Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

Category: Indonesia and World Events

The Disturbing Silences in Former CIA Director John O. Brennan’s Account of Visiting Indonesia in 1974

A former senior security official’s account of a visit to Indonesia elides dark episodes in the past of Indonesia and the United States

This year’s prestigious Richard Dimbleby Lecture was given by former CIA Director John O. Brennan. He used the lecture to argue for (amongst other things) the benefits of international co-operation and a globally-engaged United States.

However, it is not Brennan’s broad arguments that I want to look at here, but rather a specific vignette which he used to set up his case. During the lecture he gave a a brief biographical sketch, in which he suggested a visit to Indonesia during his time at university proved a turning point in his life – one that would ultimately set him on a path to his role at the CIA. The trip brought him into contact with a range of beliefs and worldviews and was struck by ‘the tolerance evident in the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population’ in a country recovering from the ‘authoritarian and bloody rule of President Sukarno’.

There are a couple of grains of truth here. Indonesia is certainly characterised by religious diversity and this is officially recognised (within certain limits) by the state. Moreover, Indonesia had taken an authoritarian turn in the latter part of Sukarno’s presidency (though in the earlier period Indonesia was a remarkable, if fragile, constitutional democracy).

Yet from Brennan’s account, one would have no idea that, less than ten years before Brennan’s visit, Indonesia had witnessed one of the great mass murders of the twentieth century, carried out under the auspices of the military regime that sidelined Sukarno, and with the support of the US government (among others). Moreover, in some areas religion played a significant role in the killings.

And this is not to mention Indonesia’s bloody invasion of East Timor that would occur the year after Brennan’s visit, with the blessing of the US and several close allies.

With this knowledge, the elisions evident in Brennan’s account (an excerpt from the speech is provided below) become quite chilling, and provide an ironic slant on the lecture’s title: ‘Staying Safe in a Dangerous World’.

‘The journey that led me to become the director of the CIA began in June 1974, when I set off on a trip that would fundamentally alter my life’s course. I had just finished my first year at college… a cousin of mine invited me to visit him in Indonesia. At the time my cousin was a diplomat at the US embassy in Jakarta, serving as the Food for Peace Officer at the US Agency for International Development. So, at the tender age of 18, I set of for Indonesia, after I pillaged my modest bank account, and bought a round-trip, but multiple-stop plane ticket to Jakarta. To help defray the cost of my trip, I convinced one of my political science professors at Fordham to grant me credit toward my degree if I wrote a paper on oil and politics in Indonesia. And most important, for two glorious months I had a brief, but oh so enlightening initial glimpse, into the wonders, the contours and the dynamics of our beautiful world. Indonesia was just emerging from the economic devastation wrought by nearly twenty years of the authoritarian and bloody rule of President Sukarno. Squalor was widespread and beyond anything I could have imagined. Splendour was a rarity, and there was almost nothing in between, and population pressures were overwhelming. But I was also struck by the tolerance evident in the nation with the world’s largest Muslim population. I rode motorcycles across the island of Java with an Indonesian Christian, I marvelled at the world’s largest Buddhist temple, the Borobodur, and I surfed on the beaches of the predominantly Hindu island of Bali. And it was in these latter excursions that I interacted with and talked to people with entirely different life experiences, different cultural norms, different religious beliefs and different world views. It was an intense two month seminar in just how special, how thrilling, and how diverse life is on our planet. It was in that summer of 1974 that my wanderlust and my deep fascination with the diversity, the scope and the dynamism of the world’s riches, challenges and opportunities were born.’


An Indonesian Muslim Response to Trump’s Divisive Approach to Islam

An esteemed Muslim academic warns that Trump’s attitude towards Islam may prove counterproductive

Professor Azyumardi Azra is the former rector of Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta, a prolific author, and in 2010 was awarded a CBE by the British government for services to interfaith dialogue (to list just a few of his many achievements). So when he raises concerns about interfaith relations, it is wise to pay attention.

