‘There have been efforts to move to an independent Asia’

Noam Chomsky: (AFP)
Noam Chomsky: (AFP)

Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist and philosopher, was a vocal advocate for formerly occupied East Timor (now Timor Leste) and continues to be a proponent of the Papuan struggle for self-determination. He spoke recently with The Jakarta Post’s contributor Prodita Sabarini in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, US, on the impact of US foreign policy on Indonesia and how Southeast-Asian countries should be more independent.

Question: What do you think are the main factors enabling impunity on cases of abuses such as in the 1965 communist killings, the war crimes in East Timor and continuing human rights violations in Papua?

Answer: There’s a very simple reason for it. The US supported it all, every one of them. The US was ecstatic in 1965. In fact, the support was so overwhelming that it was just public. The New York Times and other journals were euphoric about it. They didn’t suppress it. They described the massacre as wonderful. Same in Britain. Same in Australia.

What happened in East Timor was because the US and its allies supported it for 25 years. West Papua is the same. As long as the US primarily and its allies as well — the Western powers — support atrocities, they are carried out with impunity, just like their own atrocities are. I mean, the Vietnam War was the worst atrocity in the post-World War II period but nobody’s [found] guilty for it.

Indonesia’s election is just around the corner. How do you see the potential shift from the desire for more political freedom to a return to the old powers in Indonesia?

Same as everywhere else, the powerful win. I mean the overthrow of the dictatorship in Indonesia was important. Part of the reason [for the overthrow] was Soeharto not carrying out roles that the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the US demanded. And in fact, Madeline Albright, the [then] secretary of state at one point said that the US was dissatisfied with what Indonesia was doing and they ought to think about real change. About four hours later, Soeharto resigned. I don’t know if there was a causal connection but it was awfully suggestive. It is the great powers who decide. Mainly, the US in recent years decides what happens.

What can citizens do to guide where their country’s heading, given these external forces?

Well it’s not hopeless. In fact there are changes. Striking ones. Take Latin America. Ever since the beginning, for 500 years Latin America has been under control of Western imperial power. But now, South America is pretty much liberated. Just in the last 10 years, the changes are enormous.

When the spying scandal broke, Brazil was by far the most outspoken opponent. And in general, Latin America has witnessed a stark change. They’ve pretty much freed themselves, not totally, but largely from imperial control.

There’s recently a study of rendition of which country cooperated: all of Europe — Sweden, France, England, Ireland — Canada and the Middle East of course because that’s where they send them for torture; and Asia mostly cooperated.

One region refused to cooperate: Latin America. And if you think, Latin America not long ago was just the backyard, they did whatever they were told. That’s a pretty astonishing change. I think that should be kind of a model for what could be achieved.

So it’s not hopeless. Latin America was the last place one would have expected to find real independence, given its history, and now it’s maybe the most independent area in the world.

Do you think Indonesia should look into the experiences of Latin America?

You can’t carry over the model. Latin America doesn’t have security problems. Outside of the US there’s no real threat to Latin America. Indonesia does. China’s there. All countries in Southeast Asia have to be concerned with Chinese power.

What do you think of the role of ASEAN is in terms of resisting China’s power?

My feeling is that there have been efforts to move to an independent, non-Chinese Asian system. Like Asian Development Bank for an example. Most have been blocked by the US in the past.

There was a Japanese-based effort to form a kind of Asian Development Bank, but the US undercut it. They want the World Bank, which is US-run, to handle it. But those things can be done and it has to be done in a way which doesn’t form a part of an alliance against China. I don’t think it’s impossible for Southeast and East Asia to become a sort of independent bloc in world affairs, separate from China, separate from the United States.

They’re not doing it now. They’re becoming part of the US system but that’s not good for anyone. That could lead to major serious confrontations.

The US is now strengthening their relationship with Asia.

Pivot to Asia. Well, unfortunately it’s being done in a way which is really threatening to China. I mean, China is not a nice government. They’re not going to be nice to people, but they do have their problems. They’re surrounded and contained.

Take a look at the conflicts between the US and China now. The conflicts are mostly over the seas near the China coast. The US wants to have free rights to send military vessels into those waters and China wants to control those waters. So that’s a confrontation.

There’s no confrontation over the Caribbean or over the waters near California. That would be inconceivable. That tells you about the balance of power.

