Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Cataclysm by Money Whim. The Islamist Industry. The World Ends Every Few Seconds.

Three years ago today, the tsunami hit Aceh. It was a cataclysm so vast that Acehnese don't talk about it all that much.

It's easier to deal with human-scale things.

That morning, December 26, 2004, in an inland town far from the impact, the initial rumbling of the earth was so terrifying that people ran into the alley, screaming.

One of them, a woman, did so in a daze, having woken from a deep sleep, and, apprehending what was happening around her seized up and fell down to the dirt path, trembling.

Not long after -- and it is still mysterious why, since phones from the shore, at Banda Aceh, were down -- someone started yelling "tsunami!, tsunami!," as strange trickles of water indeed appeared from nowhere.

Everyone knew that the sea was an hour's journey away, but this was no time for theorizing.

People ran to the mosque, which has a second floor, a kind of cupola below the call-to-prayer niche, and Muslims and Hindus gathered praying, talking, and crying, awaiting Noah's flood.

Not all of them, though. A few stayed with that woman who was stiff and trembling, then fully unconscious.

If they were going to drown, they would drown a few minutes sooner, and in the good company of a beloved one.

As it happened, the tsunami never struck that town. The earthquake had shattered the municipal water pipes.

That accounted for the trickle, which, in a kind of celestial joke, would be the only piped water some ever saw, since in that, as in many poor kampungs piped water -- "PAM" -- was a mere dreamt-of, anti-microbial luxury.

If the tsunami had been high enough to take out that town, which is well inland and elevated, it would indeed -- for the world -- have been the end of the world, but that didn't happen, so we're now talking.

But for much of coastal Aceh, the world did end that day, and in such a way that rich people noticed.

It was a slow news day -- the week after Christmas is, as they say in America, "dead" -- and within days Brian Williams was doing the NBC Nightly News live, by klieg light, from Banda Aceh.

That brief moment in the global manmade electronic sun did not dry out flooded Aceh, but it did bring vast donations since, when people see suffering they can be decent provided that a. they really see it -- and in graphic terms --, and b. they are not told by authority that the dead people deserved it.

Traveling west from Banda in the aftermath was like traveling on an Apollo space mission, since, once the bodies had gassed and popped or been taken away, the scene was less beachfront than lunar.

There were three old men sitting on folding chairs -- actually, probably in their thirties or forties. All of their extended families were dead. They, still stunned, were a new social unit.

Not fifty yards behind them, on a slab that was once a house, there was an obscene graffito.

Like a number of indecent writings in history, it was authored by a religious grouping.

"These are the wages of sin," it said. The signature was "FPI" -- the Islamic Defenders Front, a group of men usually found in Jakarta girlie bars busting up the places when the owners don't pay off or when they are too tightwad in doling out instructional-use bottles of the sinful liquor.

The FPI is one of those useful institutions found in places like Indonesia and Pakistan that are simultaneously the subject and the object of the US Global War on Terror (GWOT, an official Pentagon term), and its symbiotic affiliate, the Islamist Industry.

They are both the problem and the solution since, on the one hand, they are scary Islamists, but on the other, they are backed by the Indonesian security forces, which are backed by the US to fight Islamists.

Creatures of the POLRI -- the Indonesian National Police -- FPI also works with the armed forces (TNI) (Two years ago the FPI actually hung banners in Jakarta generously praising the POLRI, the kind of street recognition -- that if you're a POLRI man -- you know you'll never get without paying well for).

After the tsunami the TNI flew the FPI to Aceh on US C-130s, with the apparent idea that they would intimidate and spread havoc, as Aceh activists reasonably feared.

But in a surprising turn, suggesting that even hypocrites can experience awe, the FPI guys seemed to largely behave themselves, ideologues' graffiti notwithstanding.

According to a doctor who worked alongside them in the gruesome task of lifting bodies, they were quiet, and -- as poleaxed as everyone else -- went about their work with some humbled diligence.

Not so a visiting cleric who I was unfortunate enough to share a van with, who explained benignly that the particular wrecked town that we were viewing was famed for gambling, racing, alcohol, and infidelity.

He was suggesting, in other words -- like, say, an American spokesman in bombed Fallujah -- that all those dead people deserved it.

He didn't even get annoyed when I asked why the divine tsunami had managed to miss Jakarta -- where he's from -- where the venues of sin are famous (and police-protected) and outstrip those of coastal Aceh.

Instead his smile got wider, and still more beneficent. It was like watching American religious -- or some political -- TV. The signal is : 'You pathetic sap. I know the secret. You are going to hell. And get out of my way, I've got a date tonight, in Jakarta (or in Washington).'

The tsunami in Aceh killed perhaps 200,000 people, the same rough number as the toll of children killed worldwide, in some part, by malnutrition roughly every two weeks. (For 16,000 child malnutrition deaths daily, see 2007 World Population Data Sheet, Population Reference Bureau, Washington.)

Politically, we don't define each preventable -- undeserved -- death as being a cataclysm, though for the dier, and for their loved ones, it is, and, unlike a tsunami, stoppable.

This anniversary week, the news reports that Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs got a 67.9 million dollar bonus, enough to put a tsunami's - worth of children in his hands -- to let-die or save, strictly at his own whim. (Alistair Barr, MarketWatch, "Goldman Sachs CEO gets $67.9 million bonus," December 21, 2007).

The little brother of a friend of mine survived the tsunami by climbing up a light pole, and when the flood receded he climbed down and, the story goes, sat upon the ground and thought some.

The 30-foot flood had swept cows, cars, and children on past him.

When he got down he saw corpses and mud. Was he the world's last surviving person?

He considered that possibility.

Eventually, they say, he regained his wits, started walking, and, with some relief, learned -- as another young man would later say, commenting on life in the wake of one death -- that "this world still exists," which is true. But the converse is also true.

Every time one single person dies, the world they saw from ends.

The world ends, somewhere, every few seconds. It's a cataclysm. We should see it as such, and, when preventable, prevent it, even if that means contravening some whims.

(For "...this world still exists" see posting of November 8, 2007, "Duduk - Duduk, Ngobrol - Ngobrol. Sitting Around Talking, in Indonesia").

NOTE TO READERS: News and Comment is looking for assistance with translating blog postings into other languages, and also with distributing the blog content more widely. Those interested please get in touch via the e-mail link below.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

No More Coddling Big Criminals. Huckabee Fails to Get Tough on Crime.

After Mitt Romney accused Mike Huckabee of being soft on crime, Huckabee -- the nice guy in the US race -- responded by pointing out that as governor of Arkansas he had put 16 people to death.

This stood in presumed embarrassing contrast to Romney's death toll of zero, since Massachusetts didn't have the death penalty while Romney was governor there.

Romney is undoubtedly ready to respond, if asked, that if given the chance to execute, he will.

It's just that, sometimes awkwardly for their US presidential candidacies, US governors don't always get the opportunity to order killings, and thereby prove their mettle, since 13 of the 50 US states prohibit execution.

(Lead New York Times commentator R.W. Apple once wrote, regarding Bush I and his unprovoked invasion of Panama, that each US commander must complete "a presidential initiation rite" by "demonstrating their willingness to shed blood" -- ie., other people's blood; [the Timesman was not suggesting that the President open up a vein]. [R.W. Apple, "Fighting in Panama: The Implications; War: Bush's Presidential Rite of Passage," The New York Times, December 21, 1989.])

Of course, Romney was correct when he slated Huckabee as being soft on crime, a charge that could be made against Romney himself, and most all members of the US establishment.

They're usually plenty tough on petty crime and on things like common murders, and lately, any offense -- including running red lights -- by undocumented foreign workers.

But on big crime they're as soft and squishy as the proverbial Chablis-sipping US liberal.

If they weren't, Huckabee, could have requested his state attorney general to try to extradite Bill Clinton to Arkansas to face international crimes - against -humanity charges for his sanctions against Iraq, sanctions that, according to two of the top UN administrators who dealt with them on the ground (Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck), gratuitously killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqui civilians, mainly children.

Its not as if Huckabee wouldn't have relished a chance to sting his political rival, Clinton (they both even come from the same home town, Hope, Arkansas), its just that doing so in such a way would have been politically unthinkable and taboo in today's pre-civilized United States, even though legally it isn't since international law allows national/state prosecutors and courts to take on such cases.

That's a slogan for a new decency and justice movement: No More Coddling Big Criminals.

What we need here is law and order, starting at the official top.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism, Excuses for Murder. Tell it to the Judge.

Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, the Indonesian cleric and political leader, says that the Bali bombers "were not terrorists but counter-terrorists." (Suherdjoko, "Ba'asyir pays homage to Bali bombers in jail," The Jakarta Post, December 16, 2007).

It's a claim that should outrage anyone who realizes that the Bali bombers executed their victims just to use their corpses to send what they saw as a political message. (For discussion of this theme see posting of November 28, 2007, "Thomas L. Friedman and the Bali Bombers. Cold Blooded Celebrity.")

Such outrage could lead to the answer : 'You're wrong, they weren't counter-terrorists,' and it's a powerful answer since you shouldn't claim to be fighting terrorism if what you're doing is committing it.

But as a social and legal matter, that answer -- though important for honesty and for clear thinking -- should be seen to be part of an argument that is somewhat beside the point.

The bigger problem is not how people see their crimes -- in a certain sense, who cares? -- but rather whether those crimes get stopped and deterred, and whether the criminals get caught and punished.

A staple of American legal drama is the scene where the just-arrested accused perp is hauled before the booking judge (who sets the date and conditions for trial), and, sweating, begins to frantically tell his story, before the bored jurist cuts him off.

With a courtroom full of purported lowlifes to process, he/she doesn't have time to hear rationalizations, so out of the corner of their mouth the judge mutters something to the effect of: 'Whatever. Call it whatever you want. But if you murdered those people, buddy, you're going to prison. [Gavel slap]. Next case!'

Americans -- and foreign audiences who watch them in translation -- seem to love these shows, for good reason. Its fulfilling to see, or at least to imagine, justice being done.

If we were civilized we would also be able to imagine -- and create -- similarly crowded, brusque, courtrooms, in which all murderers, high and low, were hauled before similarly no-nonsense jurists:

There's a president. There's a prime minister. There's a dear, beloved leader, waiting.

And maybe even squeezed among the Commanders on the crowded benches of the waiting accused sit some mere power-talkers -- editorialists, broadcasters, ideologues -- who, as has already happened in the Rwanda tribunals, have been arrested and could be -- as also happened re. Rwanda -- convicted and sent to prison for the purported international law crime against humanity of "public incitement to commit genocide" (eg., one of the charges against Augustin Ngirabatware for things said on his radio station, BBC News online, "Rwandan genocide suspect arrested," September 9, 2007).

Each of them has a noble rationalization for their killing -- which is fine, that is their right. But each of them would also have to persuade a jury, or face a long time in ugly lockup.

Just recently they say Donald Rumsfeld fled France to avoid a torture lawsuit, which is amusing. Isn't he a tough guy? He's the one who was so thrilling to the press in his blunt language about bombing Afghans that Jamie McIntyre of CNN, Pentagon, produced a piece themed (in McIntyre's words): "Everybody loves Rumsfeld."

Isn't part of the point of being a tough guy that you confront and stare down your accusers?

People who dabble in the mass maiming of others should be thoroughgoing in their macho. Their attitude toward murder/ torture proceedings against them should be, as Bush once said,: "Bring it on."

