In memoriam George Aditjondro

20161220_204557_resized“Academics are too caught up in comfort and too often afraid,” George Aditjondro told me in Vancouver back in 1997. It’s not a trap he fell into.

Friends are marking the death of George Aditjondro this month. The Indonesian professor and activist taught many people formally and, I imagine, even more people informally. I didn’t study with him, except on a rather makeshift course in Portugal one summer in which he tried to free a group of human rights activists of some of our illusions about Indonesia. But in remembering him this month, I’m recalling some informal lessons.

George Aditjondro taught me that Canada and Indonesia were more enmeshed than I’d imagined on the level of daily life. He grabbed a package of instant noodles and showed how the noodles tied Saskatchewan wheat farmers to Javanese farm labourers through a chain running from the prarie farm, through the Canadian government’s wheat marketing board, to buyers in Indonesia dominated by one of President Suharto’s cronies, to Indonesian labourers needing a quick and cheap snack while they worked the rice fields. The result? Indomie, or Indonoodles, easy to make and cheap to buy, and owned by PT Indofood Sukses Makmur, itself part of the Salim Group controlled by Indonesia’s Liem family, one of the world’s richest families – which got its start when Fujianese migrant Liem Sioe Liong became quartermaster to an Indonesian soldier named Suharto, who in 1965 led a slow coup and plunged Indonesia into three decades of dictatorship.

As George Aditjondro told this story, it was 1997 and we were getting ready to protest the arrival of Suharto in Vancouver for the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit. I thought noodles were just about noodles. In a few minutes, George Aditjondro taught me they were also about global capitalism and how trade linked the everyday to global politics, and farmers across oceans to each other, and economics to human rights. I was just trying to finish off a B.A. and doing a bit of East Timor support work on the side. “Have you read Gramsci?” he asked. It’s not a name I knew. “Antonio Gramsci,” he explained. “Read some Gramsci, and then maybe we can talk about this again one day.”

“George was known as a passionate critic of what he saw as corrupt power,” reads his obituary in the Jakarta Post. “During the Soeharto regime he researched the business empire of the ‘Cendana family’, referring to Soeharto’s family that resided on Jl. Cendana in Central Jakarta.” Earlier, and the obituary is quieter on this, it meant he spoke up for human rights in East Timor and Papua (then officially called Irian Jaya). That cost him a safe academic postings, though (through the work of some supporters in the academic world) it also brought him a new post in Australia. For me he was an example of solid research connected to his “research subjects,” and of the sort of teaching outside the classroom that’s an all too rare skill.

Two offerings from the files of George Aditjondro’s work: a piece he wrote in the 1980s on Indonesian NGO collaboration with indigenous Papuan communities, and a table laying out the details of Indonesian monopolies in East Timor that he produced in the 1990s.

George Aditjondro, Non-governmental organizations’ collaboration with indigenous communities in Irian Jaya…” (1988)

George Adijondro, Indonesian monopolies in East Timor, TAPOL occasional report 24

 

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December 1: a foundational moment in Papuan nationalism

On December 1, 1961, West Papuan nationalists raised a new flag bearing the morning star emblem and sang a new anthem. In fabric and music, they hoped to sing a new nation into being.

The land of Papua, located where Indonesia fades into the Melanesian Pacific, never gained its independence. Papuan nationalist leaders of the early 1960s hoped that their homeland, then still a Dutch colony, would follow the wave of decolonization sweeping Africa. They even called their country a “new Africa” and their people “the negroids of the Pacific.” Instead, the Kennedy administration in the United States brokered a deal that saw the land of Papua transferred to Indonesian rule.

Yet December 1 remains a foundational moment in the West Papuan nationalism that still persists after more than 50 years of Indonesian rule. In 1999, it was hailed as a bright shining moment when Papuans had, in many ways, declared their independence. The Papuan nationalists of 1999 argued that they were “already sovereign as a people and as a nation,” and had been 1961, when their fore-runners raised the morning star flag and sang the new anthem.

2015 was no different: Papuan students rallied in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. “We also wanted to retell that since December 1, 1961, Papua should’ve been independent,” one protester told Tempo magazine.

