The victims were implicated in the murder of Sgt. Heru Santoso from the unit, which was synonymous with wet work and torture during the Soeharto dictatorship. The fact that the four slain prisoners were held under Indonesian civilian law and subject to a judicial process didn't sit well with the men whose unit has for decades seen itself as divorced from the constraints of civilian oversight.
At first there were denials that it was the military that had raided a prison and executed four prisoners (the suggestion that there might be such well-trained and armed militias on the Indonesian street, not from the military, drawing justifiable howls of derision). Then there were suggestions that it might have been the military.
Then, a few days ago, came a clear admission. Deputy military police chief Brig. Gen. Unggul K. Yudhoyono said that nine Kopassus members had confessed to the murders, and promised a trial. On April 6, Kopassus head Maj. Gen. Agus Sutomo promised a public trial for 11 members of his unit accused of the murders.
The Indonesian press played a decisive role in leading to the swift admission of what almost every knowledgeable observer in Indonesia suspected to be the truth. And the role of public opinion in this case is a clear sign of how much has changed in Indonesia since the fall of Soeharto, whose 32-year dictatorship, backed by the US and others, had turned the military's domestic interventions into a black box that few dared to examine.
But, case closed? Not exactly. When Unggul announced the confessions, he had the following to say: "The perpetrators bravely admitted to committing the crime on the first day of our investigation on March 29 ... the attack was based on esprit de corps after discovering that a group of thugs had sadistically and brutally murdered First. Sgt. Heru Santoso, the assailant’s superior, who once saved his life in an operation."
The "assailant" in the above refers to a Kopassus member so far only identified as "U." But the tone of the general's comments is far short of what one would hope for when a group of soldiers murders a group of civilians.
Indonesian human rights activists allege that the head of the regional military command Maj. Gen. Hardiono Saroso and Yogyakarta police chief Brig. Gen. Sabar Rahardjo discussed the killing of Kopassus Sergeant Heru before the assault on the prison, and say it appears that a green light for the attack was given at senior levels of both the military and the national police.
The two men were both relieved of their jobs over the weekend, certainly a sign of greater accountability for military abuses in Indonesia. But is it symbolic? It might be.
In the decade or so of democratic development since the fall of Soeharto and the difficult years that followed, the military has maintained a privileged position in domestic politics. While a British grandmother can be sentenced to death for smuggling cocaine, as happened today, soldiers enjoy much lighter sentences. After Kopassus murdered Papuan independence activist Theys Eluay in 2001, seven members of the unit were given jail sentences: The longest sentence was three-and-a-half years. All seven were promoted as well.
That was the old pattern. I covered the independence effort in East Timor in the late 1990s. Before the territory voted for independence, Kopassus was the most feared unit when it came to quashing independence efforts, and was in the lead of the government's scorched earth policy to punish Timor's vote for independence afterward. A few years later, six members of a pro-Indonesia militia were given maximum sentences of 20 months for murdering three United Nations workers – one an American – and multiple officers associated with the creation of the militias were promoted.
So, are we seeing a PR effort to manage a problem? Or real change?
Time will tell.
In a severely overcrowded Indonesian detention center, a brawl broke out today between Muslims and Buddhists that left eight of the latter group dead.
Indonesia, an archipelago that straddles the equator, has long been a way-station for people fleeing troubles in their homelands. For decades, boats with Afghans or Iraqis hoping to make it to Australia have washed up on its shores and their occupants have ended up spending months, and sometimes years, in detention here.
In this case, there's trouble much closer to home. In Myanmar (Burma), months of mostly Buddhist-instigated violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority have left tens of thousands homeless and hundreds dead. The country is in the middle of a transition process from a long military dictatorship to something resembling civilian rule, but that has meant more trouble, not less, for the Rohingyas. Ethnic-Burmese champions of the long struggle against military rule there, chief among them Aung San Suu Kyi, have largely avoided speaking out over the targeting of the Muslim minority, creating fears that recent spasms are just the beginning.
Thousands of Rohingyas have fled to neighboring Thailand, and hundreds at least have floated on down to Muslim-majority Indonesia in makeshift boats, setting the stage for today's violence.
The Associated Press reports from Belawan, the town in North Sumatra that houses the migrant detention camp, that the brawl erupted after an argument between a Rohingya Muslim preacher and a Buddhist fisherman at the camp about the recent attacks on Muslims in Myanmar.
The violence spiraled almost immediately, and the group of 11 Buddhists there were badly outnumbered by the roughly 100 Rohingyas who’ve arrived there in recent months.
Recent events in Myanmar have been a reminder that, while Buddhism has a peaceful glow around it in the minds of many people in the West, its adherents are capable of horrific violence, given the right conditions, as is just about any other group on the planet.