NOTE TO READERS: News and Comment is looking for assistance with translating blog postings into other languages, and also with distributing the blog content more widely. Those interested please get in touch via the e-mail link below.

Friday, December 14, 2007

"Shoot them on the spot." The Traditional Dance of Rewarding War Crimes.

Last June, when President/General Susilo of Indonesia visited one of his provinces, in the Moluccas, he was greeted by local residents performing a traditional dance for him, a ritual often repeated around the world when powerful rulers travel, the implicit message being: this is us, but to you, we bow.

This time, however, something went wrong, and to the evident astonishment of the visiting democrat (Gen. Susilo was just awarded a democracy medal by the International Association of Political Consultants. See posting of November 13, 2007, "Vomiting to Death on a Plane. Arsenic Democracy."), the dancers unfurled a freedom flag with an entirely different implicit message: it was the banned four-color banner that symbolizes Moluccan independence from Indonesia.

After the performers were hauled off to jail by Indonesia's POLRI national police ("I want the performers of the dance [to] be investigated," Susilo ordered,"If the dancers have certain purposes, there should be a resolute action against them." "President Yudhoyono orders investigation into 'unscheduled dance'", Antara [official Indonesian government news agency], June 29, 2007), the area police and army commanders were both sacked for inexcusable laxness.

They had apparently let arise an atmosphere so loose that prohibited thought could not only be thought, but could be so bold as to find expression before the very eyes of the visiting sovereign.

Fortunately for national stability, as it is called in Jakarta, Washington, and elsewhere, that problem has now been cured with the appointment of regional army commander Gen. Rasyid Qurnuen Aquary who has informed his TNI (Indonesian national armed forces) troops to "act firmly against anyone engaging in separatist actions, and if need be, shoot them on the spot." (The General's spokesman, Maj. Sukriyanto, quoted in AFP, Jakarta, "Indonesia General Says Separatists Could Be Shot," Dec. 12, 2007, via Joyo Indonesia News Service).

Fortunately for those dissident dancers -- and perhaps also for the President, whose shirt might have gotten spattered red that day -- the order comes too late to have gotten them shot-on-spot (they merely sit, untried, in prison), but not too late for a bold 19 year old Moluccan man just shot by TNI troops on Saturday (he's apparently still alive) for the offense of hanging a similar flag on a tree near which they were working.

In a time and in a place where some authority was bothering to enforce the murder laws, such a public "shoot them on the spot" order against dissidents might be seen to constitute a war crime, or -- since the Moluccas are arguably not in a state of war -- an equally prosecutable, under international law, crime against humanity.

But that's not the case in today's Indonesia, or in most of the world's geography, where official murder -- and even public orders to commit it -- goes unpunished, and is, instead, rewarded. The US Congress is looking to do that this week as they process a Foreign Operations bill that would ship further US taxpayers' millions in lethal assistance to TNI (202-224-3121 is the Congressional switchboard number).

NOTE TO READERS: News and Comment is looking for assistance with translating blog postings into other languages, and also with distributing the blog content more widely. Those interested please get in touch via the e-mail link below.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Breaking News: US Intelligence Personnel Tap Indonesian Phones. British Also Involved. Detachment 88, Kopassus Get Covert US Aid.

News and Comment,
Wednesday, December 12, 2007 9:21 AM US Eastern time)

By Allan Nairn

US intelligence officers in Jakarta are secretly tapping the cell phones and reading the SMS text messages of Indonesian civilians.

Some of the Americans work out of the Jakarta headquarters of Detachment 88, a US-trained and funded para-military unit whose mission is described as antiterrorism, but that was recently involved in the arrest of a West Papuan human rights lawyer.

The Papuan lawyer, Iwangin Sabar Olif, was seized by police and Detachment 88 on the street and later charged with "incitement and insulting the head of state" after he forwarded SMS text messages that criticized the Indonesian armed forces (TNI), as well as the President of Indonesia, Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. (West Papua is a restricted-access region where Indonesian forces have been implicated in rapes, tortures, kidnappings, assassinations, mass surveillance and intimidation.)

The information on the US surveillance program is provided by three sources, including an individual who has worked frequently with the Indonesian security forces and who says he has met and formally discussed their work with some of the American phone tappers, as well as by two Indonesian officials who work inside Detachment 88.

The first source says that the he was told that the Americans are employees of the US CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), but it could not be confirmed whether they work for the CIA or other US agencies. He says that through his work he has observed that these US intelligence specialists help run a sophisticated wiretapping network that uses much new US equipment.

He says the US operation includes the real-time monitoring of text messages, as well as mapping contact "networks," ie. tracing who is calling or texting whom.

This individual deals frequently with Detachment 88, but says that he has not inquired about the seizure of the Papuan human rights lawyer, Iwangin .

He said that Detachment 88 units are also present in other outlying zones including Solo, Ambon, and Poso, the later two of which have been the scene of TNI - POLRI (the Indonesian National Police, who formally oversee Detachment 88) "provokasi" operations that have helped to spur deadly fighting between poor Muslim and Christian villagers.

This source also says that US intelligence is providing covert intelligence aid to Kopassus, the Indonesian army's red beret special forces famed for abduction, torture, and assassination.

Classified Kopassus manuals discuss the "tactic and technique" of "terror" and "kidnapping" (see "Buku Petunjuk tentang Sandi Yudha TNI AD, Nomor: 43-B-01").

Kopassus has, in the past, been heavily trained by US Green Berets and other forces, in topics that included "Demolitions," "Air Assault," "Close Quarters Combat," "Special Reconnaissance," "PSYOP"(s) and "Advanced Sniper Techniques" (all of these during the Clinton administration, under a program called JCET -- Joint Combined Exchange Training).

But after this training was exposed and after the TNI - POLRI Timor massacres of 1999 (which followed a UN - supervised independence vote, and in which Kopassus was implicated), many in Congress were under the impression that they had succeeded in stopping US aid to Kopassus.

(Congress is due to decide within days on a new lethal aid bill for Indonesia).

The American presence inside Detachment 88 was confirmed by an Indonesian Detachment 88 official who said that a team of Americans did telecommunications work in the "Intel Section," along with an individual whom they believed to be a British national.

A second Detachment 88 official also confirmed the US presence, but said he did not know the name of the American team leader. Like the first Detachment 88 official, he gave the name of the operative whom he said was British, but that named individual could not be reached for comment.

Asked for comment on December 12, during the late afternoon, local time, Stafford A. Ward, a spokesman for the US Embassy in Jakarta at first said he was not familiar with such a US program and did not know what Kopassus was.

An hour later Ward read out a statement that said that "there are no Americans in either Detachment 88 or Kopassus." When asked if there was any kind of US assistance to those units he said: "The US is not involved with either of those organizations. I can confirm to you that the US has no involvement with either Detachment 88 or Kopassus."

In fact, though, that US Embassy statement appeared to contradict the public record. US officials have frequently spoken on the record about their involvement with Detachment 88, including to the press and in meetings with and testimony to the US Congress.

Twenty minutes after issuing that denial, Embassy spokesman Ward sent the following email: "I misspoke earlier when you called me a second time today. The U.S. government works with Indonesia to bolster its counterterrorism capabilities. For example, the Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Office of Antiterrorism Assistance has trained Indonesian Antiterrorist Units."

This revised Embassy statement did not repeat the denials of the earlier statement, nor did it deny the presence of US personnel inside Detachment 88, nor did it deny the existence of covert US intelligence aid to Kopassus.

US officials have never acknowledged on the record the presence of US intelligence wiretappers inside Jakarta's security forces, nor have they acknowledged on the record the provision of intelligence assistance to Kopassus.

The initial Embassy denial, phrased in the present tense, came less than 24 hours after the US Congress, in Washington, made private inquiries to the US Executive Branch about whether the US was aiding or planning to aid Kopassus.

These Congressional inquiries came after this blog reported on December 7 that "the State Department this week was putting out urgent queries around Washington that make it sound as if they are planning to openly aid Kopassus," and after people in a position to know privately declined to deny that report.

It is not known whether the Congressional inquiries included the question of Detachment 88.

But in a call to the Detachment 88 office hours before today's initial carefully-phrased Embassy denial, the Indonesian officer who answered the phone said that the Americans had not come in to work today and that, as far as he knew, the British staffer there was on vacation.

Detachment 88 has been mentored by veteran CIA and State Department official Cofer Black, who was one of the architects of the US invasion of Afghanistan.

Detachment 88 is publicized as being aimed at violent jihadists, like the groups implicated in the bombings in Bali and Jakarta that killed more than 200 civilians.

But the US wiretapping program provides a capacity to target any kind of phone user in Indonesia, an issue of concern in a country where the security forces -- often US-assisted -- have killed many hundreds of thousands of civilian dissidents.

@2007 by Allan Nairn, News and Comment,

Friday, December 7, 2007

Imposed Hunger in Gaza, The Army in Indonesia. Questions of Logic and Activism.

The UN World Food Program estimates that, in the wake of Israel's cutoffs,"Food imports into the Gaza Strip are only enough to meet 41 percent of demand," (paraphrase by the UN-sponsored news agency, IRIN. IRIN, Jerusalem, "Only 41 percent of Gaza's food import needs being met," 6 December 2007), ie. Gazan food intake has been cut by a shock 59 percent.

Even a small cut in food consumption can stunt or kill already hungry people, particularly infants in the brain-development stage.

The UN sponsored IRIN news service reports that "Israeli travel and trade restrictions have led to a decline in purchasing power in Gaza. A recent WFP survey found that of the 62 percent of people who said they had reduced their expenditure in recent months, 97 percent reported a decrease in spending on clothing and 93 percent on food."

IRIN cites the case of Naheda Ghabaien, "a mother of five in the Beach refugee camp in central Gaza" whose husband "used to work three or four days a week bringing home about US$10 a day" but now, post sanctions, "only works a few days a month."

At least the Ghabaien family is getting some aid, unlike so many other nutritionally threatened people around the world. Every twelve weeks, another UN agency (UNRWA) gives them "amounts of rice, flour, oil and sugar that can last for four to six weeks. The family rarely eats meat anymore, relying mostly on vegetables."

"'When the agency food runs out,'" IRIN quotes Naheda Ghabaien as saying, "we buy the food we need on credit from the grocer. When my husband works, most of his daily earnings go to settling the debt."

The news agency notes that "(a)id workers say these sorts of coping mechanisms are reaching their limits" and cannot keep yielding food for Gaza's straitened people much longer.

Israel's government says that its sanctions are legal -- ie. are not a disproportionate reprisal, which is a war crime -- so it is logically saying that these food and other cutoffs are not worse than the Gazan rocketing of Israel .

So, if that is the case, Israel should be willing to agree to a simple switch: Gaza gets the power and right to effectively cut off 59% of Israel's food (as well as being able to shut its electricity, fuel, communications, medical supplies, travel rights, airspace etc.), and Israel gets the right to rocket Gaza as Gaza has rocketed Israel, ie. in a manner that has killed Israeli civilians at the rate of roughly one every four months.

Would the Israeli government agree to this bargain that is strictly based on its own legal logic?

Of course not. They'd be foolish if they did. They already bomb and shell Gaza, and other places, at will, killing Palestinan and Arab civilians at roughly the rate of ten for each Israeli civilian (for statistics within the Occupied Territories, see the Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem,, and if anyone were to cut more than half of Israel's food, as Israel is now doing to Gaza, that place would immediately be leveled by Israel, and/or the United States.

