Agam's Gecko
Thursday, May 13, 2004
Sorry for going so quiet the past few days. There are reasons. I took a pass on Monday, a "go ahead be lazy" reward for enduring a scary dentist session that afternoon. That's my excuse and I'm stickin' to it. The bad mood just stuck around for a while and I just felt like reading some interesting things and less like writing. Wednesday evening I planned to post some stuff. Felt like I had the wind knocked out of me by the SCTV suppertime news (that's Surya Citra Televisi, not the one you guys are thinking of). So it becomes imperative to start today with something nice. Yeah I could turn it over to the gecko again - he obviously doesn't have the same kind of emotional repercussions to deal with, so I guess reptoid cynicism has its merits - but I really should be standin' and representin' for us mammals, so here goes.

So yeah... nice, hopeful, optimistic, that's the ticket. The world's largest ever exercise in democracy has been taking place in India, and after a multi-stage process is getting down to the final wire today - the counting of more than 350 million electronically-cast ballots. The earth's second most populous state has a lot to be proud of in my view - plenty of problems continue to exist of course, but to see a genuinely democratic system operating on such a huge scale, the calm, reasonable discussions between opposing camps in a virtually violence-free campaign, and likely (the way things look right now) to result in a change of leadership, should serve as a solid example for all the developing world. A lot of the BBC programming I see here is targetted for the sub-continent, and the level of discussions I've seen today with, and among, competing personalities has been impressive - both for the articulate expressions of views and for the mutual respect shown toward each other and for democratic principles.

Just now, about 3pm here as I write this offline, the announcement that PM Vajpayee will tender his resignation later tonight. Congress Party will likely form a coalition for the incoming government. Much has been said today about "the PM's blunder" of bringing forward the election date, and the BJP-led Alliance's slogan of "India Shining". Of course it's true there continues to be widespread poverty, and reforms haven't been universally successful across the board. So it's easy for interviewers to point to this or that aspect of Indian life which doesn't quite "shine". That's missing the point. Through this whole exercise, India is shining indeed, and I bow in her general direction. Bravo India!

Yesterday, May 12 was the start of what will be more than a week-long period of remembrance in Indonesia. It has been six years since the events on that day led to a chain reaction which culminated in the resignation of "The Smiling General" - Soeharto (one name, though he took to adding a 'Mohammed Haji' prefix in later years).

I had spent most of the previous month (six years ago, that is) in Aceh, a wonderful time spent with long time friends and a family which had virtually adopted me 8 years earlier. I was in Tapaktuan and with the people who had actually brought "Agam" into being. An interesting period, with student-led demonstrations taking place across the archipelago during the preceding few months, and suddenly the unthinkable seemed like it might actually be possible - an eventual end to Soeharto's corrupt and nepotistic "New Order" regime. As always, those weeks were full of constant activity: visiting old friends in the company of my close friend Uddin (by this time a new father); trips on his motorcycle to neighbouring towns to look up old acquaintances; group trips of 6 or 8 "motors" (2 people on each, at least) to the Leuser National Forest or various other places of natural beauty (beaches, caves, waterfalls); and always meeting new friends in every place.

But one thing was slightly different to previous times with them - constant talk about the political situation in the country. The fear of expressing opinions openly was gone, and not caring who hears you express them was now the norm. It was an optimistic atmosphere, something was happening in the country, and war in Aceh was just not even in anybody's realm of possibilities. I would listen to the BBC on my little shortwave radio at night, and in the morning bapak (father) was always keen to hear the latest developments. What were the students in Yogyakarta doing? What's happening in Medan? The domestic networks arent't saying anything about that, but I could help share some information. Bapak is always real interested in political stuff, and when Uddin wasn't around we could talk about everything under the sun. Those weeks in Agam's hometown in 1998 remain like a crystal in my mind. Aceh was at peace, exciting things were happening in the country, I could basically talk to anybody about anything (not hearing my own language for such a long time no longer made my brain hurt), and leaving was becoming progressively easier (because after 3 or 4 returns, one stops thinking "will I ever see them again?" and choking up while everyone is saying goodbyes). But I think the main reason it remains like a crystal in the memory, is that I never saw Uddin again.