I wrote about the significance of December 1 as a foundational moment in Papuan nationalism in the wake of the day’s resurrection as nationalist touchstone at the turn of the century: D. Webster, “Already Sovereign as a People: A Foundational Moment in West Papuan Nationalism,” Pacific Affairs 74.4 (2001): 507-528 (archiving on autor web site permiotted after embargo, copyright Pacific Affairs):

Webster, Already Sovereign as a People

Some of this is out of date, but the significance of the day and the history remains. New Zealand activist and researcher Maire Leadbetter offers an updated historical overview today to mark the 54th anniversary of the original December 1 moment.

This is not an issue that is going away. Nationalism is persistent, and it echoes through the generations on such days of memory.

Memory, truth and reconciliation in Southeast Asia

This fall’s major project is a workshop on Memory, Truth and Reconciliation in Southeast Asia, looking at conflict and conflict resolution in historical perspective in Timor-Leste (East Timor), Indonesia, and (West) Papua. The draft schedule is now posted. Undergraduate researchers at Bishop’s University have posted some valuable background material too, including an analysis of media coverage of the residential schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission here in Canada and an overview of past truth commissions in the Asia Pacific region for comparative purposes. The workshop aims to produce two products by combining academic and advocacy perspectives: a policy brief for the Canadian government and a book based on presentations made in Ottawa and other contributions from people who are not able to come.

Indonesia’s New Frontier: the Kennedy administration and the Indonesian annexation of West Papua

jfk-doll_convertedUnited States presidential elections still have the power to make some people wistful for the days when presidents got some respect. Barack Obama entered office on a wave of “hope” that was felt as much globally as within the United States itself. No president has been so revered globally since John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy is hailed for a firm hand in foreign policy, a willingness to change course and move towards peace where warranted, and nimble “crisis diplomacy.” One apparent success came in Kennedy administration mediation of the Indonesia-Netherlands dispute over control of West Papua (then known as West New Guinea, and later renamed Irian Jaya by its Indonesian rulers). Although the administration’s mediation efforts leading to Indonesian control of the colony are generally hailed as a success, they failed to address the roots of the conflict, which continues today.

Kennedy’s intervention arguably prevented an immediate explosion, but it did so at the cost of forty years of instability. If it prevented an immediate war, it permitted a simmering low-intensity war that cost thousands of lives. Here, as in so many of Kennedy’s initiatives, the New Frontiersmen concentrated on short-term crisis management. Their failure to consider local aspirations – a failure rooted in inability to see the “primitive” dark-skinned Papuans as legitimate international actors – created the conditions for an ongoing insurgency. Histories of the dispute have only been able to see it as a Kennedy success because they, too, have ignored the Papuans themselves

The Netherlands had retained West New Guinea as a colony when it recognized Indonesian independence in 1949; Indonesia demanded the territory be “returned to the fold of the motherland” and threatened an irredentist war. By pressuring both sides into an American-authored agreement, the Kennedy administration felt it had managed to avoid a Dutch-Indonesian clash, which would have benefited only the Soviet Union, and also hoped to maintain stability in Southeast Asia at a time when it was increasing American commitments in the region.

American involvement in the dispute ignored the local population entirely. Yet West New Guinea remains in dispute between the Indonesian government and a nationalist movement among the indigenous Papuan population, a conflict rooted in the aborted decolonization process. Apart from the removal of Dutch colonial rule, the dispute today remains similar to that in the years 1960–1962: should the territory be part of Indonesia, or an independent country? Kennedy’s intervention arguably prevented an immediate explosion, but it did so at the cost of forty years of instability. If it prevented an immediate war, it permitted a simmering low-intensity war that cost thousands of lives.

Fifty years after the 1955 Bandung Conference of 29 Asian and African governments, considered to be the birth of the “Third World,” the Indonesian government celebrated the anniversary of its first major international conference. Papuan nationalists delivered a letter to most foreign embassies in the Indonesian capital, calling their land’s struggle an issue of unresolved colonialism. There are regular Papuan suggestions that the US role in the Indonesian annexation of West Papua implies a responsibility for the outcome, half a century later.

In the attached article, originally published in the journal Diplomatic History in 2009, I explore the conflict from U.S., Indonesian and indigenous standpoints, and address background influences on Kennedy administration policy. These include the influence of mental maps derived from the cold war and colonial anthropology, perceptions of race that equated the inhabitants of West New Guinea with ideas of stone age primitivism, gendered perceptions that privileged vigorous action and crisis management, and modernization theory that defined stages and places of development.

David Webster, “Regimes in Motion: The Kennedy Administration and Indonesia’s New Frontier, 1960-1962,” Diplomatic History 33 no. 1 (January 2009): 92-123.