As in so many other cases, power, not a power-wielder's own legal logic, prevails.

In Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country ostensibly critical of Israel -- but whose killer armed forces have discreetly taken Israeli aid -- the President, Gen. Susilo, is in the process of appointing his country's army commander as the overall armed forces chief, even though it is not the army's turn in the supposed rotation.

Reuters, Jakarta (November 28, 2007) calls it "a move some observers say will ensure [Susilo] the support of the powerful military in the run-up to 2009 elections" (also see AFP, Jakarta, December 6, 2007, which draws the same conclusion) which is required since, as political Jakarta knows, no one wins and governs without the army.

The twist is that, a few years ago, when Indonesia started putting in non-army men (ie. air force and navy men) as armed forces commanders, this was hailed as progress and reform by the regime's academic and political apologists.

Their somewhat self-incriminating argument was that since most civilian killings were done by the army (which is true), things would be better with the navy (that helped abduct many tens of thousands in post-'99-vote Timor, and this year did a massacre in Java [see posting of November 13, 2007, "Vomiting to Death on a Plane. Arsenic Democracy."]) or the air force (that bombed Timor and Aceh) in charge.

If they believed their own logic they should now say that this appointment of an army man is a regression, a conclusion unlikely to be drawn, since the US Congress is just now deciding just how many millions they are going to give these very armed forces.

In fact, the State Department this week was putting out urgent queries around Washington that make it sound as if they are planning to openly aid Kopassus, the most notoriously sadistic army unit, and, historically, the most heavily US-trained one.

(Gen. Prabowo, the most notorious of all Kopassus commanders -- and that is saying a lot -- did his training at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg, among other places, and, his murderous record notwithstanding, was once cited in a US Embassy memo as an example of the success of US training, specifically the IMET [International Military Education and Training] program. Prabowo once complained to an American that all this had been a mixed blessing for him since, he said, some other Indonesian generals made fun of him because he spoke English so well; he said they called him "The American").

The phone number of the US Congress is 202-224-3121, the members of the deciding Conference Committee are listed below, and the East Timor & Indonesia Action Network, ETAN ( has documented background information and action suggestions, as a starting point.

Activism actually beat the US Executive (under presidents Bush I and Clinton) and, through military aid cutoffs forced via Congress, helped to bring down Suharto and free occupied Timor.

(Suharto's old security chief, Adm. Sudomo once told me that Suharto fell because they failed to open fire early and thoroughly on the Jakarta student demonstrators, because they feared further US aid cutoffs, as were imposed after the '91 Dili, Timor massacre. As I left his vast cement-bunker house, adorned with pictures of him and the US golfer, Arnold Palmer, I realized that he probably hadn't paid attention to who he was telling this story to, since on the way out he gave me a book that condemned me for my actions at Dili, and after.)

Those activist victories were possible in part because Indonesia was not a Washington priority. It was handled mainly by middle-level bureaucrats. The big boys were busy with other killer forces. Likewise, our entire fierce nine-year Congressional aid-cut struggle was ignored by the US corporate media, which was in a way frustrating, but in another way perhaps good, since that may have delayed the counter-mobilization by Jakarta, US corporations, and the US diplomatic/ military/ intelligence establishment that didn't get serious until 1994 with the launching of the US-Indonesia Society lobby group (in which Gen. Prabowo had a hand), and other initiatives.

Israel/ Palestine is an entirely different matter, top of the government, media, and counter-mobilization lists. Efforts to change that policy cannot hope to steal a march under the political radar. But the distinguished -- and therefore, often vilified -- scholar of the matter, Norman G. Finkelstein (highly praised by the most serious figures, eg. Raul Hilberg, Avi Shlaim, while, at the same time, lied about by others) believes that a slow shift in US opinion is underway, starting, interestingly, among younger US Jews.

Power is one thing. Fact and logic are another. They should not be confused.

The sooner people at our end, the trigger-end, honestly open their eyes and simply see, the sooner people at the exit-end -- where the bullets and food-cuts come out -- will stop having their own eyes forcibly and permanently closed by death.

Link to view this posting in German translation.

Members of the US House - Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Conference Committee currently deciding on major parts of US military aid to Indonesia:

House Democrats:

Nita M. Lowey (NY), Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chair [a critic of the Indonesian military, but has been under strong pressure from the Executive Branch and from her subcommittee's ranking Republican, Frank Wolf (VA); as with Sen. Leahy (VT), how strong a stand she takes will be crucial]
Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. (IL)
Adam Schiff (CA)
Steve Israel (NY)
Ben Chandler (KY)
Steven R. Rothman (NJ)
Barbara Lee (CA)
Betty McCollum (MN)
Dave Obey (WI), Ex Officio, Appropriations Committee Chair [former strong critic of the Indonesian military, less involved in recent years]

House Republicans:

Frank R. Wolf (VA), Ranking Member [generally interested in human rights, but formerly a critic of the Indonesian military, and now a key supporter of them]
Joe Knollenberg (MI)
Mark Steven Kirk (IL) [former State Department official who professes interest in human rights]
Ander Crenshaw (FL)
Dave Weldon (FL)
Jerry Lewis (CA), Ex Officio, Appropriations Committee Ranking Member

Senate Democrats:

Robert Byrd (WVA), Appropriations Committee Chair
Patrick Leahy (VT), Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chair [most important critic of the Indonesian military, but much depends on how strong a stand he takes]
Daniel Inouye (HI) [single most important backer of the Indonesian military]
Tom Harkin (IA)
Barbara Mikulski (MD)
Richard Durbin (IL)
Tim Johnson (SD)
Mary Landrieu (LA)
Jack Reed (RI)

Senate Republicans:

Thad Cochran (MS), Appropriations Committee Ranking Member
Judd Gregg (NH), Foreign Operations Subcommittee Ranking Member
Mitch McConnell (KY), [longtime supporter of the Indonesian military]
Arlen Specter (PA)
Robert Bennett (UT)
Christopher Bond (MO),[current lead Republican backer of the Indonesian military, and the Indonesian presidential intelligence agency, BIN]
Sam Brownback (KS), [a Republican often receptive on human rights issues]
Lamar Alexander (TN)

All can be reached through the US Congressional Switchboard: 202-224-3121

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

It Takes (Out) a Village: Illegitimate American Power.

Hillary Clinton just pointed out that whoever holds the US presidency can, on both national and foreign matters, engage in "split-second decision-making that can affect the lives of millions of people" (AFP, New Straits Times [Malaysia], December 5, 2007).

Clinton made her remark as a criticism, but of her campaign opponent, not the system.

She was saying that her competitor, Barack Obama, was unqualified to have that power, not that there was any problem with the fact that such Zeus-like power exists in the first place.

One American deciding. Millions of lives. Fates determined almost in passing.

If you pull back and think about it -- slowly -- doesn't it all seem a bit improper?

For most political Americans the answer would probably be that they haven't yet thought about it, because in US politics, the existence of such power is taken as a no-need-to-think-of given.

But at the other end of the stick -- or the other end of the rifle, where the bullets come out -- there is a bit more consciousness of this remarkable fact about today's wildly unbalanced world.

Its why the US presidential campaign gets heavily covered in the popular press of, say, Malaysia, while on the other, US, end -- the trigger end -- editors are only dimly aware that that country exists.

It is also why, say, junior US Congressional or Executive Branch aides -- or, for that matter, US journalists -- can get treated like pashas when they visit weaker countries overseas.

If people figure out that you or your perceived (or real) team have the power to kill them or feed them, they tend to -- as one would rationally expect -- act toward you accordingly.

For years, those actions have tended toward deference -- though lately there's sometimes been more anger -- but both the deference and the anger flow from the same realization: that when you talk to extremely powerful people, you are talking to he (or she) who can shape your fate.

Of course, concentrated power is not a modern or a US invention, and it will always exist to some degree. But, as with many things, it is a question of, first,: to exactly what degree? And second, power to do what? To take my life, if you feel like it?

In today's world, power is so skewed -- in its distribution, its nature, and in its very scale -- that people like, say, American presidents can take out villages and barely know or remember it.

I once interviewed former President Ford on the phone and asked him if it was true that in a meeting with the dictator Suharto he had authorized the East Timor invasion.

Although I had told Ford's staff in advance that I was going to ask him about that meeting, he replied -- I think, honestly -- that he just could not remember.

He said the meeting had had a long agenda -- a fact confirmed by the later-declassified transcript -- and Timor was somewhere down the list, so he apologetically said that he couldn't be sure.

In fact, Ford did give the thumbs-up and, thereby, launched -- within a day -- what would become the greatest proportional slaughter since the Nazis.

If you're the ruler of any other country (including China, Russia, England, or France, the arguable candidates for distant -- very distant -- #2 world killing power), you don't have to stick Post-It notes on your computer to remember what countries you've caused to be invaded, or have provided with "lethal aid" (the actual Washington term for US assistance to the killing capacities of friendly forces).

How could such power possibly be legitimate? It can't be, by definition.

Even though you may have won a vote, and the voters are sovereign, the voters do not have the right to authorize you to facilitate murder.

People should not be running for president, they should be running to abolish the American presidency -- and state -- as they are now constituted, that is, as institutions that assume killing rights that no one has the right to give them.

Back in the summer of 2000, before he flew off to his death in Indonesia, I had several conversations with Jafar Siddiq Hamzah about his survival chances.

He was an Acehnese human rights lawyer, the emerging international voice of his people. He was waging a political struggle against the terror of the US-sponsored Indonesian army and police (a Clinton official had told the New York Times that Suharto was "our kind of guy"), and he had left the country after interrogation, surveillance, repeated threats, the torching of his office, and the disappearance or assassination of many of his friends.

But now he had a plan to go back -- for just a couple of months, he said -- and it turned in part on the fact that he had become, arguably, a kind of quasi-American. He had driven a New York City cab, was working on a Masters (The New School, political science), had achieved US permanent residency, and had even met with State Department officials and testified in the US Congress.

That had to count for something, he thought. But it didn't quite suffice.

When they found his body, it was unrecognizable . His jaw was gaping, as in a death scream, and the doctor said that they had apparently sliced off his face, perhaps with razor blades, or knives.

Maybe Jafar's mistake was that he did not become American enough.

Maybe he should have gotten citizenship, moved to Iowa, participated in the caucuses, and then cast that mystically-imbued American vote that grants life-and-death decision over millions, but have figured out how to cast it in such a way that it would have allowed him to return home without ending up outside Naga Lingga, North Sumatra, at the bottom of the village ravine.

I don't know how he could have actually cast such a vote. There was no serious anti-murder candidate.

But, who knows, perhaps he could have figured something out. Jafar was a creative fellow.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Knowing Where the Bodies Are Buried. The Indonesian Generals -- and Putin -- Laugh.

The phrase "knowing where the bodies are buried" has different meanings in Timor and Washington.

In Washington, it means knowing some incriminating gossip about somebody, whereas in Timor-Leste the meaning of that phrase is unfortunately literal.

The November 12, 1991 Santa Cruz, Dili massacre was a turning point in Timorese history. The fact that it got outside attention opened the door for an independence that has been rough for Timor (due to ridiculous squabbling among its' politicians), but that has ended the daily terror and massacre that was the Indonesian occupation.

But one thing that Timor independence didn't do was produce a regime confident or responsive enough to stand for justice and insist that Indonesian officers be put on trial for their crimes.

