Harry Potter may have sparked illegal owl trade in Indonesia

The Harry Potter books and movies seem to have fueled a dramatic rise in the number of owls being traded as pets in Indonesia, a new study concludes. In the past, conservationists have suggested that the popularity of the fictional mail-delivering owls in the Harry Potter books may have caused an uptick in the illegal trade in owls in countries like India. Now, scientists believe that the “Harry Potter effect” may have done the same in Indonesia. Birds have always been popular pets in Indonesia. But owls were rarely recorded in the country’s bird markets in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, Surveys of 20 bird markets in Java and Bali conducted between 2012 and 2016 revealed that owls are now widely traded, with at least 12,000 Scops owls being sold in Indonesia’s bird markets each year

— source news.mongabay.com

Trump Associates & ISIS-Linked Vigilantes Are Attempting Coup in Indonesia

Vice President Mike Pence visited the largest mosque in Southeast Asia Thursday during a trip to Indonesia. A day earlier, he addressed reporters at a press conference with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Jakarta.

While Vice President Mike Pence railed against ISIS-linked terrorism, a shocking new exposé by longtime investigative journalist Allan Nairn has revealed backers of Donald Trump in Indonesia have joined army officers and a vigilante street movement linked to ISIS in an attempt to oust Indonesia’s democratically elected president. Writing in The Intercept, Nairn reveals Indonesians involved in the coup attempt include a corporate lawyer working for the mining company Freeport-McMoRan, which is controlled by Trump adviser Carl Icahn. Video has even emerged showing the lawyer at a ceremony where men are swearing allegiance to ISIS. According to Allan Nairn, two of the other most prominent supporters of the coup are close associates of Donald Trump: Fadli Zon, the vice speaker of the Indonesian House of Representatives, and Hary Tanoe, Trump’s primary Indonesian business partner, who’s building two Trump resorts, one in Bali and one outside Jakarta. Nairn’s article is making waves in Indonesia. The Indonesian military is threatening legal action against the news portal tirto.id, after it published a partial translation of the article and ran a profile about Allan Nairn. In response, Nairn tweeted a message to the Indonesian military, saying, “Dear TNI: If you want to threaten brave Indonesian reporters and publishers, please threaten me too,”.

Allan Nairn talking:

Indonesia is in the midst of a political crisis, in that there is an attempt to stage what people on both sides of the conflict call the coup. And this is a de facto, or even direct, coup against the elected president, the elected government of Indonesia, which is headed by President Joko Widodo, Jokowi. Jokowi was the first person from outside the political elite who ever was elected president. He’s—on certain issues, in certain respects, he’s a bit of a reformist. He got elected, in an important part because he speaks the language of the poor, and people relate to him. He has been pushing social programs on health and education. But, especially in recent months, his government has been fighting for survival. Those backing this coup project include the top generals in the country, who are seeking to escape any whisper of accountability for their past mass murders—mass murders that have been supported by the U.S.—and for their ongoing atrocities in West Papua, also the friends and business partners and political associates of Donald Trump. The local Trump people in Indonesia, including his top political backer, the politician Fadli Zon, including his local business partner, Hary Tanoe, and others, have been funding and backing this coup movement.

The instrument they have been using is a—what purports to be a radical Islamist street movement, which has been staging massive demonstrations on the streets of Jakarta, demonstrations drawing out hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. And their hook is what they claimed to be a religious issue, where they are attacking and demanding the death by hanging of the incumbent governor of Jakarta, who happens to be an ethnic Chinese Christian who is currently standing trial for insulting religion, for insulting Islam. And he could actually be sent to prison. And he’s also currently standing for re-election. But this Islamist street movement is, in a sense, a front for the real powers, the real interests, which are trying to use the demonstrations and the attacks on Governor Ahok—that’s his name, Ahok—to bring down the government of President Jokowi. I know this because for much of the past year I’ve been talking to people within the Jokowi government and also people within the coup movement, and they’ve been describing what’s happening as it—as it goes along. The group that they are using to front the street demonstrations is called the FPI. The FPI is what are known in Indonesia as preman, street thugs. They were created by the Indonesian army and police shortly after the fall of Suharto, U.S.-backed dictator, in order to do repression and, when needed, killings on behalf of the army, without the army having to take responsibility for it. And they would do it under the banner of radical Islam, kind of diverting attention from the fact of army and police sponsorship behind it. This group, the FPI, has been implicated in attacks on mosques—they frequently attack Islamic religious denominations that they do not agree with—attacks on churches and murders, one of which, in spectacular fashion, was videotaped, and their mob is seen beating and kicking to death a man who’s lying face down in the mud. They openly call for the hanging and murder of various politicians who displease them. They live day to day by—in addition to the funds they get from the army and the police, by extortion. They claim to be religiously compliant, but one of their key tactics over the years has been to go into strip clubs, go into bars; if the owners haven’t been giving their weekly payoff to the FPI in a timely fashion, breaking the place up with heavy sticks, then taking the liquor and drinking it or reselling it. I mean, this is famous on the streets of Jakarta. Everybody knows about this. Another of their big activities has been evicting the poor. They would be rented out to army, police, rich developers, landlords, in order to violently evict poor people so that their homes could be demolished and used for other purposes.

The group also happens to be listed by Western intelligence, including ASIO, the Australian intelligence service, as a violent extremist organization—a term they use for “terrorist.” And this happens to be one of the cases where their characterization of a movement as violent and extremist is accurate. This group FPI also has numerous connections to ISIS. The leader of the FPI militia is a lawyer who is a corporate lawyer for Freeport-McMoRan, the giant U.S. mining corporation that is controlled by Carl Icahn, Donald Trump’s good friend and White House deregulation adviser. This lawyer—his name is Munarman—he represents a local corporate front for Freeport. And he is there presiding over the militia, as—the FPI militia, as they commit violence, and standing next to the FPI leaders as they call for the death by hanging of Jakarta’s governors. This lawyer for Carl Icahn’s Freeport was videotaped not long ago at an ISIS swear-in ceremony, where he was one of two people presiding as a group full of young men pledged allegiance to—swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. The program of massive street demonstrations, aimed at ultimately bringing down the Jokowi elected government, has been endorsed by Indonesians who have gone to Syria and joined up as ISIS fighters, as they describe themselves, etc.

This is the group which is being used by the U.S.-trained Indonesian generals and being backed by Donald Trump’s key Indonesian business partner, Donald Trump’s key Indonesian political backer and the lawyer for Carl Icahn’s Freeport-McMoRan. Maybe it was about a year ago, we did a short segment on Democracy Now! regarding the fact that one of these figures, Fadli Zon, the politician who was involved in this coup movement, he appeared at Trump Tower along with Donald Trump. This was shortly after Trump launched his presidential campaign. He launched his campaign by attacking Mexicans as rapists, and he got some heat for that. And one of the things Trump did, apparently, was to say to his people, “Get me some foreigners.” One of the foreigners they got him was this Indonesian politician, Fadli Zon. He appeared at the press conference with Donald Trump. For doing so, he was fiercely attacked by the grand imam of the Indonesian mosque here in New York City—a very courageous act, by the way, by that imam, given the fact that Fadli Zon is not just a politician but is also the right-hand man of General Prabowo. Prabowo is the most notorious mass-killing general in Indonesia. He was also the general who was the closest protégé of the U.S. Pentagon and intelligence during his military career. Prabowo was instrumental in East Timor and many other places. But now, it is his right-hand man, Fadli Zon, who was appearing with Trump at Trump Tower, helping in the—the initial stages of launching the campaign, and who is now one of the main supporters of this movement, which has as its final goal the toppling of Indonesia’s democratically elected president. And among the generals—and this is in a piece that I’ve been working on, and maybe by the time this airs the piece will have already been released—that have been complicit, in one degree or another, in this movement, include General Prabowo; General Wiranto, who is currently still under indictment for war crimes in Timor; General Gatot, who is currently the commander of the Indonesian armed forces.

after Fadli Zon returned to Indonesia, as I mentioned, he was fiercely and very courageously attacked by the grand imam of the Indonesian mosque here in New York City. And then he was also attacked by his colleagues in the Indonesian congress. Fadli was and is the number two person in the Indonesian congress. And they tried to censure him for appearing with Donald Trump, on the grounds that it was unethical. And as the imam had pointed out, the thing that Trump is famous for in New York—in U.S. politics is being a racist and being anti-Islam. And this was especially sharp and ironic, because Prabowo and Fadli Zon have used as their main political tactic attacking any of their opponents on the grounds that their opponents are, one, anti-Islam, not as Islamic as they are, and, two, tools of foreigners. Prabowo, of course, as he had told me in our extensive discussion, himself was the most—the closest partner of U.S. intelligence in Indonesia when he was helping to run the mass-murdering Suharto military. He worked for the DIA, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. But in the campaign, he was running as a phony nationalist.

So, after he returned to Indonesia, Fadli Zon was under pressure from the congress. He, in the end, escaped any serious censure. But he did not repudiate Donald Trump. He became Donald Trump’s most vocal defender within Indonesian politics. And indeed, after the point in the campaign when Trump said that he was going to ban all Muslims from the United States, including in its first version, in its first iteration, ban even Muslims who were citizens of the U.S., even members of the U.S. military who happened to be overseas at that moment—he was going to ban them from returning home; he later had to modify and back off from that—after Trump made his first outrageous call for the Muslim ban, Fadli Zon defended him in Indonesia. And he said, “Trump is not anti-Islam. Donald Trump is not anti-Islam. And just you wait and see. As soon as he becomes president, he’s going to drop all that stuff, because that’s only campaign rhetoric.” So, in essence, Fadli Zon has been Donald Trump’s political spokesman in Indonesia.

Hary Tanoe is one of Trump’s two business partners in Indonesia. They’re working on a resort and some other projects. And there was recently a report within BIN, the Indonesian intelligence agency, which asserted that Hary Tanoe was covertly donating funds to the anti—the coup involving the FPI and the generals. Hary Tanoe is a media magnate like Trump. They actually have a similar profile in business. He’s in media, and he also sponsors beauty pageants. Tanoe’s media stations have been, in a sense, propaganda wings of the—of the coup, the street coup movement, to the extent to which they were actually admonished, officially admonished, by the Indonesian state broadcasting board, which is a very—usually a very weak, quiescent body. So these stations have been serving as kind of the propagandists for the coup movement. And the internal intelligence report, which I had access to, asserts that Tanoe was also going beyond that and directly contributing funds to the movement.

Now, the background to this is very important. The Indonesian military came to power in 1965 in a coup, where they ousted the country’s founding father, Sukarno. They consolidated power with a massacre of anywhere from 400,000 to a million civilians. The massacre was enthusiastically backed by the U.S. The CIA gave them a list of 5,000 communists to start with. The U.S. press hailed it as, in the words of one New York Times column, “a gleam of light in Asia.” The army installed General Suharto as the country’s dictator. The Clinton White House, years later, described Suharto as “our kind of guy.” President Ford and Henry Kissinger gave—personally gave Suharto the green light to invade East Timor, which produced the most extensive proportional slaughter since the Nazis. The army implemented a regime which involved kind of a semi-religious glorification of the army and stigmatization of any kind of reformist element, which they would characterize as communist. And, when needed, or when they felt like it, over the years, they would stage additional massacres.

Then, in ’98, partly as a result of the Asian financial crisis, triggered by banks, partly as a result of the amazing courage of activists who came out on the streets of Jakarta to demand the ouster of Suharto, partly as a result of the fact that the grassroots movement here in the U.S. had succeeded in cutting off most of the arms pipeline from the U.S. to Indonesia, which then constrained them, in the extent to which they were willing to open fire on those demonstrators, Suharto fell.

After Suharto came what is referred to as Reformasi, reform, which is still underway. The army is still the dominant number one power in Indonesia, but their power is much less than it used to be. The fact that Jakowi, the civilian who related to the poor, was able to defeat the mass-murdering U.S. protégé, General Prabowo, in the presidential election was a real watershed in Indonesian politics. A very courageous movement of survivors of army massacres and human rights activists in Indonesia has persisted for year after year after year, putting their own lives at risk and sometimes dying in the process, like in the case of Munir, the brilliant and heroic human rights activist and my friend, who was assassinated by arsenic poisoning in 2004. They have persisted with this movement to bring the generals to justice. And in past few years, they’ve succeeded in upping the pressure. They’ve made gains, to the point that some generals have started to worry about whether they might be brought to justice, or at least might be publicly humiliated by their crimes being acknowledged publicly and the survivors gaining some degree of public legitimacy. So, the generals, to a degree much more than I realized before I started talking to people about this coup movement, have become obsessed with the idea of staving off justice.

And what has happened with their sponsorship, the sponsorship of many generals of this coup movement, is that they’ve created a very elegant win-win strategy. If they succeed in toppling President Jokowi, then no worry about accountability. On the other hand, if they don’t succeed, Jokowi will owe the generals who are supporting him, because although the bulk of the mass-murdering generals are affiliated in one way or another with the coup movement, there’s another fraction who are backing Jokowi and helping him to fend off the coup movement, and are getting—exacting a de facto guarantee. “Hey, we’re keeping you alive here. No prosecution, right? No public exposure of our crimes. No humiliation for the atrocities that we have committed.” So, whichever way it turns out, in their mind—and there’s certainly reason to think that it’s a not unreasonable expectation— justice and accountability lose—loses, and the army wins.

– Is Jokowi aware of the Trump connections to the supporters of the coup movement?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. I don’t know when this will air, but as we are speaking, as this is being recorded, next week, on Wednesday, the Jakarta gubernatorial election is due to happen. That’s when it will be decided whether the governor, who is the kind of pretext for this street movement, will be voted in or voted out as— April 19th.

