Kelud’s Grey Beauty
Unheard here, Kelud erupts and its fine grey anger reaches for space. Its chariot, the streaming wind currents, carries its message afar, to the west. Grey beauty settles across a city, fogging the air, snowing the trees, caking the asphalt. Through open windows and vent holes. invisible snakes of dust sneak inside. Wisps of finest ash are knocked by breezes from the trees falling lazily onto the ground and floating sucked into human lungs. Masks protect the lungs from poison as bent backs and hoses clean and clean. This is far away from the rumbling anger. There, in Kelud’s sovereign territory where some have died and many are homeless?
It would appear that at least three times in recent weeks, the Australian navy and also the customs service has detained Indonesian and other foreign citizens traveling on boats heading for Christmas Island, a territory under Australian sovereignty. They were people intending to claim refugee status on arrival on Australian territory, which is a right guaranteed under international law. From reports in the Australian press, the initial detentions either took place on the high seas or in Australian waters.
However, the Indonesian, Iraqi, Somalian and other citizens were then in de facto detention as they were towed back across international waters toward Indonesian waters against their will. Some of the refugees have claimed that the Australian ships turned off their lights at night, the implication being that they entered into Indonesian waters. The Australian navy has denied this.
In one case, the refugees were towed back in the boat in which they had been traveling. In two other cases, they were transferred — obviously against their will — into small lifeboats that the Australian government recently bought in Singapore and made to go back to Java in them. Two such lifeboats have now been found on the Java coast. …….
On January 22 the Australian Broadcasting Commission radio, TV and website as well as the Sydney morning Herald and The Age published reports that refugees that had been intercepted on the sea by Australian navy vessels had been tortured by navy personnel. According to the refugees, they had been forced to hold on to hot exhaust pipes from their boat’s motor. They also claimed that Australian Navy personnel had kicked them. The news reports showed photos of their burned hands. The refugees reported this to the Indonesian police who have stated that they are investigating the claims. The Australian government says it will assist any Indonesian police investigation.
Sydney Morning Herald photo: January 25.
Overall however the reactions in Australia to these allegations have been disgraceful but also very dangerous. Worse, is that these disgraceful and dangerous reactions have come from both the “left” and the right of the mainstream commentaries and responses.
The article which has provoked me into writing these remarks was an article “Official secrecy leaves our Navy exposed” by Mungo MacCallum. MacCallum has long been one of the more sarcastic critics of Australia’s conservative elite. His ideological perspective has been one of Whitlam-Hawke era social democracy, and not socialist but his criticisms have often been sharp and apt. His article on this issue is, however, quite shocking and contributes to the dangerous slide towards granting impunity to the state in almost all of the discussion.
MacCallum declares at the beginning of his article the overlap between his owns views and those of current right-wing prime minister, Abbott: “For once I have to agree with Tony Abbott. I do not believe that Australian Navy personnel ordered asylum seekers to hold on to hot metal pipes, thereby inflicting serious burns to their hands.” This automatic defence of Australian navy personnel as being impossible of carrying out such torture is shared across the whole mainstream of political groups and commentators. The most the ALP leader, Shorten, could say was that was the allegations were “concerning” but then he went on to echo the pre-Australia Day patriotic defence of the Australian Armed Forces.
There are many issues here. I want to comment on just two.
A major thesis of Unfinished Nation(written between 2007 and 2008), was that the fall of Suharto was not the simple product of objective conditions, such as the 1997 Asian economic crisis, nor of some kind of automatic rot from within the regime due to corrupt “sultanisation”, contradictions within an oligarchy or similar phenomena. The crucial factor in the process was the emergence of a political vanguard that set out to re-popularise mass action and succeeded in setting in motion a wide protest movement based on it. This movement rapidly undermined the legitimacy of the dictatorship while at the same time “mainstreaming” a new pro-democratic political agenda beyond that of “simply” ending the dictatorship: “End the dual function of the military” and “Repeal all repressive political laws.” This agenda added to the general sentiment against corruption: demanding an end to nepotism, corruption and collusion, referred to as NKK. The delegitimation of the regime achieved between 1989 and 1997 through the mass protests laid the basis for the acceleration of this delegitimation in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. By 1996, there had already been mass riots and demonstrations. The demonstrations had been mainly in defence of Megawati Sukarnoputri’s leadership of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), and by May 1997, hundreds of thousands of people across the country – more than a million in Jakarta – had protested, demanding an end to dictatorship and corruption under the bannerMega-Bintang Rakyat (a call for an anti-dictatorship coalition of Megawati’s supporters, the Muslim United Development Party and the people) in very combative electoral mobilisations, in defiance of threats of repression. It was only a matter of time before a confrontation with the regime would come to a head, and the financial crisis later in 1997 accelerated the confrontation, which ended in May 1998 when Suharto resigned. This was followed by a failed, brief – but huge – resurgence of protest in November 1998 calling for an immediate end to the role of the military and for a government headed by a presidium of opposition figures.
For more – read here
Maxwell Lane, “Who will be Indonesian president in 2014?” in Ooi Kee Beng, Selections 2012-2013, Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, 2014.