China is encircled. There’s a ring of military bases from Japan, South Korea, Australia. These are hostile bases and they just surround China. In fact that’s one of the reasons why China is moving to Central Asia where they don’t have these barriers.

If East Asia and Southeast Asia move toward more independence in world affairs, they have to be careful not to be just part of a ring of military containment around China, preventing it from exercising pretty legitimate rights to have free access to its own maritime [sources] in the area.

The Jakarta Post | World | Wed, March 19 2014, 11:31 AM

Joshua Oppenheimer: Facing the monsters in the dark

Joshua Oppenheimer. Daniel Bergeron
Joshua Oppenheimer. Daniel Bergeron

Joshua Oppenheimer was walking down a glacier on Mount Karakoram in Pakistan when he had an epiphany.

It was the mid-1990s. He had been crying while sitting on the top of the glacier, remembering something about his childhood, said Oppenheimer.

When he walked down the black rocks, he realized that recording how humans imagined themselves could help people better understand reality.

He was spending a summer in India that year, working on a street theater project.

Around that time, Oppenheimer had changed his undergraduate major to philosophy from theoretical physics.

As a boy he was interested in the nature of reality and its relationship to consciousness. He said he was amazed as a high school student to learn that subatomic particles only show a fixed nature once we
observe them.

However, when he started at university, quantum physics were not as developed as the science is now and students were geared to become engineers, which Oppenheimer was not interested in.

However, after his moment of clarity on the glacier, he returned to Harvard and crammed three years of film studies in two.

Nearly 20 years after his epiphany, Oppenheimer, 39, has made a film, The Act of Killing, about former death-squad leaders as they re-enact the work during the mass killings following the purported attempted Communist coup in Indonesia in 1965.

The film is favored to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary, which will be handed out Monday morning, or Sunday night in Los Angeles.

The Copenhagen-based American was recently in New York after screening the film at the Library of Congress in Washington.

Beyond racking up a host of awards, The Act of Killing, eight years in the making, has achieved something that no other documents or reports on the genocide have.

It has broken the taboos on speaking about Indonesia’s dark past, stirring a national conversation that has been stifled for nearly 50 years by government propaganda and media self-censorship.

Internationally, the film has raised awareness about the killings and the collective role Western governments had in encouraging and ignoring one of the greatest massacres in history.

Oppenheimer himself has become a spokesperson about the genocide as the film gain prominence.

At both the Washington screening and when he accepted a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award, Oppenheimer said that the Western world had not only ignored the killings: They encouraged it.

He called on the US and the UK to acknowledge their collective role in the genocide.  “I often talk about how The Act of Killing is a film about when killers win and take power.

“But the killers include the Americans, the killers include the CIA officers and the State department officials who gave a list of thousands of names to the Indonesian Army,” he said referring to the 5,000 names of public figures US officials gave to the government.

“It would be hypocritical for example for the US or for me to say the government of Indonesia should apologize without articulating equally forcefully [that] the US should apologize,” he said.

For Oppenheimer, the role of art is to show us “things that we already know but maybe had been too afraid to acknowledge or too afraid to remember”.

He chose nonfiction cinema to capture “the rainbow of stories that make up our factual reality”, which he said was made up of “almost innumerable number of fragmentary molecular interacting fantasies, stories, narratives, fictions”.

Non-fiction storytelling, he says, can “make visible the fiction” behind our perceptions.

“I think there’s a false and boring notion of nonfiction film that it’s a kind of window onto the world and you look into the window and you see the world,” he said.

Whenever people are filmed they “present” themselves, according to Oppenheimer. “We start acting out some of these invisible, second-hand, third rate, half-remembered script or stories that we have of ourselves that we identify
with — images that we have of ourselves that come from movies and culture and our parents and history.”

Oppenheimer said that filming people as they presented idealized images of themselves, as he did in the reenactments in The Act of Killing, gave a window into people’s deepest fears.

“What are they hiding? Why do they have to act like something that they’re not? Why do they have to act out an image of themselves. Which is pretend but very real?” he asks.

“Anytime you film anybody, you can see the fictions that people cling to so they can live comfortably withthemselves and you can glimpse behind that — who they really fear that they are.”

“There are events that we’re too afraid to inquire about,” Oppenheimer says. “But we know [they] lurk there like a kind of monster in the dark.”

Oppenheimer started his work in Indonesia in 2001, three years after the fall of Suharto, to examine the impact of globalization.

