Posted by: maximos62 | December 11, 2017

Seen and Unseen – Book Review

Very appreciative of Ian Burnet’s Review of my book.


Russell Darnley seeks to cover an extensive time span in his book Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific.

Darnley Cover Image

I have read it as a memoir written as 29 stories, beginning when he was a boy growing up in Coogee in Sydney, Australia. Here, his stories begin with him exploring the headlands and rock pools around this beachside suburb with his grandfather.  They delve into the early years of the 20th century and then on to descriptions of his childhood, family and friends.

He tells stories of his student days at Sydney University and of his first travels through South East Asia in the 1970’s. I can identify with this period as we would have travelled around the same time to Singapore, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. A period when many young Australian backpackers were on the road discovering South East Asia.

Years later…

View original post 322 more words

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. […] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world. — Eleanor Roosevelt

While I missed posting about this in my own time zone I’ve been conscious that 10 December is International Human Rights Day. As an Australian I’m deeply appreciative of my own country’s contribution to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It was while our former Foreign Minister Dr. Herbert Vere Evatt was President of the third regular session of the General Assembly that the UDHR was adopted by the United Nations



Maria Dimitrakarakou’s Blog Post

Today I was pleased to receive a Tweet from my friend Maria Dimitrakarakou (@dimitrakarakou) drawing my attention to her latest blog post. 

I first met Maria in 2015, since then we’ve often shared ideas about a mutual interest, the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.  I’ve also come to learn of Maria’s deep commitment to human rights.

I guess, had I not received the Tweet from Maria, I might have overlooked the day. Well, not exactly overlooked it, but perhaps not given it the prominence it deserves.  As it is I’m scrambling to post this while it is still 10 December at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Maria’s approach to the global issue is consistent with that of Eleanor Roosevelt’s. I believe that she recognises the fundamental reality that human rights begin in small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.

A fundamental statement on human rights

There is no doubt that 10 December remains a most important date, though human rights do have a longer history.  Every time I read these words I’m reminded that protecting human rights is not a new idea.

Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ Matthew 25:45





Posted by: maximos62 | December 5, 2017

What is the health of cricketers worth?

Sri Lanka players and physio wait during the hold up on Day 2 of the 3rd Test at the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium in New Delhi on Sunday. Photograph: BCCI

Play was stopped on three times during the India v Sri Lanka cricket match on Sunday 3 November. The Sri Lankan team wore anti-pollution masks, complaining of breathing problems at the Feroz Shah Kotla ground in New Delhi. Air pollution in New Delhi has been a serious problem for sometime. The Guardian and Agence France Press reports that:

The extremely poor air in the city is the result of a combination of road dust, open fires, vehicle exhaust fumes, industrial emissions and the burning of crop residues in neighbouring states. Indian weather agencies also blame dust storms that originate in the Gulf. New Delhi has a paucity of public transport.

The Data

The World Air Quality Index promotes Air Pollution awareness and provides transparent Air Quality information for more than 70 countries, covering over than 9000 stations in 600 major cities. This information is available through two websites: and

Using AQICN data it is possible to look at the present situation in New Delhi.

These were the conditions at the time of writing.

Air quality in New Delhi on 5 December, 2017

Air Quality Index scale based on PM2.5

The AQI shown, PM2.5, is a measure of the occurrence of particles or droplets in the air with a size of 2.5 microns (2.5 μm) or less per cubic metre. PM refers to Particulate Matter. A micron is a unit of measurement for distance. There are about 25,000 microns2.5 cms approximately an inch. They are very small particles that can be inhaled deeply into the lungs causing harmful effects.


Of great concern is the impact on those who are forced to work in the pollution and this week it has included these elite sportsmen.

The Times of India reported that Pollution stopped play on Sunday in the third Test between India and Sri Lanka. Australia’s ABC reported extensively on the problem as well.

The insistence from game organisers that play continue raises important questions. To what extent are players expendable contributors to the software that is telecast through the world on cable and satellite services?