(Of course, a Timorese insistence would not suffice, since the Indonesian generals are still in power and the last thing Washington wants is a Nuremberg for its' trainees [or, for that matter, itself], but it makes some political -- and moral/ morale -- difference when the new Timorese rulers say 'Don't bother.').

Instead of testifying and watching the perpetrators of this Nazi-like slaughter hauled off to lock-up (both the Nazis and the Jakarta generals killed a third of their target populations; in Timor's case, it was 200,000, starting after the 1975 US-backed invasion), the Timorese people have been reduced to politely begging their old murderers to tell them where they dumped the bodies.

This past November 12, some Timorese survivors requested precisely that in a petition submitted via the Indonesian Embassy in Dili to President/ General Susilo of Indonesia.

The press quoted the group's spokesman as suggesting that "every human being must have a grave," but reported that the petitioners made clear that they weren't seeking to offend Indonesia's government. (see Jose Sarito Amaral, "East Timor marks anniversary of 1991 cemetery killings," Tempo [Jakarta] website, 13 November, 2007, [in English], via BBC Monitoring, Asia Pacific, via Joyo Indonesian News Service).

Its easy to imagine the response to this petition by whatever uniformed man may have perused it: soft laughter and a search for the trash can. 'Will those Timorese never learn?'

The elected leaders of independent Timor have been hugging the Indonesian generals for years (this is not a figure of speech), and instead of being jailed, the perpetrator officers have been promoted, gotten richer, gotten their US aid restored, and make regular appearances as respected figures, including ones on Indonesian TV during which, rather than being exposed, shunned, and humiliated for their unwashable blood-sticky hands, they dance and laugh and josh around with sexy female celebrity singers.

As Vladimir Putin's triumph in Russia says to the ghosts of Anna Politkovskaya and of the Chechens she wrote about, if justice ever gets here, it often doesn't happen in this lifetime.

Maybe that's one reason people turn to God. For they often cannot turn to politics for even such a simple, earthly thing as justice for their family's slaughter.

Bereft, they feel no choice but to pray. Either that, or change the system.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

'Go ahead, kill them. Just be sure to fill out your expense account.' Law and Order in Bangkok, Washington, and other Pre-Civilized Capitals.

A headline in the Bangkok Post (November 27, 2007) says that ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra "faces up to 26 years in jail" for corruption, while elsewhere in the paper it is reported that his party might well win the coming Thai elections.

If that happens and Thaksin's people win big, there is no way that he will be jailed. Indeed, it is far more likely that he will return from exile a hero.

It just goes to show that law, even criminal law, is ultimately political, and one test of a society's progress is how impartial it lets law be.

Rich, powerful countries like to claim they have achieved great impartiality, but that is true only to a certain extent, and, more importantly, only on certain matters.

As President Nixon, for example, learned, the US has many rules on cheating, and if he is caught breaking them even a powerful president can be brought down.

Just last week, the Texas oil man, Oscar Wyatt -- a donor and friend to many presidents -- was sentenced to prison because he made some illegal deals with Saddam Hussein. Kenneth Lay of Enron, once Bush's #1 donor, was convicted of corruption and died in disgrace. Another of America's biggest businessmen, Bernie Ebbers, is now doing a long corruption term, and Conrad Black, a buddy of Kissinger, Richard Perle, and other Washington powers, is facing a similar fate because he was convicted of stealing from his company's shareholders.

Rudolph Giuliani, one of the frontrunners for the US Republican nomination for president, is now getting flak because he reportedly used public money to visit his mistress.

The point is that in places like the United States rich and powerful people can face real constraints, but only on secondary matters like cheating and corruption, not on the biggest one: official murder.

US business people fall left and right if they're, say, caught backdating stock options, but have never yet faced prosecution for the murders of labor leaders at their foreign factories.

Fred Sherwood, then a leader of AMCHAM, the American Chamber of Commerce in Guatemala, told me in 1980 how he would call in the legendary killer, torturer, and rapist Col. German Chupina (then the national police chief of Guatemala) if any of the workers at his factory, Productos de Kenaf, got too aggressive in their unionism. Half a dozen such workers were assassinated. Sherwood said he had given Chupina their names. He then capped the story with a joke about archaeologists who were baffled by a mummy they'd found, but then they called in Col. Chupina, and "within an hour, the mummy talked!"

The transaction is usually more subtle than that, but MNCs routinely cut deals to do business in places where the security forces routinely murder dissidents, and -- lo and behold -- discover that a. they can attract good workers for very low wages, and b. occasionally some of their own workers get shot if they persistently ask for higher ones.

The fact that such killings happened in recent years at Coca-Cola in Colombia, for example, did nothing to damage the stellar reputation of major stockholder Warren Buffett, and its a safe bet that no one in Washington's Justice Department even thought of opening a case file, or asking their prosecutorial colleagues in Colombia to have a look at the matter themselves.

US overseas big business is seen as a quasi-extension of the US state, and when playing on foreign turf they essentially get an only somewhat weaker version of the same exemption US state officials get: a license to cause the death of foreign civilians in the course of official business without fearing that a police officer will come knocking on their own door.

If Giuliani becomes President, and, say, decides to bomb Mecca as a symbolic gesture (a move that one Republican candidate, Rep. Tom Tancredo, has actually suggested, if there's another terrorist attack on the US), he won't have to answer to a US judge for the civilian lives he'll take.

But if, Allah help him, Giuliani is ever caught, say, cheating on his taxes, he could find that US justice can be impartial, swift, and fair.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Power Can Buy You People. Can It Buy You Happiness? The Regime Still Stands in Burma, Where "The People Just Want Food."

Crossing the Moei river from Thailand into Burma you see many river bathers. But if you look again more closely you notice they are all on the Burma side.

More Thais enjoy a degree of wealth conducive to piped-in water, which means fewer bad microbes, and therefore a chance at longer, more active lives.

If you happen to enter Burma via a legal route, through a regime checkpoint reputed as "rustic," you notice that it actually has an IBM clone running Windows and a camera-capture program that impressively prints out in seconds two cards containing one's personal data, and, in the upper right-hand corner of each, a little color photo of your face, from below.

The army Intel man in the booth has a nice silver watch and Che Guevara t-shirt, but he is not visibly packing a pistol. Few arms are visible in this Intel town.

A middle-aged Burmese woman, a highly-trained professional who fled Rangoon post-September, said that she was surprised when the army fired on them since, this time, they followed the monks' lead, and rather than demonstrating "angrily" with fists raised, they mainly proceeded quietly.

But the soldiers opened-up anyway, so now she's sheltering near the mountains.

"The people cannot understand why they are in poverty," she argued, a state which degrades them "physically, educationally, even morally," thus making it easier for the military to recruit thugs from regular people, basically doubling their virtually non-existent normal wage to get them to beat up dissenting neighbors.

Walking through town, one sees the usual Buddhist temples and, for this region, Christian churches, but also many pool halls and karaokes, lots of Johnny Walker Red and Black, and smart-ass young men lounging back on low teak chairs playing X-Box video.

They are smaller and thinner than their Thai contemporaries across the river, but still -- given what they have -- muscular. They give off what an Indonesian would call a distinctly "preman" vibe (preman being the Indonesian street thugs sponsored by army police, or local big men, or, freelancing if they're small-time enough).

One, using the universal semaphore of jerked back thumb and extended pinkie invites me to drink with him and his laughing boys. Another, inside a temple compound, before a golden shrine to the Buddha, ascertains that I'm from America, laughs when I point to his "US Army" jacket, and, without further preliminaries, offers to procure me a Burmese "lady."

A block off the main street, the houses' walls are paper thin, as with the very poor in Indonesia, but this in a region where it is cool -- even by US northern standards --, and where many wear long sleeves and jackets.

Outside Basic Education High School there is an anti-drug sign, in English ("The Fight Against Drug Menace is a National Cause"), this from a regime that helped lead the world in heroin (the phrase was "Golden Triangle," and the CIA's facilitating role was documented in Alfred W. McCoy's classic scholarly study "The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia" [1972]) until it was recently outstripped by US/NATO occupied Afghanistan.

Outside the police base there is another English sign, this one announcing a "crime free week" this past March, presumably a week in which the junta sold no drugs and freed its political prisoners.

The military base is tucked a ways off the main road, beside some just-turned-over black earth and is so not-under-siege in feeling that its gate was sitting open and I didn't even notice the one very young guard until I shifted position to look for buffalos in the farmland and spotted him behind a pillar.

Its an anticlimactic contrast to the September footage from bloodsmeared downtown Rangoon, or, for that matter to the scene in today's Muslim southern Thailand where a vicious insurgency has the Thai army and police (who were vicious first, and still are) locked-in and very frightened.

When I asked that professional woman whether she thought the Burmese junta was frightened, she said: "Yes, I think they are afraid. They cannot sleep at night. And if they sleep, they have nightmares; they cannot be happy. They have power but they cannot have happiness."

That may (hopefully) be the case, but given a chance to reverse that polarity, I doubt that many repressive Generals would take it, inside Burma or elsewhere.

Indeed, there is a rumor going around the world that power brings -- or is a form of -- happiness, and many act is if they believe that to be so, hiring and shooting their way toward fulfillment.

On the way out of town I was accosted by a plump, spectacled man in safron monk's garb, who, sweating and speaking good English, explained rapid-fire -- with my barely asking a question -- that he had studied engineering in Singapore, was still meditating to control his body, and that the demonstrations had been staged by a team of "false monks" controlled by "an underground communist unit" (as were, he said, all the other various rebel/ dissident groups in Burma), that Aung San Suu Kyi was British, not Burmese, that her father had been a communist (which happened to be true, though his main politics were nationalist), and that -- getting interesting -- his own
(the monk's) sister is on the board of a shipping firm in Singpore that is controlled by Gen. Maung Aye, the junta's current number two (an Intel specialist), and that he, the monk, is related to various other generals, including the former Intel chief and Prime Minister, Gen. Khin Nyunt (who not long ago lost an internal power struggle, and is now, as this monk put it, "behind the partition," ie. interned inside the Insein political prison).

The monk gave me his G-mail and Hotmail addresses, said the Burmese don't know what democracy is (though -- he said -- he and I do), and in the most interesting moment, answered the question: "Do the people like the government?"

"I and people like me do," he said, "but the people just want food. All they want is food and peace." I said I had to go.

He said if I wanted "the truth about Burma," he would send it to me through G-mail.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thomas L. Friedman and the Bali Bombers. Cold-Blooded Celebrity.

The Daily Telegraph of Australia carries a report of an extraordinary death-row press conference/ festive family visit (Indonesian death rows run on looser rules than do American ones) involving Bali-bomb planner Imam Samudra who is said to have told reporters when asked what he would say to the victims' families: "If they are unbelievers I say to them, it is your risk because you are kafir and unbeliever ... If the people are not Muslim I am never, never sorry for them."(Cindy Wockner and Gita Anggun Athika, "Terrorists' Final Insult. Facing hate: the day I met the Bali bombers," The Daily Telegraph (Australia), Saturday, November 24, 2007 [via Joyo Indonesian News Service])

The writer justly complained that Imam Samudra and his two co-convicts "were being treated more like celebrities than the cold-blooded killers they are."

In May, 2003, not on death row, but on a prestige forum on US network TV, a leading thinker of the US establishment, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, gave perhaps the most compelling explanation yet by a powerful Washington figure for why the US invaded Iraq -- or, more precisely, why it felt compelled at that moment to invade a Muslim country like Iraq.