I remember that I passed through Medan on May 1 (beginning the journey back to Thailand), and straight to Belawan harbour for the boat back to Malaysia. I had no idea until seeing CNN later on tv in a Georgetown (Penang Island) restaurant, that the Medan students had that day launched the most massive protests yet. That event seemed to be a turning point for the student-led democracy movement, giving courage and inspiration to students across the country. So many people had told me over the preceding weeks, that they felt that the students were truly representing them, and not the "elected" chair warmers in the parliament. The popular joke at the time was about the slogan adhered to by members of that body - "the four D's rule". Datang (arrive). Duduk (sit down). Duit ([accept] money). Diam (and shut up).

So after the long train trip through southern Thailand, I tuned in religiously (via satellite dish) here to all the Indonesian tv networks and their news programs and evening panel discussions, as the situation developed. I quickly came to favour the coverage of SCTV, for being the bravest in airing views or showing video of events which were favourable to "reformasi". The student demos snowballed (if such a thing can be said about Indonesia!), the government responses were harsh - including secret kidnappings of student leaders, some of which remain unresolved to this day. The demos were almost universally peaceful - no throwing of rocks or other violence against police. Leadership was diverse and loosely networked, but the vision of the movement as a moral impetus for reform - and thus founded on a rejection of using violent means - was constantly reinforced by the student leaders. They had established their aspirations in the people's minds as representing a pure intention to reform the country, unencumbered by any political group or ambitious national figure. This was to be repeated again and again by every commentator, analyst, cycle rickshaw driver or housewife to express an opinion - the students are "murni", pure. If there was anything everyone could agree on, that was it.

On May 12, students of Trisakti University in Jakarta were marching in the street near their campus with their banners and chants. I think if I recall right, a charge by the riot police, or some such action caused the students to retreat onto the campus to continue their demo there. The police didn't follow them onto the campus, but there were snipers caught on videotape, shooting into the campus from a nearby pedestrian footbridge. Four students were killed and many others wounded. Identities of the snipers have still not been adequately determined. The country was shocked by the news images that evening, heart wrenching scenes inside a chaotic hospital ward, boys and girls lying on stretchers or on the floor with weeping family members tending them, and the unmistakeable sound of mourning over the ones who didn't survive. The Trisakti Incident, the Trisakti Heroes, these will be recalled for a long time on this date.

What followed in Jakarta and elsewhere has still never been fully exposed. Conspiracy theories and stories of machinations by hidden "third hands" abound. The fact that the National Human Rights Commission and various civil and legal organisations have all gotten tantalisingly close to revealing what really happened, yet it has never been resolved in a complete way, shows that the issue is still extremely touchy for certain individuals and possibly institutions. From May 13 - 15, the city was in complete chaos. Security forces were held back, allowing widespread vandalism and rioting. Somewhere around 1,500 people died in those three days, almost all of them belonging to the poor underclass who were trying to acquire some of the consumer goods from the shopping malls they lived in the shadow of (but could never afford to shop inside). The opening up of these places was organised and coordinated - truckloads of beefy short haired men with cell phones and good boots, roamed the city opening up these malls and department stores, as well as indulging themselves in violence and sexual harassment (including rape) against some of the economically elite, Chinese ethnic minority. However, the fancy malls and stores (virtually all owned by Chinese conglomerates and families) were also systematically set afire by the mobile instigators, killing sometimes hundreds of the poor kampung-dwellers at a time. The identities or "masterminds" of these instigator groups has never been adequately investigated.

As I write this, SCTV news has come on, and one of the first items is today's memorial activity at the still-burned out shell of the Yogya Plaza mall in East Jakarta. Six years later and it looks just like it did the day after it burned. Families of the victims and other residents of the nearby kampung scattered flower petals and consoled each other today, still asking for a proper account of who was responsible for those gangs who exhorted the poor to go ahead and do some "free shopping" before setting fire to the place.

