Rio post


When you land at Banda Aceh airport today and drive into town, there is not much that seems different from any other smallish provincial city in Indonesia, except perhaps for a much higher percentage of women wearing jilbab head shawls and a terminal designed to look like a mosque. Along the main roads and protocol areas leading to town, there are no major physical indications of the tsunami that ripped through huge swathes of flat-lands in this outlying province of Indonesia 5 short years ago, killing hundreds of thousands of people. And much less so the forty years of armed conflict that has shredded the fabric of Aceh’s society.

Some of the more freakish sights, like a huge floating electricity generator pontoon which the tsunami propelled five kilometers inland, have become local tourist attractions and somehow have lost the aura of tragedy.

But the prolonged, bitter conflict and the apocalyptic devastation left behind by the tsunami, have gouged deep scars in the Acehnese psyche, and nowhere more so than in the hearts and minds of it’s children. The worst hurt seem the most taciturn. Their voices recounting their stories are matter-of-fact, tempered by suffering. Few adjectives enter their sentences.


Today there are still many children who are separated from their families, many of whom have little choice but to live in a variety of child care hostels ranging from traditional local Islamic boarding schools (‘Dayah’) to state institutions, which in Indonesia go under the generic term of panti asuhan.

The quality of care, education, living conditions and social atmosphere of all these institutions, particularly the newer ones, vary greatly. Often it boils down to the motivation and character of the directors of the institution itself, who in the case of the private institutions tend to be the ‘owners’. In not a few cases the children have become a commodity, the ‘bait’ for funding and grants – the more the children, the more the money. More often the atmosphere of these institutions is less spiritual than repressive.

The children register everything quietly, but remember vividly. Dormitory rooms so full that the only place to sleep is on the floor. Sharing 3 bathroom/toilets with 65 others. Punishments: “I was forced into the got (open sewer like gutter) because I couldn’t memorise the religious texts well” said one 15 yr old girl who eventually went home.

Many endure for lack of choice, parents killed or impoverished by war and tsunami. They know they are a burden for their families. Says one 12 year old orphan “I would like to stay with my aunt, but she is already looking after 5 of her own kids and my little sister, it’s very crowded and my uncle doesn’t work”. Some are determined to weather the worst to improve their lot: “My father is gone. My mother is a seasonal farm laborer. I want to be a doctor” states a petite teenager in a baby blue gauze jilbab.

Others are just happy to have any sanctuary. A 13 year old ward of Dayah Darul Amna in Pidie whose father was killed by GAM rebels and whose mother was lost in the tsunami when she went to Banda Aceh that fateful day, feels secure here: “I like Walid (Rachmat, the director), I can talk with him.”.

Perhaps one of the reasons why is that ‘Walid’ Rachmat really understands: his own father was killed by GAM rebels demanding a cut of money granted to Dayah by the government. That’s not to say the 13 yr old in his charge doesn’t miss his parents: “I wish I had gone to Banda Aceh that day. At least I would be with my mother now.”.The adults in the room fall into a delicate silence.

There are many such stories. Ironically, the tsunami has washed away public attention from the deeper wounds of the armed conflict. Though the Memorandum of Understanding remains in place til now, long term suspicions remain, some barely beneath the surface. Both sides committed atrocities. Both remain suspicious of each other, and of each other’s children. In my local guide’s words: “Acehnese revenge lasts 7 generations”.

What is even sadder is that those who tried to remain neutral in the conflict and simply get on with their lives, were not only caught in the middle but were labeled traitor by both sides. The Acehnese even coined a new word, “Cua’ak”, for these ‘fence sitting traitors’. The same twisted logic applies to the cuâ’aks children, who inherit this dubious title and the double discrimination that goes with it.

In this atmosphere of political and religious tension, these young charges of institutionalized care, these tenacious victims of circumstance, are not really just statistics. These children of Aceh, so sparing with their adjectives, living by their own rules of emotional survival, are the heirs of a fractured community.

Some of them are determined to fight for a better future. Others have neither the will nor the help to overcome their hurt. Meet the time bombs of the future.


The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival has managed to pull in a number of interesting people over the years, some with overwhelmingly political backgrounds. This year is no exception, with Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and Fatima Bhutto in the line-up.