And the day after the scheduled gubernatorial election, Vice President Mike Pence is due to arrive in Indonesia for two days and to meet with President Jokowi. Now, one interesting aspect of this is: Where does the U.S. stand on all of this? Because, on the one hand, the U.S. has a longtime policy, in countries around the world, of backing the repressive armies and security forces, but, on the other hand, also backing elected presidents—as long as those elected presidents do not have a program that threatens U.S. corporate interests or the interests of the local rich or the fact that the U.S. is allowed to back the local army and security forces. Barring that, the U.S. is all for local elected presidents. So, in accord with that historic worldwide policy, the U.S. has, up to this moment—as far as I know, up until at least recently, been backing Jokowi against the coup movement.

But it’s Trump’s local people who have been helping to push the coup movement. Now, I don’t know whether this question has come to the attention of President Trump himself. It could come to his attention through his business partner, Hary Tanoe, through his main Indonesian political partner, Fadli Zon, through his other business partner, Setya Novanto, who is a famously corrupt politician, or it could come to his attention through Carl Icahn, who is close to Trump, is his deregulation adviser from the White House and who is the controlling shareholder of Freeport-McMoRan, the oil and—the mining giant of copper and gold which has been ravaging West Papua, taking their gold and copper, but which—and this is quite significant—recently has been under challenge from the Jokowi government. For years, Freeport-McMoRan has had a free ride in Indonesia. As long as they paid off General Suharto and his cronies, as long as they paid off the army, various bureaucrats, they were able to do whatever they want. They were able to just strip the mountains of West Papua, turn the rivers indescribable primary colors from their pollution, knock off their dissident workers when necessary. They were able to do anything. But now, just in the past year and a half or so, they have been under challenge from the Jokowi government, which is demanding a renegotiation of the contract between the Indonesian government and Freeport-McMoRan, and which has been restricting Freeport’s copper exports. So this is creating a problem for Icahn, a serious economic problem for Carl Icahn. As this conflict between the Jokowi government and Icahn’s Freeport has been going on, the local lawyer for Icahn’s Freeport has been helping to lead the coup movement to oust—to oust Jokowi.

Now, I don’t know how much Trump knows about this, but I know there’s some question among some officials in Indonesia as to, in the end, which side will the U.S. come down—come down on. Will it continue the traditional U.S. policy of wanting to keep an elected president in for kind of stability purposes and front purposes, or might it align with Trump’s personal and business connections on the other side, who are backing the coup?

Allan Nairn
investigative journalist.

— source democracynow.org

Trump’s Indonesian Allies In Bed With ISIS-Backed Militia Seeking to Oust Elected President

Associates of Donald Trump in Indonesia have joined army officers and a vigilante street movement linked to ISIS in a campaign that ultimately aims to oust the country’s president. According to Indonesian military and intelligence officials and senior figures involved in what they call “the coup,” the move against President Joko Widodo (known more commonly as Jokowi), a popular elected civilian, is being impelled from behind the scenes by active and retired generals.

Prominent supporters of the coup movement include Fadli Zon, vice speaker of the Indonesian House of Representatives and Donald Trump’s main political booster in the country; and Hary Tanoe, Trump’s primary Indonesian business partner, who is building two Trump resorts, one in Bali and one outside Jakarta.

This account of the movement to overthrow President Jokowi is based on dozens of interviews and is supplemented by internal army, police, and intelligence documents I obtained or viewed in Indonesia, as well as by NSA intercepts obtained by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Many sources on both sides of the coup spoke on condition of anonymity. Two of them expressed apparently well-founded concerns about their safety.
The Coup Movement

On the surface, the massive street protests surrounding the April 19 gubernatorial election have arisen from opposition to Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese incumbent governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok. As a result of pressure from the well-funded, well-organized demonstrations that have drawn hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — to Jakarta’s streets, Gov. Ahok is currently standing trial for religious blasphemy because of an offhand comment about a verse in the Quran. On Thursday, the day after he hears the results of the very close governor’s election, he is due back in court for his blasphemy trial.

Yet in repeated, detailed conversations with me, key protest figures and officials who track them have dismissed the movement against Ahok and the charges against him as a mere pretext for a larger objective: sidelining the country’s president, Jokowi, and helping the army avoid consequences for its mass killings of civilians — such as the 1965 massacres that were endorsed by the U.S. government, which armed and backed the Indonesian military.

Serving as the main face and public voice of the generals’ political thrust has been a group of what Indonesians call preman — officially sponsored street thugs — in this case, the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI (Front Pembela Islam). Originally established by the security forces — the aparat — in 1998 as an Islamist front group to assault dissidents, the FPI has been implicated in violent extortion, especially of bars and sex clubs, as well as murders and attacks on mosques and churches. During the mass protests against the governor, FPI leader Habib Rizieq Shihab has openly called for Ahok to be “hanged” and “butchered.”

FPI leader Habib Rizieq Shihab openly called for Ahok to be “hanged” and “butchered.”

Joining Rizieq at the protests atop a mobile command platform have been the FPI’s spokesman and militia chief, Munarman, as well as Fadli Zon, who is known for publicly praising Donald Trump and appeared with the candidate at a press conference at Trump Tower during the opening days of the presidential campaign. Fadli Zon serves as the right-hand man of the country’s most notorious mass-murdering general, Prabowo Subianto, who was defeated by Jokowi in the 2014 election.

Munarman, who has been videotaped at a ceremony in which a roomful of young men swear allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is also a corporate lawyer working for the Indonesian branch of the mining colossus Freeport McMoRan, now controlled by Carl Icahn, President Trump’s friend and deregulation adviser. Although the Trump connections appear to be very important for the coup plotters, it is unknown whether Trump or Icahn have any direct knowledge of the Indonesian coup movement.

FPI spokesman and corporate lawyer Munarman, indicated with an arrow far left, at a ceremony in which young men swear allegiance to ISIS

Munarman did not respond to requests to comment for this article.

The FPI demonstrations in Jakarta, officially shunned by the country’s top mainstream Muslim groups, have been endorsed in messages from Indonesian ISIS personnel in Syria. The FPI, for its part, has waved black ISIS flags at Prabowo rallies and has officially endorsed the call of Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri for Al Qaeda and ISIS to pursue their common fight in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere.

The Snowden archive contains numerous documents related to the Islamic Defenders Front, including an Australian intelligence document describing FPI as a “violent extremist group.” The documents include Indonesian-language intercepts of reports by police officials complaining that the Indonesian public distrusts the police because it uses violent groups like FPI. The intercepted Indonesian police reports also note that although FPI is largely a creation of the state security apparatus, it at times escapes the state’s control, particularly when fomenting mob violence, such as in a well-known case in which a man was beaten to death on videotape because he attended a mosque targeted for extermination by the FPI. In one case of murder carried out by an FPI mob, a memo states, police were unable to arrest and detain the FPI suspects because they were afraid the mob would attack and burn the police station.

Another intercept links FPI figures to an offshoot of Jemaah Islamiyah, the jihadist network implicated in the 2002 Bali bombings, and details weapons training delivered by officers of the Indonesian national police special forces to FPI Aceh members.

The NSA had no comment on the content of the intercepts. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

As the FPI’s mass protest movement has proceeded over the last six months, I received detailed information from five Indonesian internal intelligence reports. The reports were assembled by three different Indonesian agencies. Each one was confirmed by at least two current army, intelligence, or palace officials.

One intelligence report asserted that the FPI-led protest movement was being funded in part by Tommy Suharto — son of the former dictator Suharto — who once served time for having a judge who displeased him shot in the head. Tommy’s financial contributions were also affirmed to me by retired Gen. Kivlan Zein. Kivlan, who helped the FPI lead a massive November protest in Jakarta, is currently facing the charge of treason (makar) for allegedly trying to overthrow the government during the recent protest drive. He is also the former campaign chair for Gen. Prabowo, who was defeated by President Jokowi in the 2014 presidential election.

Another report asserted that some funds came from Donald Trump’s billionaire business partner Hary Tanoe, who was repeatedly described to me by key movement figures as being among their most important supporters. Last Friday night, when I sat down with a roomful of such figures — none of whom requested anonymity — they expressed excitement about their closeness to Hary and his personal and financial relationship with President Trump, who along with his son Eric welcomed Hary to Trump Tower and the inauguration. They said they hoped Hary, who is building two Trump resorts in Indonesia, would serve as a bridge between Trump and Gen. Prabowo. Manimbang Kahariady, an executive of Prabowo’s political party, said he had met with Hary three days before. He and others at the meeting were convinced that Hary is telling Trump about the need to back the movement and remove their adversaries, beginning with Ahok.

Tommy Suharto could not be reached for comment. Hary Tanoe declined repeated requests for comment.

A third report asserted that some FPI movement funds came from former president and retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) — information that apparently angered President Jokowi, was leaked to the public, and was in turn denied publicly by an angry SBY who asserted at once that the facts were false and that the government had tapped his phone to get them. Nonetheless, seven current or former army or intelligence officials I spoke to said that SBY had indeed given funds but had channeled them indirectly. One official, retired Adm. Soleman Ponto, who is not a supporter of the coup movement, is the former chief of military intelligence (BAIS) and currently advises the state intelligence agency (BIN). Though he declined to comment directly when I asked him about specific intelligence reports, Soleman said that it was “very clear” that SBY, whom he called a friend, helped fund the movement, “giving through a mosque, giving through a school, SBY is the source.”

More broadly, Ponto said, “almost all the retired military” and “some current military back SBY” in supporting the FPI-led protests and the coup movement. He said he knows this because — in addition to his being an intelligence man — the pro-coup generals are his colleagues and friends, many of whom correspond on the WhatsApp group known as The Old Soldier. The admiral said that for the movement’s military sponsors, the Ahok issue is a mere entry point, a religious hook to draw in the masses, but “Jokowi is their final destination.”

As for the tactic of a straight army assault on the palace in a coup d’etat, Ponto said that would not happen. This one would be “a coup d’etat by law,” resembling in one sense the uprising that toppled Suharto in 1998, except that in this case the public would not be on the revolt’s side — and the army, rather than defending the president, would be working to bring him down. The FPI-led protestors, he said, would enter the palace and congress grounds, then try to get inside and set up camp until someone made them leave.

“It would look like People Power” — the people gathered by FPI and their allies, but in this case, “with everything paid. The military would just do nothing. They only have to go to sleep” and let the president fall.

The admiral’s description of the movement’s strategy matched that of a dozen top officials I spoke to, some of them still active in the aparat — some for the coup, some against it.

Another possible scenario was described by another large group of officials: that the FPI-led rallies would get out of hand, with Jakarta and other cities tumbling into chaos, and the army stepping in and assuming control to save the state. This second, more violent option was discussed in detail when I met in late February, on the record, with FPI movement leaders Ustad Muhammad Khattath and Haji Usamah Hisyam.

Ustad Khattath had been referred to me by the Freeport lawyer and FPI militia chief Munarman, who had declined to see me. Haji Usamah accompanied Ustad Khattath and they gave a joint interview.

(The material in this section is attributed to “they” and presented without quotation marks, because since our interview, Ustad Khattath has been arrested and charged with makar (treason), a legal concept that I view as being unjust and repressive and have denounced when it has been used before.)

Barely mentioning religious questions, they said Indonesia’s problem was New-Style Communism, and the army must be able to step in and guide the situation because Indonesia is not mature, not ready for democracy. Jokowi, they charged, was providing a space for communism, and the only strong organization that can face up to that is the army.

As to their street protest movement, they said, we civilians must be backed by the military, something they said was indeed happening secretly because now under reformasi the military can’t engage in politics. According to Haji Usamah, “It’s an intelligence operation by military personnel, but the army can’t be out front. They give the strategic view and direction. The army doesn’t like the communists.”

They said there are communists in the legislature and the executive branch. They must be targeted. For the street movement, the key strategic and tactical guidance was given to them by an anti-communist general who works with them. The army can only step in if there is chaos. If there is peace, they can’t do anything.

Ustad Khattath and Pak Usamah told me that they don’t want blood, they want peaceful revolution, but also insisted that not long from now there will be a revolution by the umaat, several weeks in the future. The palace is afraid, they said, they are afraid Jokowi will fall. They said the upcoming street actions would all be with revolutionary steps because peace has not yet brought down Ahok.

Ustad Khattath and Pak Usamah told me that if the president does not accede to their demands, there will be more massive action, using a stronger style of pressure, and added that their direct destination will be the president.

They saw the revolution beginning with days-long occupations of the congress and the palace and noted that if the people are hurt by being rebuffed, they will take the shortcut outside the law. Anything could happen. There could be millions that take the law into their own hands. Their position was, remind the president not to break the law by failing to jail Ahok or the people will get mad and out of control. It’s a disorderly situation, one that they felt would resolve itself by the army stepping in.

After Ustad Khattath was arrested by police and charged with treason, Usamah texted me to say he had now taken command of the street actions, just as Ustad Khattath had done after FPI leader Rizieq was brought up on pornography and other charges.

1965 Again

Soon after our interview, I received an army document from an officer inside the aparat that could be seen as providing the template for Khattath’s and Usamah’s remarks about the street actions.

Titled “Analyzing the Threats Posed by the New-Style Communism in Indonesia,” it is a series of PowerPoint slides used for ideological training at army bases nationwide.

New-Style Communism, or Komunisme Gaya Baru, abbreviated “KGB,” is a concept whose menace is framed with sketches of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler — and appears to be broadly enough defined to include any critic of the army anywhere.

Referring to such purportedly communist policies as “free health care and education programs,” the document denounces “idealizing pluralism and diversity in the social system” as a specific “KGB” threat now rising in Indonesia. Using threat assessment techniques drawn from Western intelligence doctrine and texts — excerpts from which are used, sometimes in English — the document warns of the communist enemy “separating the army from people” and “using human rights and democracy issues while positioning oneself as victim to gain sympathy.”

The statement about human rights victims is an apparent reference to figures such as the brilliant social justice advocate Munir Said Thalib, my friend, who was assassinated in 2004 with a massive dose of arsenic that caused him to vomit to death on a flight to Amsterdam, or the victims of the 1965 slaughter of perhaps a million civilians, carried out by the army with U.S. backing in order to consolidate power after an attempted coup.