Events in Indonesia today, meanwhile, are a reminder that the world is not one of confessional divides alone. I expect that some Indonesian incompetence was in play in this case, but they're certainly not guilty of picking sides with their fellow “Muslims.” The three Buddhist survivors were quickly given medical care and segregated in new accommodations.
The deaths are of course the most tragic part of the story. But the AP report also mentions that the fishermen, poor as church mice, have been detained in Indonesia for nine months for illegally fishing in Indonesian territorial waters. That’s a long time in detention for the crime of trying to make a living.
The Rohingyas in that camp, meanwhile, have lost their homes and aren’t getting the welcome mat rolled out to them here in Indonesia. The country has a long track record of trying to avoid resettlement of refugees, whatever their religious beliefs, and that’s unlikely to change soon.
Both sides in this brawl are trapped in a painful cycle of events, with few good options – beyond peace and a little more prosperity coming to their homeland.
I first became aware of the trouble on Bald Mountain a few days ago.
Sitting with a friend here in Ambon and talking about this region's vicious little sectarian conflict a decade ago and the largely successful efforts of Christian and Muslim leaders to heal a fractured community, I asked him about the central government's role in supporting that effort. He gave a slightly grim chuckle. "They'd rather pretend it never happened, and not think about taking steps to make sure it never happens again."
Then he asked me, with a mixture of amusement and frustration, if I'd heard of the Bandera RMS on Buru Island.
First some background. Ambon is the part of the Indonesia with the oldest, deepest Dutch footprint. The Dutch arrived here at the start of the 17th century with the intent to control the production of cloves and nutmeg, which led to this eastern Indonesian archipelago being called the Spice Islands for centuries. Among the legacies is that the native people of Maluku (as the region is now known, or in English, the Moluccas) are split between Christianity and Islam.
In the centuries of Dutch control, local Christians generally had more access to economic opportunities and education than local Muslims (a purely relative advantage of course; the average Ambonese Christian is about as poor as the average Ambonese Muslim today). Though there was plenty of Dutch brutality targeted at local Christians as there was toward local Muslims, by the time of World War II, many Ambonese Christians served in the Dutch colonial army. With the defeat of the Japanese (who had occupied Ambon and the surrounding islands) and the Dutch decolonization process, they were nervous about being integrated into the new nation of Indonesia, overwhelmingly Muslim and dominated by the Javanese.
Independence sentiment was strong in Ambon, particularly among former Dutch soldiers, and in 1950, a group of local notables declared independence as Republik Maluku Selatan (South Maluku Republic, RMS), expecting the Dutch to support their efforts. The Dutch did not, and the RMS was quickly crushed by the new state of Indonesia (though a few holdouts lingered in the wild interior of Ceram island until 1963). More than 10,000 Ambonese members of the Dutch army and their families were forced into exile in Holland (where they were held in squalid internment camps for about 20 years before the Dutch finally admitted they were never going home) by the politics of the time, and those men and their families came to harbor a dream of returning some day to their own independent state from a Holland that didn't want them.
There are still pockets of RMS sentiment among the former exiles in Holland, and here and there in Ambon. But the vast majority of Ambonese long ago accepted an Indonesian national identity, and the RMS exists pretty much as a bogeyman for the Indonesian military and central state, ever vigilant against independence sentiment. During the sectarian war here in 1999 and 2000, rumors stormed through the local Muslim community and among the soldiers and police stationed here from other parts of Indonesia that heavily armed separatist militias were being stood up with Dutch help, a false absurdity that helped add fuel to the conflict.
Which brings us back to the Bandera RMS. "Bandera" means flag in Indonesia, and 17 people were severely beaten and arrested by Indonesian soldiers on the island of Buru, a few hours by ferry from Ambon, for raising the RMS flag this week. It was a strange story. Buru wasn't even a hotbed of RMS activity in its heyday in the 1950s. It is best known for the political prison camp where the Soeharto regime housed many alleged communists and other political prisoners after the 1965 coup that brought him to power, most famously the chronicler of the Indonesian colonial experience Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who wrote some of his best-known works there while serving a decade in detention.
What's more, the detained men were poor wildcat gold miners from Java and South Sulawesi, overwhelmingly Muslim and with no ties to this region's history. It turns out they were fans of the French national soccer team, and had raised a French flag ahead of the World Cup qualifier between France and Spain, which they'd hoped to watch as a respite from their back-breaking toil.
My friend shared the story as example of the paranoia and lack of thought that are so often exhibited by central government authorities and that often end up creating conflicts. The story was apparently picked up in the national press, with speculation that a new separatist push was in the offing, before the sad reality of what happened came to light.
