Elections alert: Beware of boats and books

Communists and illegal immigrants stirring up government fears

Elections alert: Beware of boats and books

The virus of fear-politics, spread well by US President Donald Trump, is now infecting the Southern Hemisphere.

In Australia it’s threats to “border security,” an imagined armada of desperates claiming they’re fleeing persecution and demanding sanctuary Down Under. This image is being used to spook voters into staying conservative ahead of a general election, probably in May.  

In Indonesia it’s books that might rouse readers to favor the return of banned Communism as the April 17 general and presidential election looms in the world’s third largest democracy. How this might help incumbent Joko Widodo or hinder his rival Prabowo Subianto is unclear, other than to shift attention from more serious issues like building the economy and reducing poverty.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is warning that law changes, forced through Parliament by the Labor opposition and Independents this month, will upset electors’ comfortable lives. Deep in the psyche of many is the guilt of occupying a vast resource-rich continent of only 27 million when the archipelago next door has 10 times the population.

The changes allow seriously ill asylum seekers currently held on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea to be transferred to the mainland for medical treatment. Morrison claims this will green light Indonesian people smugglers keen to restart their nefarious trade.

There are about 14,000 Middle Easterners, mainly young men, stranded in Indonesia.  They flew into the republic earlier this decade lured by promises they’d be ferried across the Arafura Sea. Their dreams have been thwarted by the Australian Navy turning back boats, a policy with the jingoistic title “Operation Sovereign Borders.” 

While Australian sailors have been sweeping the horizon for SIEVS (suspected illegal entry vessels), military jargon for rickety wooden inshore fishing craft, Indonesian soldiers have been riffling through bookshop shelves. They’ve been rummaging for publications their superiors claim will endanger the state.

Their principal targets are revisions of the coup last century which lifted General Soeharto from Army barracks to the Presidential Palace where he stayed for 32 years wielding absolute power. He stepped down in 1998 after mass protests, and died a decade later.

The allegedly subversive texts tend to be accounts which don’t conform to the official line of what happened on September 30, 1965; that night six generals and a lieutenant were murdered in Jakarta, allegedly by members of the Communist Party (PKI). A dreadful bloodletting followed with an estimated half million real or suspected Reds slaughtered in a purge of the party.

The Soeharto version has consistently maintained that the massacres were a spontaneous response of pious Muslims outraged by the actions of godless Marxists. This has been proved false through the scholarship of overseas academics writing in English.  

This research is being picked over and re-worked by a few Indonesian authors, sometimes embellished, then printed locally in Indonesian. The number is miniscule.

Last year Canadian Geoffrey Robinson, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles released his account of the 1965 events in The Killing Season

Months earlier Australian post-doctoral fellow at Yale University, Jess Melvin, published her meticulous sifting of old military documents in The Army and the Indonesian Genocide, stating categorically that the slaughter was organized by the army. 

There have been many earlier accounts, like the University of British Columbia professor John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder, which was translated and banned, though none so definitive as Dr Melvin’s work.

Governments having problems with dissidents like island solutions. Survivors of the post-putsch putdown were sent to forced labor camps, like Buru Island, 2,300 kilometers north east of Jakarta. Here the internationally known writer and Nobel Prize nominee Pramoedya Ananta Toer was held for 13 years along with 12,000 others, mainly intellectuals, artists and teachers.

For a while it seemed current President Joko Widodo was inclined to side with the human rights activists who have been urging an open inquiry into the events of the 1960s and a search for reconciliation.
That hope slipped away with his 2016 appointment of Wiranto (who has only one name) as Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs. Robinson claims the former armed forces commander has said the 1965-66 violence was “legally justifiable,” which doesn’t mean it was morally right.

The Army is claiming that even though the Communist Party has been banned for more than 50 years, only they can stop its resurgence by burning books. Yet this is illegal, according to a 2010 Constitutional Court decision, which overthrew the Soeharto era’s censorship laws.

The boat-banning Australian Government says the 1,000 men left on Manus and Nauru will never be allowed to settle in Australia.  (Some have been accepted by the US in a swap deal with South Americans refugees.)

Opponents of the island camps call them “hell holes” (the official term is Regional Processing Centres).  The detainees have been waiting – some for five years – praying regime changes in their homelands will make it safe to return, or some other country will come to their aid. 

These hopes seem as remote as the islands.  According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees more than 65 million people have been “forcibly displaced worldwide because of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.”

With those numbers the fate of a few hundred in the far-away Pacific rocks no boats in Europe and North America. A New Zealand offer to take 150 a year has been knocked back by Morrison, claiming they could eventually get citizenship and move across the Tasman.

Cynics note that closing Manus and Nauru would deny Australian politicians the stick to whack their opponents in an election season. Curiously the government has stayed silent on revelations that in 2017 almost 28,000 people, mainly from China, Malaysia and India, sought Australian protection visas.

But they came individually, smartly dressed and by air, often masquerading as students or tourists before applying for sanctuary. It’s not an image terrifying voters like that of a fleet of over-crowded boats heading Down Under on a lumpy sea.

Do political fear campaigns still work? We’ll know in about three months. 

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java Province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 22 years.

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