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.

Email Me

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.