Delhi’s air quality remains in the Very Unhealthy and Hazardous categories.

Perhaps one positive aspect is that it might draw greater world attention to the problem of air pollution.








Posted by: maximos62 | November 7, 2017

Introducing Mr Kanao Ito

Last year I wanted to translate the Japanese characters on this flag from World War II. I had the flag briefly and made a point of photographing it.

Listen to my story Baby boomers and Japan if you’d like to learn of the flag’s fate.

There was no way I could understand what was written on the flag. I tried asking a Japanese academic friend who told me that it belonged to a specific person and that it was probably presented to him by his community when he left to fight in World War II.  He said that there were also some ancient characters that he couldn’t translate. I wasn’t certain whether he couldn’t or chose not to, but I didn’t press the matter.

When my book, Seen and unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific, was published I wanted to give more attention to the Japan Australia link in promotional materials.

Using Twitter

I worked a lot with Twitter and realised its power to connect people and build global networks.  Contrary to some representations of Twitter it isn’t merely the domain of trolls with immutable welded on political views or of thousands upon thousands of bogus accounts.  Certainly Twitter has these elements but it’s far more than that as a means of connecting and networking.

I drafted off what I believed was probably the soldiers name and posted a Tweet with my attempt at Japanese characters. It worked, soon I had the information I needed.

The soldiers name was Mr Kanao Ito. There was also what I thought might be a Buddhist mantra on the flag. Soon I had this confirmed as well. It was the Buddhist mantra, Nanmyohorengekyo, which means “glory to the Lotus Sutra”

Using Storify to present Tweets

To follow my process, read the summary of a Twitter conversation with Andrew Faith (@andrewfaith) and the most helpful 大久保 街亜 / Matia Okubo (@matiasauquebaux).

Here is a short digest of news I’ve written for the PM.Haze October Newletter. A full list of past newsletters can be found on the PM.Haze site.

How to fight the haze three times a day

The first part of my news analysis addresses an excellent article, How to fight the haze three times a day, written for the Straits Times by PM.Haze members Tan Yi Han and Maxine Chen. It is headed by this dramatic helicopter shot.

Smoke rising from clearings in Indonesia’s Giam Siak Kecil-Bukit Batu Biosphere Reserve in February this year. The protected forest was being cleared illegally to make way for plantations

Mr Tan Yi Han, 32, is a co-founder of People’s Movement to Stop Haze (PM Haze), a Singapore-based non-profit organisation empowering people to do their part to help solve the regional haze crisis.

He is driven to help people find their passions, and to shape a society in which every individual stands up for what is right. Mr Tan recently obtained a Master of Science in Environmental Management.

Ms Maxine Chen, 24, is a volunteer with PM Haze. She is inspired by writing and its power to drive positive change.

A lawyer by training, her stories on topics including climate change and sustainable consumption have appeared in, among other places, the environmental science and conservation news site Mongabay.

How to fight the haze three times a day

The article How to fight the haze three times a day reminds us that despite Indonesia’s national moratorium on peatland forest clearing, deforestation continues. Protected peatland forests, home to rare and endangered species like the Sumatran elephants and tigers, are still being illegally cleared and burnt to make way for oil palm plantations.

Each dry season fires race across the peatlands producing masses of smoke and leaving behind a scorched earth ready for the planting of neat rows of oil palms. This smoke is a major contributor to global warming but it is also a toxic mix of harmful gases such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, cyanide and formaldehyde. It also carries microscopic particles coated with carcinogens such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Such is its toxicity that in 2015 it forced the closure of all Singapore’s schools and may have caused the early deaths of more than 100,000 people in South-east Asia.

Surveying the problem

Palm oil is present in half the consumer products that we buy (packaged foods and personal care products), it is also the most commonly used cooking oil in Asia.