As journalist-turned-arbitrator Michael Vatikiotis commented, the UWRF has become something of a writer’s talk show. There is a tendency for the audience/participants to expect the enlightened sound bite from the panel, and there is of course the reciprocal tendency to be absolutely charming and witty in return. But those are more the sideshows.

With a bit of luck one gets to sit in on discussions that truly open one’s mind to other points of view presented eloquently. Not that one has to agree, but it is always of value to have a different perspective or even a challenge to one’s complacently held ideas.

Today’s discussion on Obama and the ‘honeymoon’ from the perspective of novelist Jamal Mahjoub, journalist Antony Loewenstein, and journalist/writer Fatima Bhutto was something of an example. The latter, who lost her father and aunt to political violence, had a very skeptical view of Obama’s achievement of all that was promised during his meteoric campaign. As a Pakistani, her assessment of Obama is perhaps understandable in the light of the increased “droning“ predators of death hanging over so much of her country – and the incessant trips by US envoy Holbrooke telling Pakistan what to do.

She was joined by Loewenstein, whose dissenting Jewish take on the state of Israel’s aggressive sabotage of the peace process has been hardened by much direct observation of what actually goes on in Palestine. Talking about the two states within Palestine concept, he saw no possibility of the US sponsored concept to ever materialize. This largely because he saw how aggresively and flagrantly the Israelis continue to violate the West Bank, . It seems Obama is, for him, a kind of icing on a very bitter cake.

Mahjoub on the other hand was a little more aligned to the Obama friendly crowd. Obama is an important symbol of change, he argued, and Obama’s rhetoric is important. I think everyone agrees it’s a damn sight better than Bush’s.

Personally I feel that expecting Obama to right all of the dysfunctional US foreign policy legacy in 9 months is naive at the very best. But far worse than that is the tendency to overlook the fact that civic movement and dissent should address itself to the rot and insidious players who are the obstacles to Obama’s vision and hopes that he expresses in his rhetoric. Both those for and against this embattled man in Washington are creating impossible benchmarks for him. Give the man a few more months!

Super liberal members of his own party seem to have cornered him into tackling the toughest political stumbling block of all US presidents, the health care debacle, far too early in his term. His detractors are watching with glee, whilst at the same time quietly preparing more obstacles to prevent him exorcising the dark and arcane phantoms of power that haunt the US capital’s political corridors.

His attempt at reaching out across the aisle are reflected in his foreign policy diplomacy. Here too his ambitious efforts at diplomacy is dangerously exposed to defeat as the big hustlers in real politik (not least the US military machine) hunker down for a long battle for influence over US foreign policy. He is being pushed perilously close to fatal commitment in Afghanistan. Israel is playing hardball on the West Bank despite stern reminders. And Iran is a nasty itch that could turn into a dangerously infected tropical ulcer.

So when (ok, if) Obama fails to attain these impossible benchmarks, and his critics gather for the kill, what will have happened? Once again the true villains of the system will have eluded attention. And this is really my main objection to Bhutto’s and Lowenstein’s skepticism – by being cynical about Obama we are missing the point.

Putting aside all vicarious chauvinistic sentiments (after all Obama lived in my childhood district of Jakarta), I feel it is very special that Obama won a free election as a man of colour in a country where less than half a century ago a black man, Martin Luther King, was very publicly assassinated simply because he had a dream of having equal rights as a white man. That in itself is an extraordinary achievement, and of enormous significance. On top of that, as Mahjoub pointed out, he did it without getting himself into debt with Big Business – basically the people financed his victory. He has become a true leader, and at the same time an easy target. In reality, the whole world voted for him.

An eerie sense of the twilight zone came over me when an hour after this public discussion, my mobile vibrated with the messages of Obama’s Nobel prize. I was incredulous at first, and then apprehensive. To have been nominated in February meant that he was only two weeks into office. Quite obviously the Nobel Prize committee has it’s own political agenda. But now, yet again, Obama has been handed a very sharp double edged sword.

While theoretically it might give him more clout, it seems that this is exactly the kind of speculation that an academic committee locked up in an ivory tower would come up with. Outside, the wolves in the realpolitik landscape wait and prowl. Will they focus on the dead, rotten meat in the system? Or are they too fond of living, presidential flesh? Will the people in the US take the “people’s revolution” a step further and actually unite against all the pernicious Washington lobbyists et al? Should the Nobel prize committees have psychological evaluation/their heads examined regularly?

