Agam's Gecko
Monday, January 17, 2005
Zhao Ziyang, who for 15 years has been a silenced but still potent symbol for the Chinese idealists and reformers, died this morning in Beijing. He had not been seen publicly since his abrupt purging from his positions within the Communist Party and government following the Tiananmen student demonstrations of 1989, which resulted in the murder of many students and their supporters by the Peoples Liberation Army, as well as the end of political reforms in the one-party state.

Zhao will always be remembered for those last appearances on the square, his emotional address to the students and his valiant attempt to avert catastrophe in their showdown with an increasingly intolerant Party leadership. He tried, he failed to achieve his goal, and with some very hard-line elements in the leadership clique then arrayed against him, he became a scapegoat for the entire episode. The old man was banished to an address in or near the party's leadership compound Zhongnonhai, under constant guard (and they needed to continually rotate the guards, because they kept becoming sympathetic with their prisoner). This was the man who was intended to be Deng Xiao Peng's successor, who was clearly a progressive thinker (by Communist Party standards), and under that circumstance, the country's moves toward economic and political reform seemed to be on track to continue. So much hope and optimism seemed to be embodied in this figure, who was set to lead through the next phase of China's political maturing process. Then one day, no one saw or heard from him again. Disappeared, just like those rivals of Stalin or Khruschev would disappear, even from photographs.

It might be well to remember that the Tiananmen demonstrations were triggered by another death -- or rather, the funeral ceremonies (if I recall correctly) -- of a reformist Communist Party leader, Hu Yaobang. The Chinese students and their idealistic supporters admired Mr. Hu, his legacy united them, and they dedicated their non-violent struggle on the square to his memory. By the way, Hu Yaobang is also remembered by Tibetans for his 1980 visit to their occupied country as the Chinese Communist Party General Secretary, when he said:
"We feel that our Party has let the Tibetan people down. We feel very bad! The sole purpose of our Communist Party is to work for the happiness of people, to do good things for them. We have worked nearly thirty years, but the life of the Tibetan people has not been notably improved. Are we not to blame?"
Yes, of course -- who am I to refute the Party's own General Secretary? He did accomplish some easing of the onerous restrictions on Tibetans at that time, and for a few years during the early 1980's they had some room to breathe, and were even allowed several visits from representatives of the exiled Tibetan government in India. The hardline factions in the Party were shocked at the massive emotional reception these delegations generated, and the tolerance period was soon ended.

Today, another Mr. Hu rules the roost. Hu Jintao, the mysterious former Communist Party Secretary* of Tibet, whom nobody seemed able to describe any of his ideas or thoughts about anything (except that he was a good dancer), today has solidified his hold on the top post and fully sidelined his predecessor Jiang Zhemin. Zhao's death today reminds everyone that this man didn't really just disappear from public view, he was there all this time; and that the Communist Party has been afraid of what he represented, his symbolism, afraid of this frail old man right up until the end of his life. Will the Chinese citizen remember and honour him, as they did with an earlier reformer 15 years ago? Would the current leader, who crushed expressions of Tibetan national identity, culture and religion when he ruled that land, even allow them to if they were so inclined?

* UPDATE: Hu Jintao was of course, not the governor of Tibet (as I had written originally), but Party Secretary of the Tibet "Autonomous" Region. Party Secretaries always trump governors in China. Duh!

Almost two weeks ago, I mentioned how MetroTV had re-united a young boy who survived the devastation in Aceh, with his older sister in Banda Aceh. Dede had been on his own for more than a week, as far as he knew he was the only survivor of his family. On about Day 8 he was taken by volunteers to safety in Medan, and there he happened to be comforted by the wife of the President. This event was recorded by television cameras -- a much noticed event it was too, because Ibu Negara (the Nation's Mother) expressed her wish to adopt Dede, as he had no one left of his family. Dede thanked her but politely declined -- he had to go back and find his missing family. His older sister, who is married and lives in Banda Aceh, saw the event and contacted MetroTV, who promptly set up a satellite video link for Dede and his sister to see and talk to each other.