Speaking on the Charlie Rose show, Friedman postulated the existence of a terrorist "bubble" -- a prevailing idea -- then popular, he said, in a certain part of the world:

"And what we needed to do was go over to that part of the world, I'm afraid, and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there, basically, and take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble. And there was only one way to do it. Because part of that bubble said: 'We've got you. This bubble is actually going to level the balance of power between us and you because we don't care about life. We're ready to sacrifice and all you care about are your stock options and your Hummers.'"

"And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying: 'Which part of this sentence don't you understand? You don't think, you know, we care about our open society? You think this bubble fantasy, we're just going to let it grow? Well, suck on this.'"

"OK? That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. Could have hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could."

(Thomas Friedman appearance on Charlie Rose, PBS, May 30, 2003 , )

Friedman was obviously speaking metaphorically, playing the tough-guy on PBS, but when he was saying to the Muslims chosen to be used as examples "suck on this" -- once again articulating Washington's Id -- he seemed to be speaking not just in the sexual sense but also in the sense of inviting them to wrap their lips around an M-16.

Given the fact that the invasion of Iraq really was, to a significant extent, a case of find-a-Muslim, any Muslim,-and-kill-them, it can be difficult to convince overseas Muslims who raise the issue that US policy is not religion-driven.

But it isn't. The US system is too cold-blooded for that, despite the presence in it of some religious fanatics (like, for example, General William G. Boykin, Rumsfeld's special operations chief, or, for that matter, President Bush himself, who is reported to believe in Armageddon).

It was Washington's Zbigniew Brzezinski (now foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama) who once boasted of creating the Afghani jihadists (to screw the Soviets, he said, and, he added, it was definitely worth it; see "'The CIA's Intervention in Afghanistan,'" Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser, Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 15-21 January 1998, Posted at 15 October 2001), and it was the US that flew early Al Qaeda types to Bosnia to fight on the Muslim/ NATO side.

If you actually took Washington's pile of corpses from recent decades and sorted them out by religion, there's a good chance that the Catholic stack would stand highest, given the operations in South, then Central, America.

So there are clearly differences between the targeting criteria employed by a Friedman and an Imam Samudra. One would kill you if you had the wrong religion. The other if you had the wrong (non-US) address, and if he woke up that morning and simply felt that the national interest (or whim) required the killing of someone vaguely resembling your description.

There are differences, but there is a more important commonality, ie. a willingness to commit holy murder (or at least advocate it from a first class hotel room). In the name of God, in the name of the State, it doesn't really matter. If you're the victim, you're just as dead, and the perpetrator feels just as uplifted.

Its not clear if Imam Samudra is a good, punchy, concise writer, but that doesn't matter either. Since he is due to be executed, there won't be time for The New York Times to offer him a column

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Rising in Malaysia. Handle With Care. The Dangers of Feeding Poor People.

In downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, some Dior dresses just got dry-cleaned with tear gas, in an interesting illustration of the principle that if aggrieved people get enough food, things can happen, politically.

This Sunday morning, November 25th, local time, an extraordinary demonstration was mounted by vast numbers -- many tens of thousands, at least -- of Malaysian ethnic Tamils .

Among the poor ethnic Tamils of Indonesia, across the Malacca Straits, their Malaysian cousins are regarded as lucky, even "rich," to be living in such an affluent land.

But though the Malaysian Tamils -- known as "Indians" locally -- have crossed the thresholds of nutrition and energy, they are, in the Malaysian context, largely working class and politically marginal.

So Malaysia's rulers must have had their eyes popping out as they watched the closed-circuit security feeds (there was no public live broadcast of this momentous event on state-controlled or private TV) and saw waves of upset, well-built, mostly-male Tamils descending on the streets around the KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Center complex), the site of the elegant Petronas twin towers -- until recently, the world's tallest buildings -- , and the high-end Suria KLCC shopping center, which makes most US malls look shabby.

They had banned that demonstration, arrested its organizers for "sedition" (potential three years jail time, at least), and ringed the city with security checkpoints. And yet here they all were -- those formerly quiet working people -- mainly not even bussed-in or holding banners, the semi-spontaneous eruption of a political movement that just a few months ago did not exist. A few shouted things like "Freedom!," "Justice!" A few gave soapbox speeches without the soapboxes. But mainly they were just vast numbers of people standing and walking (and calling their friends on cell phones) in the street, and then suddenly sitting down when they saw the police open-up with water cannons.

If one asked what was going on, the first response was "we're non-violent!" (the one visible held poster was a color blow-up photo of Gandhi). As to why they were demonstrating, "Indian rights, we just want our rights!" One older gentleman started contending: "Under the British colony we were slaves. Now, freedom, but we are still slaves, we want equal rights to land, housing, our temples," but he stopped as everyone involved started shedding tears and retching, as the police opened-up again, this time with a fusillade of tear-gas canisters.

In the planned, high-political sense this was a procession to the nearby British High Commission to present a petition to the Queen in connection with a reparations lawsuit seeking 4 trillion dollars as compensation from the British for the colonial crime of having brought the Tamils to then-Malaya as indentured laborers.

But many in the huge crowd seemed not to know those details. The lawsuit, one of those long-shot political gambits that once in a blue moon actually works, had somehow lit a fire among people who had grown strong enough to carry torches, an ethnic minority (8% of Malaysians are Tamil) who noticed that the regime, for other reasons, was weakening and decided that their time had come -- in front of the mall with the designer labels.

As those affected fled the clouds of tear gas -- but, on recovery, cheered each new arc of canisters -- one could notice that the few police close to the scene had folding-stock machine-guns in the smalls of their backs.

If just one of them had reached around, pointed crowd-ways and pulled the trigger, Kuala Lumpur this morning probably would be amidst a mass uprising.

But today's Malaysia largely isn't like that. That's one of the reasons its people are fairly rich. After a vicious '50s counterinsurgency by the British in which many died in concentration camps (and which, along with El Salvador, is now being touted as a model "CI" by US intellectuals), Malaysia, after independence took a different road than post-'65 Indonesia, putting some controls on foreign investors, shockingly defying the IMF, and developing a big middle class with domestic industry, public works and housing, and -- as Malaysia pulled away economically from Indonesia and Bangladesh -- cheerfully exploiting the labor of the country's really poor poor people, the rotating pool of immigrant workers who work, get abused, get paid, and go home (or are sent home).

And crucially, Malaysia did something that London and Washington normally frown on: they utterly castrated the army as a political institution. Though Malaysia has been, and is, authoritarian with engineered elections, no free press, and a very nasty police Special Branch, they chose to eschew mass murder as a tool of (domestic) politics (internationally, they were close to Suharto, and now are to the Burmese junta).

In Malaysia, the army is a non-factor, not even a political joke, since almost literally no one thinks about it, let alone worries about it wielding power. I once spent a week in a Malaysian hospital room overlooking an army base and never once observed anything more martial there than coed volleyball.

What Jakarta and Washington (by proxy) have long done by usually having the guy pull the trigger, modern Malaysia has sought to do through more subtle repression and cooptation -- including the mounting of a tame, pro - government, Tamil political party (The Malaysian Indian Congress, MIC, whose leaders must also, at this moment, be sweating).

That regime formula is now in some trouble (in some part because, years ago, they got undisciplined and made the mistake of beating and jailing a complaining Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who is now out and mounting a challenge).

But the fact that they faced today's surprise popular surge and were able to hold their gun-fire shows that this is a regime that is still quite smart and disciplined.

They have come to understand that when poor people get rich enough to be strong but not rich enough to feel justly treated, those people become politically dangerous and should be handled with care.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bangladesh and Wall Street After the Flood: Two Different Kinds of Property

Early estimates say that maybe 3,000 people have died in the Bangladesh cyclone and floods.

And the footage shows that much poor-people's property has been destroyed -- houses gone, animals rotting -- therefore bringing many people closer to worse hunger, stunting, and earlier death.

If those now-famous rising sea-level projections are correct, Bangladeshis will perhaps suffer most, since on their very low landscape there reside large numbers of very poor people.

Those same computer animations that imagine what might happen if the oceans rise, also claim that, under extreme scenarios, New York's Wall Street might be under water.

But though that would destroy many papers and computers, and even immerse some vaulted-up gold, the damage would be largely temporary and the world's rich people would come out fine.

In the old days, when a Spanish galleon went down and its Aztec gold hit the ocean floor, the gold's new Spanish owners could figuratively hit the bottom too since there was no recovering that lucre by clicking a computer mouse (for such reasons, insurance arose).

But today, big money is digitized and safely launched into cyberspace to orbit, physically untouchable, until it is needed for recovery at its' owner's whim. (The only, now remote, exception to this situation -- unlikely to happen short of nuclear detonation or its internet equivalent -- is if the computer server that vouches for the money's existence somehow gets destroyed, and if no one has been sent a backup copy attesting that the owner is, indeed, still rich).

That's part of the nature of today's big capital, much of it is slippery, liquid, un-pin-down-able. It can be instantly recovered and/ or instantly moved, crashing (or bubbling) markets and currencies, or even -- again, at the owner's whim -- deigning to not let some people die.

But when you're very poor in most of the world you have no digitized, cybered, bank account. You're lucky if you have some coins or folding cash, and if its stored in, say, an elder's pocket or the lemari (the chest of drawers, as in Indonesia), and if it gets burnt or washed away then its lost and gone forever, as with chickens, full grain jars, or other small properties.

Richer peoples might say "a dollar's a dollar," but, economically, that isn't true. A rich person's cybered dollar carries its own built-in, arguably no-cost insurance. Come fire, flood, or come what may, that dollar will always be there, ie. that dollar is, in practice, worth more than the non-cybered dollars (or equivalents) held by the poor.

In homes in poor deltas in places like Bangladesh -- and such places make up most of the world -- one's modest wealth can, by its mere physicality, be eradicated by the hand of God, or by a petty thief, by a careless kid with matches (or, for that matter, by a developer's arsonist) or even, -- in those more recognizedly political cases -- by an unofficial, self-appointed bomber on foot, or an official Air Force one from on high.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Approach With Caution, Americans: Adam Smith Has a Gun

When hard rain falls on a tin-roofed house it sounds like a machine-gun assault. Unless you know the person you're talking to very well and can essentially read their lips, they have to bellow and you have to lean in ear-to-mouth to have a clue as to what they are saying.

But one of the blessings of the Suharto dictatorship -- and there weren't all that many -- was that though the Indonesian neighborhoods still have flimsy metal roofs, they largely do not have machine guns.

There are many semi-organized criminals -- "preman" -- , many with "beking" from the army/ police, but they do not usually carry firearms, only knives, short swords, machetes, or sticks. Suharto wanted to reserve the guns for only his most formal, disciplined agents.

Suharto's reasons for control were nefarious. But some kinds of social control are good, and today's poor Indonesians, in most places, still benefit from the absence of something bad, guns, an absence that -- like, say, the absence, in most countries, of plagues of locusts -- you don't normally even think of as being absent since you don't think about it at all

But Indonesians are notionally aware of what life might be like if poor neighborhoods were flooded with firearms since, via international TV syndication, they've heard a lot about the United States.

At least before Homeland Security kicked in, most everyone wanted to visit America, and poor Indonesians were no exception, except that many would say that though they imagined a land of regular-eating opportunity, they would be kind of afraid to go there. 'Lots of mafia there, ya?' they'd say after watching countless shows of Americans shooting. And many asked me: 'Is it really true that all Americans carry a gun?'