The 1965 massacre came up when I sat down with retired Gen. Kivlan Zein, who said that if Jokowi refused to accede to the army’s wishes, similar tactics could be deployed again.

Like many officials I spoke with, Kivlan said that the current army-backed street movement and crisis began as a result of the Symposium, a 2016 forum organized by the Jokowi government that allowed survivors and descendants of ’65 to publicly describe what had happened to them and to discuss how their loved ones died. For much of the army, the Symposium was an intolerable outrage and in itself justified the coup movement. One general told me that what most outraged his colleagues was that “it made the victims feel good.” The Symposium, of course, had nothing to do with Gov. Ahok or with religious questions of any kind. It was about the army and its crimes.

“If not for the Symposium, there wouldn’t be a movement now,” Kivlan told me. “Now the communists are on the rise again,” Kivlan complained. “They want to establish a new communist party. The victims of ’65, they all blame us. … Maybe we’ll fight them again, like ’65.”

I was taken aback by that and wanted to make sure I had heard correctly.

“It could happen,’65 could be repeated all over again,” he repeated.

And the reason?

“They are seeking redress.”

In other words, Kivlan was raising the specter of new mass slaughter if the old victims did not learn to forget. Kivlan then went on to detail why the ’65 coup was justified. He said that the ousted president, Sukarno, who was by then the army’s virtual captive, had given an order for the army to take over. The army “was handed power” by the congress.

Could that happen again now, I asked?

“It could,” the general said. “The army could move again now, like Suharto in that era.”

The general told me that last July, Jokowi had visited armed forces headquarters in the aftermath of the Symposium and had told the assembled generals that “he was not going to apologize to the PKI [communist party].”

“If Jokowi sticks with that” — the no-apology stance — “he won’t be overthrown. He will save himself. But if he apologizes, [he is] finished, over,” Kivlan said.

I again wanted to be sure he was really saying the army would take action, like ’65 again.

“Yes, it will secure the situation, including like in ’65.”

“No say surrender,” he concluded in English.

Though Kivlan is regarded as being among the more ideological of the generals, it’s worth noting that many of his colleagues have been toying with ousting Jokowi even if he doesn’t apologize. In that sense, Kivlan belongs to the movement’s moderate wing. Remarkably, the idea of a mere apology to the army’s victims is enough to motivate generals to move to overthrow the president.

Kivlan is often credited with helping to create the FPI, after Suharto’s fall. In our conversation he denied to me that he was responsible for setting up the FPI but went on to discuss in detail how the group was just one example of the broader army and police strategy of creating civilian front groups, sometimes Islamist, sometimes not, that could be used to attack dissidents while keeping the aparat’s own hands clean.

He said that days before the massive Jakarta demonstration of November 4 last year, he received a text message from retired Major Gen. Budi Sugiana asking him “to join and take over the 411 [November 4] movement.”

The mission, he said, was “to save Indonesia,” by joining FPI leader Habib Rizieq on the mobile stage at the demonstration, because “they need someone if [Rizieq] is shot and dead to take over the mass” outside the palace.

In December, Kivlan was arrested by the police for trying to overthrow Jokowi, but as we spoke in late February he remained free and had been traveling outside the country. Indeed, he told me he had been carrying out missions for Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, the current armed forces commander, attempting to release Indonesian hostages held in the Philippines.

On the question of who privately backs the movement and who precisely the “communists” are, Kivlan spoke both on and off the record, and both precisely and generally. His characterization of his fellow generals’ stances meshes closely with what the other aparat people said, but, unlike most of them, he said it on the record.

“So many retired military — and in the military — are with the FPI. … Because the goal of the FPI is also against the communists.”

After his discourse to me about ousting Jokowi and taking actions like ’65, I asked him: Does Gen. Gatot — the current armed forces commander — agree?

“He agrees!”

But he noted that as a younger, still-active officer, Gatot has to “be very careful” in his public stances.

Kivlan’s on-the-record remarks about Gatot’s role are consistent with those of other generals and coup people, as well as with the purported remarks of President Jokowi himself. When I asked an official with regular access to the president about a claim that Jokowi had said that “Gatot is the main factor in the coup,” the official replied, yes, the president said it, privately. Gatot did not respond to requests for comment.

As for his old boss Gen. Prabowo, Kivlan also echoed what others said: “Prabowo doesn’t want to be close, but he does it through Fadli Zon.” If he were openly close to the movement, it would be difficult for him, so Fadli Zon is the front. Regarding Gen. Ryamizard, the current minister of defense, Kivlan claimed that “his heart agrees. He agrees with our goal,” but he can’t “speak candidly.”

Kivlan praised the stance of Gen. Wiranto, saying “Wiranto is good.” Kivlan said Wiranto “wants to build harmony” with the movement, often pressing its case from his current post as coordinating minister for politics, law, and security. It was under Wiranto’s command that the FPI was first created. When Wiranto received the FPI’s Rizieq during the demonstrations, he described him as “an old friend.”

Kivlan added that Wiranto, who is himself under indictment for East Timor war crimes, has a “good plan” on the army’s pivotal issue. He is pressing Jokowi for “no human rights trials.”

The strategic elegance of the army push for a coup is that the army wins even if it loses. Even if Jokowi stays in office, the generals will be safer than ever — they think — from human rights trials, since in order to stave off one group of killers, the president has embraced another group of equally murderous generals who have exacted a price.

Foremost among them is Gen. A.M. Hendropriyono, the former BIN chief and CIA asset, who has been implicated in the Munir assassination and a series of other major crimes. Throughout the coup crisis, it has been Hendro’s men — army, intel, police, civilian — who have been leading the anti-coup defense of Jokowi against their colleagues. It is mainly Hendro’s people who have organized the treason arrests and hobbled Habib Rizieq Shihab with pornography charges, as well as charging movement financiers with ISIS money laundering.

In exchange, Hendro and his allies have received what they view as guarantees of immunity from prosecution. And under prevailing aparat rules, if they’re safe, everyone else is as well, since there’s a tacit agreement to reject prosecution of colleagues, even if they’re bitter enemies.

In February, under palace pressure, a Jakarta administrative court declared that the Jokowi administration could duck its legal obligation to officially release a government fact-finding report that openly addressed Hendro’s responsibility for the Munir assassination. Munir’s widow Suciwati and Haris Azhar of Munir’s human rights group, Kontras, denounced that verdict as “legalizing criminality.”

In similar fashion, the coup movement has also been helpful for Freeport. Since last year, the Jokowi government, after decades of state quiescence, has been trying to rewrite the state contract with Freeport and has been dialing back their export rights. At the same time, the government has been shaken by the movement led in part by a lawyer associated with the company.

In early April, after the movement launched the first of what the police claimed were four planned attempts to seize congress and the palace, the Jokowi administration shocked Indonesia’s political world by unexpectedly giving in to Freeport and green lighting new copper exports. The sudden retreat didn’t end the dispute — deep, long-term contract issues remain — but it suggested, as Jokowi officials later told me, that the government now felt its position had been weakened.

In a story with the droll headline “Freeport gets red-carpet treatment, again,” the pro-U.S. and pro-business English-language Jakarta Post observed: “The government has defended its decision, even though there is no legal basis that backs [it]. … Freeport is seen as having dodged the bullet again.”

On April 20, Vice President Mike Pence is due in Indonesia. Jokowi administration officials have been saying privately that they expect Freeport’s demands to be at the top of his wish list. At the meeting of movement figures last Friday, one of them looked at me and exclaimed: “Pence will threaten Jokowi on Freeport!”

Freeport Indonesia did not respond to requests for comment.

Blasphemy as Pretext

Although privately movement leaders and their sponsors spoke incessantly of the army, evading justice, and seizing power, on the streets outside the theme was decidedly religious. Walking among the huge crowd at one action at the Istliqlal mosque near the palace, it was clear to me that although the protest movement was fronted by the FPI, it had drawn a wide swath of people, many of whom were demonstrating simply because they were conservative or felt aggrieved.

The proximate cause of that grievance was Ahok and his alleged blasphemy in suggesting that non-Muslims could lead Muslims. (Ahok is also justly criticized for his evictions of the poor.) It was therefore quite illuminating to hear the leaders of the coup movement privately minimize those themes.

Kivlan surprised me when he remarked offhandedly that Ahok had given the movement a “gift” with his “slip of the tongue” regarding the Quran.

The required public stance of movement leaders was to claim to be forever wounded by Ahok’s remark asking people not to be deceived by rivals trying to use a Quranic verse against him. But here was one of them — with a small smile — acknowledging that strategically Ahok’s statement was welcome, because it had enabled the FPI and its sponsors to shift the balance of power inside the state, elevate themselves from street killers to theologians, and alter the cultural climate to boot. And here he was, accepting that the fateful remark was a “slip of the tongue.”

With that, he not only appeared to be conceding that the blasphemy criminal case against Ahok was bogus — as we spoke, Ahok’s lawyers were arguing in court precisely that he had just spoken loosely, intending no offense — but also that the coup movement’s sole big public issue was something that, in private, they did not take seriously.

Beyond that, when I sat with Usamah and the movement leaders whom he half-joking called his politbureau, they casually contradicted their position that non-Muslims cannot lead Muslims. They did so while discussing Hary Tanoe, who they all effusively praised as their movement’s top supporter — through direct aid and by means of his TV stations, which were admonished by Indonesia’s broadcast commission for unseemly pro-movement political bias and inaccuracy — and their perceived lifeline to President Donald Trump.

Those in the room all agreed they wanted a Prabowo-Hary Tanoe government, perhaps with Hary as president and Prabowo as vice president, or the reverse, depending on the polling.

The catch, which didn’t seem to bother them, is that Hary, like Ahok, is an ethnic Chinese Christian, which if they believed in their own standards should disqualify him from leading Jakarta, let alone Indonesia.

— source theintercept.com by Allan Nairn

How Tony Blair’s Wife earns £1,000 an hour from the Kazakh taxpayer

Cherie Blair is being paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for a few months’ legal work by Kazakhstan, whose autocratic president employs her husband as an official adviser. Mrs Blair’s law firm Omnia Strategy agreed a deal with Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Justice earlier this year to conduct a review of the country’s “bilateral investment treaties”. The first stage of the review, which was expected to take as little as three months, is worth £120,000, sources have told The Sunday Telegraph.

A second phase of the project is worth a further £200,000 to £250,000 for another three to four months’ work, it is understood. Omnia Strategy, which Mrs Blair set up in 2011, also has an option to complete a third stage of the legal project for the Ministry of Justice at a fee to be decided, according to the source.

— source telegraph.co.uk

The West’s ‘dirty wink’

12 February 1994

In 1975 Indonesia invaded East Timor. Like Saddam’s attack on Kuwait, the occupation was declared by the UN to be illegal. But no action ever followed. In the last 18 years a third of the East Timorese population has been killed, while Western governments have remained silent, or, like Britain, have sold arms worth hundreds of millions to Indonesia…

Ghost gum trees rose out of tall grass; then without notice this changed to a forest of dead, petrified shapes and black needles through which skeins of fine white sand drifted like mist. Such extraordinary landscape reminded me of parts of central Vietnam, where the Americans dropped ladders of bombs and huge quantities of chemical defoliants, poisoning the soil and food chain and radically altering the environment. In East Timor this is known as the ‘dead earth’.

It is an area whose former inhabitants are either dead or ‘relocated’. You come upon these places on the plateaux and in the ravines of the Matabian mountains, in the east of the island, where the Indonesian pilots in their low-flying US and British fighter aircraft have had a bonanza. “They made the rocks turn white,” said a man who lived here and survived. On the rim of these places, which lie like patches of scar tissue all over the body of East Timor, are the crosses.

There are great black crosses etched against the sky and crosses on peaks, crosses in tiers on the hillsides, crosses beside the roads. In East Timor they litter the earth and crowd the eye. Walk into the scrub and they are there, always, it seems, on the edge, a riverbank, an escarpment.

The inscriptions on some are normal: those of generations departed in proper time and sequence. But look at the dates of these normal ones, and you see that they are prior to 1975, when proper time and sequence ended. Then look at the dates on most of them, and they reveal the extinction of whole families, wiped out in the space of a year, a month, a day. ‘RIP. Mendonca, Crismina, 7.6.77 . . . Mendonca, Filismina, 7.6.77 . . . Mendonca, Adalino, 7.6.77 . . . Mendonca, Alisa, 7.6.77 . . . Mendonca, Rosa, 7.6.77 . . . Mendonca, Anita, 7.6.77 . . .’

I had with me a hand-drawn map showing the site of a mass grave where some of those murdered in the 1991 massacre of 250 people in Dili, the capital, had been dumped; I had no idea that much of the country was a mass grave, marked by paths that end abruptly, and fields inexplicably bulldozed, and earth inexplicably covered with tarmac; and by the legions of crosses that march all the way from Tata Mai Lau, the highest peak, 10,000 feet above sea level, down to Lake Tacitolu where a Calvary line of crosses looks across to where the Pope said mass in 1989 in full view of a crescent of hard salt sand beneath which lie, say local people, countless human remains.

What has happened in East Timor is one of the world’s great secrets. “Does anyone know where East Timor is'” asked Alan Clark, the former Defence Minister, on Channel 4 not long ago. When I repeated this to him recently, he said, “I don’t really fill my mind much with what one set of foreigners is doing to another.” It was a typically blunt Clark riposte, which itself was instructive, for it allowed a glimpse of how the unthinkable was normalised: how decisions taken at great remove in distance and culture had unseen and devastating effects on whole nations of people, albeit foreigners.

East Timor, half of an island 300 miles north of Australia, was colonised by Portugal 450 years ago. The Portuguese partly Latinised and insulated the territory from the upheavals of the western half of Timor, which was part of the Dutch East Indies that became Indonesia in 1949. In 1974, the old Salazarist order in Lisbon was swept aside by the ‘Carnation Revolution’ and Europe’s last great empire began to disintegrate virtually overnight. With the Portuguese preoccupied by events at home, the Indonesian military dictatorship of General Suharto invaded East Timor in december 1975, and have illegally and brutally occupied it ever since. The result: some 200,000 Timorese dead, or a third of the population.

