“Boat People” Symposium

Saturday 15 October 1995
Murdoch University

Plenary Address—Afternoon

'Refugees: object of charity or political football?'

George Aditjondro
Visiting Fellow, Asian Studies Programme, Murdoch University


Meredith Wilkie: George Aditjondro is a de facto refugee from Indonesia and at the moment working at Murdoch University in the Asian Studies programme. And he will speak about refugees in the South East Asian context. Thank you.


George Aditjondro:

My paper is titled "Refugees: Object of Charity or Political Football?" and I intentionally used the term "refugees" and not narrow it down to Boat People because again, in reality, there are actually three big categories of refugees in terms of how they live or where they have to spend a lot of their time when fleeing from their country. You have the Boat People, the Tent People and the Bush People.

Boat People is the collective name, or the popular name given to South East Asian refugees or especially Indo-Chinese refugees because they have to come over the sea - through the treacherous sea - in fairly bad boats. This is one category of refugees which we have seen over the years, especially after the turmoil in the former Indo-Chinese nations.

Then you have the Tent People. In the apartment building where I'm living in Fremantle, I have a neighbour who has spent six years processing from a refugee into a permanent resident. He is Palestinian. Now we see on the television that peace talks between Israel and the PLO are coming to a kind of solution. But let's not forget that there are still 400,000 Palestinians in Lebanon who are still stateless who are maybe, one day, going to be kicked out, just as Gadafi has done recently in Libya. So now that there is this peace process going on in Israel, it can become a kind of time-bomb because all the countries who want to get rid of the Palestinians are looking for an excuse. "Now there you are. You're already in the process of having your own nation state so get out of here." And these Palestinian refugees will become the meat in the sandwich just like they were during the Gulf War. All the Palestinians in Kuwait. So those are the Tent People, often called so because they have been living in tents.

Then there is the third category that I call the Bush People. These are people who have been fleeing from their country through the forest to a neighbouring country. In Papua New Guinea, at one stage, there were 10,000 West Papuan refugees living in very, very poor conditions. Even in poorer conditions than in Port Hedland. The West Papuans lived in Vanimo and in the Western Province. Now we also have Bush People in Bougainville, people fleeing from the war between the Bougainvillean Revolutionary Army and the Papua New Guinean Defence Forces, supported by Australian Iroquois helicopters.

As I said earlier, Boat People was a special category given to Indo-Chinese refugees. But only recently, in May, 1995, this title was also co-opted by the Timorese - by 18 brave Timorese who used a boat to sail from Timor to Australia. This is still a treacherous sea because there is a treacherous Indonesian Navy there guarding what they claim to be Indonesian waters. You saw who is guarding those waters in the cartoon in The Australian today. No less than Gareth Evans was trying to tow the 18 East Timorese refugees to Portugal instead of accepting them in Australia. The alternative given was "Do you want to go back to Indonesia?" Of course they don't want to go back to Indonesia.

So since May 1995 you see how the Timorese have deconstructed this monopoly over the term Boat People by also sailing over the sea. That is the reason why the Australian Government, it seems now, to be so desperate to close the door to Timorese refugees. This is to send a signal to Indonesia that they would not do it - they would not allow further Timorese refugees to come by sea. This is also the first time that the Australian Government has kept up or escalated its naval patrol to guard these waters.

Apart from the sad lot of all the refugees and their communities, refugees often play a very, very constructive role in the host countries.

Years ago, when I was studying in the United States, every time I went to Washington, DC from Upstate New York where I was studying at Cornell, I was surprised to see new ethnic restaurants emerging in Adams Morgan in Washington, DC. So there is a kind of correlation between repression in the Third World and the development of a new cuisine in the First World.