I'd have to answer, no, but you're not all that far off; things are different in America. "Ngeri," "horrifying," was a typical -- sympathetic -- response, and this from often-hungry people in a country where the government was famed for massacre, torture, and assassination.

Back in the US a few months ago I rode through Newark, New Jersey's West and South Wards with Lawrence Hamm/ Adhimu Changa, an old friend, and a brilliant community and national leader (he is chair of the People's Organization for Progress), and as we roamed the neighborhoods where he grew up and has continued to work ever since -- and where white, openly racially hostile police used to mete out unchecked abuse to black residents, like the POLRI (Indonesian national police) do to Indonesia's poor today -- there were police helicopters hovering overhead, and street-level gunshots in the distance.

A few years ago, the last time I had been there, it hadn't been that way. The guns and youth-crime were surging again, he said -- not that they ever went away. The same phenomenon is happening in a number of cities across the US, while others still have placid, privileged enclaves yet to feel the wave of propelled metal, still thinking that their cities have been "cleaned up," that their urban problem has been solved.

A few weeks later, when I was talking to Adhimu on the phone, he was interrupted by another call: A colleague of his -- a community anti-violence activist -- had been attending the funeral of a young gun victim, when that man, Anthony Hall, got a call that his own son had just been shot dead in another incident.

If a poor kampung resident came to Newark's western Wards they might say 'Look at all these rich people' (They have drinkable water, houses with solid worm-proof floors, regular electricity, access to cars), but if asked to exchange street situations with them, I doubt that many would take the deal (indeed one such resident who made a similar trip said just that, in emphatic terms).

Its complex to analyze different societies, but simple to note one key aspect: though it is arguably a technical difference, it makes a huge difference to the outcomes of lives whether a troubled society -- and, how many societies aren't? -- has or does not have large numbers of popularly available guns.

Its troubling to see an agitated teenager on the corner twirling an 18-inch curved sword. But its another story to see a similarly composed young man standing there twirling a MAC-10 machine pistol.

The differences are quite concrete. You can fight off a knife/sword wielder. The moves are well known. Little kampung boys leap around practicing them, jabbing the air, squealing with super-hero delight.

You can retreat, duck down, kick out his legs, or suddenly grab your assailant's arm from below or from the side. Or you can really retreat, shut a door, and wait for the hothead to cool down, go away, or just get bored and crouch down, having a smoke, like everybody else.

Even in the worst case, if he strikes flesh, a single slash might not be crippling, and if he inserts to stab, that takes some crucial micro-seconds, allowing friends or bystanders to jump him. (There are some women who are as good with a sharp weapon as men are -- on offense or defense; its not necessarily a skill greatly honored among women, but drunk spouses tend not to mess with them).

And even in the very worst case -- he succeeds -- a knife/sword wielder can usually only kill one at a time. And in a crowded kampung, if the death toll does rise to two, it is just as likely that that second decedent will be the assailant himself (finished off via kicking and beating by an outraged crowd), as opposed to another one of his targets or a mere coincidental bystander.

But with a fire-arm, as they say on those mafia shows that give foreigners key facts about America -- forget about it -- , its over with a trigger-twitch, maybe even an accidental one. There's no self-defense, unless you're also packing (and lucky enough to have an assailant with bad aim), and the numbers of mortal/crippled victims are easily multiple. Instant murderers and murderees. One little finger pull and its all over: marriages, futures, lives.

If poor Indonesians really knew what they were missing out on they'd be sending the evil Suharto prayers (even though he is still alive, and ill -- at least when the word "prosecution" is mentioned).

In the US, activists often pointedly observe that there are no gun factories in the poor, gun-shot neighborhoods, and ask how these social time-bombs keep getting smuggled into their communities. Sometimes people get too fancy in their analysis and suggest a genocidal plot. But such a big, motivated, complex thing isn't necessary: all it takes is a working free market -- a working free market and a state that feels no compulsion to keep the invisible hand from shooting people.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Getting Shot in the Stomach: Hunger and Dissent in Burma, and Other Countries...

Talking with some Burmese activists the other day, one young leader made a crucial point.

The discussion included familiar topics like sanctions and military practices -- at the Mingalardon base, for example, the Myanmar army supposedly likes to recruit from orphanages, and, according to a fellow who once lived on base, recruits seeking permission to go to the toilet are required to first take off all their clothes to ensure that they won't try to run away.

But that young leader kept coming back to a theme that applies to very poor people everywhere: "Burmese people are in a very dramatic situation," he said. "If they want to participate in demonstrations they have to look at their own stomachs. They wish to participate in demonstrations, but they have to think about their food. If they wish to oppose, they have to think about their own self. If they spend just a few hours in opposition they pay a very difficult price."

The price he was referring to was not the danger of being caught, shot or beaten by soldiers, but rather to the price of having to forgo a couple of hours of work, and, thereby, some crucial number of grams of food for one's self or family.

The point is that if you're close to the hunger line, time (and energy) for politics is very costly.

Some societies, like the US, like to say that time is money. But if you really don't have much money, its different. Then, time is food (or it can be, if you're lucky enough to have a job or location that can enable you to make it food).

"The Burma people want to spread their feeling," he continued, "but they are scared by the regime. Not only because of the killing and imprisonment, but because daily life is also very difficult in this day."

"The Burmese person wants to gain democracy, but what does he do for the family? If he opposes the military regime, the next day his family maybe faces starvation."

If you don't, say, pick and sell your fruit for half a day, or get the boss's pocket change you all count on, you may come home charged-up by politics but to a very disappointed family.

Under normal circumstances for poor people in today's Burma, he contended, "You may have enough for lunch for a big family, but going home to the house all the family is waiting for the dinner!"

The activists claimed that hunger is now bad, for example, in places west of Rangoon like Shwe pyi thar township, Hlain thar yar, and Ayar thar gyi.

They were referring to a threshold of hunger that is present -- not future -- oriented. It is one thing to worry about a few consecutive days of hunger endangering you babies' brains (see posting of November 8, 2007, "Duduk - Duduk, Ngobrol - Ngobrol. Sitting Around Talking, in Indonesia."), but it is another to worry about a lack of food tonight maybe causing you to keel over.

When you reach such a point, you reach for anything (almost). In East Nusa Tenggara Indonesia it is not-normally-consumable roots or leaves. In Burma now the meal of non-choice is rice-water porridge, served with nothing.

It is reminiscent, in a way, of Honduras in the 1980s, a far looser, semi-feudal regime. At that time, much of popular Central America was rising up, but in Honduras, largely not. When you asked people why, the answer was usually the same: the Hondurans are too hungry and tired. It was true that they had a big US base and a US-trained military death squad (Battalion 316, backed by the US Army Rangers, the CIA, and then "proconsul" John Negroponte), but it was emblematic of the situation that 316 murdered civilians by the dozens, while its US-backed counterparts in neighboring countries found it necessary to do it by the tens of thousands.

Though the Burmese regime did one of the big all-at-once massacres of recent decades -- 3,000 in 1988 -- the regime has since maintained its power with much less actual gun murder than, say, Indonesia.

It is interesting that the recent Burmese protests were apparently dispersed with fewer killings than in '88. Back then, all the activists agreed, people were eating better.

Hunger -- other people's -- can be the ruler's friend, so long as it doesn't undermine the regime's style of economy (and in today's Burma, it apparently doesn't, since its based not on broad production but on a well-fed martial elite selling minerals, gems, and narcotics to foreigners).

That's not to say that those rulers are not vulnerable. They may be. It in some part depends on their foreign customers/backers.

But for a poor Burmese, you have to think before you spread your feeling. You might get shot in the stomach, even if your adversary doesn't fire his gun.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Vomiting to Death on a Plane. Arsenic Democracy.

On Tuesday the big front page news in the two leading newspapers of northern Sumatra was that Indonesia's President, Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has received a democracy medal from the International Association of Political Consultants.

The banner headline in Waspada -- citing Susilo -- was "Indonesian Democracy is Permanent" ("Demokrasi RI Permanen"). Analisa's front page ran a huge above-the-fold photo of a sea of fierce-looking TNI (Indonesian armed forces) camouflage soldiers -- heading for Lebanon, as peacekeepers, as well as a photo of three top TNI commanders clasping hands, and a photo of the President General with his medal and his American presenter, Ben Goddard.

It reminded me of the time the United Nations presented a population - control award to the former President (seven times elected) of Indonesia, General Suharto. I was sitting in the UN General Assembly gallery that day, waiting for Suharto to enter, when UN security came up and politely explained that they had to throw me out.

They said that Ali Alatas, the Indonesian Foreign Minister, had spotted me from the Assembly floor and was insisting that I be expelled before Suharto would enter the room. He was afraid I might create an incident. He was right -- I had recently witnessed one of Suharto/TNI(then called ABRI)'s massacres, this one in occupied Dili, East Timor, but I would not have disputed that Suharto was indeed an expert in population control.

Gen. Susilo is likewise an undisputed expert in pre-civilized-world democracy, having sustained the TNI's primacy and exemption from the murder laws while winning foreign democratic plaudits and thereby, billions of divertable dollars (Farid Faqih, the man who first blew the whistle on army tsunami aid corruption was beaten, jailed, and is now forgotten) and a refreshed flow of foreign weapons and, particularly, "antiterrorist" gear and training.

This includes mass wiretapping facilities, including the ability to quickly home in on SMS text messages, like the one that sent Detachment 88, the new SWAT-jumpsuited, US-created antiterrorist task force ("antiterrorist" in the rationale sense, not in the objective sense), descending on Iwangin Sabar Olif -- a human rights lawyer -- as he walked down the street in West Papua, an effectively occupied region to which visits by outsiders are restricted, and that was incorporated into Indonesia in a rigged vote later termed "a whitewash" by the UN official who oversaw it (Chakravarthy Narashiman, then the undersecretary general: "Indonesia's Papua Referendum Was A Farce - Ex UN Officials," Associated Press, Jakarta, November 21, 2001).

Iwangin wasn't planning a jihadist bombing (the kind of terrorism the US likes to criticize), or a shooting of civilians (the kind the TNI likes to commit; indeed, one of the officers in today's Analsia front page photo, the new Navy commander, heads a department that has just seen charges dropped against Marines who, in Pasuruan, East Java, shot dead four civilians, including a pregnant woman, after villagers protested a TNI land-grab. The Navy chief at the time -- also in the photo -- said the Marines had followed standard procedure [see Tony Hotland, "Navy Denies Rights Abuse in Pasuruan," Jakarta Post, June 7, 2007.]).

The Papuan lawyer wasn't planning anything, just forwarding to family and friends an SMS he had received that criticized the TNI in Papua -- criticized them in milder terms, it should be said, than a couple of foreign academic reports (from Yale, in the US, and from Australia's University of Sydney) that have gone so far as to claim that Jakarta's depletion of Papuans might qualify as "genocide."

That's a word that is overused, but the point is that Papuans are now facing the kind of operation -- and some of the same perpetrator officers -- previously used to control the population in Timor and Aceh. One of them, Col. Siagian, twice indicted for crimes against humanity in Timor (the indictment was by a UN-sponsored tribunal, but Susilo's government won't turn him over), has vowed to "destroy" and "crush" Papuan dissidents, informatively adding "we are not afraid of human rights." (Cenderawasih Pos, May 12, 2007, cited in "Urge Indonesia to Remove Indicted Officer from West Papua," East Timor and Indonesia Action Network & West Papua Advocacy Team Action Alert).