Last year the survey PM.Haze conducted revealed that 32 out of 33 popular eatery chains in Singapore used cooking oil that contains palm oil.

PM.Haze does not advocate boycotting palm oil but seeks to improve the way palm oil is produced.

The conscious consumer

There is much we can do about this problem. Consumers can adopt several strategies:

  • reduce unnecessary consumption of palm oil and other vegetable oils. Eat less fried food and choose less oily (and healthier) food instead. Reducing demand for vegetable oil is a key step towards driving down the need to clear more land.
  • choose palm oil products certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This certifies the palm oil is from growers that don’t engage in forest clearing and burning. In Singapore, there are already four brands of cooking oil that are RSPO-certified. Also, Ikea Singapore and the Singapore Zoo use sustainable cooking oil in their food outlets.
  • tell others about the issue. Most of the eateries PM Haze spoke to were not even aware that they were using palm oil and mentioned terms like “vegetable oil” or “tempura oil” – generic names for palm oil.

Consumers have the power to spur businesses to minimise negative impacts on the health of our people and planet. Let’s demand that businesses act responsibly and go haze-free.

A report from the WWF

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) reports that two out of three Singapore brands they contacted failed to respond to a request to disclose their palm oil usage.

WWF Singapore contacted 27 local retailers, manufacturers and food service brands with a survey to assess their buying and sourcing of palm oil. Only 10 companies responded.

Ayam Brand, which uses only certified sustainable palm oil for its canned food products, and Wildlife Reserves Singapore, which uses palm oil for cooking in its food and beverage outlets, scored highest in the report.

Those not responding included:

  • BreadTalk Crystal Jade
  • Bee Cheng Hiang
  • Dairy Farm
  • Khong Guan
  • Paradise Group
  • Tung Lok
  • Commonwealth Capital brand Soup Spoon, PastaMania and Udders

Since the launch of the campaign, these companies have committed to sustainable palm oil: Bee Cheng Hiang, Commonwealth Capital, Crystal Jade Culinary Concepts Holding, Paradise Group Holdings, Super Group and Tung Lok.

WWF said the level of “non-discosure and lack of action” among brands in Singapore and Malaysia was higher than the global average.

WWF-Singapore has launched a campaign to get consumers to pressure local brands on their use of palm oil, by sending emails to the companies via

WWF Singapore observed that unsustainable practices in the palm oil industry are at the root of the transboundary haze and deforestation. It added that, the brands not using sustainable palm oil cited internal factors such as capacity issues and higher costs preventing a switch to sustainable palm oil. Sustainable palm oil options start at less than S$0.01 more per litre.


Fires races up ravines near the summit of Foho Madanaga

Above Ainaro wild fires raged up steep gullies towards the towering prominence of Foho Madanaga. Driven by strong winds from Australia’s dry heart billowing white smoke obscured flames, a sign of intense combustion. Coming just days after the Dry’s official onset this was an ominous sign for the bushfire season across the southern continent.

Racing towards the north-west and soon to starve on the tilted rocky layers of Madanaga’s summit there was no threat to my planned southerly route towards Jakarta Dois (Jakarta Two). First winding through the outskirts of the Ainaro traversing small water courses and hills the route eventually makes a gradual descent between the Maumali and Sarai Rivers. This last stretch is gun-barrel straight in parts, lined by a scattering of simple houses separated by stands of young teak trees, corn gardens and patches of green leafy vegetables.

A vegetable garden on the road to Jakarta Two

As I stepped onto the road a cavalcade of motor bikes and table top trucks bedecked with national flags, some bearing the name Fretlin, raced passed. Fretlin flags are common and the cavalcade a sign that horse trading over ministerial portfolios in the new Fretlin led colalition government had concluded. Falintil flags were also present. Originally the  military wing of Fretlin, Falintil was officially dissolved in 2001 replaced by the Força de Defesa de Timor Leste (F-FDTL), the armed forces of Timor L’Este.


