Category Archives: Indonesia

Deviant Diva: Schapelle Corby Returns to Australia

In his work on celebrity, Daniel Boorstin drew a firm line under a field that has since become the mirror of its own study, in industry within media studies.  The modern celebrity, he surmised, is “well-known for their own well-knownness”.

The celebrity as criminal came later, but was nonetheless an outgrowth of the same aspect, boosted, in no small part, by curiosity and plain voyeurism.  Australia’s Schapelle Corby, to take one example in this dubious pantheon of figures, found herself swept up in a heady discourse of rage and presumption once she was intercepted at Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar on October 8, 2004.

She had, in her possession, 4.2 kilos of cannabis concealed in a carry bag designed for holding surfboards.  In May 2005, she was found guilty of drug importation, receiving a 20 year sentence instead of the more conclusive ending of a firing squad.  Former Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono shaved five years off her sentence, accepting grounds of mental illness. In February 2014, she was granted conditional parole and released, remaining in Indonesia till this month.

Even now, the media vultures ponder her next move on Australian soil.  Will she give an exclusive?  Will she defy criminal restrictions on charging for any story she might divulge?  For now, the Courier Mail is keen to announce that she is being protected by that “bodyguard to the stars” John McCleod, whose credits include protecting “the Dalia Lama, Lady Gaga and Roger Federer”.

What Corby became, over time, was an encoded, cultural message, cipher to frustration, indignation and a pulpit for the irate sermon.  She was deemed pretty.  Her tear ducts worked with intensity, her face a mess of manicured grief.  Her audience was polarised, though a Morgan poll taken a week after her conviction suggested that 51 percent of Australians thought her innocent.

With the Internet in 2005 already a phenomenon of viral intensity, spreading messages and anger at speed, sympathy for Corby became a matter of patriotic necessity.  That Indonesia had a separation of powers doctrine that prevented the government from directly tampering with a judicial verdict was an inconvenient fact: surely third world countries did that sort of thing with casual indifference.  And the trial should have been conducted in English!

The Corby campaign soon realised the potency of focusing on the Indonesian justice system, and Indonesians in general, capitalising, to no small extent, on the trauma of the Bali bombings of October 2002 where 88 of the 202 killed were Australians.

Fantasies of violence, usually directed against Indonesians, became the norm.  Prosecutor Ida Bagus Wiswantanu became a conspicuous target.  Bloggers came with various suggestions verging on lunacy, many not falling that far short of military intervention, assisted by Australia’s elite SAS force.

There were calls that Australian aid for a tsunami-ravaged country be recalled to make an example of its creaky judicial system. The Corby affair became such a boiling matter as to make Australia’s foreign minister Alexander Downer call for sober reflection.  Indonesia’s courts were “legitimately established.  Just because courts are in Indonesia isn’t a reason to conclude that their courts are somehow completely corrupt and unacceptable.”

Similarities were immediately spotted with Australia’s previous female crime celebrity.  Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton rushed a note to Corby in her Bali prison soon after the verdict was handed down.  “Seeing your verdict and the reaction to it made me feel like I had been kicked all over again.  My heart bleeds for you.”

Chamberlain-Creighton had herself been the object of media combing, damning and objectification, a devil, or darling, of spectacle. In 1980, her nine week old daughter Azaria disappeared from an Uluru campsite, whisked away, so she claimed, by an enterprising dingo.  The words uttered at this occurrence were immortalised in print and subsequently by Meryl Streep in a manner more strained than strine: “The dingo’s got my baby.”

Tongues wagged; rumours swirled, and the report by the Northern Territory Deputy Coroner Elizabeth Morris in 2012 eventually concluded that the dingo most probably did it.  All other “reasonable possibilities” had been excluded.

Location, padded with meaning, is all important in this.  Each incident had its sizzling site, its capturing mystery. In the case of Azaria’s disappearance, there was the demon fanged dingo lurking in hostile territory, the dreaded, swallowing Australian interior; in the case of Corby, her actions took place in Bali, a place feminist Anne Summers has rightly noted to be “a tropical paradise that has served as a national balm” for Australians.

