Politics from the sidelines

Indonesia: The Act of Glossing

As an Indonesian born in the 1950s, I found watching the three hour director’s cut of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” (executive producer Werner Herzog) deeply disturbing. Though it revealed nothing factually new per se about the horrors of the 1965 politcal purges, it is the in-your-face quality of delusion of the characters that shocks the most.

Read More…

Indonesia Politics: Where’s the Party?

Originally published in the Huffington Post

It’s been a busy fortnight in Indonesian politics. The inhabitants of the capital Jakarta just voted in a new governor, Joko Widodo a.k.a. Jokowi, of the PDI-P party with the significant support of the upstart partyGerindra,  defeating the influential incumbent Democrat Fauzi Bowo a.k.a. Foke, who has his political roots in the still powerful Golkar party which in turn has it’s roots in the Suharto’s New Order era. Not only that: the new governor is the (soon to be ex) mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo with little experience in national politics. Most startling of all, his new deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama a.k.a. Ahok, is of Chinese origin – a first in the ethnic tinderbox of modern Indonesian politics.

Read More…


As an Indonesian born in the 1950s, I found watching the three hour director’s cut of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” (executive producer Werner Herzog) deeply disturbing. Though it revealed nothing factually new per se about the horrors of the 1965 politcal purges, it is the in-your-face quality of delusion of the characters that shocks the most.

For Indonesians 1965 is not merely another year in history. It is a number that is as important as 1945, the year that on the 17th of August founding fathers Sukarno and Hatta declared Indonesia independent. By contrast, the 30th of September 1965 is a date of infamy, a night filled with sordid acts of treachery, the trigger that launched a months-long blood bath that took the lives of hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of Indonesians across the archipelago. What happened is yet to be systematically quantified, and in truth is yet to be properly accounted for.

During the subsequent 32 years of General Soeharto’s iron fisted New Order, the “truth” we were force fed was that the burgeoning Indonesian Communist Party, PKI –  at the time the third largest in the world – had masterminded and initiated a coup with the ghastly murder of six top generals on September 30th. A lurid, bloody propaganda-esque film “Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI” (“The Betrayal Movement of the 30th September/PKI”) upholding this version of the events was made by leading cinematographer Arifin C Noer in 1984 on request by Soeharto’s regime. Every year up until 1997 all TV stations were obliged to air the whole film on the 30th of September.

Three decades later, In “The Act of Killing” – which has become a cinematic rebuttal of Arifin’s film – it soon becomes clear to any viewer that the main characters in this multi-tiered, behind the scenes documentary are deranged.

The blatantly murderous bragadicio of the main characters, street thug-turned-local-hero Anwar Congo, his bizarrely theatrical twisted sidekick Herman Koto, and his more sophisticated but no less pshycopathic colleague, Adi, dominate the screen. There is a sickening naiveté to their obsession with the butchery they helped perpetrate during the so-called coup of 1965, and a mind boggling disregard for morality thoroughly mixed with twisted self justification. But there are plenty more equally, if not more, powerfully jaw dropping moments that segue in and out of this cinematic reality saga.

A local newspaper editor in Medan, North Sumatra, where all the action takes place, brags that though he didn’t actually do any killing himself, that just by “blinking my eyelids” he had people killed. He later states it was his job as a journalist to turn people against communists. A neighbor of Congo’s, somehow roped in to act in the film, tells how his Chinese stepfather was taken away and killed – and then he is made to act a victim pleading for mercy. Suddenly, as he breaks down on screen the viewer realizes his acting is not acting. Various high ranking government officials praise the Pemuda Pancasila group (essentially is a paramilitary group of thugs locally know as ‘préman’) with which Anwar Congo is associated, as being an essential extra judicial arm for the Indonesian Government.