Few places on the planet may seem more remote than East Timor. Yet none has been as defiled and abused by murderous forces and as abandoned by the ‘international community’, whose leaders are complicit in one of the great unrecognised crimes of the 20th century. I write that carefully: Not even Pol Pot succeeded in killing, proportionately, as many Cambodians as the Indonesian generals have killed East Timorese.

Britain’s role is also little-known. As the minister responsible for ‘defence procurement’ under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, Alan Clark approved a sale of ground attack aircraft to Indonesia, valued at more than pounds 500 million. At the time he told Parliament, “We do not allow the export of arms and equipment likely to be used for oppressive purposes against civilians.” When I asked him how this worked, he explained that it applied to “police-type equipment (such as) riot guns, CS gas and anti-personnel stuff”, but that “once you get into military equipment, you’re into a different category of decision”.

I said, “Hawk low-flying attack aircraft are very effective at policing people on the ground.” He replied, “No, they’re not . . . aircraft are used in the context of a civil war. Now depending on which side you support in the civil war, you tend to regard the other people as being oppressed or repressed.”

“But,” I said, “East Timor isn’t a civil war. This is an illegal occupation, which the British Government acknowledges to be an illegal occupation.”

“I’m not into that. I don’t know anything about that.”

“Well you were the minister.”

“Yeah, but I’m not interested in illegal occupations or anything like that . . . I mean you call it illegal . . .”

“No, the United Nations does.”

I said ministers had often talked about receiving guarantees from the Indonesians that the Hawks would not be used in East Timor.

“Well, I never asked for a guarantee. That must have been something that the Foreign Office did . . . a guarantee is worthless from any government as far as I’m concerned.”

When Jonathan Aitken, who today has Alan Clark’s job at the Ministry of Defence, was asked in Parliament: “How many dead or tortured East Timorese are acceptable to the Government in exchange for a defence contract with Indonesia?” he replied, “That is a ridiculous question.” But of course it was not.

Eyewitnesses have now described in detail Hawk aircraft attacking civilian areas. Jose Gusmao, presently exiled in Australia, said, “I watched a Hawk attack on a village in the mountains. It used its machine-guns and dropped incendiary bombs. The Hawk is quite different from the American planes; it has a particular nose. You can tell it anywhere.”

Other eyewitnesses, who cannot be identified, spoke about the distinctive noise made by the Hawks, and of people being trapped in rockfalls during bombardment.

“I first saw the Hawks in 1984,” said Jose Amorin. “They were standing at the airport at Baucau, where they are based. They are a small aircraft, not at all like the OV-10 Bronco and the Skyhawk from the US. They are perfect for moving in and out of the mountains. They have a terrible sound when they are coming in to bomb, like a voice wailing. We immediately go to the caves, into the deepest ones, because their bombs are so powerful. They fly in low . . . and attack civilians, because the people hiding in the mountains are civilians. Four of my cousins were killed in Hawk attacks near Los Palos. Most people in East Timor know about the British Hawks. Why doesn’t the British Government send a fact-finding mission and ask the people?”

The British connection with the horrors of East Timor is a scandal arguably as great, if not greater, than any – including the Scott Inquiry – currently appearing on the front pages. Shortly before the massacre in the Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili, on November 12, 1991, Douglas Hurd urged the EC to “cut aid to countries that violate human rights”. Shortly after the massacre the British Government increased its aid to the Suharto regime to pounds 81 million, a rise of 250 per cent. The Minister for Overseas Aid, Baroness Chalker, claimed in Parliament that this was “helping the poor in Indonesia”. In fact, a large proportion of all British aid to Indonesia is made up of Aid for Trade Provisions (ATP); and much of this is the supply of weapons: British Aerospace, maker of Hawk aircraft, is among the British weapons companies helping Indonesia’s poor. (In January last year, the Armed Services Minister, Archie Hamilton, claimed that the sale of Hawks was “providing jobs”. British Aerospace has since laid off 4,000 workers.)

The British war industry has provided a vital prop for the Suharto dictatorship since 1978, when Foreign Secretary David Owen dismissed estimates of East Timor-ese dead as “exaggerated” and sold the Indonesian generals eight Hawk aircraft. Britain has since sold, or agreed to sell, a further 40 Hawks. These are in addition to Wasp helicopters, Sea Wolf and Rapier SAM missiles, Tribal Class frigates, battlefield communications systems, seabed mine disposal equipment, Saladin, Saracen and Fernet armoured vehicles, a fully-equipped Institute of Technology for the Indonesian army and training for Indonesian officers in Britain. In 1992, Margaret Thatcher received an Indonesian award for ‘helping technology’. She said, “I am proud to be one of you.”

James Dunn, the former Australian consul in East Timor and adviser to the Australian parliament, has made a study of census statistics since the Indonesians invaded. “Before the invasion,” he told me, “East Timor had a population of 688,000, which was growing at just on 2 per cent per annum. Assuming it didn’t grow any faster, the population today ought to be 980,000 or more, almost a million people. If you look at the recent Indonesian census, the Timorese population is probably 650,000. That means it’s actually less than it was 18 years ago. I don’t think there is any case in post-World War Two history where such a decline of population has occurred in these circumstances. It’s incredible; worse than Cambodia and Ethiopia.”

Where are all these missing Timorese? The estimate of 200,000 dead was first made in 1983 by the head of the Roman Catholic Church in East Timor. A report last month by an Australian parliamentary committee referred to ‘at least’ 200,000 deaths.

How they died has been Indonesia’s and its allies’ great secret. Western intelligence has documented the unfolding of the genocide since the first Indonesian paratroopers landed in the capital, Dili, on December 7, 1975 – less than two months after two Australian television crews were murdered by the Indonesian military, leaving just one foreign reporter, Roger East, to witness the invasion. He became the sixth journalist to die there, shot through the head with his hands tied behind his back, his body thrown into the sea.

As a result, in the age of television, few images and reported words have reached the outside world. There was just one radio voice at the time of the invasion, picked up in Darwin, Australia, 300 miles to the south, rising and falling in the static. “The soldiers are killing indiscriminately,” it said. “Women and children are being shot in the streets. We are all going to be killed. I repeat, we are all going to be killed . . . This is an appeal for international help. This is an SOS. We appeal to the Australian people. Please help us . . .”

No help came. According to the historian John Taylor, people were subjected to ‘systematic killing, gratuitous violence and primitive plunder’. The Bishop of Dili, Costa Lopez, said, “The soldiers who landed started killing everyone they could find. There were many dead bodies in the street – all we could see were the soldiers killing, killing, killing.”

At 2pm on December 9, 59 men were brought on to the wharf at Dili harbour and shot one by one, with the crowd ordered to count. The victims were forced to stand on the edge of the pier facing the sea, so that as they were shot their bodies fell into the water. Earlier in the day, women and children had been executed in a similar way. An eyewitness reported, “The Indonesians tore the crying children from their mothers and passed them back to the crowd. The women were shot one by one, with the onlookers being ordered by the Indonesians to count.”

As in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the first to die were often minorities. The Chinese population was singled out. An eyewitness described how he and others were ordered to “tie the bodies (of the Chinese) to iron poles, attach bricks and throw the bodies in the sea”. On the north-west coast, the Chinese population was decimated. The killing of whole families appeared at first to be systematic, then arbitrary. Soldiers were described swinging infants in the air and smashing their heads on rocks, with an officer explaining, “When you clean the field, don’t you kill all the snakes, the small and large alike?” ‘Indonesian troops,’ wrote John Taylor, ‘had been given orders to crush all opposition ruthlessly, and were told they were fighting communists in the cause of Jihad (holy war).’

Western governments knew in advance details of virtually every move made by Indonesia. The CIA and other US agencies intercepted Indonesia’s military and intelligence communications at a top secret base run by the Australian Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) near Darwin. The information gathered was shared under treaty arrangements with MI6. Moreover, leaked diplomatic cables from Jakarta, notably those sent in 1975 by the Australian Ambassador Richard Woolcott, showed the extent of Western complicity in the Suharto regime’s plans to take over the Portuguese colony.

Four months before the invasion, Ambassador Woolcott cabled his government that General Benny Murdani, who led the invasion, had ‘assured’ him that when Indonesia decided to launch a full-scale invasion, Australia would be told in advance.

In a remarkable cable sent to Canberra in August 1975, Woolcott argued Indonesia’s case and how Australian public opinion might be ‘assisted’. He proposed that “(we) leave events to take their course . . . and act in a way which would be designed to minimise the public impact in Australia and show private understanding to Indonesia of their problems.” He added, “We do not want to become apologists for Indonesia. I know I am recommending a pragmatic rather than a principled stand but that is what national interest and foreign policy is all about . . .”

There was not a word of concern for the interests or the fate of the East Timorese, who were, it was apparent, expendable.

Sir John Archibald Ford, the British Ambassador, recommended to the Foreign Office that it was in Britain’s interests that Indonesia should “absorb the territory as soon and as unobtrusively as possible”. The US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, having recently watched US power and his own ambitions humiliated in the ‘fall’ of Saigon, indicated to Jakarta that the US would not object to the invasion. Kissinger and President Ford arrived in Jakarta on December 5, 1975, on a visit which a State Department official described to reporters as ‘the big wink’. Two days later, as Air Force One climbed out of Indonesian airspace, the bloodbath in East Timor began.

On his return to Washington, Kissinger sought to justify continuing to supply them by making the victim the aggressor. At a meeting with senior State Department officials, he asked, “Can’t we construe (East Timor as) a communist government in the middle of Indonesia as self defence?”

Told that this would not work, Kissinger gave orders that he wanted arms shipments ‘stopped quietly’, but secretly ‘started again’ the following month. In fact, as the killing increased, US arms shipments doubled. According to the Centre for Defence Information in Washington, had it not been for the supply of Western arms to Indonesia, the East Timorese resistance movement, Fretilin, might have beaten off the Indonesians.

Five days after the invasion, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that ‘strongly deplore(d)’ Indonesia’s aggression and called on it to withdraw its troops ‘without delay’. The governments of the US, Britain, Australia, Germany and France abstained. Japan, the biggest investor in Indonesia, voted against the resolution. Ten days later, as Western intelligence agencies informed their governments of the scale of the massacres, the Western powers reluctantly supported a Security Council resolution that unanimously called on ‘all States to respect the territorial integrity of East Timor’.

The Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim, dispatched an envoy to East Timor, who was so restricted by the Indonesian military that his visit was worthless. The Portuguese offered the UN a warship in which to take the envoy to a Fretilin-held part of the island. ‘The Indonesians,’ signalled the CIA, ‘are considering whether to sink this vessel . . .’

This was enough to frighten away the UN. In striking contrast to action taken against Iraq in 1991, neither the Secretary-General nor the Western powers uttered a word in condemnation of Indonesia for failing to comply with a Security Council resolution, and for violating almost every human rights provision in the UN Charter.

On the contrary, in a secret cable to Kissinger on January 23, 1976, the Ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, boasted about the “considerable progress” he had made in blocking UN action on East Timor. Later, Moynihan wrote, ‘The Department of State desired that the UN prove utterly ineffective. This task was given to me and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.’

Since 1949, when Indonesia won its independence from the Dutch, its ‘potential’ as an ‘investors’ paradise’ has been an article of faith in the West. “With its 100 million people, and its 300-mile arc of islands,” declared Richard Nixon, “Indonesia contains the region’s richest hoard of natural resources (and is) the biggest prize in South East Asia.” Indeed, in the seabed off Timor lies one of the world’s great oil and gas fields.

In the bloody events that brought Suharto and the generals to power in the mid-Sixties, estimates of the number killed range from 300,000 to almost a million, most of them landless peasants accused of being members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The then US Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, said that America was prepared to back a “major military campaign against the PKI”. This was passed on to the generals by the US ambassador in Jakarta who told them that Washington “is sympathetic with, and admiring of, what the army is doing”. In 1990 a former US official in Jakarta disclosed that he had spent two years drawing up a ‘hit list’ for the generals. The bloodshed of Suharto’s coup almost 30 years ago was a precursor of the genocide in East Timor.

Thereafter, events proceeded with an unshakeable, terrible logic. In 1974, after Portugal decided to leave its colony, the prime minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, met Suharto and told him that East Timor was “economically unviable” to be independent and should become part of Indonesia.

As the fate of the Timorese was being decided by others, the Portuguese literally stepped aside, retreating to nearby Atauro Island, the aptly named ‘Isle of Goats’. The infant independence movement was left to decolonise itself and to defend the nation against one of the largest military powers in Asia.

Almost a year after the invasion, Gough Whitlam’s successor, Malcolm Fraser, flew to Jakarta. He said his government now “acknowledged the merger”, but “only for purely humanitarian reasons”. Fraser was accompanied by the managing director of BHP, Australia’s biggest corporation. BHP had recently acquired a controlling share in the Woodside-Burmah company, which had been drilling for oil on and offshore East Timor – a country recently dismissed as ‘economically unviable’.

Other Western governments vied with each other to ‘sympathise with Indonesia’s problems’ by selling Jakarta arms – which, not surprisingly, were used in East Timor. When Foreign Secretary David Owen signed the first deal with Indonesia for Hawk aircraft, he said that not only were the estimates of the killings “exaggerated”, but that “the scale of fighting . . . has been greatly reduced”.

The opposite was true. The genocide was then at its height. Eyewitnesses to the onslaughts in East Timor spoke of scenes reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. ‘After September (1978),’ wrote a priest, ‘the war intensified. Military aircraft were in action all day long. Hundreds of human beings die daily, their bodies left as food for the vultures. If bullets don’t kill us, we die from epidemic disease; villages are being completely destroyed.’