This exact type of thing is happening every day -- children and parents finding each other through MetroTV's help. I've said it before and I'm sure I'll write it again. MetroTV has been absolutely fantastic throughout this whole ordeal. They had so many contacts from the public, people who had caught a glimpse of loved ones for a moment on a news report, that they've set up a special facility where they run these tapes continuously, and anyone can come to view. For many, this is the only sliver of hope they have, the only way to know that a loved one is still alive.

Yesterday, a Metro reporting crew were informed that Dede's younger brother and sister had also survived, and had been transferred by some volunteers to a relative's family in Sigli (on the north coast, east of Banda Aceh). The Metro folks took us viewers with them to the small house in rural surroundings, to meet the two youngsters and the family who has been caring for them. They provided the children, a girl about 3 and a boy about 10, with a comfortable but lengthy ride to where their brother was staying. When Dede held his baby sister tightly, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. In fact I'm sure there wasn't a dry eye watching it, anywhere. I know the Metro folks are going above and beyond the call of duty. When Dede finally released his little sister from his arms, still sobbing, he went directly into very emotional hugs with all the Metro crew present.

There have been a number of similar stories aired this past weekend. It's good to see this, because the hopeful stories, the chance that such things can happen, is in large part what keeps up the spirits of those who are making them happen.

I've made some additions and repairs to the blogroll / sidebar links. The BAKORNAS disaster bulletins (Indonesian language) are available on a new "Aceh Recovery" site -- the link now points to an index of these useful field updates. Aceh Media Center added, the link goes to latest news in Indonesian (sorry, the English page is not getting updated much). The Electric Lamb Mission link now goes directly to latest updates instead of the welcome page. The additions to "Asia Blogs" should have been made weeks ago, but better late than never. Check Jakartass out for a expat's views from Jakarta, Macam-Macam for an Australian take on South East Asia (mainly Indonesian issues, but prepare for anything -- macam-macam means a variety of all kinds of this 'n that), and the 2Bangkok front page for those who enjoy "almost being there". I leave 2BAngkok's tsunami coverage index in place for now under the tsunami heading, as long as the editor continues updating it. For keeping up with the progress on our common disaster recovery efforts down here, be sure to check the Indonesia Help blog regularly, now featuring a block of latest tsunami news reports from around the region, on the top of the page.

Added Peaktalk from Vancouver, and Times of Winnipeg from Agam's previous hometown from a previous life, to the "Can-Con" section. For non-Canuck speakers, can-con does not refer to an ability to deceive anyone (as in, "I can con him easy!"). No, it's something of a vital ingredient for our movies, music, books, magazines, television, even food I think -- and regulated by government. Agam's Can-Con is completely voluntary, however, and free of government regulation. And last but not least ..... comedy! Scrappleface and Iowahawk have in stock all your satirical needs -- and then some. Necessitating a heading name change, find them under "Toons & Satire".

Following confusing proclamations from various political and military figures regarding the degree of tolerance the Indonesian government was having for all this foreign military emergency help, it seems that cooler heads have at long last prevailed. I for one felt a bit embarrassed to hear some of these last week, although one expects it from the Laskar groups, it sounded discordant coming from Vice Presidents of countries in crisis. Over the weekend the tone was softened by statements from the Defence Minister and people in the President's office, among others. The minister clarified that the touted three month deadline for international forces to "get out of Indonesia", was in fact just a benchmark and not a deadline. Paul Wolfowitz, who was visiting Jakarta, helped ease the pressure a little by affirming that his country was not slighted by those calls during the second week of their emergency help, to get out of Indonesia. The United States had no intention beyond helping in a humanitarian emergency, and Wolfowitz hoped that the Indonesian authorities would be able to meet their own timeframe for assuming the logistics requirements themselves. As a former ambassador to Indonesia, he's familiar with the society (and even showed that he hadn't forgotten all of his language ability yet).