Surreal scene after surreal scene fills the screen of this troubling reality show. Distortion is the norm for these characters, but they are not alone. What this brings home to my peers and me once again is that Indonesians have been glossing the responsibility for 1965 for nearly 50 years. Medan was not the only killing field in Indonesia, far from it. Nor was Pemuda Pancasila the only group of thugs involved

Many reasons are given, and many groups were involved. As the reprisal killings in Indonesia began, the CIA took to feeding the Indonesian military lists of ‘suspects’. The military in turn enlisted thugs and youths from various mass organizations to join a brutal killing spree. In Java members of Islamic youth organizations like Ansor were not shy of wetting their hands with the blood of ‘communist infidels’. In Bali – currently marketed as ‘paradise’ – one witness told of “roads running like red rivers with the blood of victims” spillled by thugs who seldom required any evidence of wrongdoing from the finger pointers.

The night I watched this film, thousands of Balinese living in Sumbawa, an island east of Bali,  were taking refuge from bloody rioting following the death of a Muslim girl who had died in a motorcycle accident with her Hindu boyfriend. A completely unsubstantiated rumour that her boyfriend had raped and then murdered her lit up the town like wildfire. A couple of months earlier a murderous rampage against Balinese migrants and their families broke out in Lampung on the southern tip of Sumatra, triggered by a trivial misunderstanding between a local and a second generation Balinese migrant after a minor traffic accident. More systematically, and more chillingly, the Ahmaddiyah sect has been the perennial target of ‘orthodox’ Mulsim violence for years now. The list goes on.

Soeharto’s years were marked with brutal repression. But every year since the downfall of Soeharto has brought with it a new set of tragic communal violence. So much so that some Indonesians have taken to nostalgia for the “good old days” of the New Order. There have been more and more calls for stricter law enforcement. Ex-vice president Jusuf Kalla arrived in Sumbawa this month and echoed these calls, urging local law enforcers to act firmly. But it is important to note this is the same man who on Oppenheimer’s camera emphasizes the need for thugs like Pemuda Pancasila as they are “able to do what the government cannot do”.

We Indonesians look on in horror and dismay at all these ongoing instances of mass madness, and we point to the substantive causes such as jealousy and ethnic rivalry. But what we don’t care to address publicly is the major contributing factor: we have tacitly come to accept human rights abuses as the implicit political price for unity and the rule of the mob as an ugly but ordinary part of life.

This is the legacy of 1965 and the New Order. Expedience and tyranny of the majority rules. Somehow in our collective subconscious we feel that we can get away with it: if we can’t get our way constitutionally then “just cut ‘em down”. General Soeharto, remained in office unchallenged for 32 years. Many still see him as a hero despite the unfettered corruption and human rights abuses that reigned during his rule. Finally forced from office, he remained unrepentant til his death.

(Ironically, given that thugs did most of his army’s dirty work in 1965, in an official biography Soeharto openly admitted to and justified the ordering of extra judicial killings of troublesome thugs in the 80s.)

Last year an otherwise reasonable cabinet minister who coordinates ‘politcal security’, Djoko Suyanto,  vehemently denied the Indonesian National Rights Commission declaration that 1965 was in fact a large scale human rights violation. Indonesian human rights advocate, lawyer Todung Mulia Lubis, pointed out to me that the minister in question has old ties to Islamic organizations whose paramilitary youth wings were heavily involved in the killings in East Java: “And now those youth have become influential elders”.

Though it will be impossible to bring all those who wrongfully slaughtered their fellow citizens in 1965 to trial, Indonesians need to acknowledge the wrong that was done in order to be able to move out of this vicious cycle of human rights abuse. If we admit the wrong and are henceforth accountable it would most certainly change our perspective. At the very least if the truth was aired we could start to forgive.


Originally published in the Huffington Post

It’s been a busy fortnight in Indonesian politics. The inhabitants of the capital Jakarta just voted in a new governor, Joko Widodo a.k.a. Jokowi, of the PDI-P party with the significant support of the upstart party Gerindra,  defeating the influential incumbent Democrat Fauzi Bowo a.k.a. Foke, who has his political roots in the still powerful Golkar party which in turn has it’s roots in the Suharto’s New Order era. Not only that: the new governor is the (soon to be ex) mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo with little experience in national politics. Most startling of all, his new deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama a.k.a. Ahok, is of Chinese origin – a first in the ethnic tinderbox of modern Indonesian politics.