The Papuan lawyer seized by those US-trained antiterrorists was charged with "incitement and insulting the head of state," ie. Gen. Susilo. ("Police need to explain arrrest of Papuan human rights lawyer -- Komnas HAM [the official national human rights commission]," Kompas, November 1, 2007, translation by James Balowski, via Joyo Indonesian News Service; see also, West Papua Human Rights Report, 24 October 2007, "West Papuan Human Rights Lawyer arrested by US & Australian trained Anti Terrorism police," also via Joyo.)

Indonesia is called a democracy because Gen. Susilo could indeed be voted out (as opposed to Suharto who decided the country needed him, personally), but it is taken as a mere given in Jakarta that he could not be replaced by anyone who did not win the approval of the institutional TNI, and indeed, some vast financial support from military-allied oligarchs.

In the days when Indonesian political activism was still hot, not long after Suharto fell, one President, Abdurahman Wahid, "Gus Dur," did briefly, tentatively, cross the army and he was ushered out with cannons pointing at the palace and the Moluccan islands in in flames. (In the Moluccas, it was what TNI military manuals call a "provokasi" operation.)

There was still standing one brilliant national political figure, another human rights lawyer, named Munir, but he vomited to death on a plane after ingesting arsenic with his juice or noodles.

Evidence in Munir's assassination points clearly to the presidential intelligence agency, BIN -- this from a time when BIN was, as now, a liason partner of the CIA. The President at that time was Megawati Sukarnoputri (Gen. Susilo had, until they quarreled, been her Minister of Politics and Security), and the head of BIN was Gen. Hendropriyono, who liked to flaunt his US connections, and who was granted personal meetings with the heads of the CIA (Tenet) and FBI (Mueller).

One of Hendropriyono's top BIN aides, Gen. Muchdi was the one whose phones were found to have made or taken at least 35 crucially-timed calls to and from the man now officially named as the hands-on assassin, a part-time BIN contact -- who was with Munir on the plane -- a former Timor/ Aceh/ Papua pilot, Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto.

Of this above-listed chain of officialdom, only one of them is in trouble, the unfortunate Pollycarpus, who is perpetually in and out of prison as the system grapples with domestic and international grassroots pressure for somebody's scalp, while having to maintain the policy of Indonesian and US democracy of not enforcing the murder laws against favored official killers.

Apart from winning his democracy medal, Gen. Susilo recently put out an album of love songs. It somehow reminded me of a conversation years ago with a resident of a poor kampung, one of the people who was mentioned in a previous posting (November 8, 2007, "Duduk - Duduk, Ngobrol - Ngobrol. Sitting Around Talking, in Indonesia."). She was reading a magazine article with a big photo of candidate Susilo. I asked her what she thought of him: "Like Suharto, only better looking."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Military Dictatorship: Administer Only as Needed

Referring to the $10 billion in military and financial aid that the US has given the government of Pakistan since it formally switched sides in late 2001 (Pakistan's military had long backed the Afghan Taliban, as had the US oil firm UNOCAL, now part of Chevron), the State Department's John Negroponte told the US Congress on Wednesday: "Cutting these [aid] programs would send a negative signal to the people of Pakistan." (Jay Solomon, "Musharraf ratchets up diplomacy in the U.S.," The Wall Street Journal [Asia], November 9 - 11, 2007).

Like what? That they might be able to demonstrate without being shot by an American client? That the US actually is opposed to military dictatorship?

Negroponte apparently doesn't want to send such signals to Pakistanis right now, since the US has decided that Musharraf's their man -- that is, at least until he isn't.

But, generally speaking, unlike the old days, given newly matured means of influence, the US no longer holds any special brief for military dictatorship as a form of government (The US Army's training school for foreign officers at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, actually had -- and may still have -- an International Officer Hall of Fame [Eisenhower Hall, General Instruction Building] that featured portraits of graduates who rose to run countries, by whatever means [one of the honorees being Pakistan's old dictator, Gen. Mohammad Zia, featured in a photo with President Reagan]; likewise for the now-renamed School of the Americas, at Fort Benning, Georgia).

The US has found recently that, under the right conditions, civilian/royal/ family dictatorships (like Jordan), military democracies (like Indonesia), or civilian democracies (like Colombia) can all work equally well for Washington and, indeed, that civilian democracy -- well constrained -- tends to be more stable and salable. Today some of those constraints on democracies come from the newer global markets, trade regimes, and IMF/Paris Club - type outfits, and from older factors like the dominance of the local rich, the ever-hovering threat of foreign invasion, and, for that matter, the threat of domestic invasion by the likes of the Hall of Fame men.

Its just that sometimes if you hold a vote the wrong people might win, and then be able to go on and do things you really don't want them to do. Today that actually happens far less frequently than people think. Minimal-choice elections are the rule. And even when seeming rebels win, they tend to behave themselves.

But in certain times, in certain countries, things threaten to get out of hand. And in Washington, cognoscenti sigh and say: 'OK, for this one, we need a tyrant.'

But that is no longer the first choice, the preferred go-to US option, -- whatever small comfort that might be for the anti-dictator elites of the country in question. Its a medicine that Washington basically promises to administer only as needed.

(Washington's declining ability, in recent years, to impose its will overall is a separate -- and not always relevant -- question, since for many millions of poor people around the world, the US still holds its old political/ military/ para-military leverage over them, and US rich people -- by the very fact of their being rich -- still hold their lives in the palms of their hands. See posting of November 8, 2007, "Duduk - Duduk, Ngobrol - Ngobrol. Sitting Around Talking, in Indonesia" for further explanation of this latter point.).

Friday, November 9, 2007

State of Emergency in Pakistan, But Not in the United States.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf has declared a state of emergency in Pakistan, and in the White House, Bush and Cheney may be, in some part, a little envious. Musharraf made the cogent point that other branches of the political system (in Pakistan's case, the judiciary and the parties) were "interfering" with the ability of the government -- ie. him, Musharraf -- to function. Its cogent because that's exactly what independent branches or entities are supposed to do. In the US its called checks and balances, which a small but important authoritarian current in the US seems to want to start phasing out.

But any White House envy must be only partial, heavily tempered by condescension, since under the US's far more subtle system, crude Musharraf-like steps are rarely needed.

Musharraf has arrested dozens of established human rights activists, intellectuals, and civil-society campaigners. How many such figures in the US today could (or would) so threaten the rulers that Bush or Cheney would even know their names, let alone think about arresting them? In the US, such figures are lucky to be invited on corporate cable TV (MSNBC, CNN, or Fox) to be sometimes shouted-at by the interviewers, or to be invited in for micro policy-change negotiations by State Department or Pentagon people who set policy on the killing of foreigners. (The new edition of the US Army/ Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, overseen by now-Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, carries an Introduction by Sarah Sewall, the director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy).

But the deeper twist to the Musharraf move, is that below the middle-class and activist level, the impact may be barely perceptible in the daily life of Pakistan's poor.

The Karachi newspaper Dawn dramatically front-page headlined it "Musharraf's Second Coup." But it reminded me of a discussion two days before on the Indonesian web forum Indonesia News Blog (, which reported that the U.S. academic, Alfred C. Stepan (author of "Rethinking Military Politics" [Princeton, 1988], and director of Columbia University's Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion) had come to Indonesia, and standing before Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono, lavishly praised the hated TNI -- the Indonesian armed forces --, reassuring Indonesians that there was little chance that they would stage a military coup. To this, one reader, going by the name Gravatar Arema, posted -- in English -- the dry response: " Uhm, the military are already in power… so why they need a coup d’etat?"

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Duduk - Duduk, Ngobrol - Ngobrol. Sitting Around Talking, in Indonesia.

Sitting around in a house in Indonesia over green agar-agar (seaweed gelatin) for diarrhea, the talk is of the "dog" POLRI police, the "sadis" TNI army, the local mob boss who likes to rape his servants (the servants are friends of this family), a framed son in prison due to lack of a well-timed payoff and his own culpable stupidity, the caterpillars that after house-floods like to crawl into your ears, the tiny worms that like to bore into children's feet and then steal food from their intestines, buying "monja" -- cast-off, used clothes from rich lands -- and finding money, occasionally, in the pockets, but, most fundamentally, jobs, wages, a recent labor outrage, and the question of whether, in America, you have to pay a bribe to get a job, as you often do in Indonesia.

By the second hour the air starts stinking slightly of flood sewage. The thin wood walls have been stripped of tchotchkes. At first I thought -- wrongly -- that the little ceramic animals had been sacrificed: sold or brought to the pawnshop. But it turns out they had merely been taken down for holiday cleaning. The selloff involved other things.

You never really own anything if you're poor. Its just a matter of time. You accumulate a little property and, then, if you're unlucky, somebody steals it, or the police escort a bulldozer in, and simply level the house. But if you're luckier, you're compelled to sell (or pawn) your property to pay a series of, say, important bribes for which you actually get something in return, in this case the right of that locked-up son to eat soft rice instead of hard rice so that, on the way down, it doesn't get stuck in his throat and trigger his fits of fainting asthma. That payoff costs about 70 US cents per meal, in addition to garbage money, key money, do-not-break-his-nose-this-week money, let-your-mother -visit money, toilet visit money, and 11 other kinds of money, if I counted correctly.

No soft-on-crime liberals, the family said that the kid deserved to do some time, though the offense was non-violent, nobody knew it was an offense, and the conviction flowed from a larger, fake, charge. The boy had screwed up, embarrassed the family, and now the predator state had its hooks in. These payoffs were bringing the family down. They were selling off everything.

Imagine, someone said, if they were really poor people, because in local terms, they weren't, yet. The women rise at 4 am to make and sell mini cakes in the traditional market, on a good day hoping to clear a profit of 2 dollars 70 US cents. The men, when there's work, sell durian fruit by the roadside or do pickup construction. That makes them "rakyat kecil," literally, society's small people; essentially, regular folks. But not really "orang susah" -- people with woes. Those are the poor people, one family member had explained, when we met years ago.

She lived in a shack 12 feet off the railroad tracks, but liked to help the poor. As a Muslim, she would bring them rice and cooking oil for Ramadhan. Hindu family members did likewise ( "If I were President of Indonesia," she once said, "I'd make sure everybody had a house, and I'd guarantee that all the children would be able to go to school." She, like others, was surprised at the news that in some countries schooling was free.)

But today, in the house, as we all talked, the one they really felt for was the poor washerwoman down the alley who makes $18 a month and couldn't pay the bribe to get her son a cell -- a room about the size of an American kitchen, which accommodates 30 guys. So the authorities locked him, squatting, in the toilet -- a very slippery hole in the floor. That's where he'll live until she comes across. He'll have a lot of visitors.

Yet things could be worse. In the past year and a half two household members have died. But, despite the drain on their patrimony, their locked-up boy is still alive.

Likewise, thankfully, during this past year, none of the babies have died -- that perhaps due to outside cash infusions, but such things are a matter of fortune. Of the two adults who died one was a man in his early forties, "middle-aged" by rich world standards, "old" in local terms. The other, a somewhat younger woman, that lady from by the railroad tracks, was a "tukang baca," a craftsperson of reading, who was also considered old. The man went stiff as he was placed in a motorcycle sidecar. The woman ascended in the midst of a massive, violent, brain seizure.

In their cases, prolonging their lives might have required decades of better health care. But if you ruminate about that notion people look at you and laugh incredulously.