Old habits die hard and Timor-Leste still retains many elements of an assertive anti-colonial spirit. Electors have shown a tendency to choose candidates who are part  of “Generation 75”. Current President, Francisco Guterres, is a former guerrilla fighter. Some have found it difficult to leave the past behind.

In 2006 Minister of Interior Rogerio Lobato, armed members of the Fretilin Congress. This episode in Timor L’Este’s recent history was captured by a Four Corners team headed by journalist Liz Jackson.

Lobato’s actions led to a seven-year gaol term. Yet after serving a mere 12 months in gaol he was pardoned by then President Jose Ramos Horta. Such events not only underscore the volatile nature of the country but also the close connections amongst the country’s political elite, connections that cross political lines.  As one observer wrote “ . . . it is hard to separate titles and office from personal relationships, friendships, fall-outs and long histories.”[1]

The Indonesian Invasion

To understand the background to Jakarta Dois (Jakarta Two) it’s best to start back with the Indonesian invasion of Timor L’Este on 7 December 1975.  Essentially it had the approval of Australia, the USA and Portugal. Final approval from the USA was obtained the day before the invasion. Writing in War, Genocide, and Resistance in East Timor, 1975–99: Comparative Reflections on Cambodia, Ben Kiernan reports a conversation between Suharto, Ford and Kissinger on 6 December, 1975:

Even as Ford and Kissinger aimed to strengthen the independence of Pol Pot’s Cambodian communist regime, another Southeast Asian humanitarian disaster was in the making. In that same December 1975 conversation, Suharto now raised “another problem, Timor.” He needed U.S. support, not condemnation, for planned Indonesian expansion into the small Portuguese colony. “We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action.” Ford replied, “We will understand and will not press you on the issue.” Kissinger then added: “You appreciate that the use of U.S.-made arms could create problems. . . . It depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self-defense or is a foreign operation. It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly. We would be able to influence the reaction in America if whatever happens happens after we return. This way there would be less chance of people talking in an unauthorized way. . . . We understand your problem and the need to move quickly. . . . Whatever you do, however, we will try to handle in the best way possible. . . . If you have made plans, we will do our best to keep everyone quiet until the President returns home.”

His notes are drafted from a telegram sent from the US Embassy to the US Department of State summarising a meeting between President Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Indonesia’s President Suharto.

Indonesia occupied East Timor for 24 years until 1999.

In 1975 East Timor had a population of 650,000. Over the ensuing 24 years there were 150,000 deaths as a direct result of Indonesian violence.  How many more occurred as a result of starvation and neglect is difficult to say.

Sian Powell, Jakarta Correspondent for The Australian reported on January 19, 2006 that:

The Indonesian military used starvation as a weapon to exterminate the East Timorese, according to a UN report documenting the deaths of as many as 180,000 civilians at the hands of the occupying forces.

Napalm and chemical weapons, which poisoned the food and water supply, were used by Indonesian soldiers against the East Timorese in the brutal invasion and annexation of the half-island to Australia’s north, according to the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation report.

The Referendum

After Suharto’s fall in 1998, elections were scheduled in Indonesia for June 1999. On 27 January 1999, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Ali Alatas and Information Minister Yunus Yosfiah announced that the East Timorese would be granted a referendum on independence. Indonesia’s President Habbie authorised a referendum to be conducted on the following question, in East Timor:

Do you accept the proposed special autonomy for East Timor within the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia?  

450,000 people were registered to vote in the referendum including 13,000 outside East Timor. The result was 78.5% answering no, and voting for independence.

In early 1999, as the UN referendum approached, Indonesian military and militia commanders formulated a plan to ‘cleanse’ East Timor of resistance, as outlined in the quote below.

The political cleansing of East Timor was planned as early as February, one of the militia leaders present at a meeting which hatched the deadly plot has revealed. Tomas Goncalves, 54, the former head of the 400-strong PPPI (Peace Force and Defender of Integration) militia said the killings had been agreed at a meeting on February 16 in the East Timorese capital, Dili. He said the talks were organised by the head of the SGI, the secret intelligence organisation of the military’s Kopassus special forces.