The below is a brief translated excerpt from his recent article in Republika, a major Islamic news website in Indonesia. This was written before Trump signed his executive order restricting entry to the US for refugees and citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries, but that order adds yet greater force to the argument:

The statements of President Trump from the campaigning period through to his inauguration speech seem to have rejected diversity…

It seems that Trump has not changed much since he was chosen as president. In his inauguration speech, it’s true Trump did not again mention ‘banning Muslims entering the US’. But he did put out statements that were no less confrontational, among others ‘[we] will unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.’

There is a big question mark over how Trump can unite the ‘civilised world’ with a confrontational manner and a hard approach. Various academic studies about eradicating terrorism have shown that a hard approach is not always effective in overcoming radicalism and terrorism – not only among Muslims, but also among followers of other religions.

But besides the above-mentioned problem, Trump’s confrontational and Islamophobic tone received condemnation from many moderate Islamic figures, both leaders and academics. Condemning Trump does not meaning that they ‘approve of’, let alone support, radicalism or terrorism. Simply put, Trump’s statements and approach may be very counter-productive in their efforts to overcome the problems of radicalism and terrorism. Conversely, tension, conflict and violence may find a new raison d’etre and momentum on a scale that is difficult to imagine.

Asia Politics Podcasts

My pick of the podcasts focusing on Asian politics

In a previous post I discussed the ‘Talking Indonesia’ podcast coming out of the University of Melbourne. Since then I have been finding out about maritime law whilst doing my laundry, listening to the latest Vietnamese diplomatic wrangling whilst doing my grocery shopping, and pondering on Australia’s submarine purchasing whilst staring out of the train window. In short, I have entered the world of Asia politics podcasts. So I thought I’d share what I’ve been listening to:

The Diplomat – Asia Geopolitics. The name says it all really. Coming out approximately weekly, it generally takes the form a 20 minute or so conversation between Ankit Panda and another member of The Diplomat‘s Staff or another expert. Recent highlight’s include ‘How can Asia’s Navies Learn from the Era of the Mighty Battleship?’ and ‘Can the Afghan War be Won in 2016’. The episodes mentioned are nice examples of covering topics that would otherwise only be covered in very specialist publications (e.g. naval history) or issues that have receded from the mainstream press (e.g. war in Afghanistan).

CSIS Podcast and CogitAsia Podcast from CSIS – The Centre for Strategic and International Studies produce a series of podcasts. Although CogitAsia is dedicated to Asian affairs, quite of a few of the episodes on the broader CSIS Podcast also focus on Asia. Given the CSIS was co-founded at the height the Cold War by a retired admiral and a future Regan advisor, the CSIS unsurprisingly has very close ties to US government. This is reflected in the outlook of the podcasts, which sometimes even slip into using ‘we’ to refer to the position of the US. A recent highlight for me was ‘A Dormant Conflict Erupts’ about conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. If you haven’t even heard of Nagorno-Karabakh, here’s your chance to find out more.

Asia News Weekly – Run by Steve Miller, a wonderfully enthusiastic VOA broadcaster, with a format generally based on Steve phoning up experts to chat about current events across Asia. Covering several stories per episode, this is less in depth than the others listed here, but it is a nice way to keep up with the latest stories coming out of Asia.

Asia Rising – A fortnightly Podcast from La Trobe University, hosted by Professor Nick Bisley, who talks to experts, often from La Trobe or other Australian universities. It tends to be a bit less focused on the international relations angle and a bit more interested in the internal workings of Asian societies than say, the CSIS or The Diplomat podcasts mentioned above. For example there is a very interesting episode on North Korea’s emerging middle class, including discussion of the Rason Special Economic Zone, an area in the Northeast of Korea where trade with Russia and China has been encouraged (for more on Rason see One blip was the episode ‘Why Australia Will buy Submarines From Japan’: in the end Australia ended up buying them from France.

Cruel Seas

In the past weeks the news has been full of migration ‘crises at sea’ – whether in the Mediterranean or the Rohingya in Southeast Asia. In attempting to grapple with the terrible human toll of these events, politicians and journalists have been reaching for historical precedents. The Italian Prime Minister has come under fire for calling people smugglers ‘the slave traders of the 21st century’, and the FT has argued that ‘Rohingya boat people are becoming the Jews of Asia’. Radio 4 reflected on the ambivalence of that migrant nation Australia about those seeking refuge.