For sure the incumbent “Foke”, who is perceived to have achieved precious little during his tenure, basically shot himself in the foot with highly publicized multiple political gaffes. The upset marks something of a sea change in the dynamic of Indonesian democracy. Evidently Indonesian voters are voting according to their assessment of political performance rather than simply following party lines. Political parties now have to be much more careful about their image and what they actually stand for, rather than just the simple dynastic power and money alliances of the past. But political parties per se are obviously not to be discounted yet.

A case in point: shortly after the fast count clearly indicated Jokowi-Ahok victory, retired General Prabowo, a major player in the Gerindra party, boasted that Jokowi and Ahok owed their victory to him. Though everyone knows that Prabowo brought Ahok, a disillusioned Golkar member passed over by his own party, into the race, his bragging rankled the PDI-P rank and file. PDI-P stalwarts are miffed because their iconic leader, Megawati, got so little mileage out of the gubernatorial elections. PDI-P grumbling has in turn has alarmed the Gerindra leadership who are painfully aware that they need PDI-P’s support to achieve the 20% of the seats in parliament required to field a presidential candidate.

Prabowo is controversial at best. He has the dubious honor of being the first person to be denied entry into the United States under the provisions of the United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. (There is a dark irony here, after all Prabowo trained in counter terrorism at Fort Benning and Fort Bragg). Though ostensibly cleared by a military court of his human rights abuses during the New Order (though he was discharged from the army – this ex-son-in-law of Suharto was commander of the Kopassus special forces) many still insist he was behind the political ‘disappearances’ and torture of opposition activists in the days leading up to Suharto’s downfall.

Prabowo has been back from self-exile in Jordan for several years now, and has been staging something of a comeback into politics. He has his crosshairs firmly sighted on the Presidency in 2014. Though by some he may be perceived as the man with the guts it takes to clean up the rot and corruption in Indonesian politics, the still warm memory of his cold blooded transgressions are only stirred up by his braggadocio. Forgiving might be a virtue, but forgetting is stupid. And Indonesians are really not that stupid.

The renewed arrogance of this moneyed son of the elite may well have cost him not only the support of PDI-P – so much so that they probably will prefer to announce two-time loser Megawati yet again as their candidate – but possibly his own party’s eligibility to field a candidate at all. Gerindra recently announced the cancellation of their national convention later this month – during which it was supposed to have announced Prabowo’s candidacy.

Meanwhile Gerindra has filed a judicial review of the 2008 Presidential Election Law, which sets the 20% threshhold, on grounds of it being unconstitutional. But it is hard not to speculate that there must be some soul searching going on within party ranks as to whether this wild-card retired general is their ace or liability. His popularity might be on the rise (surveys in September by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting indicate 19.1% would vote for him over Megawati’s 10.1%) but he still needs to get his party to the polls first. Though many Indonesian voters, in an earnest mood for getting the country back on track, may see him as their best bet amongst a field of questionable candidates and therefore are in a forgiving mode, Prabowo needs to remember that he needs the parties to forgive him as well. And as it is hard to forget his past, he probably needs to provide some truly convincing evidence of a change of heart before he gets another invite.

China: The Writing on the Great Wall

(originally posted on the Huffington Post site )

On Wednesday the 22nd of February, Tibetans would have normally celebrated Losar or Tibetan New Year. This year, unlike the years before, Tibetans in exile called for a solemn day of reflection and prayer to acknowledge those who have sacrificed their lives for the Tibetan cause.

The self-immolations of Tibetans under Chinese occupation that have shocked, saddened, and renewed the anger of Tibetan society have sent the Chinese government into an overdrive of denial. Not for an instant has there been a moment of visible remorse, introspection, or any admission of the absurdity of their knee jerk reaction:  “self-immolators are criminals”.  This is of course standard PRC policy, any admission of imperfection being tantamount to weakness.