With film director David Munro, cameraman Max Stahl and aid worker Ben Richards (the last two are pseudonyms), I filmed secretly in East Timor shortly before Christmas. By remaining most of the time in the mountains, David Munro and I avoided the main military routes. At first, people seemed absent; but they were there. From the highest crest the road plunged into a ravine that led us to a river bed, then deserted us. The four-wheel drive forded the river and heaved out on the other side, where a boy sat motionless and mute, his eyes following us.

Behind him was a village, overlooked by the now familiar rows of whitewashed slabs and black crosses. We were probably the first outsiders the people here had seen for a very long time. The diffident expressions, long cultivated for the Indonesians, changed to astonishment.

The village straddled the road, laid out like a military barracks with a parade ground and a police post at the higher end. The militia were trusted Timorese. The remoteness might have explained this; the Indonesians remain terrified of the guerrillas of Fretilin, the nationalist resistance still fighting on without any help, after 18 years. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, famine claimed many thousands of lives in such camps, as people were denied adequate land on which to grow subsistence crops. Although we saw no starvation, most people were terribly malnourished.

After we had turned south, we saw other camps where many of the faces were Javanese: the produce of a ‘transmigration programme’ aimed at unravelling the fabric of Timorese life and culture, and reducing the indigenous population.

A curious militarism seemed to invade all life. Traffic stopped for marching schoolgirls, jogging teachers and anthem-singing postmen (‘Tanah Airku: My Fatherland Indonesia’). Signs announced the ‘correct’ way to live each day ‘in the spirit of Moral Training’. In an Orwellian affront to the Timorese, one sign told them, ‘Freedom is the right of all nations,’ quoting Indonesia’s own declaration of independence.

“It is the Indonesian civilisation we are bringing (to East Timor),” said the Indonesian military commander in 1982. “And it is not easy to civilise backward people.” Timorese occupy few jobs other than as drivers, waitresses, broom-pushers and, of course, officials in the puppet administration. The teaching of the Timorese language is banned. “Before the invasion we lived a typical island life, very peaceful,” said Abel. “People were always very hospitable to foreigners. The Portuguese mostly let us alone.

“It is difficult to describe the change since then, the darkness over us. Of 15 in my immediate family only three are left: myself, my mother and a brother who was shot and crippled. Up until 1985 or 1986, most of our people were concentrated in what they called the central control areas; we lived in concentration camps for a long, long time. Only in the last three or four years have some of us been allowed to return home, but we can be moved again at any time. Indonesians use local people to spy on the others. People usually know who the spies are and they learn to deal with it. Certain things are not to be said widely even within the family.

“You see, we have got to pretend that everything is okay. That is part of finding a way to survive for the next day. But a human body and mind have limitations and can only take so much. Once it boils over, people just come out and protest and say things which mean they will find themselves dead the next day. I suppose you can compare us to animals. When animals are put in a cage they always try to escape. In human beings it’s much worse. I mean, we the people in East Timor call it the biggest prison island in the world. You must understand that. For us who live here, it’s hell.”

Was it Primo Levi who said that the worst moment in the Nazi death camps was the recurring fear that people would not believe him, when he told them what had happened, that they would turn away, shaking their heads’ This ‘radical gap’ between victim and listener, as psychiatrists call it, may well be suffered en masse by the East Timorese, especially the exiled communities. ‘Who knows about our country?’ they ask constantly. ‘Who can imagine what has happened to us?’

In 1989, Bishop Carlos Belo, head of the Catholic Church in East Timor, appealed directly to the world in a letter to the then UN Secretary-General, Perez de Cuellar. ‘We are dying as a people and as a nation,’ he wrote. He received no reply.

Today there are probably no more than 400 guerrillas under arms, yet they ensure that four Indonesian battalions do nothing but pursue them. Moreover, they are capable of multiplying themselves within a few days, for they are the focus of a clandestine resistance that reaches into every district and has actually grown in strength over the years. In this way they of course continue to deny the fact of ‘integration’ with Indonesia.

Domingos is 40 and has been in the jungle since 1983. “My wife was tortured and burnt with cigarettes,” he said, “She was also raped many times. In September this year (1993), the Indonesians sent the population of her village to find us. My wife came to me and said, ‘I don’t want to see your face because I have been suffering too much . . .’ At first I thought she was rejecting me, but it was the opposite; she was asking me to fight on, to stay out of the village and not to be captured and never to surrender. She said to me, ‘You get yourself killed and I shall grieve for you, but I don’t want to see you in their hands. I’ll never accept you giving up!’ I looked at her, and she was sad. I asked her if we could live together after the war, and she said softly, ‘Yes, we can.’ She then walked away.”

Domingos and his wife came from a village now known by the Timorese as the ‘village of the widows’. During the summer of 1983, almost 300 people were massacred here. Their names appear on an extraordinary list compiled in Portuguese by the church. In a meticulous script, handwritten in Portuguese, everything is recorded: the name, age of each of the murdered, as well as the date and place of death, and the Indonesian battalion responsible.

Every time I pick up this list, I find it strangely compelling and difficult to put down, as if each death is fresh on the page. Like the ubiquitous crosses, it records the Calvary of whole families, and bears witness to genocide . . . Feliciano Gomes, aged 50, Jacob Gomes, aged 50, Antonio Gomes, aged 37, Marcelino Gomes, aged 29, Joao Gomes, aged 33, Miguel Gomes, aged 51, Domingos Gomes, aged 30 . . . Domingos Gomes, aged 2 . . . ‘shot’.

So far I have counted 40 families, including many children: Kai and Olo Bosi, aged 6 and 4 . . . ‘shot’ . . . Marito Soares, aged one year . . . ‘shot’. . . Cacildo Dos Anjos, aged 2 . . . ‘shot’. There are babies as young as three months. At the end of each page, a priest has imprinted his name with a rubber stamp, which he asks ‘not to be used in the interests of personal security’. In handwriting and with a typewriter whose ribbon had seen better days, he introduced the list with an eloquent, angry appeal to the world.

‘To the commercial governors,’ he wrote, ‘Timor’s petroleum smells better than Timorese blood and tears. So who will be the one to take the truth to the international community’ Sometimes the press and even the international leaders give the impression that it is not human rights, justice and truth that are paramount in international relations, but the power behind a crime that has the privilege and the power of decision. It is evident that the invading government would never have committed such a crime, if it had not received favourable guarantees from governments that should have a more mature sense of international responsibility. Governments must now urgently consider our case!’

We drove into Dili in the early afternoon. It was too quiet: not the quiet of a town asleep in the sun but of a place where something cataclysmic has happened and which is not immediately evident. Fine white colonial buildings face a waterfront lined with trees and a promenade with ancient stone benches. The beauty of this seems uninterrupted. From the lighthouse, past Timor’s oldest church, the Motael, to the long-arched facade of the governor’s offices and the four ancient cannon, the sea shines all the way to Atauro island, where the Portuguese administration fled in 1975. Then, just beyond a marble statue of the Virgin Mary, the eye collides with rusting landing craft strewn along the beach. They have been left as a reminder of the day Indonesian marines came ashore and killed the first people they saw: women and children running down the beach, offering them food and water, as frightened people do.

Moving east, we reached Baucau in darkness. Baucau is a former Portuguese resort that once claimed a certain melancholy style and where holiday flights used to arrive from Australia. (‘Come and get a whiff of the Mediterranean,’ says an old Trans-Australia Airways brochure.) Today, the airport is an Indonesian air force base and Baucau a military ‘company town’, surrounded by barracks. On the seafront stands the Hotel Flamboyant. We climbed the long staircase in darkness and called out. A Timorese man emerged from the shadows limping and coughing terribly. “What do you want?” he asked. “A room?” I said. He turned and struggled along a deserted colonnade and flung open two doors. There was no water, a fan that turned now and then, a mattress coated with fungus and a window without glass. He left us with our echoes. The Hotel Flamboyant was, until recently, a torture centre.

“My father was tortured several times,” said Mario. “He refused to join the new administration. They took him to the police headquarters, then sent for me and my sisters and brothers to see him being tortured. They said to us that if we followed our father’s example, this is what would happen to us. They beat him with iron bars at first, then they did something to him that you learn in karate. They put their hands on his stomach and manipulated his organs and intestines. Indonesian soldiers are trained in these methods. They did this to him in four sessions.”

Back in Dili, an old man approached me in the hotel courtyard, asking me in a whisper to contact his family in exile in Australia. I walked away at first, then turned back and drew him into a passageway. “All my children are in Darwin,” he said, “I sent them out. It cost a lot in bribes. Now I long to see them.” I asked him if he had ever tried to leave. He shook his head and ran a finger across his throat. “Will you take a letter for me?” he asked. “Post it anywhere but here. They open everything. I have not had a letter for eight years.” I agreed to collect the letter that evening.

The massacre of mostly young people who marched peacefully to the Santa Cruz cemetery on November 12, 1991, remains like a presence in Dili. They had set out to place flowers on the grave of a student, Sebastiao Gomes, who had been shot dead at the church two weeks earlier. When they reached the cemetery, they themselves were shot down by waiting troops, or they were stabbed or battered to death.

What was different about this massacre was that foreigners were present, including the very brave British cameraman, Max Stahl, who hid his videotape among the gravestones and has been back to East Timor to film with us. In our documentary, Death Of A Nation, we will show that a second, unreported massacre took place, that day and the following day.

The Australian foreign affairs minister, Gareth Evans, described the 1991 massacre as “an aberration”. There is remarkable film of Evans and his Indonesian counterpart, Ali Alatas, toasting each other in champagne flying over the Timor Gap oil fields, having just signed a treaty to exploit East Timor’s oil and gas. When asked about the moral basis of the treaty, he replied, “What I can say is simply that the world is a pretty unfair place.” Within two months of the Dili massacre, 11 contracts were issued under the Timor Gap Treaty.

According to Professor Roger Clark, a world authority on international law at Rutgers University in the US, the Timor Gap Treaty also has a simple analogy in law. “It is acquiring stuff from a thief,” he said. “If you acquire stolen property from someone who stole it, you’re a receiver. The fact is that (the Indonesians) have neither historical, nor legal, nor moral claim to East Timor and its resources.”

Hours before I left East Timor, I met the old man who wanted me to post a letter. After all the years of separation, he said, with tears in his eyes, he had not been able to compose his thoughts and put them on paper in time for my departure. Instead he gave me a telephone number in Darwin for Isabella, his eldest daughter. I telephoned the number when I got to Bangkok. A recorded voice said it had been disconnected.

None of these terrible events had a place in the vision of those who fought and died to free Indonesia from European colonial oppression. Their struggle for independence from the Dutch produced great popular movements for democracy and social justice. For 14 years Indonesia had one of the freest parliamentary democracies in the world. Today many Indonesians understand this and are silent out of necessity. But for how long? The slaughter in East Timor is unworthy of such a nation.

As to the future, the US has, as ever,pivotal power. A proposed Congressional action to ban arms sales represents a perceptible change in American outlook and understanding. In 1993 the UN Human Rights Commission called on Indonesia to allow international experts on torture, executions and disappearances to investigate freely in East Timor. This month, the UN Commission will summon Indonesia into its dock. There are fragments of hope, which public opinion, directed at Jakarta’s sponsors and arms suppliers, can transform into real action. By all accounts, the Timorese resistance should have been wiped out years ago; but it lives on. Recent opposition has come most vociferously from the young generation, raised during Indonesian rule. It is the young who keep alive the nationalism minted in the early Seventies and its union with a spiritual, traditional love of country and kinship. It is they who bury the flags and maps and draw the subtle graffiti of a sleeping face resembling the tranquil figure in Matisse’s The Dream, reminding the Indonesians that, whatever they do, they must one day reckon with a Timorese reawakening.

When Amelia Gusmao, wife of the resistance leader Xanana Gusmao, was forced into exile, young people materialised along her route to the airport and stood in tribute to her, then slipped away. The enduring heroism of the people of East Timor, who continue to resist the invaders even as the crosses multiply on the hillsides, is a vivid reminder of the fallibility of brute power and of the cynicism of others.

— source johnpilger.com

In a Land of Fear

4 May 1996

For 34 years the people of Burma have been ruled by a military junta as tyrannical and secretive as any in the modern era. Now, desperate for hard currency, the country’s dictators are at pains to establish Burma as a holiday destination.

Posing as a travel consultant, John Pilger penetrated beyond this brand new tourist trail to uncover a nightmare world of slavery, forced displacement and intimidation…

At dawn, in Burma’s ancient capital of Pagan, crows glide without a quiver among the temples in the desert. In Ananda, the most celebrated of these great cathedrals, there are four colossal standing Buddhas. As the light catches one of them, it is smiling. As you get closer the smile becomes enigmatic, then it fades. As you walk to one side and look back, the Buddha’s expression is melancholy. Walk on and it becomes fear veiled in pride. I have not seen anything quite like it. For the devout, no doubt, it symbolises Buddha’s timeless wisdom. For me it is the face of modern Burma.

Six years ago, more than 4,000 people lived in Pagan, a city which stands as one of the last wonders of the ancient world. They were given two weeks to leave, some only a few days. The city was being opened to mass tourism and only guides and the staff of a planned strip of hotels were permitted to stay. The people’s homes were bulldozed and they were marched at gunpoint to a shadeless, waterless stubble that is a dustbowl in the dry season and runs with mud during the monsoon. Their new houses are of straw and poor-quality bamboo and stand mostly out of sight of the tour buses that come down the new and empty dual carriageway. Those villagers who objected were sent out on to the barren plain, or beaten, or taken away in the night.

The dispossession was mild by the standards of the dictator Ne Win and the generals who have ruled Burma since a military coup in 1962 crushed the democratically elected government. Last year the International Confederation Of Free Trade Unions reported that a million people had been forced from their homes in Rangoon alone, in preparation for tourism and foreign investment. Throughout Burma perhaps three million have been brutally swept up and exiled to ‘satellite zones’ where they are compelled silently to serve Burma’s new facade of ‘economic growth’.