Meanwhile, back in Ubud, it’s party time for the writers.


Wired magazine, the issue with Brad Pitt glowing a blue tooth out his ear, tells me it’s ok if I text when I am at lunch. Which I do sometimes (but I have double standards, part of me still speculates it’s antisocial). I read on and realize they are talking about teens. Oops. And apparently teens don’t have my middle-aged double standards, because for them it’s being inclusive: letting their friends who aren’t there in on what’s going down. It is in fact is hyper-social for them.

Recently the Archbishop of Westminster complained publicly to the BBC about social media being bad for ‘social interaction’, and one of his supporters seconded this with the opinion that social media made young people less sensitive to body language etc, and less likely to actually interact.

Yep, you guessed, both those two people were middle aged plus. And you probably are yawning: “oh comes another generation gap story”. You might be right, you also could be wrong, frankly I don’t know. But I have noticed a couple of things.

I find it curious that the Catholic Archbishop and Muslim hardliners (in Indonesia included) both are upset about Facebook etc, albeit for different reasons. What is so interesting is that their reasons, though superficially perhaps valid to their respective congregations, are at odds in their analysis.

The archbishop is worried about youths becoming alienated from the ‘real world’. The Muslim hardliners insist that it is exposing the youth to too much contact with the outside world, sex (talk about body language!) etc. Go figure.

Meanwhile there are plenty of young people using the internet in very responsive and responsible ways, be they Catholics, Muslims, or just plain secular. That much is obvious, now that so many world leaders are quietly exploring Obama’s example of using twitter. Not to mention the US State Department flying in the leading lights of social media into Iraq on a mission to explore, not for investment opportunites, but how they could help rebuild Iraq.

And as to the argument that people miss out on physical communication, it has been pointed out that In fact social media can be more revealing about someone’s personality – particularly as there is an ongoing track record of posts and updates which can be reviewed at any time. You don’t have to be a genius to spot a schmuck online.

The generation gap argument doesn’t really hold water – there are plenty of middle-aged people who use Facebook and so on. As one of them I even follow a 104 year old woman in England who is on twitter. She loves it!

Is it possible that Archbishop and the hardliners are socially out of touch? Or fearful that if people don’t goose-step to their drumbeat it might be the end of the world as we know it?

Irrespective of all of our qualms, it is a different world now. It’s not that body language ceases to be important – that we learn from when we are babies. It’s that when we start learning to network in this day and age, it’s potentially tapping into something far more collective than one person’s interest group or the village square.

You make what you want of it.



If anything, the Ayatollahs have proven it yet again. Whether feudal or religious, it is somehow amazing to see relics of medieval political structures now in the 21st century insisting on reimposing their will on their people (and others). Iran’s Ayatollahs have brought this to the forefront once again. Unlike a rogue mad-cap nation like North Korea, no model of psychological aberration of the Dr No type can be used here. This is a classic anachronism, a hang-over.

Whatever the guise, be it of so-called Islamic republics, the ‘hidden republics’ of other religions, or supposedly benign ‘democratic’ monarchies (is it possible that there are lese majeste laws in the 21st century? Give us all a break), what it really does boil down to is mass emotional manipulation and ethical transgression.

Exposure has become painfully obvious in today’s age of citizen reportage and hyper-fast breaking news. It is becoming almost impossible to contain news of dissent, regardless of any arguments as to accuracy and verification. One of the most fundamental human rights is the right to be heard, and in today’s world many people have learn to exercise and demand that right for themselves and their brethren who are muzzled and silenced by unrelenting regimes.

Though wild and unruly, the proactive and interactive dynamic of social media like twitter, facebook and the like, are proof of the universal nature of proactive care and empathy forming fast moving, rapidly uniting fronts for causes ranging from Guantanamo to Iran. No one is exempt from the fury and flurry of today’s electronic campaigns. Avaaz has replaced Amnesty International at the forefront of the global hue and cry world.

With so many cultures and histories interacting, it is so clear that we need to fall back on to shared values. And consequently it is so important that we learn to develop and integrate true secular ethics. Any religious values which are outside of these belong to yourself, and that is your own personal choice.