For Tibetan Buddhists who hold life sacred, taking one’s own life is normally considered to be a negative action with serious spiritual consequences. Yet these were ordained people, one of them even a reincarnated lama, all normally revered in Tibetan society,  who set themselves on fire. Tibetans of all walks of life are not condemning these acts;  many are seeing the self-immolations as a supreme sacrifice.

The ongoing, brutal rigidity of the Chinese government has manifested in at least three major waves of violence over three generations in the Kirti region: the Long March of the 1930s during which Kirti suffered perhaps more than any other Tibetan region; the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s; and the Patriotic Education in the 1990s. More recently, ever since the troubled lead up to the 2008 Olympics, the PRC has been twisting the thumbscrews ever tighter.

Perhaps the only vague hint of acknowledgment of transgression was Chinese VP Xi Jing’s recent statement during a lunch hosted by US VP Joe Biden, tacked onto his defense of China’s human rights record, that “there is always room for improvement on human rights”. It is difficult to assess what Xi’s comment, made only months before he is expected to take the reins, could actually purport, if anything at all, for future PRC policy in occupied Tibet.

Clearly the man was focused on making his US ‘Valentine’ visit a success in foreign relations partly in order to ensure positive press back home for his future leadership. He understood that something that sounded like a concession to mollify Biden and the US public was the most expedient way to move into the issues which China considers much more pressing: China’s market economy status, anti-dumping sanctions on exports to US, restrictions on Chinese investments in the US, and ongoing sensitivity about US high tech exports to the Chinese mainland.

There is an ocean of difference between the Tibetan ‘acts of self-sacrifice’ and the desperate suicides for example of factory workers in the Han dominant areas in the last weeks. The Tibetan refusal to completely submit to the 62 year old occupation is epic. Yet there was arguably as much buzz on the internet regarding depression suicides at Apple suppliers’ manufacturing plants in China as there has been for this deeply saddening trend of self sacrifice, that over the last 3 years has seen more than 15 people in the region of Kirti die of flames lit by their own hands.

International consumers of one of the most popular brands on the planet are now exposed to an appeal to their conscience. It resonates in a much more concrete, personal manner than a relatively abstract appeal to their humanity regarding a people who they have most likely never met.

The relationship between the international world and China has changed dramatically. In the past China used its potential market and manufacturing edge as a blunt carrot-and-stick approach to getting its own way, ignoring any call for modification on its Tibet policy. Today China’s dependence on foreign raw materials and markets to keep its economy growing should in fact be the very reason for it not to ignore hot political issues.

Let’s be clear: this is not about hoping for the world to suddenly come to its senses and realize that it actually now has the reverse economic leverage to push for human rights improvements in China. Few would entertain the thought of rocking this boat even if the odds for success were pretty good. As an official in the Tibetan government-in-exile said to me over the phone: “It’s election year in various countries. Xi himself has to make sure he enters the stage smoothly. The basic issue will always be economy.”

Within China itself, real-life communism hardly needed capitalism to become corrupt.

But there is another factor that is creating the insecurity that drives the PRC to mask its paranoia with iron-fisted repression. When people feel they have nothing left to lose, it pushes them beyond their habitual inhibitions and fears. As Thomas Friedman so succinctly put it in his essay ‘The Politics of Dignity’ : “Humiliation is the most underestimated force in politics”. As the PRC keeps ratcheting up the pressure, its own insecurity increases as people instead respond ever more boldly. The draconian internet crackdown on the phantom, post Arab Spring, “Jasmine Revolution” can only be seen as a reflection of this.

It really is up to the PRC to save itself by moving beyond blowing off human rights issues with denial or casual trivialization. It needs to read the writing on the wall, and acknowledge that the happiness and freedom of its citizens who live both within and outside that wall are the best security for the future. What’s more, the international community needs to move beyond simply expressing moral outrage, and pro-actively engage with China to help resolve these issues.