Arriving in Rangoon on a Sunday afternoon, there is a veneer of normality. Frangipani perfumes the air and incense fills the covered bridges that lead to the stupas surrounding the great golden pagoda of Shwedagon. Families seek the intonements of a passing monk, though there is a furtiveness about them all. Rowers glide on Inya Lake. Behind them, work on high-rise tourist hotels proceeds at a frenzied pace. There are surreal touches. A billboard advertising Lucky Strike cigarettes has ‘Welcome to Yangon’ in the space otherwise allotted to a cancer warning. ‘Yangon’ is the name the military regime has given Rangoon; Burma is ‘Myanmar’, which is the equivalent of the German government insisting that the rest of the world call their country Deutschland. A billboard near the airport announces ‘Visit Myanmar Year 1996’ beneath a cartoon picture of a Burmese Betty Boop. In the next street is the headquarters of Military Intelligence, known to the Burmese as ‘Em-eye’. It is Burma’s KGB and, alongside the old tyrant Ne Win and the army, it is the power in the land and the source of what the United Nations special rapporteur has described as ‘an atmosphere of pervasive fear’.

For arriving foreign tourists and businessmen the drive to their hotel inevitably includes a short detour along University Avenue. To the uninitiated, this has a frisson of the forbidden and seditious. Number 54 is the home of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of the Burmese democracy movement, Aung San Suu Kyi. Here, she spent six years under house arrest until her release last July. Now, every Saturday and Sunday, she is allowed to speak from over her garden gate to several thousand supporters corralled behind barbed wire barriers. This is not so much a concession by the regime as a showcase for the new ‘openness’ of ‘Visit Myanmar 1996’. A coachload of Taiwanese tourists was just ahead of me, snapping through the tinted glass. What struck me was the extraordinary courage of the Burmese who came to listen to her – in doing so they branded themselves as opponents of the regime – and the Kafka-like absurdity of the country’s elected leader having to address people standing on a platform behind her garden fence.

Since her ‘unconditional’ release, Aung San Suu Kyi has been denied freedom of movement. On a recent attempt to leave Rangoon she tried to catch a train to Mandalay, only to find her carriage adrift at the station as the train pulled out. She cannot freely associate with anyone. Those Burmese who pass through her gate take a risk: their names are noted and they can expect a call in the night. Shortly before I interviewed her, eight members of a dance troupe who had celebrated Independence Day with her, ‘disappeared’. They include the popular comedians U Pa Pa Lay and Lu Zaw, who are said to have made a joke about the generals. Each has since been sentenced to seven years’ hard labour.

Aung San Suu Kyi lived in Britain for many years before she returned to Burma, and her family live here still. A few weeks ago her husband, the Oxford Tibetologist Michael Aris, was once again refused permission to visit her. The ban also applies to their two sons, whose Burmese nationality has long been withdrawn. The official newspaper the New Light Of Myanmar attacks her regularly and with mounting viciousness. She is ‘obsessed by lust and superstition’; she ‘swings around a bamboo pole brushed with cess’; she is ‘drowning in conceit’ and ‘it is pitiable and at once disgusting to see a person (like her) suffering from insanity . . . now at a demented stage’. Aung San Suu Kyi dismisses all this with a laugh that is brave though difficult to share.

Of course, the reason for such intimidation is her popularity, which could not be greater, it seemed to me. At the mention of her name, the contrived neutrality of faces, by which people survive, breaks into smiles. People whisper her name as you brush them in a market, then turn and put a finger to their lips. And if you are able to speak and disclose that you have been to see her, all caution is discarded and questions pour forth as to her well being. But with expressions of admiration, affection and solidarity are fears for her safety and the recognition that she, and the democracy movement, may be trapped. “She is a Mandela without a De Klerk,” a close friend of hers told me. “Unless pressure comes from the very governments that the regime is now courting in Asia and the West, nothing will change for a long time.” Aung San Suu Kyi herself told me that foreign investment and tourism were shoring up the power of the junta, and that the world must realise the scale of Burma’s human rights abuses, particularly forced labour. “News comes and goes like fashion,” she said. “After the people rose up in 1988 and paid the price in bloodshed, we slipped from the headlines. It will be a pity if we slip again.”

In February the UN Commission on Human Rights reported, as it does every year, that the following violations were commonplace in Burma: ‘Torture, summary and arbitrary executions, forced labour, abuse of women, politically motivated arrests and detention, forced displacement, important restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities . . .’ Take at random any of the reports by Amnesty International and what distinguishes the Burmese junta from other modern tyrannies is slave labour. ‘Conditions in the labour camps,’ says one study, ‘are so harsh that hundreds of prisoners have died as a result . . . Military Intelligence personnel regularly interrogate prisoners to the point of unconsciousness. Even the possession of almost any reading material is punishable. Elderly, sick and even handicapped people are placed in leg-irons and forced to work.’ Pick up a travel brochure these days from any of the famous names in British tourism – British Airways, Orient Express, Kuoni – and there is no problem. Indeed, to British Airways Burma offers ‘the ultimate in luxury’ and a ‘fabulous prize’ for its Executive Club members. ‘To find an unspoilt country today may seem impossible,’ says the Orient Express brochure, ‘but Burma is such a place. It has retained its charm, its fascinating traditions . . . its easy-going ways are a tonic to the Western traveller.’ Moreover, this ‘truly unique experience’ includes a ‘free lecture on Burma’s history and culture’. I enquired about this lecture. It makes no mention of the momentous events of 1988.

In 1988, the year before the democracy movement in China was destroyed so publicly in Tiananmen Square, the people of Burma rose up and as many as 10,000 were killed by the army. Unlike the Chinese leadership, the generals in Rangoon moved quickly to curtail foreign media coverage. Although there was eye-witness reporting, there were no professional TV cameras and no satellite images to shock the world. Troops had orders to shoot on sight anyone with a camera. On one tape smuggled out of Rangoon, the voices of two amateur Burmese cameramen are caught at the moment they were spotted by soldiers. “What shall we do?” asks one of them. His friend replies, “Keep on filming until they shoot us.” It was in April 1988 that Suu Kyi returned from England to take care of her dying mother. Her father was Aung San, the revered national hero, whose guerrillas were trained by the Japanese, then turned against them during the occupation of the second world war. Having laid the foundations of a democratic state, and negotiated independence from Britain, he was assassinated in 1947. More than 40 years later, his daughter agreed to take on leadership of a renewed democracy movement. It was her demand for the restoration of democracy that led to her house arrest in 1989. However, the generals did hold elections. Having banned canvassing, threatened the electorate and disbarred and silenced Aung San Suu Kyi, they were confident they had fragmented her party, the National League for Democracy, and that their own front would gain the largest bloc of seats. The opposite happened. The NLD won 82 per cent of seats in the new parliament.

Stunned, the junta responded by arresting 3,000 NLD workers and handing out prison sentences of up to 25 years to those of the new MPs who tried to establish the government.

The euphemism for oppression was now ‘economic stability’. Having re-invented themselves as the State Law and Order Council, which goes by the fine Orwellian acronym, Slorc, the generals declared Burma ‘open to free enterprise’. At the same time, in order to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure – roads, bridges, airports, railways – they set about turning the country into a vast labour camp. Last year the moat around the imperial palace in Mandalay was excavated and restored almost entirely by forced labour, including chain gangs guarded by troops. When photographic evidence of this was produced, the regime claimed that ‘contributing labour’ was ‘a noble Burmese tradition’ and, anyway, many of the workers were convicted criminals who had ‘volunteered to work in the open air’. In totalitarian Burma the term ‘convicted criminal’ can embrace someone guilty of having been elected to office or of handing out leaflets calling for democracy (five years’ hard labour), or of singing a song the generals don’t like (seven years’ hard labour).

This has thrown up a terrible irony. Alongside the 16,000 British and Allied soldiers who died as slaves on the Japanese ‘death railway’ that linked Burma with Thailand during the second world war were some 100,000 Burmese and other Asian dead. Outside the gates of the Commonwealth war cemetery at Thanbyuzayat in the south of Burma, the death railway is still there. The same rusted lines rest on the same sleepers: a life was lost for every sleeper laid, one survivor calculated. A Japanese locomotive stands as it was abandoned on the day the horror ended. It is jet black and on the track in front of it is a square of barbed wire enclosing three figures rendered in cement – a Japanese guard with a rifle and two emaciated, shaven-headed PoWs working with pick axes.

Now, history is repeating itself. An extension of this line is being built in Mon State, between the towns of Ye and Tavoy on the Andaman Sea. This is Burma’s great secret. Although human rights organisations have documented the testimonies of the slave workers on the new death railway, few outsiders have seen it and the slave camps along the route. This is because much of Mon State is closed to foreigners. It is Burma’s gulag.

In making our forthcoming ITV documentary, my film-making partner David Munro and I entered the country under the subterfuge of travel consultants. We headed south, leaving Rangoon well before dawn, travelling over spine-gutting roads, often without headlights. We passed watchtowers and groups of prisoners in chains, quarrying rock. Those guards at roadblocks were junior, asleep or uninterested; money fluttered across to them.

The towns in this remote part of the country are a step back in time, as if the British Raj were temporarily away at the hill stations. Ancient sewing machines whirred on balconies; the roads were filled with bicycles not cars; carbon paper, radiograms and sleeveless sweaters were for sale. Tavoy has streets of decorous teak houses, the biggest with lace iron balconies. Others are dungeon-like, with iron bars and damp trickling over torn posters of coy women holding parasols.

People considered us with due curiosity; a whole generation here has seldom laid eyes on Europeans. To talk openly to anyone is to beckon interrogation and worse. Hotels must copy guest registration forms to as many as 14 different authorities. On the day we arrived in Tavoy all ‘independent travellers’ were told they had to leave. Fortunately all the roads out were now closed, and the ancient Fokkers of Myanmar Airways had been commandeered by a general. We calculated that we had about a day and a night to find the railway before we were caught. Following the line of embankments north into the jungle, we succeeded in getting lost, then by chance came upon a clearing that presented what might have been a tableau of Victorian England. Scores of people were building embankments and a bridge across a dry river bed that is now, with the arrival of the monsoon, an ochre-coloured torrent. From out of jungle so dense that its bamboo and foliage formed great wickerwork screens, they were carving the railway. A 20-foot-high embankment had been built with earth dug by hoe and hand from huge holes. The skilled were paid about 30 pence a day. The majority were slave labourers, of whom many were children. Laboriously and clumsily the child workers wrested clay from the excavations, sharing a hoe between three. One little girl in a long blue dress struggled to wield a hoe taller than herself, then fell back exhausted and, with a wince, held her aching shoulder.

The children carried heavy loads of mud mixed with straw in baskets and dishes on their heads and clearly agonised under the weight of it. They poured it into a vat and grinder, turned by two tethered oxen. The sticky clay, now almost as hard as rock, was gathered by two small children, one of them small enough to fit up to his shoulders in a hole directly beneath the grinder.

Horrified, I watched a load of clay, like fresh cement, tip over him, almost burying him. I reached under his arms and pulled him out. The others laughed, as if this was normal. How many children are trapped and injured and die like that’ As many as 300 adults and children have been killed or have died from disease and exhaustion, according to one estimate. There were at least 20 other bridges in the vicinity and children were working on all of them.

Every village along the way must give its labour ‘voluntarily’ regardless of age or the state of people’s health. Advanced pregnancy is no excuse. If people protest that, as peasant farmers, their labour is all they have to keep them and their families alive, they are fined and their possessions confiscated. If a whole village objects, the head man is beaten or killed and all the houses razed.

“I saw one old man accidentally drop his load into the river,” a former civil servant told me in a nearby safe area controlled by the Karen National Union. “As he tried to retrieve it, the soldiers shot him in the head. I could see the water turn red with his blood, then the river carried him away.” A man who escaped with his wife told me: “I saw people dying because of landslides or fever. Some of the bodies were never found, only the head or a foot. They didn’t bother to bury the bodies properly, with a funeral. They just dug a hole and left them there.” His wife, Min, said, “I feel for the children. They are too young to anticipate danger, so they are vulnerable. They are the ones who die first.” I asked her if she knew why she was being forced to work in this way. “We were told nothing,” she said. “We overheard we were building a railway so that a French oil company could run a pipeline through, and foreigners came to look over the site.” The oil company is Total, which is part-owned by the French Government. In partnership with the American Unocal company, Total is building a Dollars 1 billion pipeline that will carry Burma’s natural gas into Thailand. The deal will give the Rangoon generals about Dollars 400 million a year over 30 years. Since they put an end to democracy in 1990, it is estimated that the Slorc have received 65 per cent of their financial backing from foreign oil companies, including Britain’s Premier Oil.

In its 1993 report on human rights abuses throughout the world, the US State Department says the Slorc ‘routinely’ uses slave labour and ‘will use the new railway to transport soldiers and construction supplies into the pipeline area’. Unocal says reports of slave labour are a ‘fabrication’ and both the oil companies deny the railway is linked to the pipeline project. But more than 5,000 troops have already been shipped to the pipeline area and army patrols protect Total personnel. Although taken aback by the sudden arrival of two Europeans on the embankments, the chief engineer admitted to me that the railway was being built mainly with ‘volunteers’. He said that the children made bricks for the army which sold them to the construction company. As we talked, soldiers guarding the ‘volunteers’ began to emerge from their tent. We left expeditiously.

In 1993 the British trade minister, Richard Needham, told Parliament, “The Government’s policy is to provide no specific encouragement to British firms to trade or invest in Burma in view of the current political and economic situation there.” In the same breath he said, “British business visitors to Rangoon can of course look to our embassy there for advice and support.” Last year most veils had dropped. The Department of Trade funded a seminar in London called An Introduction To Burma – The Latest Tiger Cub. The organiser was Peter Godwin, a merchant banker and government adviser on trade in South East Asia. “To be a Briton in Burma,” he told the delegates, “is a privilege.” Godwin said he had been assured by the senior general in Slorc “openly and categorically” that Burma’s “socialism” had been “a mistake” and that this mistake had caused the upheavals in 1988. He made no reference to the generals murdering thousands of unarmed civilians, then throwing most of the elected government into prison. The “good news”, he said, “is that economic growth is picking up”.