On May 15, Soeharto returned from Cairo where he'd been attending a meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (if I recall correctly). It's said that he was speechless when he flew over his capital, shrouded by an envelope of black smoke rising from fires across the city. By the next day order had been restored, but the political storms raged behind closed doors. Over the next few days a remarkable phenomenon took place. Civic groups implored the public, through the mass media, to return looted goods which had been taken during the chaotic days. Collection stations were organised and set up in certain locations, public parks and parking lots. I still remember being amazed at how much stuff was returned this way. Everything from big items like tv's and fridges to little stuff like clothes and shoes were brought by sheepish looters to these collection points, and many of them would drop the stuff off quietly at night because they were ashamed and didn't want to appear on tv the next day. I know of no other example of such a thing happening, in any country. Those willing to talk to the media explained they felt ashamed of having been swept up in the fever of the mob mentality, or that they felt ashamed of the attention this mass looting had attracted by the outside world and how it made Muslims especially look bad. Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, I was astounded.

While all this honest atonement was taking place among the ranks of the underprivileged, the political elite were in disarry, completely discredited in the eyes of the public. The people who lived in squalor of the urban slums showed more honour than the whole political and military establishment combined. After a few days of dithering with the inevitable, Soeharto appeared on tv on the morning of May 21, and said he would resign from his duties. The pure-hearted students gathered for a well-deserved celebration on the massive steps (and upturned "snail-shell" roof) of the People's Representative Assembly building. Reformasi would be set to begin at last... ahem, er, tomorrow.

OK, I feel like I'm delaying the inevitable here. I want to be honest about why I couldn't write a damn word last night. Since the morning I'd been feeling outraged at the news that Zarqawi's group had released a video of their execution of Nick Berg. Besides being vicious and inhuman, and a slur against their own co-religionists - many of whom I happen to love like my own family - it displayed a remarkable stupidity which I wasn't expecting. While they've been reaping a PR windfall in the Arab world over the prison abuse photos, they go ahead and remind once again who is the truly evil side in all this. Do they really think that Iraqis, or anyone for that matter, would be willing to live under the rule of such sick animals? (sorry to all animals, you too gecko)

So I'm preparing to jot down some stuff last evening after I finish watching SCTV news at 6 and RCTI news at 6:30. There's the first installation of the historic retrospective, the events of May 12, 1998. Some other political news - the presidential campaign has just gotten officially under way, with 6 pairs of registered pres/vice pres tickets. The ex-diplomat of Australia who'd been convicted of child molestation in Bali on Tuesday, sentenced to 13 years, had hanged himself in his cell on Wednesday. Jeez, why do they have to have camera close-ups on the yellow body bag, unzip the thing and get right in close on the contorted face of the corpse? Well I know there's less inhibition there to showing grisly stuff on the news, but really. Thais don't allow stuff like that on tv (when kids might see it inadvertently), although there are crime magazines that are pretty gruesome, and popular. But nowadays here, even a gun or a cigarette in a movie (on tv or rented video) will have a little blur spot following it around. Pretty funny when somebody's smoking in a scene! But Indo tv has a lot of crime shows with disturbing uncensored stuff (I see the ads, don't watch 'em), and even when they showed the Iraq prison photos on the news, the faces are not blurred out like they are when you guys see them. OK, then there was the Muslim students' demonstration at the US consulate in Surabaya, again enraged by the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners. Then they come to the slaughtering of Nick Berg.

I'll admit that my heart kind of sank, when I saw the now familiar scene which BBC had been showing every hour. I thought, "Oh shit... they're not going to.... are they?" But I watched to see if they would. I didn't actually want to see it (I'm pretty sure I didn't, but mainly wanted to know for sure what they (SCTV) would do with it). I could have turned it off and assumed they did, but then I wouldn't know. I watched. It went further than the BBC showed, and I already started to feel sick, "no, please don't show it" but I kept looking. I felt sick because I was part of it now, in a way that just seeing the tallest hyena in the middle reading his papers (all those times earlier in the day), didn't make me feel. I was part of it because this is what Zarqawi intended, he wanted to reach inside as many guts as he can reach, and twist and squeeze. When my guts started twisting, he'd already got what he wanted from me. It's been said that Zarqawi was the tall hyena in the middle, but of course they can't know for sure. The cowards wrap their faces like cheap liquor store bandits. He puts away his papers. Reaches down the front of his coat and draws out a long knife. Leaps on poor Nick Berg, pulls him sideways by the hair to the floor. Sawing motion. Zoom. Red. I hate these people. Sorry your Holiness, I have no compassion available for these. Not people. I feel cold. Sweaty. Want to vomit. Mad at SCTV. "How can you do that?