By coincidence I happen to have been reading Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, in which a storm strikes a ship under the Siamese flag, staffed by British sailors, and transporting Chinese coolie labourers returning to their homeland after ‘years of work in various tropical colonies.’ Reading the story set me thinking about the ties of power, money, hope and suffering that have stretched across the seas of Asia and Europe in this century and before, as well as the stereotyped ways in which these have been presented in the mass media. There is a sophisticated reading of the story by Douglas Kerr of the University of Hong Kong available online, drawing out various contexts and meanings to the story. However the raw text, from which I have pulled and rejigged a few quotations below, speaks powerfully for itself:

The Nan-Shan was on her way from the southward to the treaty port of Fu-chau, with some cargo in her lower holds, and two hundred Chinese coolies returning to their village homes in the province of Fo-kien, after a few years of work in various tropical colonies… every single Celestial of them was carrying with him all he had in the world—a wooden chest with a ringing lock and brass on the corners, containing the savings of his labours: some clothes of ceremony, sticks of incense, a little opium maybe, bits of nameless rubbish of conventional value, and a small hoard of silver dollars, toiled for in coal lighters, won in gambling-houses or in petty trading, grubbed out of earth, sweated out in mines, on railway lines, in deadly jungle, under heavy burdens—amassed patiently, guarded with care, cherished fiercely…


He could perfectly imagine the coolies battened down in the reeking ‘tween-deck, lying sick and scared between the rows of chests. Then one of these chests—or perhaps several at once—breaking loose in a roll, knocking out others, sides splitting, lids flying open, and all these clumsy Chinamen rising up in a body to save their property. Afterwards every fling of the ship would hurl that tramping, yelling mob here and there, from side to side, in a whirl of smashed wood, torn clothing, rolling dollars. A struggle once started, they would be unable to stop themselves. Nothing could stop them now except main force. It was a disaster. He had seen it, and that was all he could say. Some of them must be dead, he believed. The rest would go on fighting. . . .


Rancorous, guttural cries burst out loudly on their ears, and a strange panting sound, the working of all these straining breasts. A hard blow hit the side of the ship: water fell above with a stunning shock, and in the forefront of the gloom, where the air was reddish and thick, Jukes saw a head bang the deck violently, two thick calves waving on high, muscular arms twined round a naked body, a yellow-face, open-mouthed and with a set wild stare, look up and slide away. An empty chest clattered turning over; a man fell head first with a jump, as if lifted by a kick; and farther off, indistinct, others streamed like a mass of rolling stones down a bank, thumping the deck with their feet and flourishing their arms wildly. The hatchway ladder was loaded with coolies swarming on it like bees on a branch. They hung on the steps in a crawling, stirring cluster, beating madly with their fists the underside of the battened hatch, and the headlong rush of the water above was heard in the intervals of their yelling. The ship heeled over more, and they began to drop off: first one, then two, then all the rest went away together, falling straight off with a great cry…

Whilst the crew do make efforts to save them from the worst of the harm, at the same time there is a strong sense that the Chinese are viewed as somewhere between human and animals/cargo. From the reference to a Brit’s ‘racial superiority’ to the explanation that ‘Had to do what’s fair, for all—they are only Chinamen. Give them the same chance with ourselves—hang it all.’

As some of the sailors complain at one point.

What the devil did the coolies matter to anybody?

Sobering indeed.

Indonesian Cartoonists Respond to Charlie Hebdo Killings

Yeksa Sarkeh Chandra, Secretary General of the Association of Indonesian Cartoonists, was quoted by the Antara news agency as saying that the organisation:

‘Strongly condemn this inhumane action… setting aside from ideology and doctrines adhered to by these cartoonist, we as Indonesian cartoonists express our condolences concerning these events.’

However the most eloquent response I have seen coming out of Indonesia is the cartoon tweeted by Indonesian cartoonist Toni Malakian, which I repost here. This adds to a worldwide response by cartoonists.



*Update May 2017, I have updated this post by linking to Toni Malakian’s cartoon from January 2016 commemorating one year since the killings.