But I'd never heard of gold mining on Buru, and started to ask around. In late 2011, a local man on the island found a large gold nugget on Gunun Botak, or Bald Mountain, so named because of its lack of tall vegetation (such vegetative anomalies are sometimes a sign of mineral deposits). By the middle of last year, the island was seized with gold fever, with scenes reminiscent of the gold rush in the Sierra Nevadas in 1849 or around Bathurst, Australia, in 1851, when men abandoned jobs and farms to head into the bush to start digging their fortunes.
Within months, Buru's population had swollen from 90,000 to an estimated 130,000, with poor Indonesians arriving from all corners. Local residents have abandoned their gardens and rice fields. The mining operations are illegal and unregulated, though locals say the Indonesian military has been taking a cut of the profits in exchange for turning a blind eye (standard practice in my decade in Indonesia between 1993-2003).
They are also very dangerous. Clashes over gold claims left around a dozen people there dead last year, and locals say that hundreds more have died when their rudimentary digs have collapsed.
There is little to no sanitation in the area, and local health authorities are worried about a cholera outbreak. Worst, from a long-term perspective, is the large amounts of mercury being used to extract gold from crushed rocks. Suara Maluku, one of the main daily newspapers here, carries a story today about concerns that mercury is leaching into the islands water supply.
Well, there ain't separatists in them there hills. And there is gold. But there are also the seeds of real trouble.
The situation Bassem Youssef finds himself in is no laughing matter.
The Egyptian satirist, who has been targeted by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government for prosecution for the crime of “insulting religion” and the president, is facing years in prison for his irreverent approach to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood stalwart who was catapulted into the presidency thanks to the powerful political organization he hails from last year.
Over the weekend, Youssef was arrested and taken in for questioning, during which he was forced to defend his jokes. He has since been released on bail.
Jon Stewart, the American comedian, inspired Youssef (a cardiologist with a sense of humor when I knew him socially in the mid-2000s) to grab the opportunities of post-Mubarak Egypt and launch his show, which is unabashedly based off of Mr. Stewart’s The Daily Show (although it involves far more broad comedy). The show, Al Bernameg, has become wildly popular. When Youssef was invited onto The Daily Show a few months ago, he was equal parts a ham and honest when he played up his delight at tossing jokes back and forth with his former idol, now a peer.
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Egypt? Take this quiz.
Two nights ago, at the start of his show, Stewart delivered a funny and pointed defense of the fellow satirist. He rightly pointed out that making fun of the president’s choice in hats (as Bassem did in one famous clip) shouldn’t be treated as a threat to social order in any modern society, and that leaders who fear being skewered by comedians are invariably either despots, or on the road to becoming one.
As for the charge of insulting religion? Stewart dredged up clips of Morsi describing Jews as the descendants of apes and pigs from as recently as 2010, as well as other clips from Morsi insisting that the new Egypt would protect the right to speak one's mind.
Defamation of religion charges filed against Morsi so far? None.
The official Twitter feed for Morsi’s office criticized the US for disseminating “negative political propaganda” and the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English-language account wrote “Another undiplomatic & unwise move by @USEmbassyCairo, taking sides in an ongoing investigation & disregarding Egyptian law & culture.”
The US standing up, tall, for a specific free speech case in Egypt (rather than general platitudes) is indeed noteworthy. And the growing use of vague “defamation” of religion laws or “insulting the president” laws since Morsi took power is worrying, given that many had hoped that the fall of Mubarak would bring a new dawn to the Arab world’s largest country.
That’s as neutral an intro to an interesting link on Egypt as one could find. But the Brothers were highly – no, highly! – outraged, as their response shows.
So US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson stepped in. Her decision? To shut down the embassy Twitter feed for a while and delete the offending tweet.
That, of course, was the worst of both worlds. It gave the Egyptian government a reason to make a show of taking offense and then caved fast to their complaints. It doesn’t help that many of the democracy activists who complain that Morsi’s government is chipping away at the democracy that brought it to power also charge that the US has been too friendly to the Brotherhood.
More importantly, however, Ambassador Patterson’s decision to pull the plug reflects an uncoordinated and ill-planned approach to the relatively minor diplomatic fallout. If anything, the backlash from the Morsi government and the Muslim Brotherhood adds credibility to the position against legal harassment of political activists (and comedians). Deleting tweets and closing accounts not only shows ignorance of the dynamics of social media (and the capacity to “Storify” or take screenshots) but also implies that critics can strong-arm the US online presence if it takes an unpopular stance. The ambassador, the face of US diplomacy in Egypt, already suffers from the stigma of stronger relations with the Muslim Brotherhood that taints her relations with opposition or nonprofit organizations that more closely share US values. Try not to make it worse.