As to the restrictions on foreign volunteers due to the ongoing threats from GAM guerrillas, thankfully this policy doesn't seem to have hampered the relief efforts yet. It is curious that so much is made of the threat of GAM attacks, when GAM itself has been calling for a cessation of hostilities, and TNI officers have been confirming that their war goes on as usual -- in direct contradiction to their own commanders. I was shocked when I read last week in the Indonesian press, and the fact was repeated on televised newscasts, that since the tsunami struck on Dec. 26, there had been 101 GAM members killed by soldiers, and one TNI soldier killed by GAM. Who's being the aggressive one again? This seems to agree with charges that the military has been actively attacking GAM camps and hideouts, or suspected sympathisers. If anything untoward happens, never mind the details and facts -- it was GAM's fault. This is the automatic position taken at all times by TNI, regardless what actually happened. For this reason, I have difficulty believing that they have killed over a hundred people, and that they were all in self defence.

Incident: A wild episode of shooting happens in the middle of traumatised Banda Aceh. Confusion over what exactly happened. TNI spokesman assures all that this was definitely the work of GAM. No question about it. It was GAM, GAM, GAM, who else? Reuters, AP, AFP wireservices take that at face value, the stories are written and transmitted across the world. Down at the bottom of the story, might be a line or two about one witness who thinks it was a troubled TNI soldier who did the shooting. The next day the minister responsible for the disaster management, Alwi Shihab, confirms that yes indeed it was a traumatised soldier who lost control and shot off his gun wildly. "Nothing to do with GAM at all," said Mr. Shihab.

This kind of thing is not going to make the Acehnese people feel confident, to know that facts don't have any bearing on what the army says and does. GAM will continue to be the default "at fault" at all times. Officers say that young foreign volunteers in the province are in danger from GAM. Although I don't recall GAM ever killing foreigners, I do recall TNI killing some a few years ago. Not intentionally of course, just firing guns wildly at a beach in the middle of a pitch dark night, a beach where a German couple were hoping to sleep without bothering anyone. The military knows well that in many areas, villagers are not comfortable with them. They are sometimes afraid of them. There is a reason for that.

So the military certainly needs some pointers in public relations, and engendering trust. Now also their credibility with reporters is going to be shakier than ever. I do think that the perception of ingratitude which inevitably arose from some of the more belligerent sounding statements of politicians, was more damaging to Indonesia's reputation. I find it hard to understand that these people were unaware of how petty they would sound to others. I imagine that I hear commotion from my neighbour's house. I run outside, there's been a sudden explosion, and the place is ablaze. I drag over a water hose, get my own family to help and call assistance from other neighbours. We're all in the midst of working together to save his house, and it looks like we start to get control of the fire, might even save the house. My neighbour looks at his watch, sizes up the remaining blaze, and announces, "Great everybody, now I want you all off my property in 20 minutes!" Not quite the perfect analogy but....

Have a look at this letter from a serviceman on the USS Lincoln, about his experiences of these few weeks on the relief effort. And from Malaysia's Star Online, Global Sikhs Aceh Relief have been helping isolated towns along the coast who have waited 3 weeks, in a similar fashion as the Electric Lamb Mission boats are doing. The citizens' fleet is growing.

I meant to offer this link a while ago, for some relief from all the sadness. Again, better late than never -- and a wai in the general direction of Macam-Macam for the link. Cheer up lads, it could have been worse.

"The Secretary General was right to say disaster relief is a race against time. Fortunately, nations capable of running at the crack of the starting gun are providing the U.N. the time necessary to find its shoes."

Subway crash in Bangkok this afternoon, reported as being caused by computer fault. That sounds fishy, this is a state of the art system. They felt the need to say it wasn't terrorism. Hmmm.

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