Four to five decades ago, when most of the "old" people in this house were kids, there was talk in Indonesia of revolution, or something like it; for starters, creating a situation in which thinking about schooling, housing, and health for all would not be ridiculous. That talk happened in the '60s counterparts of places like the mechanic's shop where that late man worked (his 2006 wage of roughly 55 dollars per month led many in the family to call him a "rich man," but, unfortunately -- everyone says -- he didn't handle money well), and the rice paddy where that woman was on the evening when she suddenly died.

The '60s talk was led by a communist party that launched a byzantine intrigue against the army and that got obliterated in, in the CIA's words, "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century" (declassified US CIA Directorate of Intelligence research study, "Indonesia --1965: The Coup That Backfired", 1968). The CIA should know, since they gave a list of 5,000 targeted people to the army, but once they murdered the intellectual leaders, most of the victims were -- as often -- poor farmers. (See the interviews with US officials by Kathy Kadane, the American journalist, eg., Kathy Kadane, States News Service, "Ex-agents say CIA compiled death lists for Indonesians; After 25 years, Americans speak of their role in exterminating Communist Party," San Francisco Examiner, May 20, 1990; also in Washington Post, May 21, 1990) .

Today there is no talk of revolution, but there's a lot of bitter complaining. Among poor people I've met, the terms of art are "dogs" for the POLRI police, and "sadists" for the TNI army, navy, air force and marines. Its a term the soldiers have no doubt heard themselves, since they actually, on their website, ran a photo of army officers giving gifts to children, over the memorable caption : "Is It True The TNI Is Sadist?" ( "Benarkah TNI Sadis?", web page: "Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Darat, The Indonesian Army, Galeri Foto, Arsip Foto, Juni, Agustus, Oktober," online as of September 7, 2005, but later wisely taken down).

But on this afternoon, despite all the talk of payoffs -- and, another matter of drug dealers supplied from on-high who are making the neighborhoods unlivable -- the most agitated discussion is about the cancellation of the THR (Tunjangan Hari Raya).

This is the holiday season. Muslim Idul Fitri is wrapping up, and Hindu Deepavali began on Thursday. Usually, people lucky enough to have a wage job -- and they are the elite of the poor -- count on an ostensibly mandatory holiday bonus equal to one month of wages, known as the THR ("count on" is an optimistic choice of words, since wage workers frequently go long stretches without being paid at all. At PPD, for example, a state bus company in the process of privatization, workers have gotten nothing for the past five months. Their most vocal union leaders have been arrested by POLRI, and blamed for the lack of payment. ["MNC Today," TV news, October 26, 2007]).

This year, at many factories and construction sites, the THR was abruptly canceled, this at a time when Indonesia has made its debut as a site for global speculative capital, and when the recycling of money from Aceh relief/ reconstruction is going so well for Indonesia's real rich people that in this town's streets there are easy sightings of new Mercedes and BMWs, and within shooting distance of this tin-roofed house there is going up a previously unheard-of thing: a world-luxury-brand hotel that is to be the tallest structure in the province (another topic of discussion is that unfortunate young laborer who just fell to his death from, they say, the seventh floor).

The THR cancellation was a blow to the gut, since if you want your kids to not be stunted or to not develop slow brains, you have to budget like a corporate Chief Financial Officer, you have to maintain cash-flow consistency. The key is never having more than a couple of days of hunger in a row, since during the early brain-development years that's when the damage gets done. Its rare to enter a poor household, including this one, that can claim to have always achieved that goal. When defining the difference between rakyat kecil like themselves and the really poor people, one mother in the house explained that rakyat kecil "are people who can eat every day."

But if you don't, its trouble for the small ones. So budgeting is huge: 'X' dime-equivalents for cooking oil; 'Y' for cooking kerosene; 'Z' for unhulled rice (four grades to choose from, depending on your level of poverty), and then, the big question, rice "pakai apa?," rice served with what? Chopped peppers, oil, spices, onions and garlic only? Maybe a little tofu or tempeh? But these are the holidays, there should be meat, or at least some salted mini-anchovies. If a thirteenth of your yearly income is suddenly snatched its hard to plan for or have such things, not to mention meeting the demands of excited kids, counting on gifts of crisp new 1000 Rupiah -- or, if you're richer -- 5000 Rupiah notes (9 US cents or 45 US cents) and, maybe, a new set of holiday clothes, a ball, or a set of pencils.

The blame for the yanking of the THR , in the view of some men who joined the discussion, fell on Vice President of Indonesia Yusuf Kalla and on the heavily ethnic-Chinese employers, ethnic thinking being popular everywhere in the world, but especially encouraged in Indonesia ever since the army took over during the 1960s slaughter.

But isn't the whole point of being a big employer to get what you can from your workers? The old Dutch colonialists used to draw-and-quarter unruly plantation hands, and even did the same to one of their own governors, who was deemed to have gone native. A US business newsletter once noted Indonesia as a good place to invest due to labor discipline due to "the underlying threat of force." When I first showed up in this neighborhood years ago excited people gathered round, asking if I was there surveying the ground to build a factory. They were disappointed when I said no, even though they had no reason to expect that it would be other than what we call a sweatshop -- 11 hour days, toxic air, molestation of female workers by the foremen, and sporadically paid wages that are not enough to keep a family eating.

But as the foreign corporate PR people love to point out -- their lips dripping with friendly cynicism -- local people LOVE those jobs, or, more precisely, they really do covet them (what the corporates fail to point out is that those relatively-higher-than-average coveted wages are still so absolutely low that they could, say, triple them, thereby keeping various children alive -- and still be making a killing).

Anyone who scores a sweatshop job here is considered to have hit the jackpot, so much so that there's a lot of griping that you need connections to get one. Likewise, I can't count the times that younger women here have asked me about the prospects for obtaining one of those servants' jobs in Malaysia or Singapore. This despite the well-known stories of rapes, beatings, confiscated passports and unpaid wages, fatal falls from strange high-rise apartments, and the percentage who are informed by their "calo" (agent/ fixer) upon arrival on foreign soil that their real job won't be cooking, cleaning, or cradling foreign babies, but, instead, having no-choice sex with yet-to-be-determined hundreds of foreign men.

Some are naive, but many are not. Those foreign wages are roughly six times higher. So if you want to keep the family babies away from too many brain-hunger days, as they used to say in the United States: you pays your money and you takes your chances (and that is literal, since you have to pay the agent to get the chance to become the servant).

One young man -- stick thin, with bulging arm veins, and, he said, sore and tired from lifting cement bags, even though he hadn't worked for many days -- mentioned that there had been a number of demos in response to the canceled THR. But he wasn't speaking as if the ground were shaking. The "orang kaya," rich people, still rule, backed up by all those US/ British/ Australian/ and -- soon -- Russian weapons of the TNI/POLRI.

But there's interesting news coming out of China, and it concerns the balance of power, the balance of power between those who merely want more money and those whose bodies need it.

For the first time in a long time there may now be upward pressure on world wages, since China's market, which has been pulling them down, may now be starting to push them up. (for part of the story see, for example, Tom Mitchell and Geoff Dyer, "Heat in the workshop: The 'China price' is under upward pressure," Financial Times, October 15, 2007).

If this is true, and those tsunami-like ripples start emanating through the global market, when they wash ashore in Indonesia, and other places, it could make for interesting times. The creation and distribution of wealth has long been a cold maneuver. Who gets depends in large part on who can get, whether they're in position to do so. Part of that positioning depends on, to begin with, the crossing of certain thresholds: enough infant (and prenatal) food to make your brain quick, enough later food to make you strong, enough health protection to keep you still strong, enough education to make you a reader, enough housing to keep you safe from animals, thugs, and floods, enough sanitation to drain your emissions, enough clean water to make you happy and relaxed instead of sick, enough energy and time to think, and then -- more grandly -- enough of a labor shortage/ wage situation to give you enough leverage vis a vis the rich so that you can get enough wealth to cross those thresholds, and then begin the good stuff.

Its always chancy to rely on outside agency, especially on something that might not get there (eg., the China wage current, though fundamental, will be facing pull-down crosscurrents, like the WTO trade regime, and rising world food prices due to the increasing use of food crops and fungible land for biofuel), but the ugly reality is that if you're spent and drowning, you'll drown unless somebody (or something) intervenes and throws you a line.

So if some poor people get lucky and the market finally temporarily starts to break their way, that fortunate appearance of some meat on the rice could set the stage for bigger things, like, say, giving more people a chance to think and talk about doing more than complaining.

But one of the points about a pre-civilized world order, like the one we live in today, is that people are dying unnecessarily every day, every hour, every minute.

So whatever happens with regard to market wages, and with regard to willed social change, it will happen too late for the prematurely dead, too late for the already stunted, and perhaps even too late for many of the prematurely dying.

That tukang baca lady who once spoke of arranging houses and schooling for all is now resting (bodily) by the riverside, and there are loved ones of hers in this house who will probably also be gone soon, perhaps by next holiday season. The question is, which ones? But nobody speculates on that. They all say its up to God. "God selects, not us."

But even if that is true, there is the co-existent fact that today's world has enough liquid capital to prevent the preventable deaths. There is, in fact, so much wealth washing around that if a mere fraction of it were well-shifted, it could bring everyone who needs it above those bodily thresholds listed above.

Imagine, a world of people whose brains are OK. Who aren't always sick. Who are strong enough to do a good job and literate enough to write about it. Its what an individualist in North America might call a level playing field. And what the people in this house might call an implausible paradise.

But rather than being in the hands of people whose bodies need it, that life-saving/ transforming money in question is in the hands of people who merely want it. Those holders of the potentially life-altering money constitute a relative handful of the world's inhabitants, and they include not just the rulers, but also the global middle class.

Among that handful also reside the ones who have made the unexamined decision to forgo enforcement of the murder laws when it comes to official actions by officials, thereby clearing the way for things like arming armies and police that like to kill civilians.

For those in this rich, controlling, world minority there are decisions to be made. Decisions like whether to shift a little cash or let the dying die. And decisions like whether we're ready to be even-handed in enforcing the murder laws.

For these rich ones, solving the solvable worldwide problem of mass, unnecessary death is a matter of some thinking, some action -- perhaps, for some, various kinds of sacrifice -- but little risk-of-life to speak of and, indeed, not even many real encounters with gratuitous death.

But for the poor majority in the world, those whose babies' brain-growth clocks are ticking, it is a matter of some tougher stuff, like occasionally staring down gun barrels and deciding whether or not to risk your -- and/or your family's -- life, but also, much more fundamentally, learning how to cope with, and overcome, the frequent, needless, ridiculous, death that is the background music of daily life. It can be pretty exciting and inspiring to be shot at by an oppressor. But it can tear your soul out from the inside to have a loved one die too soon.

Earlier this year, before he got locked up and pulled the family into the vortex, that young man sat in this very room and tried to console an inconsolable relative. Evidently tired of the weeping before him, he suddenly rose from his crouch, and, to the astonishment of everyone -- this is a very quiet young man -- he suddenly launched into a declamation on the matter of death and living. "These eyes can only emit tears," he said. "They are incapable of emitting blood" (the point being that crying merely produces tears, which are useless salty water, as opposed to producing something useful, like blood, which is the stuff of life). "Do not be sad! We cannot be crushed by grief! This world still exists! There are still tasks to be performed" he said. "We must remember that."

As an answer to grief, it was helpful, but insufficient. But as a statement of political outlook, the kid definitely had a point.