops struggled to keep up the pace whilst hauling their bulky packs. Darting under a set of wooden steps, Francesca waited for the soldiers to pass, convinced she would be spotted. She tucked her head under her arms and crouched herself into a ball, desperately making herself as inconspicuous as possible, even though the stance was agony for her injured body. She heard the steady rhythm of the platoon as it pounded by almost on top of her, two dozen pairs of rubber soled boots slamming down on the dusty road overlaid by the metallic rattle of loose magazines and mess tins. So this was what invasion sounded like, this was what it meant to be embraced into the fold of mother Indonesia. Her thoughts turned to her own mother, and tears welled up from her heart. Perhaps she was looking over Francesca right now, guiding her hand, willing her to make good decisions, seeing her through to safety. Out of habit, she fingered the tiny silver crucifix around her neck, astonished now she thought of it that none of the soldiers had seen to rip it from her throat. She would keep it as a talisman, the only touchstone she had in a world gone crazy.”

Excerpt copyright 2014 Donald Finnaeus Mayo

You can buy a copy of Francesca here

East Timor – a case for intervention

In recent years the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dampened enthusiasm in the west for overseas military interventions. East Timor reminds us there are occasions when sending in outside troops doesn’t simply fan the flames of an intractable, entrenched conflict, but can have a lasting positive effect. Indeed it is arguable that without a United Nations led intervention in 1999, the country almost certainly wouldn’t exist in its current form, and might not even exist at all.

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Grave of Sebastiao Gomes in Dili, East Timor, whose funeral triggered the 1991 massacre of more than 200 protesters. Photo by Scartol, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By the mid 1990s, it had become clear to many within the Suharto regime that Timor was not about to knuckle down and accept its status as a province of Indonesia, and the costly process of subjugating the East Timorese people was not bearing fruit.

Several changes turned the tide. The first was advances in communications technology. It was simply no longer possible to exclude the world media as it had been after the 1975 invasion, and keep news of atrocities and human rights abuses from seeping out. A massacre of several hundred protestors at a funeral in 1991 triggered broad international condemnation. This in turn resulted in both the United States and Australia, hitherto covert but staunch supporters of Indonesia’s cause, distancing themselves from Indonesia’s claims on East Timor.

At the same time Indonesia’s sagging economy led many within the country to question the massive cost of continuing to occupy East Timor. Furthermore, the old communist bogeyman had been rendered largely irrelevant by the end of the cold war. Indonesia’s resolve was wavering, and with new president BJ Habibie succeeding Suharto, the prospect of East Timorese independence became a real possibility.

However welcome that might have been across large parts of East Timor, separation from Indonesia also threatened to throw up some losers. Most significant of these were the militias who had been trained by the Indonesian army to enforce Indonesian rule. The prospect of independence, and with it some settling of old scores, terrified them, and they vowed to do whatever they could to prevent it. This took the form of setting out on a rampage of destruction following a vote eventually offered by Indonesia in favour of independence. Their rationale was as simple as it was brutal – if they couldn’t have the country, no one would.

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Australian members of International Forces East Timor (INTERFET) on the streets of Dili in 2000. Photo by Dan Mennuto, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It became clear that unless order was forcibly restored, East Timor would soon slip into anarchy and civil war. A multinational peacekeeping force, led by the Australians, effectively created an arena in which a new government could function and begin to create the independent state of Timor Leste. This force was able to disarm the militias, train and support the local military and police, and provide a framework around which the new nation’s infrastructure could be created.

The Timorese people have much to be thankful for to the Australians, New Zealanders and other nations contributing troops to INTERFET. For the Australians, stepping in at this critical moment in East Timor’s history was perhaps the least they could do to atone for the cynical manner in which Gough Whitlam’s government in the 1970s put economic and political relations with Indonesia over any concern for the plight of the Timorese people.

The Act of Killing – Suharto’s communist purge

Suharto was Indonesia’s second president, effectively overthrowing his predecessor Sukarno in a 1965 coup. As one of the leaders in the struggle to wrestle independence from the Dutch, Sukarno was anti-imperialistic in temperament, and began to ally Indonesia with both Russia and China. By 1965 the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had some 3 million members.

All this changed when Suharto took over the reins. Although Sukarno was still nominally president, Suharto was now calling the shots, having taken control of the army. Along with religious leaders, he inspired and led a purge of communists, initially in Java, but spreading out across Indonesia. Communists, and those suspected of communist sympathies, were ousted from the military, government and any positions of authority. The purge then spiralled into a bloodbath, with estimates suggesting more than half a million people killed over a two year period.

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General, later President Suharto held office from 1967 to 1998. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A timely reminder of this appalling episode in Indonesia’s history comes in a newly released documentary, The Act of Killing, by Joshua Oppenheimer. In this film, which is attracting attention from all over the world and garnering excellent reviews, Oppenheimer makes the acquaintance of former death squad members and has them re-enact their murders for the cameras.

Aside from the surreal and bizarre sight of a septuagenarian in a batik shirt simulating a garotting between dance moves, what strikes me most in the short clips I’ve seen are the similarities between Suharto’s death squads and documented accounts from former torturers in Latin America, particularly El Salvador. In both cases their recollections reinforce the long-held claim made by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International that torture not only degrades the victim, but has the same effect on the perpetrator. Like the Salvadorians, Suharto’s killers seem condemned to remain forever haunted by the monstrosity of what they once did, their sole refuge from their crimes coming in transitory oblivion through alcohol and drugs.

Suharto’s communist purge took place a decade prior to the invasion of East Timor and the main action of Francesca. However, some of the characters in the novel were involved, the events are referred to in the story, and they certainly set the tone for the way the Indonesian forces conducted themselves in East Timor.

View a clip of The Act of Killing at http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/video/2013/jun/26/act-of-killing-indonesia-genocide-video