The head, Lieutenant-Colonel Yahyat Sudrajad, called for the killing of pro-independence movement leaders, their children and even their grandchildren, Mr Goncalves said. Not a single member of their families was to be left alive, the colonel told the meeting.

A thorough account of the systematic violence unleashed on the people of East Timor can be found in Masters of terror: Indonesia’s military and violence in East Timor in 1999 (PDF, 187MB)

As the report explains:

This crime was more than a series of massacres and murders, in which perhaps 2,000 people died, and of incidents of torture, rape and assault. It involved the forced deportation and flight of three-quarters of East Timor’s 800,000 people by September 1999, and the organised destruction of the territory’s infrastructure and housing stock. It involved an attack on the territory’s religious institutions. It was a frontal attack on democracy and freedom, an attempt to dismantle an emerging nation.

Arriving at Jakarta Two

Jakarta Two is on a narrow spur. on its western side there is a steep drop of some 30 to 40 metres running perilously close to the road. My first understanding was that an act of mass murder took place here in 1999 when the Indonesian military pushed people deemed to be supporters of Fretlin over the cliff in the period following the independence vote.

The edge of the road drops away abruptly at Jakarta Two. This view is towards the Sarai River

Thanks to Rob Wesley-Smith, I realise this isn’t the full story. He pointed me to some important observations by Max Stahl who wrote:

I went to Jakarta One and Jakarta two in early October 1999, days after the Indonesian forces left and before the Australians leading International Forces arrived there. I had been told in 1991 about these cliffs where people had been thrown to their deaths beginning in the early years of the occupation in Ainaro. Loved ones were  told their missing relatives had “gone to Jakarta”. I  wanted to see if there was continuity to the way of killing which was everywhere in September 1999. The habits of killers are  guides to their identities in police and journalistic investigation.
What I found stays with me. 30 or 40 meters below the roadside cliff top  was a tangle of bodies, shrivelled  under the hot sun, crumpled on the rocks. Their hands were tied behind their backs. The bare feet had been hacked off at the arch. To this day as far as I know they have no names.
They could have been victims of the mass killings in 1978 and 1979, or the massacres at Kraras where at least 400 people perhaps as many as 1000 died-some made to dig their own graves  just months after Gough Whitlam passed by observing how safe it was to travel in Indonesia’s 27th province known as Timor Timur.


People I spoke with in Ainaro might have been too young to remember earlier killings. Timor L’Este has a median age of 19 years with 62% of the population under 25 years. Such demographics are consistent with a period of mass killings.

Arriving at Jakarta Two my intention was to read the prayers for the departed.

I expected to find some traces of the pain this place must have witnessed. Certainly, in my experience, acts of mass murder can leave an emanation of deep pain yet here on the brink of Jakarta Two, I felt little. Adding my prayers I was content with the notion that the prayers of countless others had brought peace to the precipice, a sense of spiritual calm. While a moral outrage remained acrophobia and a feeling of bewilderment were my dominant feelings.

An enigmatic of landscape

Something else haunted me. Here and there I saw evidence of a once more intensive land use. Relics of terracing on the steeper land a most prominent sign.

At first I thought this was just weathering but now I’m beginning to see it differently.


Again, thanks to Rob, I eventually found Professor ‘s comments.  In The Conversation, he wrote:

And with that, my imagination cut loose flashing terrifying images of just what might have been perpetrated at that cliff under Indonesian occupation? To help deal with my growing sense of unease, I changed our itinerary and set about finding other outcrops to do our work.

And as we did so I began to see the landscape in an entirely new light. Now as I scanned the mountain slopes, the faint remnants of paddy terraces, now largely washed away, shouted “why did you not notice us before”.