Anna Hazare, Savior or Destroyer of Democracy

My article in the Huffington Post



Several months ago the world looked on in dismay and horror as their tv and computer screens filled with images of self-styled ‘true’ Muslim villagers and students from nearby pesantrens in Cikeusik attacking members of the controversial Ahmadiyah sect, eventually beating and hacking three of them to death. Once again Indonesia was in the limelight for all the wrong reasons, and once again the Ahmadis had little recourse to justice or the constitutional religious freedom that they are entitled to as citizens of the Republic of Indonesia, despite the fact that their organization here has been recognized as a legal body since 1953.

What was especially chilling at the time was that although at first glance seemingly a spontaneous mob lynching, strong indications of premeditation and complicity came to light soon thereafter. For example all the attackers wore blue ribbons on their arms to distinguish them from from their victims. Ahmadis also reported that two truckloads and a minivan full of police not only did hardly anything to stop the mayhem, but they actually left the scene when things got out of hand (though local police denied this, nonetheless the Banten police chief was relieved of his duty over his handling of the massacre).

Despite these and many other facts, including a video recording that it is so damning that the cameraman who shot and uploaded it received death threats, district prosecutors only demanded seven month prison sentences. To put this into perspective: according to Indonesian law the crime they were accused of, inciting hatred and mob violence, is punishable by a maximum sentence of seven years. Yet here was a case not only of inciting hatred and mob violence but a barbaric lynching to boot. Once again Banten province was showing off its bigotry.

True to form, the subsequent district court proceedings in the capital of Banten, Serang, were a cruel travesty. Defendants openly joked with supporters during the trial, contrition far from their hearts. Then came the verdicts. The accused were merely found guilty of ‘participation in a violent attack that resulted in casualties’. One 17 year old, caught on camera bashing one the victims on the head with a large rock, got three months. The heaviest sentence was six months. The court glossed the evidence of premeditation and the horrific deaths. Once again the world watched in disbelief.

Once again the Indonesian judiciary system representatives in Banten have sent a clear message to the mob: “if you kill the ‘right people’, we will find a way to get you off the hook, no matter how outrageous the case, as long as it is in the name of Islam”. If this ruling is not reviewed, the message will spread across the country, and the constitution will be even less relevant than it is now. In plain talk, we will become completely lawless.

Rio Helmi, 29th July, 2011


Rio Helmi – May 3, 2011

As the flagwavers outside the White House cheered the triumph of the “free world” over evil, they resembled nothing so much as adrenalin-fueled Roman crowds roaring jubilantly at the sight of the spilled blood of a gladiator. How far have we come since Rome? Or more to the point, how far have we come since 9/11?

In the pivotal week after that massive tragedy, ill-advised decisions were made that were to plunge the whole world into a seemingly unending escalation of vile terrorism and draconian security. In the days that immediately followed the attack, sympathy and support for the United States came pouring into the White House from the world over, including many predominantly Muslim countries. It was an opportunity to create a united front, to share resources in an intelligent, long term and effective effort to undermine any support for fundamentalism as a whole across the East/West, North/South, and intra-Abramic religious divides.

Instead George W. Bush, prompted and prodded by his advisors, opted for a “crusade”-like war on the sources of terror in Afghanistan. Though the “crusade” epithet was quickly dropped, the damage was done. The neo-con association with the Christian right, the USA’s on-going blanket support for Israel’s aggressive intrusions into the West Bank and the Gaza, has reinforced a massive line of confrontation between the “West” and an ever-more radicalized, neo-pan-Islamic movement.

In simple terms the result has only been escalation, there has been no “triumph of the free world”. Rather the contrary: as commentator Neil Macdonald points out, many underpinnings of American democracy went out the window: habeas corpus was swept under the carpet, torture sanctioned, Guantanamo became infamous. Even the name of the outrageously undemocratic Patriot Act was symbolic of this loss “free world” reason. On the other side of the fence, radicalization became an everyday occurrence.