He filmed workers in a Belgian plantation in North Sumatra struggling to form a union. Many had family members who had been killed in 1965 or 1966.

When news of the project reached the authorities, the military intimidated the workers to keep silent.

At the suggestion of one of those who survived the genocide, Oppenheimer aimed his lens at the perpetrators.

To his horror, he encountered boastful men who would tell stories of how they killed — and reenact the deeds using their wives as subjects or in front of bored grandchildren.

Oppenheimer is now editing his next film, The Look of Silence, about a family of survivors of the 1965 violence confronting the killers.

“The Look of Silence is in some ways the film that I set out to make. But it’s not. It’s really different because making The Act of Killing changed everything and changed me in how I see what’s happening,” he said.

The second film Oppenheimer said has turned into “poem about silence that’s born out of fear and the necessity and trauma that comes out by breaking that silence”.

The Look of Silence will be Oppenheimer’s last film about the genocide in Indonesia. Conscious of the importance of acknowledging and the crimes of the past, Oppenheimer said that he could be a spokesman for the issue for as long as the film is in the spotlight.

He said there have been many activists and historians who have raised this issue, comparing the people to the truth-speaking child in the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

“We’re trying to create a space where people can talk about and therefore to address their biggest and most frightening problems because if we don’t address them we’re doomed to continue living in the nightmare.”

Prodita Sabarini, Contributor, New York | People | Mon, March 03 2014, 12:40 PM

Published in The Jakarta Post

A note of thanks to The Jakarta Post newsroom

I remember the first day I stepped into The Jakarta Post. 23. Fresh from my undergrad. I was not the person I am now. For starters, I was somewhat religious. There was a panel – then Chief Editor Endy Bayuni, then managing editor Ati Nurbaiti, senior editor Harry Bhaskara – interviewing me for a position as cub reporter. They wanted to know whether or not I could fit in the hectic newsroom atmosphere. “How do you deal with pressure?” Pak Harry asked. I told him that the funny thing about pressure and hardship is that it makes one become more religious than usual. “I usually just pray a lot,” I said.

The question was repeated again.  Were they looking for another answer? I added that I control my breathing and I pray. I guess, I answered the other questions better than this one because I got the job.

On Friday, I sat in Riyadi Suparno’s office to say good-bye as I resign from The Post, the newspaper that have become my “second home” for the last eight years. Riyadi is now CEO of The Post. When I entered eight years ago, he was still managing editor. “Nobody comes out of The Post the same person,” he said. “True, I rarely pray these days,” I said.

The Post didn’t turn me into a heathen. Don’t get me wrong. But, it did – with its liberal and open atmosphere – given me the courage to question things I dared not to before.  How could you not? You were lumped in a newsroom filled with a wide spectrum of people, from devout religious reporters and editors, former priests-to-be, nominal Muslims, and non-believing editors and sub-editors, working to produce a newspaper whose vision was to promote a civil and humane society. Whatever values one brought to that newsroom would be exposed to different ones. The journey to self-discovery is a never-ending one as long as it has begun. The Post made it possible for me to start.

Working for The Post has also made me a better reporter and writer. At the same time, several years writing for the newspaper humbled me of the enormity of the task. On my first year at The Post, chief editor Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, then still managing editor, told me that I would get the hang of writing five years along the line. “That’s an awful lot of time” I thought. But now, having passed the five-year mark, I still struggle and have a lot of work to do, and I’m thinking Dymas, the chief’s nickname, might have been going easy on me.

Admittedly, the newspaper is not without flaws. I have my share of faults in contributing to the “correction” box. Annoying typo can be seen once in awhile. And I have met readers who complain about our reporting. But all in all, in terms of the newspaper’s commitment to its vision, I think the stories it publishes speak for itself.

I entered The Jakarta Post bright-eyed and nervous, slogged through my initial years stressed out, found the topic I’m most interested in and started to enjoy the day-to-day of reporting and writing.

I go with a heavy heart.

I am leaving not because of any conflict or a better offer. I am starting The Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship this September, making me relocate to the U.S. for more than half a year. But, the fellowship is more of a momentum rather than a reason to leave. Along the years, The Post has not only become a home to me but a comfort zone.

I am bright-eyed and nervous once more. Scared, really. But, if there’s one thing working with The Post taught me is to have courage. Thank you. Wish me luck.