Does it still need to be stated that one’s religion is one’s own choice, whether it is in Iran, Malaysia, Italy, China, or wherever? And it should remain a free choice. The right to express one’s opinion should not be a luxury, it is a right regardless if it is not “God’s”/”the People’s” Will. And who exactly took that message when we weren’t there? The backwardness of demanding that your core beliefs should be dictated by your race or nationality is ignorance of the lowest order, or even cynical power mongering at its worst.

What we need is to recognize that universal, secular ethics and clean, transparent democratic government everywhere is our only chance for global survival.



Working on the voice-over for a documentary on autistic children and elephants that cameraman Michael Glowacki and I are doing for our prospective series on Asia, once again it struck me how much stimuli we ˜normal humansâ” process in one day, in one hour, in one conversation.

In an age when we have extended another part of our brain into virtual conversations and experiences, we are swept up into living in parallel worlds. Our attention spread out over electronic messages, advertising nuances, news of the day, supermarkets of choices, consumer desires, entertainment, social media – an endless list of distractions – there is precious little time or thought given to those who have fallen into the gaps and cracks.

There is no shortage of autistic people who finally do make it through the gamut of what is for them bewildering signals or more precisely stimuli to establish a kind of self sufficiency into their lives. Yet at the same time there is an ever greater number of autistic children being diagnosed in the last decades, particularly in Asia. The term autism is fairly broad, and covers a whole spectrum from ‘high functionality’ to ‘severe’.

like being an anthropolgist on Mars
like being an anthropolgist on Mars

I am not sure that we can even imagine what it must be like to live in a world where everything is so incredibly chaotic and unreadable. The better person to describe it would be Dr. Temple Grandin, herself autistic, who describes her experience of “normal society” as akin to “being an anthropologist on Mars”. Meanwhile, modern medicine is still stumped on finding a cure.

As I ran our footage back and forth, seeking to find words that would fit the images, it struck me how extraordinary it was to see how much love the two kids we followed, Ben and Setang, got from their family and milieu. Their experience with animal therapy had been a catalyst, but in the end the caring which they get, the trust that they build up in those few who are close to them is their bridge to our world.

Ben and one of the paintings he did with his sister
Ben and one of the paintings he did with his sister

Extraordinary also was the Wat Chang Khien school we visited earlier this year, where with kids with various special needs study alongside ‘normal’ kids. In an interview with one of the special assistant teachers assigned to one of our subjects, he pointed out that not only do the kids with special needs benefit from the contact, but the ‘normal’ kids too became much more compassionate with other children in general. There are no losers here.

Setang and his classmates
Setang and his classmates

Our ability to see the bigger picture is crucial to surviving with our humanity intact, but our ability to decipher the smaller situation is equally crucial to seeing the big picture. Looking at the simple, nearly hidden messages in the paintings Ben did with his sister, or at the enthusiasm Setang felt interacting with his class mates it is obvious that that love and compassion is precious to them.


My deeply analog orientated brother-in-law walked into the studio today and watched bemused as images were digitized across the computer screens, pixels healing, colors adjusting. He commented that it reminded him of Soviet propaganda days when those who had fallen out of favor were “disappeared” from official photographs.

It got me thinking about the power of published images, and the seemingly irresistible pressure to manipulate them for unwritten agendas.

Yet in the end the manipulated is never quite as powerful as the decisive moment perfectly seized.

There are public images which stay with us. The mushroom cloud of atomic bombs. The Fabulous Four. Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blowing. Che Guevara and his defiant cigar. Mao Tse Tung’s shining face. New York’s Twin Towers crumbling. Obama’s inauguration.

We respond, across cultures and linguistics, to an international visual language. Not everyone reacts the same way to the same image, but iconic images force their way into our shared communication and perceptions nonetheless. There are photographs which make some of us uncomfortable, there are those which make us feel sad, there are those which us feel elated.

And then there are our private favorites – evocative, sometimes forgotten but not quite. Photographs are the modern magical symbols. Flutter or tempest, every photographer who shows his or her images to the public has a butterfly wing effect on what is happening in the world. For the effect to soothe or stir, the photographer must be taken by the picture.

There is no perfect camera, there is no perfect lens, no perfect technique. There is only the perfect moment, and the perfect heart for it.