Today the Brothers doubled down. While Jon Stewart may have used satire to criticize Morsi and the government for silencing a comedian and a critic, and the US embassy may have shared it, the eagle-eyed Max Fisher of the Washington Post noticed that the Brotherhood’s English language Twitter feed shared a video, saying: “@AJArabic feature on West's double standards regarding freedom of speech, or lack of, and anti-Semitism.”
The linked video? A 2010 Al Jazeera Arabic report on the firing of former CNN host Rick Sanchez for suggesting Jews control the US media and that Stewart, who is Jewish, “does not belong to an authentic minority group.” That Al Jazeera report asserts that there is a double standard in the US in which Jews are treated with kid gloves and all else are fair game, due to Jewish media control.
The US Embassy in Cairo twitter feed is open again for business. Its last two tweets at the time of writing?
“President #Obama has informed the Israelis that the Palestinians deserve a state” (in Arabic), from March 26, and ” MT @kjdenhert: An exciting adventure begins. Here's a promo video with all of the bands participating!” from March 24 (with a link to the Cairo Jazz Festival).
RECOMMENDED: How much do you know about Egypt? Take this quiz.
I'm going to keep this short.
I recently returned to Indonesia and drove along the coast outside Ambon City that was the heart of a raging religious and communal conflict more than a decade ago, and while the scars of that violence (and more recent outbreaks) were still visible if you knew where to look, the main picture was of a peace that has mostly held and of a people that have mostly gotten on with their lives.
In 1999 and 2000, this Indonesian island and many of its neighbors were boiling with a Christian-Muslim religious conflict that erupted after the fall of long-standing Indonesian dictator Soeharto. The violence in the religiously mixed Maluku provinces (which include Ambon) had drawn in Islamist militias from the broader, majority Muslim, Indonesian society. Domestic groups with ambitions to bring Islamic law to the country, some with links to outside actors like Al Qaeda, were buzzing around the fighting, seeking to use it as a spark for a vast, national revolution.
That ambition fell flat, though not without enormous costs for people here, Christian and Muslim alike.
All those years ago, Ambon was at the heart of what the West knew as the Spice Islands, the home of cloves and nutmeg that were worth a fortune in an unrefrigerated world. The tiny island of Run, now a rarely visited backwater, was formally traded by the British to Holland in the 1660s in exchange for Manhattan.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the area was of great-power interest again, with notions about history ending and clashing civilizations filling the air. The Ambon conflict fit that narrative and so was of interest for a time. That's what brought me to Ambon and the village of Waai in 2000.
Waai is a Christian village on a picturesque coast dotted with papaya and sago palm groves, with Muslim villages on either side. When I traveled there, the village had been attacked, its church and dozens of its homes razed, its people driven into refuge camps on the coast. One detail that came up again and again when talking to survivors of the attack, was the significance of the fate of their sacred eels in a fresh water spring a short distance from the ocean. Even the spring had been bombed, closing off its access to the sea (where eels, rare among freshwater fish, go to spawn).
The story of the eels has always fascinated me. It's rarely been written about, and I've yet to find anything that's specific and detailed on the local beliefs about these fish. I finally returned to Waai today and found a thriving, happy community. Homes have been rebuilt and the people have almost all returned. As have the eels. I started some conversations on their traditions and beliefs, but a shortage of time and energy (a sleepless night getting here) prevented me from gathering all the information I wanted. I think that Waai will be part of a story I'm working on about the healing process after horrific violence, and will go back for some longer talks tomorrow.
For now, a little video of one of the freshwater eels of Waai, and two of his guardians.
On March 23, a group of 17 focused, heavily-armed men broke into an Indonesian prison in the Central Javanese city of Yogykarta and with minimal interference from the guards there, identified and executed four of the inmates.
Since the killings, speculation in the press and from Indonesian human rights activists have focused on the Indonesian military's Special Forces Command, or Kopassus, an elite unit that for more than 20 years has been the focus of persistent allegations of human rights abuses (here's a 2000 story of mine looking into the group's history and reputation).
In the dark old days of the Soeharto-era, Kopassus acted as something between shock-troops and regime protectors, accused of aggressive hunter-killer tactics against separatist supporters in places like Aceh in North Sumatra and of being a law unto themselves almost anywhere they went.
That Kopassus is still a prime suspect when abuse is suspected is a sign that for as much as has changed here, and often for the better, much also remains the same.
The four men murdered in prison had been detained on suspicion of killing a Kopassus member, and since the assault, few witnesses from among the guards or inmates at the prison have been willing to come forward. While guns are obtainable in Indonesia, they're also tightly controlled, and a 17-man assault by people not connected to the military is almost unheard of.