I go downstairs looking for S. for some comfort. "Something wrong?" Yeah. "Somebody die?" Yeah. "What happened?" I had thought it was only some shock and anger, but suddenly I just couldn't even speak. Couldn't get a single word out. It shouldn't really be so surprising, I realised later - and actually said so when I eventually found my tongue. How many times do any of us ever see an actual murder? I know I never have, and I hope I never do again. But that was the second shock - the raw emotional impact it had on me. OK, I'm going to be absolutely honest here, since I've come this far. The words caught in my throat and wouldn't come out. I actually had to cry first. I'm not sure why this is. It didn't happen when I saw it, it didn't happen when I thought about it, it only happened when I tried to communicate my feelings about it to another person. And I only wanted to say something like I feel unsettled because I just saw this thing. But then a whole lot more had to pour out first before I could even get my vocal chords to work. It was weird. I didn't know that guy. I knew what had happened, I knew what I would see if I kept looking (and if SCTV didn't cut short). In that way it wasn't even a surprise at all. But the psychic impact was like a ton of bricks.

No I didn't know Nick Berg. But in a way, yes. His father was saying, on the clips BBC was showing, that he had a "three-part fault". It didn't sound like he meant it like it was a bad thing, a negative or wrong thing - just that this is how he was. First, was his adventurous spirit. Second was his desire to do well. Third was his tendency to always believe the best of people. "He probably didn't even imagine that the people who held him would even hurt him." Well I can't think of three other more positive things to say about anyone. Those are three fine "faults" to aspire to in my book, and I'll be happy if I could be remembered for even two out of the three. Another reason for the impact is, I think, a little more personal.

I mentioned my friend, no my brother Uddin, in my Tapaktuan story. I wrote that after that especially idyllic time in 1998, that I never saw him again. It's not that he simply disappeared, or moved to a distant place, or had a motorcycle accident, or any other reason that may be painful but acceptable. No. He was abducted by bad people and taken into the forest near a town called Kota Fajar, about an hour's ride from our home. It was the day of an Aceh-wide "pawai" - like a convoy or parade. It's purpose was to ask the government for a referendum on Aceh's future. It was November of 1999, there was no war in the territory and people believed in reformasi spirit. Democracy. Referendum. They say Uddin was so happy that day, banners flying from his bike, "Referendum" bandana around his forehead. They knew him in all the towns up and down the coast - we would be constantly returning waves from all sides when we would pass through these towns. "..Yo, 'Din!" ... "Yo! hahaha" They went all the way to Banda in the far north that morning, along the beautiful coastal highway, returning late afternoon to South Aceh. Some guys from Kota Fajar persuaded him to not go home when they passed through Tapaktuan that day, a business deal about some lumber or something. So he went with them. He was killed the way Nick Berg was killed, and I guess that's part of the impact for me as well. His mother never had a grave to express her grief to. It's said that the reason was that Uddin refused to join either side in the dispute over Aceh's future, although he certainly wished to support the referendum call. They say the Free Aceh movement fighters wanted him to join, and he wouldn't. Neither would he become an informant for the military. So I don't know which side did it. But three things are for sure. He had an adventurous spirit. He wanted to do well. And he always wanted to believe the best of people. My brother, Uddin.

UPDATE: I see that Malaysia has now closed down the website which had made available this beheading video on the web. I think this is where SCTV picked up the footage they showed, because they showed pictures of the website immediately afterwards. Good. I hope SCTV was inundated with viewer complaints too.

No, I doubt that very much. In fact if anyone can find this page using any type of Google search, please let me know. Once I solve the image hosting issue, I won't care about who finds it, but until then.....

Anyway Charles Krauthammer writing in the WaPo last week, almost seemed to pick up where I left off a day earlier, when I noticed Andrew Sullivan's finding of the full quote from the al Mahdi Army fighter who said being shot between the eyes was preferable to being "treated like a woman." Sydney Morning Herald had excised the bits that referred to "being a man" and "manhood" and "the worst insult, to feel like a woman."

