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