Thanks to CIA operations in Central America, I became exposed to Salvadorean dishes. Thanks to the turmoil in the Mediterranean, I learned to eat Mediterranean food. Maybe, "thanks" to the bombardment in Vietnam and in Indo-China, I could eat dishes which is closer to Indonesian dishes in the Vietnamese restaurants in America. So to see refugees simply as a burden is actually omitting something which is very close to the heart of the people in the host countries, and your belly is usually close to your heart - if you still have a heart.

So now let me come to this question. Whether refugees are simply objects of charity - objects of humanitarianism - where fund-raising needs to be done and they need to be fed, to be clothed and given shelter - all the logistics you usually hear about when you hear people talking about refugees.

In fact, last year I was at an international conference in Addis Ababa for voluntary organisations, courtesy of ACFOA Australia. There was this big talk there between the northern NGO's who were setting the agenda of the whole discussion - talking about the logistics of helping refugees and poor people and so on - and the southern NGO's, especially South African leftist NGO's, who were talking about who causes these wars. Why are people fleeing from their countries? And on the whole, the refugee business becomes a business to help the wheat and dairy farmers in the North. So for me, I question the way refugees are always put in a discourse of charity, in a humanitarian discourse. And I want to try to give a different perspective about how refugees actually function as political footballs, as created by the powers that be, to fulfil several needs for those countries.

Let me begin with the refugees who are not represented today because they're having their talks on how to commemorate the 12th of November - the Timorese refugees in Western Australia. Right now they are having a big meeting.

East Timorese refugees are actually created by Indonesia and Australia due to the conspiracy of Indonesia and Australia to divide the Timor Gap oil.

Even before the Indonesian Government had made the decision to invade East Timor, Whitlam had already said to Suharto in September 1974, in a nice tourist resort in Wonosobo in Central Java, that Timor was economically unviable. So, an independent East Timor would become a liability to regional stability. That was in September 1974, more than a year before the actual invasion of Dili in December 1975.

So, when they met again for the second time in Townsville, Queensland in April 1975, Whitlam reiterated this point, although at the time Whitlam already had good contacts with the oil lobby in Australia - Burmah Oil, Woodside Oil, BHP, Shell and others.

To talk about Burmah Oil's involvement in Timor history is quite interesting, because Burmah Oil was the first British oil company to be set up under British rule in Burmah during the colonial period, and after Burmese independence they ran out of resources because the resources in Burma were nationalised and they only had their shares in BHP until they started finding oil in Timor. So actually Timor was the saving ground for Burmah Oil.

Although Whitlam already knew about the oil potential of the Timor Gap, and this is a whole "oil province" ranging from the Timor Trench to the Timor Island - offshore and onshore, he still twice told Suharto that East Timor was economically unviable. So for me I see that the invasion of East Timor was practically a war for resources. An oil war, just like the way the Gulf War was carried out to protect American oil interests.

So why is it that, suddenly, after accepting thousands of East Timorese into the community in Australia, Australia wants to send 1,300 East Timorese refugees to Portugal?

I think it is quite obvious that the first aim is to please Indonesia, especially after the Indonesian Government really got mad with the burning of the Indonesian flag in Sydney, Darwin and Melbourne - not in Western Australia. So that's why Senator Robert Ray, Australia's Minister of Defence suddenly announced that Australia should issue a law to ban flag burning. Actually not only Australia but Indonesia as well. Because Indonesian Moslem activists had just recently burned the Israeli and the American flag, and during the confrontation with Malaysia, Indonesia burned Malaysian as well as British flags. In the beginning of the New Order Indonesia burned the flag of the People's Republic of China. So flag burning is actually not only an Australian past-time, but also Indonesian.

So that then is the first reason maybe to give a sign to Indonesia that the Australian Government is trying to crack down on the nasty guys here "in a nice way" to quote the first plenary speaker.

The second was then to present more East Timorese refugees coming in after they had seen how successful the 18 first East Timorese Boat People were. But then in a more systemic way, in a more subtle way, it is not only threatening the Timorese whose immigration status is still unclear. I mean, those who haven't got permanent resident status or citizenship - but to threaten the entire East Timorese community by using what I call the tyranny of distance. Sending people back all the way to Portugal. That means that they will be physically more and more alienated from their home-land where certainly phone calls from Portugal to East Timor are more expensive than from Perth to Dili.