The landscape was now everywhere imbued with a dark shadow as testimony to the brutal rural depopulation that had occurred under the Indonesian occupation in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

Fortunately for the young, in times of peace memories of past loss and pain have little place since the purpose of childhood is to play, explore and learn.

As I approached Jakarta Two an anguna (local public transport) stopped.  Several youths disembarked, perhaps they were around 13 years old.

“Good afternoon,” I said.
“Good afternoon. Where are you going?” one asked.
“I’m going to Jakarta Two. To pray.”
“To pray?”
“Yes, to pray for the people who perished there.”
“Did people perish there?” he asked.

Still the legacy of those dark times is embedded in the landscape and in the relative absence of an older generation, those who might offer wise counsel.

[1]    Gordon Peake is a Visiting Fellow at the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, Australian National University.

Posted by: maximos62 | September 5, 2017

Where Australia Collides with Asia – by Ian Burnet

Some historical narratives can be difficult to follow when they are punctuated by countless footnotes and bibliographic references, or broken by a frequent need to delve into appendices. Ian Burnet frees his work from these impediments.  By seamlessly embedding his sources he has produced an almost conversational style. The result is an erudite narrative flow, free of distractions.

Where Australia Collides with Asia chronicles the reflections and discoveries of great minds and adventurous spirits. Both Darwin and Wallace who feature read Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equatorial regions of the New Continent. This work introduced the notion of a web of life where no single fact could be considered in isolation. Humboldt created a new genre in writing that eloquently described nature as part of this web of life. Ian’s book is firmly in such a tradition.  It is not just a treatise on Alfred Russell Wallace any more than it is a static account of biogeography. He draws on his extensive knowledge of geology and his long engagement with the Indonesian archipelago to reveal a world shaped by tectonic dynamism producing countless variations and contrasts.

Plate movements create areas that are distinct yet often close to one another.  Both the Galapagos islands and the Indonesian archipelago display such features. In these places, biogeographic contrasts and transformations are easily observed. We learn that it was the distinct differences in distribution of flora and fauna along the archipelago, abruptly changing between the islands of Bali and Lombok that so intrigued Wallace. Through his research, he established this as a biogeographic boundary between Asia and Australasia.

This work allows us to see the development of Wallace’s research to the point where he summarised all the main principles of Darwin’s ideas on species. When he received Wallace’s ‘Letter from Ternate’, in 1858, Darwin’s surprise was such that he was prompted him to write: ‘I never saw a more striking coincidence, if Wallace had my manuscript sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract.’

Darwin’s fear of challenging the literalist account of creation in Genesis certainly placed a break on this desire to publish.  Wallace’s work pressed him to finally publish in 1859. All of this is and the warm friendship that developed between the two men is well covered, so too is their subsequent collaboration.

The selection of photographs, maps and illustration in this publication not only add graphical power to the work but also display Ian Burnet’s meticulous patient gathering of archival material.

Posted by: maximos62 | August 31, 2017

Cairo Mon Amour: a review by Russell Darnley


Stuart Campbell has crafted a richly faceted novel taking full advantage of Cairo as an ancient centre of cultural and linguistic confluence. He weaves a tale of intrigue and duplicity that, through his descriptive brilliance, takes the reader beyond the façade of material culture into the complex histories and geopolitical realities of the region.

An occasional visitor to Cairo I found his descriptions of the city and its precincts astutely and artistically rendered. Whether in affluent Zamaleck or the City of the Dead he engages us allowing us to walk with his characters entering, as it were, an impressionistic Cairo transformed by the emotions and plight of the players. His work reveals familiar places, at a different time and under different social and political circumstances.

City of the Dead, Cairo Bertramz. CC BY-SA 3.0

Though a sometimes a reluctant reader of fiction Cairo Mon Amour held my attention to the end. It has its heroes and its villains often with a little villainy in the heroes and heroism in the villains. But who are the heroes and the villains? Why has Bellamy been sent to Cairo in the first place? Is his great love really a Soviet spy? Is MI6 the real villain or the Egyptian army or the Israelis? What of the crafty Pierre?