The Corby phenomenon also edged its way into gender narratives, with notions of “gender-inflicted media messages” that prove almost assaulting in their quality.  Scholars wishing to make their mark in the crowded field of deviant discourse have suggested that the treatment of Corby heralded a new species of criminal: the “deviant diva”.

Transgression could be linked, not merely to the crime committed, but gender. Mangled terms of heavy clunk have been introduced, including that advanced by Belinda Middleweek: the “celebrified criminal”.

Ultimately, one feels for such rarefied, categorised figures. They erred, but became conduits for parochial indignation.  Even now, journalists such as Larry Pickering insist on holding the torch with zeal, noting such “anomalies” as “AFP involvement and missing CCTV tapes from three separate airports.”[7] Ordinary folly becomes a matter of heroic tragedy rather than bungled miscalculation.  Idiocy assumes the form of idealised innocence writ large. Such is the lot of the modern deviant diva.

Blasphemy as Weapon: Undermining Ahok

The result of all of this, besides the abuse of law, is that people may be afraid to exert their rights to be critical of Muslims who use religion to justify inexcusable actions.
The Jakarta Post, October 18, 2016

One need not be a zealot in the human rights field to find the latest turn in Indonesian politics disconcerting.  Jakarta’s governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, was always a nicely packaged target, confident and assertive, very much the beaming confident politician.  Being Chinese was one aspect of the problem; being a non-Muslim was the other. From that standpoint, vulnerabilities were always going to be emphasised, and slip-ups pounced upon ruthlessly.

Indonesia’s post-colonial history is littered with bloody spectaculars, featuring outbursts of sectarian atrocity or state-directed massacres of political opponents. Ahok’s case is not in that league, but it opens a window to it, shining dark rays of foreboding as to what might come.  At times, for instance, in 1998, the Chinese minority has found itself to be a convenient target of spoilation and vengeance.

It took one remark by Ahok to light the powder keg.  “Maybe in your heart,” suggested Ahok last September to unsuspecting fishermen in the Thousand Islands province, “you think you couldn’t vote for me – but you are being lied to by using Al Maidah 51.”

The particular Koranic verse has become something of a crutch, used by candidates who have preferred the weapon of scripture, dubiously interpreted, to the weapon of sound policy. Clerics have waded into the business, some suggesting that al-Maidah: 51 makes the case that non-Muslims should not be leaders in Muslim communities.  Be wary, effectively, of the religious foreigner who seeks alliances.  As the Jakarta Post surmised, “This kind of interpretation goes against the principle of good citizenship.”

As with much theological disputation, there is no agreement, sensible or otherwise, on this point, and the argument that such a passage requires a current modern interpretation is sorely needed.  The fundamentalist roadblock here, however, is a formidable one indeed.  When linked to political opportunism, it becomes lethal.

The deputy secretary-general of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) gave a demonstration about how moderate he was intending to be by suggesting last October that religious defamation had to be punished by “death, crucifixion or at least hand amputation and expulsion.”

Unfortunately for those willing to engage in any sensible debate, the good deputy was referring to the hirabah verses, which stress punishment of such crimes as sedition, piracy, robbery and highway robbery.  Islamic State followers would have approved, given their own reference to those passages in justifying their treatment of the infidel.

Individuals such as Rizieq Shibab of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), twice imprisoned for inciting violence, also smelt blood, shifting the focus away from soft-headed clericalism to the Koran itself.  Protests were organised, and the fever, once stirred, concerned Indonesian authorities.

The trial gave an inkling that Ahok might still have his day, receiving the lightest of sentences.  The prosecution team were not convinced that he had ever intended to insult Islam, and for that reason, pushed for a suspended sentence.  The defence were buoyed, and it was one marked by curious references, not least of all the comparison, made by Ahok himself, to the resilient clown-fish Nemo, who braves against the current.

His supporters were also to be found aplenty, spanning the spectrum.  City Hall was assailed with decorative flower boards and balloons festooned with messages of encouragement.  Even for various Muslims, Ahok was their man.