The military hasn't been exactly forthcoming, either. Last week, an attempt by the semi-official National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) to visit the Kopassus Group 2 headquarters in the nearby city of Suryakarta was rebuked. To be sure, this case may prove a turning point: After a few days of stonewalling from senior officers, who insisted no soldiers were involved, the military has appeared willing to acknowledge some of its own may have been behind the attack.
On Friday, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Pramono Edhie Wibowo told reporters here that "preliminary findings show that some soldiers who were on duty in Central Java were involved in this incident." On Monday, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono insisted on a full and transparent investigation "to bring justice to anyone involved."
But investigation into Indonesian military abuses in the past have had a history of petering out inconclusively as memories and outrage fades.
"We don’t know about the mechanism for the investigation of Kopassus, yet, because this is the first time Komnas HAM has worked on a case involving the TNI [Indonesia's armed forces]. We will meet Kopassus’ request for us to get permission from Army headquarters before we proceed,” National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) Chair Siti Noor Laila told The Jakarta Post on Sunday.
Not the first time
While on the one hand it's good news that civilian oversight is getting involved, finally, in stripping away the special status of misbehaving soldiers, her comments are mostly troubling. For one thing, she's got her facts wrong. In 1999, Komnas HAM set up in an investigating team to look into human rights abuses in East Timor at the time of its vote for independence from Indonesia. It found substantial evidence of the Indonesian military's human rights abuse as a form of punishment for the territory's vote for independence.
The human rights commission has also investigated allegations of military abuses in Papua, an Indonesian territory on the western half of New Guinea where independence sentiment is strong. In 2009, the body investigated the possible involvement of Gen. (Ret.) Muchdi Puwohadipranjono in ordering the murder of Munir, a crusading human rights activist who was poisoned on a flight between Jakarta and Singapore in 2004.
Munir had alleged that Gen. Muchdi has been involved in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Indonesian democracy activists in 1997 and early 1998, shortly before an economic collapse sparked an uprising that ended the reign of President Soeharto, the US-backed autocrat who had led Indonesia for 32 years. During his time in power, the Indonesian military received extensive US military training and equipment.
Since Soeharto's fall, Indonesia has moved in a much more democratic direction. But grappling with the habits of the past – particularly military impunity for human rights abuses – has meant the country has made only halting progress.
Indonesia's military continues to exert major influence in Indonesian politics, particularly at the local level. Regional military commands are seeded throughout provincial capitals in Indonesia, and senior officers retain extensive business interests. Enlisted men frequently moonlight as bouncers in nightclubs or hired-muscle and it's a safe bet that the initial killing that sparked the prison raid was connected to some kind of extracurricular business involving the soldier.
Munir was a rail-thin, deeply intense man who ignored years of threats against his safety to carry out the work of Kontras, a human rights group for disappeared activists he funded.
"Their method was terror, and it was being employed in the service of Suharto," says Munir, a lawyer who runs the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence. "But efforts to find justice are running up against the tradition of military impunity."
After Soeharto was forced from power in 1998, 11 Kopassus members were found guilty of kidnapping and torturing nine democracy activists. An end to impunity? The soldiers received 22 months in jail. The unit's commanding officer at the time, Prabowo Subianto, then a son-in-law of Soeharto's (he has since divorced) was given an honorable discharge.
Mr. Prabowo, who spent some years abroad working on oil-for-food deals with Iraq (then under UN sanctions) and living in Jordan at the invitation of his friend King Abdullah, is now back and a major political player in Indonesia again. He leads the Great Indonesia Movement party, and is running to replace President Yudhoyono when the current leader is term-limited out next year. Some early polling has placed him among the front-runners.
Will the prison attack be the start of finally achieving Munir's dream, almost a decade since his death?
I changed flights coming to Indonesia in Seoul a few days ago and the airline picked up the regional edition of the International Herald Tribune on my stop. I went through it on the last leg of my flight, reading the business pages with particular interest. It was déjà vu, all over again.
Regional stock markets were booming, investors were excited, and the future was looking bright indeed, the series of articles I read advertised. The first article to catch my attention was a front-page piece on the Philippines about that country receiving its first ever investment grade credit rating, in this case from Fitch. The article began (subscription required):
Years of effort by the government of President Benigno S. Aquino III paid off Wednesday, when the country received, for the first time, an investment-grade credit rating from one of the world’s major ratings agencies.
That's indeed good news. But it was the boosterish tone of the article that brought back so many memories. It sounded just like the articles one could read in that and other regional publications about Southeast Asia's "dragon" economies in the mid-1990s. Credit was easy, glass and steel monuments to ambition were rising into the skies of Manila, Jakarta, and Bangkok seemingly overnight, and abundant natural resources and cheap labor were transforming the lives and expectations of tens of millions of people across the region.