With the election of Obama there was hope, light at the end of the tunnel some said. His speech at Al Azhar university in Cairo was deemed historic, though many Arab commentators at the time adopted a “wait and see” stance. Whether this was simply cynicism or an awareness of the immense pressure an American president experiences in office, there does seem to be some indication that they were partially right.

Obama remains likeable as a figure, and for us Indonesians there is something of an emotional investment in his attempt to change the world order, but right now the odds for his success in bringing about change don’t look so good. Whether out of personal conviction or under incredible pressure, Obama’s bid for change is perceived to have been seriously compromised. Obama has pledged to pull the US out of Iraq, but he continues to try and win a military victory in Afghanistan. There is little to indicate that this will succeed, nor will it do much to bring about peace, so it begs the question why a man as intelligent as Obama would take this route which so clearly will lead into a quagmire? Is it political expediency? We expected better from Barrack Obama.

Whatever the case, the impression the world gets is that Obama has let himself be swayed by hawkish elements, and there are poltical gains to be made. It is clear is that this mission to take out Osama was, from the word go, a mission to kill, not to detain. The speed and the manner in which his body was dispatched at sea smacks of conspiracy and insult, and is arousing anger amongst Muslims the world over. Indonesia will not be an exception.

What happened to the ideals spoken of in Cairo? Osama committed heinous crimes, but is an eye for an eye really the way forward? In a macabre scene again reminiscent of Roman emperors at the arena, Obama followed the whole mission live from A-Z, right up to the moment when a bullet entered Bin Laden’s left eye. When Obama made his speech he emphatically and repeatedly used the word “I” regarding the authorization of the mission. It is clear that Mr President is now fully endorsing military solutions to a problem which he once talked of as one of misperceptions between cultures and creeds.

How this brutal and bloody “success” is supposed to bring peace is a mystery. Even the CIA is predicting more violence, and the rhetoric from the Arab world supports this. Those who stood outside the white house and cheered are surely fools. Americans the world over will be reviled anew, senseless violence will continue to escalate. As Mahatma Gandhi once said: “An eye for an eye will make the world blind”.


Rio Helmi

The democratic election of Lobsang Sangay by the Tibetan people-in-exile as their prime minister and political leader, whose temporal authority now replaces that of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is a major step forward not just for the Tibetan people but for democracy worldwide.

Throughout the 30 odd years of my association with the Tibetan people and His Holiness, I have always been made aware that the institution of true democracy has been an urgent ongoing project, much frustrated and  delayed more by the reluctance of the Tibetan people and differences of perceptions within their own community rather than anything else. HH the Dalai Lama had the vision to see that democracy is the only way forward for the Tibetans, yet had to work a very sensitive balance in nurturing this political development.

This is indeed refreshing and inspirational at this point in global political history. We see scenes of despots desperately trying to stave off the Arab spring, while a superpower flounders as it panders to the latest occupant of the oil fields of northern Africa and the shorelines of the Gulf. We see one Arab leader prancing about in a myriad outlandish costumes pronouncing the love of his people for his own glorious self (in between shelling the living daylights out of them); or another, backed by his giant neighbour, sending killer squads into hospitals to take out doctors and patients – whilst above mentioned superpower frets more about naval access to the region than the murders of entire families downtown. Yes, it is refreshing to see someone – who truly is worshipped by his people – so intent on divesting his power to them.

The previous Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, tried valiantly to bring his people forward into the 20th Century, realising early on that Tibet would be a pawn to be sacrificed in the great game that soon was to involve the clash of global political ideologies – rampant feudalism, capitalism, communism all posed threats to the survival of a people and their culture. Clearly old Tibet was not idyllic, it had its fair share of issues. It had to reform. Yet the Thirteenth was to be disappointed by the apathy of the ruling class, the reluctance of Tibetans to open their eyes and see the new world. For all intents and purposes, his current successor, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, politically tempered at an early age by dire circumstance, was better positioned to shift these perceptions, albeit at the bitter cost of losing sovereignity in his own land.