The five judges of the North Jakarta District Court, donning faces and views of severity, thought otherwise, conforming to a long pattern that tends to find blasphemy even where there is none.  They were already under pressure from such groups as the National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa (GNPF-MUI) to impose the maximum sentence of five years. Rizieq, who had also been a witness for the prosecution, made his views felt.

Ahok was to be made an example of, deserving a jail sentence for having deliberately made a nuisance of himself in his position as governor.  Not only had he blasphemed with intent; he had also threatened public order.

Judge Abdul Rosyad was in a particularly scolding mood, detecting a certain lack of guilt on Ahok’s part.  “As Governor, as a public officer, the defendant should have known that religion is a sensitive issue so he should have avoided talking about religion.”  Not that this meant opponents could not use religion, or at least its pretext, in terms of framing their opposition to Ahok.  As ever, the victim in this case deserved punishment rather than protection.

Lynch mob justice is never pretty, and resisting it, if not scotching it altogether, is the hallmark of maturity.  It has been a maturity that the current Indonesian president praises, and one seen to have emerged in the post-Suharto era.

Scratching the surface reveals otherwise, a society of tinder waiting to catch fire and conflagrate.  The Indonesian government, aware of this, is seeking to have the agitating, pro global-Caliphate group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, disbanded through the courts.  But for Ahok, this whole process has meant one thing: the establishment was going to give the protestors what they wanted, though others would have preferred something more appropriately savage.

The Universal Lesson of East Timor

On May 5, John Pilger was presented with the Order of Timor-Leste by East Timor’s Ambassador to Australia, Abel Gutteras, in recognition of his reporting on East Timor under Indonesia’s brutal occupation, especially his landmark documentary film, Death of a Nation: the Timor Conspiracy. The following is John Pilger’s response.

Filming undercover in East Timor in 1993 I followed a landscape of crosses: great black crosses etched against the sky, crosses on peaks, crosses marching down the hillsides, crosses beside the road. They littered the earth and crowded the eye.

The inscriptions on the crosses revealed the extinction of whole families, wiped out in the space of a year, a month, a day. Village after village stood as memorials.

Kraras is one such village. Known as the “village of the widows”, the population of 287 people was murdered by Indonesian troops.

Using a typewriter with a faded ribbon, a local priest had recorded the name, age, cause of death and date of the killing of every victim. In the last column, he identified the Indonesian battalion responsible for each murder. It was evidence of genocide.

I still have this document, which I find difficult to put down, as if the blood of East Timor is fresh on its pages.

On the list is the dos Anjos family.

In 1987, I interviewed Arthur Stevenson, known as Steve, a former Australian commando who had fought the Japanese in the Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1942. He told me the story of Celestino dos Anjos, whose ingenuity and bravery had saved his life, and the lives of other Australian soldiers fighting behind Japanese lines.

Steve described the day leaflets fluttered down from a Royal Australian Air Force plane; “We shall never forget you,” the leaflets said. Soon afterwards, the Australians were ordered to abandon the island of Timor, leaving the people to their fate.

When I met Steve, he had just received a letter from Celestino’s son, Virgillo, who was the same age as his own son. Virgillo wrote that his father had survived the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, but he went on: “In August 1983, Indonesian forces entered our village, Kraras. They looted, burned and massacred, with fighter aircraft overhead. On 27 September 1983, they made my father and my wife dig their own graves and they machine-gunned them. My wife was pregnant.”

The Kraras list is an extraordinary political document that shames Indonesia’s Faustian partners in the West and teaches us how much of the world is run. The fighter aircraft that attacked Kraras came from the United States; the machine guns and surface-to-air missiles came from Britain; the silence and betrayal came from Australia.

The priest of Kraras wrote on the final page: “To the capitalist governors of the world, Timor’s petroleum smells better than Timorese blood and tears. Who will take this truth to the world? … It is evident that Indonesia would never have committed such a crime if it had not received favourable guarantees from [Western] governments.”

