Hasn’t Lord Snooty done Britain proud during his Asia jaunt? Accompanied by an entourage of 35+businessmen pals, with the usual cohort of reps from British arms manufacturers, he has been looking for trade and investment opportunities and selling weaponry wherever he can.
Cameron has been particularly keen to flog weapons to the Indonesian military, which is looking to replenish its outmoded arsenal. But don’t assume that our leader is motivated by crass commercialism. During his visit to Indonesia, Cameron took time out to lecture students at Al-Azhar university in Jakarta on democracy, the Arab Spring, Islam and Islamic extremism, drawing appropriate lessons from Indonesian and world history and applying them to the crises of the present.
This close attention to the past was evident in his opening observation:
Indonesia, your country, is embarked on an extraordinary journey. In just over a decade you have begun a transformation that has taken my country and many others several centuries. You are forging an inspirational path from dictatorship to democracy…Where once the government denied human rights to its people, today it promotes them, not just here, but right around your region.
Nowhere in his paean to Indonesia’s democratic transformation does Cameron mention the fact that the Suharto dictatorship came to power through the mass killings of more than a million members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKK) in 1965 – in what a 1968 CIA report described as ‘one of the worst episodes of mass murder of the 20th century’.
The generals’ coup was aided and abetted by the British, American and Australian governments, who encouraged Suharto and his co-conspirators to overthrow the Sukarno government as a precursor to the purge of the PKI. The prevailing attitude of the British government to the massacres that followed was summed by the British ambassador Andrew Gilchrist, who wrote to the Foreign Office at the time ‘I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change.’
Britain continued to do business with the Suharto ‘New Order’ right up until the dictator’s death in 1998. Throughout that period the Indonesian Armed Forces continued to carry out atrocities and human rights abuses on a massive scale in the internal repression of separatist insurgencies in Aceh province and West Papua, or its murderous war in East Timor that killed some 230,00 people.
In his Jakarta speech, Cameron skipped lightly across these events, noting only that the ‘troubles in East Timor are over and the military is now playing its proper role: defending the country from external attack.’
Well not quite, according to Amnesty’s 2011 country report on Indonesia, which found:
In 2010 Human Rights Watch criticized the Obama administration’s new military assistance to the Indonesian army’s brutal special forces unit Kopassus, arguing:
Cameron’s suggestion that the Indonesian armed forces are now concerned only with ‘defending the country against external attack’ also ignores the brutal military occupation of West Papua, where as many as 100,000 people have died since the 1962 Indonesian invasion.
In 2010, a video showing Indonesian soldiers torturing Papuan villagers provided graphic evidence that democratic values have yet to permeate the Indonesia military. That same year 50 members of the US Congress wrote to Obama to protest the ‘slow-motion genocide’ that was taking place in West Papua.
Given these events, it isn’t surprising that Kaye Stearman, spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has described Cameron’s weapons sales to Indonesia as a ‘sick joke.’
But nor is it surprising that Cameron chose to ignore them. This reluctance to delve too deeply into the past – or the present – cannot be attributed merely to a diplomatic reluctance to offend his hosts, or do anything that might jeopardize the new commercial relationships with the military.
For Cameron’s praise for Indonesian democracy and its armed forces stems from a selective and shallow analysis of the past and present, which also underpins his grand narrative of world affairs as a perpetual struggle between democracy and its ‘dangerous foes’, that extends ‘ from slavery in America to the civil-rights movement a century later, from apartheid in South Africa to the situation in Syria today.’
These ‘foes’, according to Cameron, include ‘ a rise of extremist political Islamism that takes a warped view of this religion, and tries to turn people against each other’ and also ‘authoritarians’, such as Gaddafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Assad, all of whom are cited by Cameron as examples to the instability that can ensue ‘where cries for reform are being resisted and where people are being repressed.’
Noble sentiments no doubt. Western support for Suharto was motivated by a similar desire for ‘stability’, and as in the case of Indonesia, Cameron’s praise for the Arab Spring ignores the fact that most of the ‘authoritarians’ he condemns all received support from democratic governments.
Had it not been for the totally unexpected events of the Arab Spring, these same governments would still be supporting Gaddafi, Mubarak and all the others, just as they continue to ally themselves with the ‘authoritarians’ in the Gulf who are currently promoting democracy in Syria.
Cameron’s speech is littered with similar omissions, evasions, and specious observations. On the one hand, this was a very shallow speech from a very shallow politician, who is beginning to make Blair look almost scholarly by comparison.
But like his predecessor, Cameron’s selective retelling of the past and his shunting together of reference points and historical events is intended to bolster support for wars, regime change and interventions in the present, whether in Syria, Afghanistan or ‘the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.’
In the question-and-answer session that followed the speech, Cameron even hinted that there might be a peacekeeping role in Afghanistan ‘ for countries like Indonesia that have a majority Muslim population’, following the NATO withdrawal in 2014.
The idea that the Indonesian military, freshly-equipped with British weaponry, might one day be deployed in Helmand province, does not bode well for the future of Afghanistan. But such a possibility is a natural consequence of Lord Snooty’s grand historical narrative, which manages to place one of the most brutal armies in the world within a common tradition that includes Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela and the Arab Spring.
It may be bad history, but it does make good propaganda, and that, in the end, is the point of the exercise.
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