But then, and here I take the point from the first plenary speaker, it's the threat of ethnic caging. The existence of Port Hedland serves also as a deterrent, not only for the migrants who are already here in Australia, the non-East Timorese migrants, but especially the East Timorese migrants. Because after 18 East Timorese Boat People were released from Port Hedland, there was also a cry for justice from the Vietnamese refugee community. "Why are the East Timorese only caged here for two weeks and we have already been caged here for four years?" So there is this injustice among the refugee community.

The threat of "ethnic caging" - the treat of having a Gulag Archipelago on Australian territory is a good way to try to pacify. So my dear Vietnamese and Cambodian and Chinese brothers and sisters who are still living in Port Hedland, you fulfil a very important function in the Indonesia-Australia relationship. You fulfil the function of helping to pacify with the treat of being caged there.

And the mystery, because it is rarely exposed in the newspapers, but the ones that they've exposed in the newspapers, is that only the bad aspects make news - always the bad aspects. It's like in Indonesia during the revolutionary war of during colonial time, the treat of being sent to Nusa Kambargan, Java's prison island. And with the New Order comes the threat of being sent to Pulau Buru, where the famous Indonesian writer Pramudia Ananta Toer spent ten years of his life. So having a Port Hedland, a sophisticated Gulag Archipelago, is a very, very important part of the Australian-Indonesian relationship.

Refugees here play an important role. Refugees are a king of political football. Having Indo-Chinese unprocessed for four years in Australia helps to promote Australian trade to Indonesia because in response to Indonesian trade to Indonesia, Indonesia also expects Australia to do something to reduce the level of radicalism of the East Timorese activists and the East Timorese themselves in Australia.

After the flag burning incidents in Darwin and Sydney, what did the Indonesian importers do? They threatened to boycott all Australian trade to Indonesia unless all the East Timorese activists, or what they called the anti-Indonesian activists, are kicked out of Australia. Of course it was just a threat, and a lot of international politics are just symbolic. One people making a treat and the other party also making its own threat.

Talking about East Timor politics, refugees have played an important role within Indonesia to mobilise support for the Indonesian annexation of East Timor, as well of to support maintaining Indonesia's occupation of East Timor. In 1975 the Indonesian security intelligence apparatus interfered in the decolonisation process in East Timor, causing a civil war to erupt in Dili from August to September 1975. Thousands of East Timorese who were afraid of the spectre of communism of Fretilin, fled to West Timor. By having thousand of East Timorese refugees in West Timor - which was quickly portrayed in the Indonesian press to underline the spectre of communism, so that the religious groups in Indonesia would support the annexation of East Timor.

So you see that having thousands of East Timorese refugees in West Timor, at the time helped the Indonesian military's aim. Now, 20 years later, Indonesian refugees are fleeing from East Timor and are stranded in West Timor in Surabaya in South Sulawesi. They are now portrayed as the victims of anti-Moslem bashing in East Timor. So now Moslem people in Indonesia are mobilised to support the occupation of East Timor, although in the second instance you cannot call them refugees because they didn't leave their country of origin. They were in an occupied territory.

From here you see that we cannot solve the refugee problem simply by increasing the logistics. We cannot treat refugees simply as objects of charity. We have to look into the political, economic and military interests in the creation of refugees. All the thousands of Vietnamese refugees are actually a product of the trade embargo against Vietnam and Cambodia.

So from the specifics of Vietnam and Cambodia, or Indonesia and East Timor, we can come to the general point. That the uprooting of people, and the creation of refugees, is often not only a by-product of war and starvation, but a deliberate act of government policies. Refugees are a commodity to be traded for political ends.