As the Indonesian dictator General Suharto was about to invade East Timor (the Portuguese had abandoned their colony), he tipped off the ambassadors of Australia, the United States and Britain. In secret cables subsequently leaked, the Australian ambassador, Richard Woolcott, urged his government to “act in a way which would be designed to minimise the public impact in Australia and show private understanding to Indonesia.” He alluded to the beckoning spoils of oil and gas in the Timor Sea that separated the island from northern Australia.

There was no word of concern for the Timorese.

In my experience as a reporter, East Timor was the greatest crime of the late 20th century. I had much to do with Cambodia, yet not even Pol Pot put to death as many people – proportionally — as Suharto killed and starved in East Timor.

In 1993, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Australian Parliament estimated that “at least 200,000” East Timorese, a third of the population, had perished under Suharto.

Australia was the only western country formally to recognise Indonesia’s genocidal conquest. The murderous Indonesian special forces known as Kopassus were trained by Australian special forces at a base near Perth. The prize in resources, said Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, was worth “zillions” of dollars.

In my 1994 film, Death of a Nation: the Timor Conspiracy, a gloating Evans is filmed lifting a champagne glass as he and Ali Alatas, Suharto’s foreign minister, fly over the Timor Sea, having signed a piratical treaty that divided the oil and gas riches of the Timor Sea.

I also filmed witnesses such as Abel Gutteras, now the Ambassador of Timor-Leste (East Timor’s post independence name) to Australia. He told me, “We believe we can win and we can count on all those people in the world to listen — that nothing is impossible, and peace and freedom are always worth fighting for.”

Remarkably, they did win. Many people all over the world did hear them, and a tireless movement added to the pressure on Suharto’s backers in Washington, London and Canberra to abandon the dictator.

But there was also a silence. For years, the free press of the complicit countries all but ignored East Timor. There were honourable exceptions, such as the courageous Max Stahl, who filmed the 1991 massacre in the Santa Cruz cemetery. Leading journalists almost literally fell at the feet of Suharto. In a photograph of a group of Australian editors visiting Jakarta, led by the Murdoch editor Paul Kelly, one of them is bowing to Suharto, the genocidist.

From 1999 to 2002, the Australian Government took an estimated $1.2 billion in revenue from one oil and gas field in the Timor Sea. During the same period, Australia gave less than $200 million in so-called aid to East Timor.

In 2002, two months before East Timor won its independence, as Ben Doherty reported in January, “Australia secretly withdrew from the maritime boundary dispute resolution procedures of the UN convention the Law of the Sea, and the equivalent jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, so that it could not be compelled into legally binding international arbitration”.

The former Prime Minister John Howard has described his government’s role in East Timor’s independence as “noble”. Howard’s foreign minister, Alexander Downer, once burst into the cabinet room in Dili, East Timor, and told Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, “We are very tough … Let me give you a tutorial in politics …”

Today, it is Timor-Leste that is giving the tutorial in politics. After years of trickery and bullying by Canberra, the people of Timor-Leste have demanded and won the right to negotiate before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) a legal maritime boundary and a proper share of the oil and gas.

Australia owes Timor Leste a huge debt — some would say, billions of dollars in reparations. Australia should hand over, unconditionally, all royalties collected since Gareth Evans toasted Suharto’s dictatorship while flying over the graves of its victims.

The Economist lauds Timor-Leste as the most democratic country in southeast Asia today. Is that an accolade? Or does it mean approval of a small and vulnerable country joining the great game of globalisation?

For the weakest, globalisation is an insidious colonialism that enables transnational finance and its camp-followers to penetrate deeper, as Edward Said wrote, than the old imperialists in their gun boats.

It can mean a model of development that gave Indonesia, under Suharto, gross inequality and corruption; that drove people off their land and into slums, then boasted about a growth rate.

The people of Timor-Leste deserve better than faint praise from the “capitalist governors of the world”, as the priest of Kraras wrote. They did not fight and die and vote for entrenched poverty and a growth rate. They deserve the right to sustain themselves when the oil and gas run out as it will. At the very least, their courage ought to be a beacon in our memory: a universal political lesson.

Bravo, Timor-Leste. Bravo and beware.