It is undoubtedly this loss, and the fragile balance of life for the Tibetan nation-in-exile, that has contributed greatly to this shift. But it has taken patience and perseverance to introduce direct elections into the community. Powerful leadership can be a double edged sword: on the one hand it can provide decisive action when needed, on the other it can easily lead to dependence and the inability of the populace to develop a clear sense of responsibility, civic and otherwise. With today’s record population numbers and cultural clashes, the development of strong, trans-cultural civic societies is more urgent than ever. Without transparent democracy’s checks and balances this is impossible to achieve.

This year the People’s Republic of China celebrates 60 years of the “liberation of Tibet”. But we all know that the PRC is haunted by fears of a homegrown “Jasmine Revolution” even back in the pre-dominantly Han populated provinces, let alone Tibet proper. Its insecurity is reflected in an unwritten disposition that no overseas Tibetans, especially Lamas, are allowed to visit Tibet for the next several months. That kind of fear is a clear indication of political dysfunction.

Ironically there is much more liberation going on in exile than within the borders of one of the world’s superpowers. Whilst the Chinese Nobel peace laureate languishes in jail, and the Arab spring continues to be bloody, Lobsang Sangay’s peaceful election indicates a blossoming of new hope for  the younger generation.

When People Turn a Blind Eye and Leaders Go Deaf

Rio Helmi, 10 February 2011

Democracy is a term whose precise meaning is elusive, especially so in developing nations. For leaders more worried about superficial legitimacy than actually taking on the task of improving the lot of their people, ‘democracy’ revolves around elections and how to get through them intact. It has become something of an industry standard; when others dispute results and methods, one can always refute these protests simply with “Hey, we held free elections”. Somehow human rights end up secondary on the display shelf.

Naturally, not only do elections supposedly legitimize regimes in their own countries, but they also legitimize other more powerful democracies (the “West”) dealing with these regimes towards their own ends. These are marriages of convenience between parties that come to an understanding mostly without really understanding the other party, something of an agreement between thieves. Human rights issues are just minor thorns, burrs caught on the trousers of powerful men striding across new fields to be plowed.

One may claim that 20th and 21st Century intelligence gathering serves to properly brief their respective governments, but intel blunders amongst super powers are legendary, whether as a result of compromise or incompetence (Think “weapons of mass destruction” farce). It is rare that actual members of foreign administrations venture deep into the psyche’s of their counterparts, it’s an area left to academics and eccentric expats from whom only sound bites are heard.

It is politically incorrect for well educated people to have biases against race and religion, but many still carry the coding of centuries of such bias in their cultural DNA. There is scarcely a ‘modern’ western nation now where one does not find sizeable and growing neo-fascist movements, and concern about migrants..

On the other side of the moat things are hardly better. The first encounters between most countries with western powers were filled with attitudes of vast superiority, suspicion, miscommunication, betrayal, and often widespread blood shed. So no matter how absurd it might seem to us, it is not too difficult to stir up suspicion and hatred again – terms like Great Satan sounds ridiculously tinny to many of us, but to embittered, disempowered people it resonates.

I’m sure this all sounds simplistic, but it is a 1-100,000 scale map of the heart of an old world that is gradually dying: a product of centuries of violence and invasions (e.g. Alexander the Great, Jingghis Khan, Chinese imperial despotism, the Turks beating on the gateways of Bavaria, the Inquisition, the persecution of Jews and Moors in Europe, European colonialism, slavery, the two World Wars, Stalin, Vietnam – in no way an exhaustive list).

Some how the anachronistic zeitgeist of the first seven decades of the 20th Century is still lurking in the hallways of power of even the most ‘advanced’ nations, despite decades of political evolution since the 70s when Kissinger embarked on his détente with the USSR and Nixon landed in Peking. It took decades before the world media could even bring itself to write the name properly as Beijing. Some even created a myth that the PRC had changed the name in the 80s, when all they were doing was correcting the Latin script spelling. A small but telling example. But look at it from the other end: imagine if Egyptians or Indonesians would refer to Obama’s birthplace as the “Isles of Sandwich”?