In the last two decades while nuclear rivalry has reduced the spectre of world war from the old arenas like Europe or the Europeanised settler colonies of North America and Australia, proxy wars or surrogate conflicts have been fought all over the world. Who has subsidised these wars?

So here I come to the myth of the welfare state. Western welfare states become welfare states because of their investment in war. Not war to be carried out by their own people but proxy wars to be carried out by somebody else killing somebody else. Every proxy war is an arena to promote new arms. We saw that after the Gulf War with the Middle Eastern countries purchasing SCUD and Patriot missiles.

The Vietnam War in itself was an arena to publicise all the effectiveness of American weapons. And the Timorese War, which happened after the Vietnam War was ended, carried the left-overs of the Vietnam War. The OV-10 helicopters as well as short take-off and landing aircrafts which played an important role in the Vietnam War later played a role in the United States proxy war in East Timor. Napalm and "agent orange" which was used in the Vietnam War was carried over to East Timor. So you see every war is a sales promotion of the newest weapons, and that's why to think that Western societies are only welfare states is a myth. Western societies are welfare states because they are also warfaring states.

Western societies have developed a more advanced level of militarism. Western societies have evolved more industrialised militarism, which is different from the repressive militarism of Third World countries like Indonesia. But they are actually two sides of the same coin. Australia's welfare is the Bougainvillean people's misery. Australian welfare is the East Timorese misery. American welfare - from the oil and mineral resources in Irian Jaya is the West Papuan people's misery. It's even the misery of people in inner Indonesia, in Java and Sumatra, in Madura, where peasants are colonised by the military, where workers are killed in work strikes, where students are repressed with the threat of using more blatant violence. So what you see is that Western industrialised militarism is the other side of the coin of the repression in the Southern countries. I will therefore come to my conclusions.

My first conclusion is already fairly obvious, which I've stated many times. Refugees are not simply objects of Western charity but also the product of Western supported regimes carrying out proxy wars against their own people to promote the interests of the Western military industry. You see that even Gareth Evans was supportive of Ret. General Herman Mantiri becoming the envoy to Australia. You see how well treated Minister Habibie is, who is maybe the most military-minded civilian minister in Indonesia as he heads all the military industry in Indonesia. And Australia is interested to sell new airplanes to the Indonesian regime.

My second point is that refugees are not simply objects of charity but also political footballs to be kicked back and forth by rivalling nation states, like Indonesia and Australia, or say, for instance, Vietnam and the United States - all rival political actors within nation states. This is the case now in Indonesia where the portrayal of the East Timorese being anti-Moslem has backlashed to Indonesia - to Flores people from Indonesia being beaten by Moslems on the boat from Timor to Lyung Pandang and also in Jakarta, as you can read in today's West Australian. So we cannot solve the refugee problem by creating more sophisticated refugee camps. We have to look at the root of the problem.

Finally, let us talk about refugee camps, or concentration camps, which is actually a better title for Port Hedland and all the other detention centres. When I heard in the first session people asking how much it cost the Australian taxpayers, I can give you some figures. The concentration camps have cost Australian taxpayers about 18 million, 18 and a half million Australian dollars, just for 447 illegal and unauthorised entrants in 1993. All these concentration camps should be abolished since it is a disgrace to humanity, and it also reinforces the Anglo-Saxon prejudice towards Asians, especially now seeing the East Timorese have been released after two weeks while Vietnamese and Cambodians have had to stay there for three to four years.

Why is there this injustice in dealing with refugees? It is because East Timor is helping to reinforce Australian racism towards Asians. East Timor is an example of how brutal an Asian regime can be, and it needs to be high-lighted every time in the media, although the brutality of this Asian regime is subsidised by Western powers.

So coming back to my last point, concentration camps like Port Hedland should be abolished since it is a disgrace to humanity. It enforces Anglo-Saxon racism towards Asians and it allows a neo-colonialist regime like Indonesia to terrorise its own colonial subjects, the Timorese.

Those are my major points. Thank you very much.


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