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June 2007

Back in Indonesia, where the taxi drivers have no change, everything is done to make life impossible for pedestrians, and nothing quite works. Could AusAid design a training program for Southeast Asian plumbers ("what's an S-bend?')? Big wrap to Singapore Airlines for the last-minute upgrade, if only Qantas had more leg room, Singaporean efficiency and a frequent flyers program that didn't off-load people to the budget carrier!

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It struck me yesterday what an inspired move it was designing a research project that primarily involved hanging around bookshops, pity the project finishes so soon. It's interesting to see in the Yogya bookshops (the ubiquitous Gramedia, and the wonderful Social Agency) just how much the 'Javanese' sections have grown. One expects the large Islam sections, although they are getting more and more diverse, but there is obviously a strength of interest here in central Java in practices that might at best be called heterodox. Came across an excellent characterisation of self-classifications amongst Javanese Muslims from the north coast in Mudjahirin Thohir's book Orang Islam Jawa Pesisiran, which has a much more nuanced version of the old santri vs abangan dichotomy, and put in the context of political affiliation and long-term changes going on in Java. There is obviously a lot of good work being done by Indonesian Muslim scholars...

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The recent arrests in Indonesia of leaders of JI have caused the usual excitement amongst the Security-wallahs (the people who make a living out of telling governments how Islamic terrorists are making the sky fall). It is interesting to see the various internal and external discussions going on here.

On the one hand the arrests are very good, they show that the violent terrorist organisation usually known as JI is a lot weaker (relatively obscure people are having to fill some of the gaps in leadership), and the net is closing. On the other hand M Top is still at large and no doubt trying to get hold of bomb-making material, and there are still nutcases who want to sign up to support him in such activities.

Leaving aside the objective issues of closing down terrorist groups, the reporting on the story has elicited some fascinating responses. Some of those who want to run scare campaigns in the West, including Australian politicians, are still running the line that 'we cannot relax our vigilance'. The DFAT website still advises Australians not to go to Indonesia: 'We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Indonesia, including Bali, at this time due to the very high threat of terrorist attack. We receive regular
targets, including places frequented by foreigners. If you are in Indonesia, including Bali, and are concerned for your safety you should consider departing. If you do decide to travel to Indonesia, including Bali, you should exercise extreme caution.' As I've commented before, when the US has shooting sprees, and the US and the UK issue major statements about terrorist activities in those countries, there are no similar warnings telling Australians not to visit New York or London. And the law-and-order campaigns continue, with for example the revelations in today's Sydney Morning Herald about NSW police attempting to get student leaders to spy on demonstrators. The absurdly-named 'War Against Terror' is a key part of the creation of such Stasi-like practices; some in the security world must feel disappointed every time a leading terrorist is captured. Did the US deliberately let Osama bin Laden get away in the earlier stages of the war in Afghanistan?

On the other hand, some of the Indonesian responses to the capture have been pretty depressing as well...

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The last week has seen one of the more farcical blips on the radar of Australian-Indonesian relations, the Sutiyoso Affair. The Affair shows why government-to-government relations will keep going wrong between our countries, and I want to contrast it with a rather amusing, and interestingly more successful, attempt at everyday relations, the show Lost Tribes.

For those not up on the details of the Sutiyoso event, I'll refer you to the excellent coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian, the first of which includes a thorough profile on Sutiyoso, the Governor of Jakarta, by Hamish MacDonald. Hamish points out that Sutiyoso was a Special Forces officer in East Timor (the issue over which he was asked to appear before the Coroner's Inquest into the deaths of Australian journalists in 1975), an organiser of the death squads that killed off criminals during the Petrus Affair, and a manager of the violent criminals who raided the office of Megawati's followers during the 1996 PDI split. His history is reasonably typical of those who have risen to power under the New Order, and kept it in the Post-Suharto period. As Governor of Jakarta he has presided over the worst floods in the city's long history, and instituted a bus system by which some buses stop in the right-hand lane of the cities major streets.

It seems that on the Australian side there were three blunders. First the NSW Premier's Office, who invited Sutiyoso to Sydney, did not do their homework, and so did not realise that he would be eligible to be called before the Hearing (either that or it was all a fiendish plot, which is unlikely). Secondly NSW police seem to have entered Sutiyoso's hotel room without permission, which as far as I can see is a major procedural error, and any watcher of Law and Order would know that this is the kind of thing that allows people to claim persecution, which Sutiyoso did, leaving the country in great haste and with expressions of outrage, backed up by the usual rent-a-crowd demonstrations held by some of the pet thugs outside the Australian Embassy. The third Australian mistake was to fall for the great play of outrage, which is why the Australian last week captured the tone of things quite well, quoting Sutiyoso as saying that the apologies from Premier Iemma, along with the self-abasement of our representative, were more than he expected, by which we might infer that even he thought we went over the top in groveling. When will Australian ministers and diplomats stop falling for one of the oldest tricks in what Michael Byrnes called 'The Asia game'—claims of outrage and cultural sensitivity?

The other amusing aspect of the event is that the Governor learned that there is such a thing as the democratic principle that everybody should be equal under the law, and that governments, state or federal, are not above the law or should not be able to control it (no doubt this will stand him in good stead in his campaign to become President).

Indonesian commentators provided a critical analysis of Sutiyoso's assumptions. It seems the Australian government could manage these things better by working closely with the Indonesian press to provide a more sensible response to these events, and I'm sure there will be others in the future.

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