Mr. Krauthammer, in his last column, makes the point that, in addition to the "great jihad" being about (from the jihadist's point of view) religion, ideology, political power and territory, that "there is one fundamental issue at stake that dares not speak its name. This war is also about -- deeply about -- sex."
Taliban rule in Afghanistan was the model of what the jihadists want to impose upon the world. The case the jihadists make against freedom is that wherever it goes, especially the United States and Europe, it brings sexual license and corruption, decadence and depravity.....

Which is what made one aspect of the Abu Ghraib horrors even more incendiary -- the pictures of female U.S. soldiers mocking, humiliating and dominating naked and abused Arab men. One could not have designed a more symbolic representation of the Islamist warning about where Western freedom ultimately leads than yesterday's Washington Post photo of a uniformed American woman holding a naked Arab man on a leash.....
In fact Charles (who I've taken to reading as often as possible since hearing him speak at an event on C-SPAN a few months ago), makes the point that Osama himself couldn't have scripted it better to suit his own agenda. Which is precisely why I called these idiots traitors (among other stuff). They've done immense PR work for the bad guys - PR that they couldn't buy at any price. The publicity of the material has not advanced the investigations or prosecutions or done anything to ensure reforms beyond what was already happening within the corrective mechanisms of the system itself. That's all proceeding exactly as it had been without the media circus. But it has caused death, and that much is not in doubt now. It shows that Gen. Myers was absolutely correct in his assessment that this publicity at this time would cost lives. And he was well within acceptable practice to ask, out of a well founded concern, for CBS to delay the release until a later date. Which is different from a blatant political oriented attempt at suppression, in my opinion.

How difficult is it to get a name right, when you're a foreign journalist and the name or place in question happens to be within your field of "expertise"? I've been reading this interview with Bernard Lewis, a well known and respected scholar on the Islamic world. Many would say the premier interlocutor between the Islamic and Western worlds. He makes a point that has bugged me a lot, which is the sloppy reporting, or simple lack of basic knowledge, displayed by many of those we depend on for understanding important issues. Lewis uses the example of al Najaf, the central Iraqi city so much in the news wrap ups lately. Now, I've never been to Iraq, but even I can recall hearing Iraqis using this name in interviews or in video reportage. Lewis makes the point that if one has ever heard an Iraqi say this word, one will know it sounds like NAH'-juf. Accent on the first, second syllable is like an afterthought. Yet time and time again, we hear reporters - with their desert gear and their "right here in the middle of it all" attitude - telling us what's really happening in Nuh-JAFF'. Where accent is on the second, and JAFF rhymes with "calf". It's ridiculous. You know they've never, ever heard a local say that, and you wonder if they don't just spend all day at the hotel talking with other reporters and reading the internet, only going outside to pose in their duds and pretend to know what's going on. And that little twit David Willis on BBC, who usually covers the "America" beat and affects this constant, ridiculous, over dramatic tone to everything he says - I just watched him do exactly that yesterday after reading the Lewis thing. He was telling us exactly what every Iraqi thinks about something, and lots about what's really going on in Nuh-JAFF', and I have no confidence he'd even been in the presence of a real local person who wasn't a waiter or his hotelroom maid. Exactly what Lewis was talking about, and I've noticed so many examples of it. By the way, the Lewis interview is well worth reading for lots of other reasons.

This kind of thing slips by a lot of people, because they just don't know the difference - nor should they be expected to. But it points to a more widespread lack of credibility among those who many depend on for trustworthy information. I mean, if they can't get that kind of thing right, how much else are they winging it on? Passing on what they hear from other equally isolated people, or just relaying assumed truths? It's only one or two notches down on the stupidity ladder from the politicians or pundits we've all heard pontificating about "Eye-wrack" and "Eye-ran".