A few Western businessmen operating in Burma claim that foreign investment in the country has multiplied tenfold since 1992. “It’s not so much a gradual pick up,” said Pat James, a Texan entrepreneur, “as a skyrocket.” This is disputed by, among others, a recent report in The Economist. The World Bank and the IMF have yet to lend the generals a penny. However, what has begun in Burma is a familiar process in which a dictatorship’s crimes against its people are obscured and ‘forgotten’ as foreign businessmen seek to justify what the East Asian governments call ‘positive engagement’ and the Europeans and Australians call ‘critical dialogue’. The prize is a cheap labour colony that promises to undercut even China and Vietnam.

Peter Godwin had just returned from leading a Government-backed trade mission to Burma when I met him in March. Companies of the size and importance of GEC, Powergen and Rolls-Royce were represented. I pointed out that there was documented evidence that some two million people were being forced to build the infrastructure of Burma in brutal conditions so that foreign investment might get off the ground. “Isn’t that a factor to you and your business colleagues?” I asked.

“I suppose it is,” he replied, “but the involvement of foreign companies is going to improve conditions quite substantially. No foreign company is likely to employ labour under those terms.” “But you’ve got to use the roads and railways.” “Indeed.” In spite of a certain sound and fury aimed at the regime by Madeline Albright, the US Representative at the UN, US policy is “not to encourage or discourage” business with Burma. The EU countries have followed a similar double-faced policy. While most western aid remains suspended, the Japanese Government gives Dollars 48.7 million a year and the great zaibatsu, Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Honda and Nippon Steel, have offices in Rangoon. By far the biggest investor is Singapore, whose state arms company came to the Slorc’s rescue in 1988 at the height of the demonstrations when troops were running out of bullets.

Burma’s most profitable export is illegal. More than half the heroin reaching the streets of American and Australian cities originates in the ‘golden triangle’ where the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. Under the Slorc, heroin production has doubled. Two researchers, Dr Chris Beyrer and Faith Doherty, conclude from a long investigation for the South-East Asian Information Network that the Slorc have allowed heroin to circulate freely and cheaply in Burma in the hope that it ‘pacifies’ the rebellious young.

“At last the doors to Myanmar, the magic golden land, are open,” waxes Dr Naw Angelene, the Director of Tourism, in an official handout. “Roads will be wider, lights will be brighter, tours will be cleaner, grass will be greener and, with more job opportunities, people will be happier.” One of the biggest foreign tour operators in Burma is the Orient Express Group, which operates ‘The Road To Mandalay’, a ‘champagne-style cruise’ between Mandalay and Pagan in a converted Rhine cruiser. The cabins, says the brochure, ‘are not simply luxurious’; there is a Kipling Bar and a swimming pool.

When I found her at anchor in the heat and mosquitoes, The Road To Mandalay looked squat and sturdy rather than luxurious. Once on board, however, it seemed the perfect vehicle for pampering tourists in one of the world’s 10 poorest countries. Like an air-conditioned bubble, it is constantly cleansed of the smells and noise and dust of the land through which it glides. In the ‘staterooms’ the television rises at the foot of the bed and, hey presto, there is Rupert Murdoch’s satellite TV. In February, the captain of The Road To Mandalay welcomed his inaugural guests. ‘They might have been,’ wrote the Times travel writer Peter Hughes, ‘the cast from an Edwardian novel: a prince and two princesses from the Endsleigh League of European Royalty, our own Princess Michael of Kent among them; a duke; a marche and marchese; a film star, Helena Bonham-Carter; and assorted lords and ladies whose names tended to be the same as their addresses. Those without titles merely had money.’ The actual road to Mandalay has recently been converted into an expressway for tourists. For the local people forced to work on it, it is known as ‘the road of no return’. According to Amnesty, two workers who tried to escape were executed by soldiers on the spot. Another eight were beaten until they were severely injured; one was hacked to death with a hoe.

Aung San Suu Kyi was two years old when her father was murdered. What distinguished the movement he founded was its complex attempt to apply a blend of Buddhism, socialism and democracy to the freely elected governments that followed. The ideas of Nehru, Sun Yat Sen, Manzini and Voltaire were adapted. Marx was virtually re-invented as a disciple of Buddha. But this flowering coincided with a period of turmoil as the ethnic peoples demanded autonomy. In March 1962 the army stepped in and seized power. Its leader, Ne Win, became Burma’s Stalin. He displaced whole populations, built labour camps and filled the prisons with his enemies, real and imagined. His wars against the ethnic peoples were unrelenting and vengeful. He abolished Burma’s lively free press; and along the way he made himself extremely rich. In 1984 the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that the privately chartered jet taking him to a Swiss health clinic ‘was delayed because chests of jade and precious stones carried on board had been stacked incorrectly and had to be reloaded’. Three years later Burma ignominiously applied for Least Developed Country status so that it might seek relief on its massive foreign debt.

In 1987 the man who called himself ‘Brilliant as the Sun’ produced his coup de grace. Without warning, he withdrew most of the country’s banknotes, replacing them with new denominations that included or added up to the number nine. According to his chief astrologer, nine was his lucky number. The people of Burma did not share his luck. As most of them kept their savings in cash, most were ruined.

In a nation now so impoverished the touchpaper was lit. By March 1988 the regime was at war with the students at Rangoon University. The moment of uprising came precisely at eight minutes past eight on the morning of the eighth month of 1988. This was the auspicious time the dockworkers, the ‘first wave’, chose to strike. Other workers followed in succession; and in subsequent days and weeks almost everyone in the cities and towns, it seemed, showed a courage equal to those who stormed the Berlin Wall the following year. Without guns, ordinary people began to reclaim their country.

Then the slaughter began. The army fired point blank at the crowds and bayoneted those who fell. In Thailand and Norway, I have interviewed the exiled witnesses to these epic events, most of them speaking publicly for the first time. “One of my friends was shot in the head right there, in front of me,” said Ko Htun Oo, a former student. “Two girls and a monk were shot next to him.” Another student, Aye Chan, said, “A lot of flame was coming out of the crematorium which was surrounded by troops. They weren’t even identifying bodies, so the parents would never know. The dead and wounded were all mixed up. They just burned them alive.” Another spoke of hearing a wounded schoolboy cry out for his mother as he was buried alive in the cemetery: “The caretaker didn’t want to do it,” he said, “but the soldiers had guns pointed at him.” Now well into his eighties, Ne Win remains the centre of the Slorc’s power. His former aide, the secret police chief, General Khin Nyunt, is ‘Secretary One’. Behind sunglasses Khin Nyunt’s pudgy face appears at least five times a day in the New Light Of Myanmar. His seminal work goes under the catchy title, The Conspiracy Of Treasonous Minions Within The Myanmar Naing-Ngan And Traitorous Cohorts Abroad. One wonders how many of the gallery of faces in its pages are dead. Pol Pot and his gang turned out similar tracts. This is the man whose job is the silencing of ‘heretics’: those like the lawyer Nay Min, serving 14 years for ‘spreading rumours’ to the BBC, and the Unicef researcher Khin Zaw Win, serving 15 years for sending ‘fabricated news’ to the UN, and the writer San San Nwe, sentenced to 10 years for ‘spreading false information injurious to the state’. Last year the general subjected a US senator, John McCain, to an hour-long harangue about how the Slorc were holding back the ‘red tide’, then played him a videotape showing ‘communists’ beheading villagers with machetes: footage so sickening that McCain’s wife had to leave the room. The aim was to convince the senator that Aung San Suu Kyi was a front for ‘red subversives’. The taxi dropped us far from the long green fence of number 54 University Avenue. Our cameras were concealed in shoulder bags; a figure in sunglasses stood up to watch us. We peered through a hole in the corrugated iron gate and a face asked our names. Inside, another sunglasses told us to write down our names and occupations. We then crossed an imaginary line into friendly territory and were greeted warmly by Suu Kyi’s assistant, U Win Htein, who was arrested with her and spent six years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. He led us into the house, a stately pile fallen on hard times, overlooking a garden that tumbles down to Inya Lake and to a trip-wire, a reminder that this was one woman’s prison.

Aung San Suu Kyi wore silk and orchids in her hair. She is a striking, glamorous figure who looks much younger than her 50 years and appears at first to carry her suffering lightly. Only in repose does her face offer a glimpse of the cost and the grit that has seen her through, though when she laughs this vanishes; it is like a blind closed and open.

We talked in a room dominated by a huge portrait of the father she barely knew, painted in the style of Andy Warhol by the artist Soe Moe at the height of the 1988 uprising. I asked her if her release from house arrest was a cynical exercise by the regime to give itself a human face. “I think they also miscalculated,” she replied, “that the National League For Democracy was a spent force and that releasing me was not going to make any difference . . .” “But with such a brute force confronting you, how do you reclaim the power you won at the ballot box?” “We are not the first people to face this dilemma. In Buddhism we are taught the four basic ingredients for success: first, you must have the will to want it: then you must have the right kind of attitude; then you must have the perseverance, then wisdom . . .” What struck me was her extraordinary optimism, fuelled, it seemed, by her Buddhist principles that draw a stark contrast with the realities outside. This changed when I mentioned foreign investment. I said that the Foreign Office minister, Jeremy Hanley, had told Parliament that “through commercial contacts with democratic nations such as Britain, the Burmese people will gain experience of democratic principles”.

She laughed. “Not in the least bit, because the so-called market economy is only open to some. Investors will help only a small elite to get richer and richer. This works against the very idea of democracy because the gap between rich and poor is growing all the time. The same applies to tourism. They should stay away until we are a democracy. Look at the forced labour that is going on all over the country. A lot of it is aimed at the tourist trade. It’s very painful. Roads and bridges are built at the expense of the people. If you cannot provide one labourer you are fined. If you cannot afford the fine, the children are forced to labour.” In his moving introduction to Freedom From Fear, a collection of essays by and about Aung San Suu Kyi, Michael Aris quotes from a letter she wrote him shortly before they married: “I only ask one thing: that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them . . . if we love and cherish each other as much as we can while we can, I am sure love and compassion will triumph in the end.” I reminded her about this. “I asked him,” she said, “to be sympathetic when the time came . . . and he said, ‘yes’ . . . During my house arrest the longest period we were out of touch was two years and four or five months. I missed my family, and I worried about my sons very much because the young one was only 12, and he had to be put into boarding school. But then I’d remind myself that the families of my colleagues in prison were far worse off.” She revealed that in her isolation she had difficulty breathing and would lie awake listening to the thump-thump of her heart, wondering if it would fail. There were times when she did not get enough to eat and her weight fell to 90 pounds.

“Weren’t you terrified?” I asked.

“When I was small,” she said, “it was in this house that I conquered my fear of the dark. I just wandered around in the darkness and by the end, I knew all the demons weren’t there.” During the first years of her house arrest soldiers were ordered to lie with their ears to the ground so as to detect her ‘tunnelling’ to the house next door. They failed to grasp that she had no intention of escaping, or seeking exile. Outside, her name became a byword; and people would pass her house just to be reassured by the sound of her playing her piano. When it stopped there were rumours that she was dead. “That was when the string broke,” she said. “I was pumping too hard. I have a hot temper, so I took it out on the piano!” “Will Burma be free in the foreseeable future?” “Yes!” she replied unhesitatingly.

“That’s not just a dream?” “No, I calculate it from the will of the people and the current of world opinion . . . I knew I’d be free . . . some day.” The next day I joined the crowd outside her gate waiting for her to speak. The people were different from any I had seen; they were smiling, talking freely with each other, as if waiting for a gig to start. There were betel nut sellers and cheroot sellers and a man with a block of ice ingeniously balanced in a red sock, selling cups of cold water. With the grace and courtesy that is never deferential and is so much part of the Burmese character, people made way for the foreign Gulliver, offering a cushion for me to sit on.

When Aung San Suu Kyi appeared she was flanked by two other figures of principle and courage: General Tin Oo and U Kyi Maung, a former colonel, the vice-chairmen of the NLD, both of whom have spent years in prison. The clapping and whooping lasted minutes. She now looked grey and drawn. Yet she had people in stitches as she carefully mocked the dictatorship, using irony and parable (so I was told; she spoke only in Burmese). As they laughed I counted the spooks in sunglasses, filming, photographing, watching. Their arbitrary power was like a presence. Recently a young man tried to ease the crush by moving the barrier and was bundled away and given a two-year sentence.

At the end of her speech people asked questions. She leaned over the spikes in the fence and listened intently, replying expressively. An old monk pushed through and asked her if she would join him in prayer; and she did. Most did not linger. A man told me he never went straight home after a meeting. “If they follow you,” he said, “things start to happen. The power goes off; the kids are sent home crying from school.” When I asked him if 1988 could happen again, this time successfully, he said: “Imagine a zebra crossing. The traffic never seems to stop for the pedestrians. One or two dart across. The majority wait impatiently at the kerb, then they surge across, until the traffic has lost all its power. Well, we are all back at the kerb now, waiting impatiently.” At that, he looked over my shoulder and walked quickly away.

Desmond Tutu – like Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner – said recently, “International pressure can change the situation in Burma. Tough sanctions, not constructive engagement, finally brought about a new South Africa. This is the only language that tyrants understand.” What is hopeful is that there is the promise of sanctions in a remarkable disinvestment campaign already well underway in America. Based on the boycott of apartheid South Africa, selective purchasing laws have been enacted by a growing number of US cities, including San Francisco. These make illegal municipal contracts with companies that trade with or invest in Burma. Last week New York State was considering similar legislation; and one of the biggest investors in Burma, Pepsi Cola, with its headquarters in upstate New York, has withdrawn.