Then came the big collapse. Too much credit seeking too much yield had flooded the region, corruption controls in the booming property markets of the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia were lax at best, and it turned out that one billion-dollar venture after another had been built on sand. There were IMF bailouts, currency collapses, and billions of dollars in loses for international firms. Most important were the job losses and an erosion of living standards that affected millions of working people across the region.
Much of the advances of the great early to mid-1990s boom were lost, and it turned out that regional countries, particularly Indonesia and The Philippines, hadn't taken advantage of the good times to make the kinds of infrastructure and education investments that were required to set their national economic growth prospects on the path for steady, if unspectacular, gains.
Which takes me back to that IHT story. In third graph, the claim is made that Fitch's decision "represented an important vote of confidence" for the Philippines. Perhaps, but the lesson of the 1997-1998 collapse about ratings agencies is that they're trailing indicators: They upgrade when the market already knows the country is doing better, and down-grade when blood is already in the water. That's been recent history in other countries as well.
In the sixth paragraph the reader learns that the upgrade "reflected a persistent current account surplus, underpinned by remittance inflows, while a 'strong policy-making framework' — notably effective inflation management by the central bank — has supported the overall economy in recent years."
Unalloyed good news? Central Bank management was consistently lauded by groups like the World Bank in the region in the 1990s, particularly in Indonesia. And while remittances are helpful, they also reflect the fact that millions of hardworking, capable Filipinos are still seeking their fortunes abroad due to lack of opportunity at home. That is not the stuff of long-term growth.
The 12th paragraph, which few readers of newspaper articles ever make it to, began the caveats, key ones to my mind.
"Should the government implement policy to educate and provide jobs for the burgeoning population, the Philippines could capitalize on its demographic advantages to raise economic output,’’ the IHT quoted an HSBC research report as saying. A few paragraphs later comes a passage that could have been written in 1996:
"At the same time, the country faces considerable challenges. Infrastructure in much of the country remains poor and corruption widespread, despite progress under Mr. Aquino’s administration. Growth has generated pockets of urban prosperity surrounded by vast areas of grinding poverty and few jobs."
Those have long been the challenges in the poorer parts of the region.
I've spent my few days back in Indonesia in the tourist bubble of southern Bali. Catching up with old friends, I learned that a number of investment bankers I knew in the 1990s, who lost their jobs in the great collapse and migrated to other parts of the world, have recently returned. Along the honky-tonk tourist strip in Bali, I've repeatedly found myself lost in an area I knew intimately a decade ago: an inexorable expansion of luxury hotels and businesses, an expanding airport, yet still clearly inadequate sewage systems for local people or attention to the perils of unrestrained, unregulated growth.
In Indonesia, too, corruption remains high, long-range infrastructure planning remains poor, and a property boom - fed by capital flowing into the country thanks to China's insatiable demand for commodities like coal, pulp and paper, and palm oil -- is marking the landscape from Sabang to Merauke (a popular Indonesian phrase referring to the distance of its northwesternmost city in Sumatra to its southeasternmost city on New Guinea, roughly the distance from London to Baghdad).
For now, all is going very well. And a Twitter friend of mine once described my general approach to news as a "ray of cloud on a cloudy day." But another early impression I'll be pursuing is whether Indonesia, once again, is neglecting the fleeting opportunity generated by a great economic boom.
I've returned to Indonesia after a decade away. The country was where I became a reporter, and in many ways was where I was cursed (and blessed) with a certain estrangement from the country that spawned me.
I arrived in 1993 with a vague idea that I'd like to be a reporter, with no idea of what that really meant. I had come to visit a friend for a few weeks after finishing college and tramped around, ignorant but enchanted, until the little bit of money I had saved up ran out.
Even now, memories of my first few days here are among the freshest I own. The ubiquitous odor of cloves, added to the national cigarette that remains a major health scourge. The roving food-peddlers of the Jakarta night and the special sounds advertising their wares; the rasping tick-tick-tick of a chopstick on an upturned wok advertising fried rice; a man cooing "tahu, tahu" selling fried tofu; the higher pitched and more rapid "satay, satay, satay" for grilled and heavily sauced meat on a stick; and the roaring whoosh of a gas stove when their kitchens on wheels had earned a customer, usually one of the night watchmen or weary day-laborers on their way home.
RECOMMENDED: Are you a savvy global traveler? Take the quiz
Most of all I remember the kindness of people I met, everywhere. Rich ones. But especially the poor. A family came across me tramping between rice fields on Lombok, the island just east of Bali, and they insisted I come for dinner. I stayed for three days, not understanding as I do now what a drain an extra mouth to feed was on their limited finances. They never let on. As I made my way back by ferry and minibus and train to Jakarta, families lined up to share their food and jokes with me, steering me in the right direction and safely home to my friend in Jakarta.