And while I'm on this issue, General Antonio Taguba had my full sympathy this last while. He seems like a fine and conscientious officer, who was entrusted by the military (Pentagon, CENTCOM, I don't know for sure) to investigate the Abu Ghraib stuff back in January, and produced that giant 2 ft thick report. I was able to see a bit of his testimony this week, but BBC didn't deem it sensational enough to stick with it all the way through. Anyway, these Senators are expected to be taking their responsibilities to enquire about this matter, seriously. And since the Taguba Report - or parts of it - is in fact what was leaked to the media for whatever underlying purpose, his name came up a lot even last week when they grilled Rumsfeld and company. I had to cringe to hear one Senator on that occasion refer to him as "General Tagaboo". Yikes, but that's not enough, somebody else did it this week right to his face! And if that wasn't enough, a different Senator managed to mangle it into "General Tabooga"! Booga booga booga! Sheesh. Nobody apologised or even seemed to notice the flubs, and the General accepted it with good grace. I liked this guy, what little of his testimony I heard. Pulled no punches, that I could sense anyway. Pretty blunt about apparent rivalry between two commanding officers, which might actually turn out to have been an enabling factor in all this mess. I don't know for sure, but just looking at Gen. Antonio, he seems to me to be of Filipino descent, and struck me as a very affable and open sort of guy. Good to see.

My favourite journalist in the big media these days is John F. Burns, working for the New York Times in Baghdad. I wanted to share some bits out of his report last week, and unfortunately because I've been so undedicated lately, is already more than a week old (meaning it will be unavailable for free viewing now). So I think you won't be able to get it here any more, but might well find it listed here if you'd like to read the whole thing. His pieces are often picked up by other papers which don't restrict access after 7 days.

This sheds some interesting light on what the popular media still likes to think of as the generalised Shia uprising across central and southern Iraq, or what some described back when the baby mullah stepped on the stage as the unmistakeable birth of popular revolution against the occupying forces.
Shiite Leaders Urge Cleric to End Fighting in 2 Iraqi Cities
Published: May 5, 2004

Although Shiite leaders have made similar demands of Mr. Sadr before, it has never been in such strength......

Several Shiite leaders acknowledged that they had delayed issuing their statement until there were clear signs that public opinion among Shiites had moved strongly against Mr. Sadr. Reports in the past two weeks have spoken of a shadowy death squad calling itself the Thulfiqar Army shooting dead at least seven of Mr. Sadr's militiamen in Najaf, and several thousand people attended an anti-Sadr protest meeting outside the Imam Ali shrine in the city on Friday, according to several of the meeting's participants.

Mr. Mahdi, from the Sciri group, which is close to Ayatollah Sistani, was blunt about Mr. Sadr's decline in popularity. "He's 100 percent isolated across most of the southern provinces; he's even isolated in Najaf," he said. "The people there regard him as having taken them hostage." He said Mr. Sadr had also been criticized by his most powerful religious backer, Grand Ayatollah Kazem Hossein Haeri, based in the Iranian city of Qum, who had urged Mr. Sadr to pull his militiamen out of Najaf and Karbala and to stop storing weapons in mosques...

In near 100-degree heat in the late afternoon, few of the Shiite speakers stirred much enthusiasm. But the strongest murmurings of the meeting came when Taqlif al-Faroun, a tribal leader from Najaf, said Shiites should give the American forces a green light to go after Mr. Sadr in the holy cities. "Najaf is not Mecca," he said. "The Americans don't want to go into the shrines. They want to get rid of criminals and thieves. So what if they enter the city?" Across the roof, dozens of men responded approvingly. "Yes, yes!", they said.
I don't know about the US mass media, but BBC hasn't had much to say about this Iraqi Shia'a sentiment. Nor have I seen it much reported that al Sadr's main backers are in Iran. Of course it's clear that he had the ability to make some trouble, he certainly had fighters and so on. But it looks like another example of the media's "pile it on" effect. Suddenly this problem becomes, "The Shia'as are rising up en masse to drive out the Americans." It reminds me of the severe sandstorm that stalled the invasion forces about a week into the operation. "Quagmire!"

Well it's already almost 11pm, I've been picking at this since 3. Was going to write something about the much appreciated feedback, but I'll do that another time. It's much appreciated, that's all you got to know for now. If links don't work, just try them later, they're all ones that I've tested first. Some sites are just finicky that way.

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