A Massachusetts Representative, Byron Rushing, who has written a selective purchasing law for his own state, told me: “In the case of South Africa, we were able to put pressure on a whole range of companies, like General Motors, Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, and most eventually withdrew. And that really added to the pressure on the white government. That was a victory. As for Burma, it’s not going to happen overnight, but we have started. The civilised world should follow.”

— source johnpilger.com

A cry for freedom

1 June 1996

Arriving in Burma, the facades are almost normal: traffic in the streets of Rangoon, crowds in the markets and tea stalls, astrologers announcing the future at the great Shwedagon pagoda; families playfully dousing small ivory Buddhas in water.

In the botanical gardens, where people go to speak freely, a young man seated on the bench next to me stared at his book, the pages unturned, before summoning the courage to speak – then looked away as he did. Strangely, he began each sentence with a verb, making our conversation at times hilarious. ‘Permitting us never English’, he said as he described the long ban, now lifted, on learning English. That was one of the old tyrant Ne Win’s specialities, he said; another was his infamous cancellation of most of the banknotes in circulation thus ruining most people with savings. As we talked, I became aware of a face in sun-glasses peering through the iron railings, the lips silently moving through a half-smile. My friend’s face tightened and he hurried away without saying goodbye. Prague used to be like this.

The golden dusks bring a less ambiguous atmosphere. Colonial colonnades frame people motionless before they move on quickly. The only cyclo driver dismounts and slips into the shadows. ‘It is common,’ said an informant, ‘for people to be kidnapped at night and never be seen again. Cyclo drivers have been taken away to become porters for the army, pack animals with ammunition and sometimes human mine-sweepers. You never know when it will happen; there is no pattern.’

Milan Kundera once wrote that the ‘struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’. Few outside Burma will know about the epic events here between 1988 and 1990. Few will have heard of the White Bridge on Inya Lake in the centre of Rangoon, now known to foreign business people as the site of an ‘international business centre’. Yet it was here that an uprising as momentous as the storming of the Berlin Wall 1989 was sparked. On 18 March 1988 hundreds of schoolchildren and students marched along it, singing the national anthem. It was as joyful as it was defiant. When suddenly they saw behind them the steel helmets of the Lon Htein, the ‘riot police’, and knew they were trapped.

According to eye-witnesses I have interviewed in exile, the soldiers systematically beat many of them to death, singling out the girls. ‘A soldier reached down to his victim,’ I was told, ‘put his boot on her head and ripped the gold chain from her neck’. A few managed to escape into the lake where they were caught and beaten and drowned. Of those who survived 42 were locked in a waiting van, parked in the noonday outside Insein prison where they suffocated to death. At the White Bridge fire-engines were brought in to wash away the blood.

The students now marched in anger to the centre of the city and were joined by some 10,000 ordinary people who probably, until then, could not have imagined such a challenge to the military dictatorship that had ruled for 26 years. After months of rising popular confidence, the moment of general uprising came precisely at eight minutes past eight on the morning of the eighth day of the eighth month of 1988. This was the auspicious time the dockers chose to go on strike, and the country followed: teachers, journalists, railway workers, weather forecasters, grave-diggers, even prison warders and police.

Martin Moorland was British ambassador at the time. ‘It was unforgettable and so very moving,’ he said. ‘All you could see were people and all you could hear was Do-a-ye! Do-a-ye! – “our country is our business”. I had seven years of experience in Burma and I have to say I was astonished by the events of 1988. There was a degree of repression in the Burmese system which I thought the Burmese people took for granted and I discovered in 1988 they did nothing of the kind. My assumptions had been wrong. They wanted the same human rights, broadly speaking, as we want in the West.’

Unlike the bloody response to China’s democracy movement in Tainanmen Square the following year, there were no TV cameras linked to satellite dishes when Ne Win kept his promise to ‘shoot to kill those who stand against us’. As many as 10,000 died in the streets and in the prisons, under torture, and even in their homes as the army’s feared Brengun-carriers stormed the crooked lanes, firing at random into flimsy homes. Anyone with a camera was a target. Perhaps the world only really took notice when a charismatic woman, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the national hero Aung San, was placed under house-arrest in July 1989. Thereafter, so the generals calculated, they could proceed with an election that, without her, they were certain to win and which would legitimize their dictatorship. In fact, they lost spectacularly; Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won 82 per cent of the Parliamentary seats; she even swept the board in principal army cantonments.

Shocked, the generals (who had renamed the regime the State Law and Order Council, known by its Orwellian moniker SLORC) threw most of the newly elected Parliament into prison and turned Burma into what Amnesty has described as ‘a prison without walls’. Since then, year upon year, the United Nations Commission of Human Rights has translated Burma’s tyranny into the following catalogue: ‘Torture, summary and arbitrary executions, forced labour, abuse of women, politically motivated arrests and detention, forced displacement, important restrictions on the freedoms of expression and association and oppression of ethnic and religious minorities…’ One report that drew me to Burma earlier this year was by Human Rights Watch which said that despite the release of Aung Sang Suu Kyi from house arrest in July last year, ‘the overall human-rights situation is worsening… As the SLORC has moved to attract international investment at least two million people have been forced to work for no pay under brutal conditions to rebuild Burma’s long-neglected infrastructure.’

The euphoria following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi was extremely important to the regime. In the House of Commons the Foreign Minister Jeremy Hanley said: ‘The welfare of the Burmese people continues to concern us [but Suu Kyi’s release] represents the first step in an irreversible pursuit of progress towards a prosperous and democratic Burma.’ Although he counselled against ‘moving too quickly’, the British Government was ‘heartened’ and ‘encouraged’ by the SLORC’s conciliatory gestures. Furthermore, the Burmese people could only ‘gain experience of democratic principles’ from ‘increased commercial contacts with democratic nations such as Britain’. Running down the list of the regimes exposed to ‘democratic principles’ of British companies – Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Nigeria, not to mention Iraq and Iran – you could get a pretty good grasp of the true meaning of his verbiage.

Having opened Burma to the ‘free market’ and released its most famous prisoner, the SLORC bargained that the rapacious instincts of the ‘Asian tiger’ states and the venerable plunderers of the West would respond with the investment it craved. The SLORC was not disappointed. The British Government mounted a trade conference in London – ‘Burma: the next tiger?’ – funded by the Department of Trade, which was told about the ‘visionaries’ in the SLORC. This was followed by a business delegation to Rangoon, inspired and partly funded by the Government. (Britain’s Premier Oil already had a $30 million investment and Powergen and Rolls Royce were ‘very interested’.)

Immediately Aung San Suu Kyi was released the Japanese Government restored some $50 million in aid. The new Australian deputy prime minister, Tim Fischer, who had previously announced that ‘democracy is coming’ to Burma, said that Australia could now adopt a ‘flexible’ approach to a country that offered ‘great economic opportunities’. The US Government, in spite of a certain sound and fury by its representative at the UN, said it would continue ‘neither to encourage nor discourage’ trade and investment.

However, by far the biggest investment was already well established: a one-billion- dollar pipeline being built by the French oil company Total, partly owned by the French Government, and its US partner UNOCAL. This will carry Burma’s natural gas into Thailand and give the generals an estimated $400 million every year for 30 years. Indeed, more than two thirds of the SLORC’s foreign underwriting now comes from foreign oil companies. Potentially, tourism, the world’s fastest-growing industry, promises to complement this, if not in Visit Myanmar1 Year 1996 then when the country’s roads, railways, bridges and airports are rebuilt.

Scheming despots are, of course, nothing new. What sets SLORC-run Burma apart is slave labour and massive displacement of whole sections of the population. No modern state, whatever its totalitarian stripe, has turned itself into a vast slave labour camp in order to ‘develop’. Certainly, Pol Pot tried it as a means of control, but none matches the SLORC in paving its way to ‘the market’ with such brutal audacity. If the generals are allowed to succeed in this project – and their important allies like Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia have been promoting ‘constructive engagement’ (a euphemism borrowed from the Reagan administration’s support for the apartheid regime in South Africa) – they will command a pool of labour that will undercut the cheapest in Asia. This will attract capital and eventually loans will be granted by the World Bank and the IMF; and ‘globalization’ will mark another gain and humanity another loss.

Little of this has been news. ‘I’m afraid,’ Aung San Suu Kyi told me, ‘countries and events keep slipping from the headlines, and we slipped’. She has asked investors and tourists to stay away, pointing out that the foreign exchange they bring will widen the gulf between rich and poor and reinforce the power of the SLORC. ‘It is just not possible,’ she said, ‘for foreign visitors, on a short guided trip, to know the truth, if they are interested in the truth’.

The famous picturesque view from Mandalay hill is testament to this. On one side is the new white Novotel Hotel, whose brochure boasts ‘a computer socket, multi-channel in-house music and TV, a fitness centre and an 18-hole golf course’. Room rates range from $200 to $650 (a Burmese family has to survive on around $200 a year). Facing it across a landscape of pagodas is another white building, a maximum- security prison where there are people serving tens of years for writing poems and songs about freedom. Beyond this, and a Foster’s Lager billboard, is a shrine, which I watched being built with forced labour. I explained to an Australian tourist enjoying the golden sunset. ‘I would never have known that,’ he said.

Indeed, few foreigners, if any, will be aware that a thousand people were recently thrown out of the village they occupied for generations near Lashio in Shan State, so that the army could extend the golf-course for tourists. Dumped at gun-point on land that is dry stubble, where it is not possible even to sink a well, they can a only watch helplessly as their precious water sprays the greens of a new gold course. This is not unusual. Last year, in order to bring Rangoon’s main golf course up to standard for rich foreigners – mostly Japanese investors – the army seized adjacent land where a community lived for 40 years. When an army blockade failed to make them move, one member of each family was arrested and taken to prison. The rest were driven in trucks to a ‘satellite town’ 15 miles away.

The full force of these events struck me in the deep south of Burma, in Mon State, where David Munro and I found what has been described as the ‘second death railway’. Connecting the towns of Ye and Tavoy, it is an extension of the notorious line built by the Japanese with the lives of more than 100,000 Asians and Allied prisoners of war. We came upon it in dense jungle beyond a village where emaciated young girls held out silver urns for contributions to the welfare of their community, a Buddhist tradition. Their face masks of thanaka – a yellow paste from treebark that protects and nourishes the skin – gave the appearance of small ghosts emerging from the undergrowth. They were fortunate compared with the gangs of children at work half a mile away.

While adult slave workers toiled on 20- foot embankments, the children were engaged in a crude brickworks, most of them exposed to the pre-monsoon glare and heat. Their ages ranged from teens down to nine years old. A ten-year-old boy was employed in a hole beneath a clay-mixer, turned by two yoked buffalo. His size was crucial; an adult would not be able to do his job, which was to catch the cement-like clay as it oozed out of the grinder, in time to be collected in a barrow. There was an urgent rhythm about his movements: there had to be; if he faltered the clay would bury him. As we approached him a barrow-load fell sideways onto him and I had to intervene to free him. One estimate is that, out of 200,000 adults and children forced to build the railway, up to 300 have died from exhaustion and disease or have been killed. This seems conservative. We counted some 20 bridges in the area and children appeared to be working on all of them. ‘No one can escape [forced labour],’ one villager told me. ‘SLORC officials or the army go from village to village. They take a child, as long as he is strong enough, without asking permissions of the parent.’

In one of its recent annual reports on human-rights abuse throughout the word, the US State Department says the SLORC ‘routinely’ uses slave labour and ‘will use the new railways to transport soldiers and construction supplies into the pipeline area’. The oil companies deny the railway is linked to the pipeline project, and although most supplies are likely to arrive by sea, there can be no doubt that the railway will allow the generals to protect the companies’ investment and their own cut from it. In 1993 Total was contacted by officials of the Burmese Government in exile, representing Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. They provided the company with extensive evidence of slave labour along the route of the pipeline. They also demonstrated how the profits from the project would invariably buy the arms and military equipment to which about half of the SLORC’s budgetary spending is devoted, thus helping to underwrite the repression of the population. Total’s response was it would ‘continue’. UNOCAL has described reports of slave labour as ‘fabrications’.

None of this would be possible without the collaboration of the Thai Government, especially the Thai military whose Petroleum Authority will be the only importer and consumer of the gas. The deal is little different from the logging, mining and fishing concessions which Thai interests have negotiated with Rangoon since ‘development’ in their own country has all but destroyed its principal natural resources. Part of the unspoken deal appears to be that the Thai military sends back Burmese refugees. In April 1993 Thai troops burned down two refugee camps in an operation, reported the Bangkok Nation, ‘probably related to the gas pipeline’. Thousands of ethnic Mon refugees have since been forced back into Burma, many straight into the hands of the SLORC military. On the border, where the pipeline will enter Thailand, SLORC troops display Total pens in their uniforms. ‘Total is coming,’ said one of them, with a broad smile.

Desmond Tutu – like Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace Laureate – has said: ‘International pressure can change the situation in Burma. Tough sanctions, not “constructive engagement” finally brought about a new South Africa. This is the language that must be spoken with tyrants, for it is the only language they understand.’ What is hopeful is that there is the promise of sanctions, coming not initially from governments but from a remarkable grassroots disinvestment movement in the United States. Modelled on the campaign to boycott apartheid South Africa, selective purchasing laws have been enacted by several American cities, including San Francisco.

These prevent public funds going to companies that trade with or invest in Burma. At the time of writing, New York State is likely to enact similar legislation and one of the biggest investors in Burma, Pepsi Cola, is withdrawing. The threat is not only loss of profits, but bad publicity, especially when applied to a company like Pepsi that says its product is ‘bringing people and nations closer together towards world peace’. Byron Rushing, who has written a selective purchasing law for the state of Massachusetts, told me: ‘In the case of South Africa, we were able to put pressure on a whole range of companies like General Motors, Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, and eventually most withdrew. And that really added to the pressure on the white South African government. That was a victory. As for Burma, it’s not going to happen overnight, but we have started. The civilized world should follow.’

— source johnpilger.com