On my next to last day in Jakarta (I had a flight home of course) I met a woman who I've never seen again. I mentioned this vague idea of being a reporter. She immediately perked up, said she knew someone at The Jakarta Post, and that they were always looking for native English speakers to work as copy editors for the capital city's main English language newspaper. She wrote down a number for me, I called, and within a few days I was hired on for a little shy of $200 a month.
It was a night job for the daily newspaper, starting at about 5 and running til midnight. My days were free to explore the Post's library stacks and study the language. In the early evening, when work was slow, various editors and senior reporters there tolerantly schooled me in modern Indonesian politics, for no other reason than I was there and asking.
Time went on, I went to work for Bloomberg, and then the Far Eastern Economic Review, and eventually The Christian Science Monitor, before I left. For a brief time Indonesia, this sprawling, dizzyingly diverse country was actually interesting to US readers. There was the fall of the long-standing dictator Soeharto, with shades of what was to come in Egypt over a decade later (more on the connection, or lack of it, between Egypt and Indonesia in the coming days); a punishing economic collapse; years of turmoil and sectarian violence that had people doubting the stability of the country; and a wave of Al Qaeda style terrorism at the end of the 1990s through the early 2000s that had people wondering (bizarrely, especially in hindsight) if Indonesia was a "front" in the United States' newly-minted War on Terrorism.
Then, well, things started to get better. The economy righted itself, democracy of a sort started to take hold, and the handful of locals inspired by Al Qaeda were killed, captured, or gave it up to get on with their lives. For the US press, by and large, Indonesia wasn't a "story" anymore. I leaped at the chance to go to Iraq when asked in 2003.
The paper has given me a chance to come back after a decade and poke around for a few weeks, to see what's gone right, what's gone wrong, and what dangers lie ahead. I am very, very grateful for the chance. My first trip is to Ambon, at the heart of what were once known as the Spice Islands, tomorrow.
This weekend was mostly social, catching up with old friends. Which brings me back to the title of this post. They reminded me of an ongoing, national pet peeve (for those who read the foreign press). In what I hope will be a very prolific series of stories and posts about Indonesia you can count on three things. You will never read that a person quoted "like many Indonesians, only goes by one name" (which is frequently untrue anyways). There will be no descriptions of Indonesian politics, business, or society being "like a smoldering volcano" (Indonesia famously is on the Pacific ring of fire). And there will be no comparisons of Indonesian politics to wayang, the shadow puppet plays that loom so large, even today, in Javanese folklore and society.
I'm probably going to get plenty wrong. But I'm getting that out of the way up front.
RECOMMENDED: Are you a savvy global traveler? Take the quiz
Bahrain, where the monarchy has more or less successfully crushed democracy protests that broke out in the wake of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, is apparently not taking any chances by loosening the reigns on open discussion and debate.
Yesterday, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontiéres, MSF) said Bahrain's regime forced it to cancel a conference, two years in the planning, on medical ethics and conflict.
MSF Director of Operations Bart Janssens says the group had hoped to hold the regional conference in Bahrain because of the country's own recent experience with the politicization of medicine.
"We’ve seen throughout the region, how to call it, a complete loss of neutrality around medicine or medical care," says Dr. Janssens. "It's a fact that in many countries, as in Bahrain, hospitals have become forefront places for political struggles, and people who are injured can not find in any way a sort of neutral space where only clinical medicine is practiced and not find political discussions – or worse. For example in Syria, hospitals are basically traps for people to get arrested."
Janssens says the cancellation was entirely due to the decision of the Kingdom of Bahrain, and that his group's interests are nonpolitical.
"What we really wanted was to have a debate around how can we improve the difficulties of medical practitioners in the wider Middle East region, while countries are going through political and social difficulties," he says.
The notion of neutrally available medical care is a long-cherished ideal that routinely runs into trouble during conflict. In Bahrain, the Sunni monarchy rules over a Shiite majority population that has begun to chafe at the lack of political and basic human rights there, and hospitals have not been immune to national polarization.
In October last year, nine doctors, nurses, and paramedics were jailed for supporting democracy protests ("participating in illegal gatherings," "calling for the overthrow of the government," etc.) and tending to the wounds of injured demonstrators. Human Rights Watch said the evidence used to convict them was at least partially obtained through torture. (In 2012, The Christian Science Monitor reported on an underground network of medics that helped Bahrainis who felt unsafe seeking treatment in government-run hospitals.)