To segue Obama into all this, his current stilted position on Mubarak, his VP’s dealing with Egyptian VP Suleiman, a known military iron fist, the US administrations reiterated praise for the “restraint of the Egyptian military” whilst Egyptian military police continue to ‘disappear’ protestors – all of this is a sign that traces of this outdated, poisonous zeitgeist is still flowing through the ventilation shafts of Washington DC.

Even the fact that that the verb ‘to disappear’ has become transitive in colloquial language is a sad indication of language reflecting the non evolution of US power policy, arrested by 9/11. Somehow the increased mobility and tech connectivity we have seen in the last decades hasn’t led to more understanding, it is simply translated as  more opportunity for the materially and politically ambitious. Obama, I was happy when you were elected, and the speech in Cairo was great. But you are seriously losing traction on ‘change’ here.

What we are seeing in Tunisia and Egypt is beginning of a movement that may still be brutally suppressed but not stopped. It is the new world that is coming. Islamic fundamentalism grew out of colonial meddling. But now many Islamists are getting a sense of something new in the offing. The Muslim Brotherhood is not Hezbollah, far from it. The Tunisian Islamists want to work with others, they are not the Somali fanatics that Ayaan Hisri Ali ran from. And the intellectuals are cautiously engaging with them. They all know that they could be rewriting the ground rules.

This is a civil movement started by a new, younger generation: intellectuals, professionals, and now older workers. They are inspiring others to join. And many of the older generation are galvanized by them. This was especially the case when an emotional TV interview with an Egyptian Google executive, Wael Ghonim whose was released after 12 days of captivity, was broadcast, blindsiding Mubarak’s administration.

In Indonesia a similar thing happened 13 years ago – it was the students who took the initiative, we all followed. But the reform on the government’s side has stagnated. Yet the civil movement is evolving as we speak, perhaps not in an organized formal manner, but people are more informed and engaged. If the older leaders can’t open their hearts then they shouldn’t lead. To lead is to inspire, to inspire your people to work their hearts out for their country and for the world. Leaders that think of their people as cattle to use an electric prod on belong in Gulags.

In relation to Egypt, here in Indonesia we have something of a different but related situation. The anachronistic zeitgeist here is the wisps of a mindset that has its roots back in the first decades days of the Republic, during which several attempts to create Islamic states failed – but it has been cunningly reinfused as movement against immorality.

This is what fuels the fundamentalist mobs  such as FPI who have brutally harassed bars, attacked “non-believers”, burned churches, even killed Ahmadis on camera. And of course there are the more infamous bombers, whose spiritual leader, linked to Al Qaeda, is set for trial next week – Abu Bakar Ba’asyir calmly told reporters Thursday that “The Prophet was like me”. If he wasn’t such an old fox one would suspect he was delusional. But he is definitely holding on firmly to another world vision for which it is clear that there is detailed game plan. A clear and present plan.

Our President has dragged his heels for years. It is clear that these mobs have transgressed the constitution. He has finally decided to be more firm with the mobs (so far mostly in  words). Their answer: “We will ‘Ben Ali’ you SBY”. Yet these thugs, who dote on all things Arabic, have no clue that Tunisia was not an Islamist movement, nor that things are changing drastically. They too are stuck in a defunct time zone. Many of us have turned a blind eye to the outrages they have perpetrated. And our leaders have become so deaf, engrossed in their own political survival that it has taken a long-growing clamor for them to finally hear. But whether they will respond adequately is not yet clear. If they don’t, we will all suffer.

What we all, whether super-power or just a power in our own backyard, need to remember is that the world situation is constantly evolving, we are constantly creating it. Others react to what we do, as a result opinions and attitudes are formed much, much faster now. Time to be brave: embrace the future.