In 2011, the government replaced the entire board of the Bahrain Medical Society, saying the members had become politicized. The new board has been aggressive in calling for investigation and prosecution of doctors that have supported the opposition.
In Bahrain's periodic protests, injured demonstrators have learned to avoid official hospitals. Informal networks have been set up for the treatment of the wounded in private clinics.
Bahrain, a close US ally and home to the US Fifth Fleet, has successfully rejected calls for change for going on two years now, but is still wary of outside influence and scrutiny.
The country's current position, and relationship with the US, is a reminder that the so-called Arab Spring has had a variety of outcomes. While the US and Saudi Arabia may be pushing for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the replacement of his Iran-friendly government with one run by Syria's majority Sunni Arab population, it would be horrified at the overthrow of Bahrain's Sunni Arab king by his mostly Shiite subjects.
Janssens says that MSF is still hoping to hold a medical ethics conference in the region – but they won't be trying to hold it in Bahrain anymore.
US Secretary of State John Kerry made a previously unannounced stop in Baghdad today, and in the process unintentionally highlighted the difficult job he's been assigned in advancing the US diplomatic agenda as regards to the Syrian civil war.
The US would like to see the government of Syria's Bashar al-Assad fall, and has been expanding "non-lethal" support towards that objective even as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have been arming the rebels.
But Iraq is on the other side of the equation. After the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime, a Shiite-Islamist government came to power in the country, with better current relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran than with the US. With Iran backing Mr. Assad, and the likelihood of Sunni Islamists coming to power if Assad falls, Iraq's interests and America's are sharply divergent.
To Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the people fighting Assad look very similar to the Sunni forces, many jihadi, that vehemently oppose his government and continue to carry out mass casualty suicide bombings in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq has already been working with some of the salafi rebel groups in Syria like the Jabhat al-Nusra (ironically on the US State Department's list of terrorist organizations) and their dream would be to have a new friend across the border when the dust settles in Syria, arming and supporting them in their unlikely quest to restore Sunni Arab hegemony in Iraq.
What's more, Iraq has oil. Lots of it. While it also has enormous social problems Iraq already has a fairly well-armed and capable military (Note: May have this wrong; knowledgeable folks on Twitter heavily dispute this and will do more research). There is very little Mr. Maliki needs from the US anymore (one of the reasons he, essentially, kicked US troops out of the country at the end of 2011).
So that's the context in which Mr. Kerry arrived in Baghdad today to jawbone Maliki over tacit support for Assad. Kerry told reporters after he met Maliki that the US would like to see that support end, particularly allowing Iran to fly through Iraqi airspace to help arm and supply the Syrian military. The US also alleges that arms-shipments are being trucked through Iraq from Iran to aid Assad.
"We had a very spirited discussion on the subject of the overflights," Kerry said. "And I made it very clear that for those of us who are engaged in an effort to see President Assad step down and to see a democratic process take hold..., for those of us engaged in that effort, anything that supports President Assad is problematic. And I made it very clear to the Prime Minister that the overflights from Iran are, in fact, helping to sustain President Assad and his regime."
Well, yes. Those flights are not in US interests. Maliki appears to view those flights as in Iraq's interests.
Kerry has a tough job. But it's striking how aggrieved the tone was from him today, and longer-term from other US officials both under the Obama administration and the Bush administration before him, as if the basic divergence of interests aren't understood.
"I also made it clear to [Maliki] that there are members of Congress and people in America who increasingly are watching what Iraq is doing and wondering how it is that a partner in the efforts for democracy and a partner for whom Americans feel they have tried so hard to be helpful – how that country can be, in fact, doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals, the goal expressed by the Prime Minister with respect to Syria and President Assad."
The US has some potential leverage with Iraq. It's training largely Shiite troops who answer to Maliki how to better target Sunni groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq to prevent them from arming and aiding jihadis in the Syrian uprising (while the US wants Assad to fall, it obviously doesn't want to see salafi jihadis who view America and Israel as enemies coming to power). And Iraq continues to seek arms purchases from the US.
But Maliki, as the saying goes, lives in a tough neighborhood, and the fallout of Assad's demise could be seriously destabilizing for Iraq, particularly in the predominantly Sunni areas that border Syria. Maliki has generally been noncommittal in his public statements about Iraq's stance on Assad.
In the early days of the US occupation of Iraq, both America and Iraq's nascent leaders were united in their fury at Assad, who at minimum tolerated a flow of jihadis through his territory to feed the insurgency (since senior US officials had mooted the possibility of invading Syria after Iraq, tying US forces down next door made sense to Assad).
Ten years later, the situation has changed. Iraq's government may not have any particular love for Assad, but fears what might come next, far more than the US does.