His work makes thorough use of the Cold War back drop. Politically this is not some simple monochromatic rendition of Cold War dynamics but an intriguing and believable story set against the imminent outbreak of hostilities as Egypt prepares to take back control of the Suez canal and the Sinai.

Egyptian soldiers celebrate the successful crossing of the Suez canal during the Ramadan War (1973-1974)

Now when fundamentalism have taken all too prominent a role in the world, his treatment of the Abrahamic religions, their diversity and their consonance, is a timely reminder that those of us who follow such paths all have so much in common.

Obtain your copy from Goodreads, Amazon or the publishers Austin Macauley. Find more information about the book on Facebook.

Also visit the Cairo Mon Amour website.

Posted by: maximos62 | August 28, 2017

Peoples’ Movement to Stop the Haze #GoHazeFree

As I approach my 70th birthday I find a need to consolidate my energy and spend time on those matters that present as the more serious and immediate. One of these matters is the health of our atmosphere and the allied issues of climate change and global warming caused by humanity’s over dependence on fossil fuels as sources of energy.

Many industrial societies have been lazy, content to ignore the serious legacy of external costs, seeking quick profits through a dependency on apparently cheap fossil fuels like coal and oil. Neoliberal economics, with its magical trust in the market as the ultimate determinant of rationality and balance in the world, has gravely worsened matters.

Life in Singapore

Several years ago when I came to live in Singapore it was with some uncertainty. This busy entrepôt with global connections seemed like a model of the market driven approach but this proved to be untrue. Governance takes an appropriate role and although this small island is by no means perfect, there is great concern for the environmental impact of change and development.

Singapore has no extensive natural resources but it has a well-connected society made easier by excellent public transport and communications. With an average population density of 8500 people per sq. kilometre this is a much cheaper goal to achieve than in my own less densely settled city of Sydney with around 400 people per sq. kilometre.

Green corridors are a feature of Singapore.

Singapore also has a locational advantage at a pivotal point between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, at the head of the Malacca Straits. Alongside this is its highly educated population.

Haze and the El Niño year of 2015

Life in Singapore proved very comfortable, until 2015. That year, an El Niño year, the city was enveloped in smoke haze.

A bad haze day in 2015

A began blogging about this problem, first in September of that year as the haze grew in intensity then again in October. Around about this time I left for Bali which was well clear of the smoke haze.

Encountering PM.Haze

Not long after this a colleague from the ANZA Writers group that I convene mentioned a group called the ‘Mother Earth Toast Masters Club”. I went along to a meeting and it was there I met Tan Yi Han of the Peoples’ Movement to Stop Haze.

Since then I’ve become involved with the group. I’m probably the oldest member the group has ever had, but I find nothing but acceptance and a willingness to use what little life experience that I’ve accumulated over the past 70 years.

This month they featured my picture of me and ran a short interview with me under the banner Volunteer Spotlight: Russell. I hope you enjoy the read.


Forest and peat fires in Riau, Indonesia Photo by Julius Lawalata, World Resources Institute.

Sound of an approaching motor bike broke a long reflection on the devastation caused by fires that have raged across Indonesia’s peatlands in recent years producing suffocating smoke haze across the region. Joining an expedition to explore the causes of the smoke haze was sure to provoke such thoughts. Here on Tebing Tinggi Island, close to Riau Province’s Kampar Peninsula had also drifted to the fire regime in my own country. In my lifetime now a few months shy of three score years and ten the great warming was undeniable.  Fire was increasing in incidence and I could only conclude that we were no longer theorising about global warming but dealing directly with it’s consequences.


Our small group parted opening the way as a solitary man on a Honda step-through moved between us. This was a common event in many parts of Indonesia, but the man rode with a small sway-back pig trussed and draped in front of him.

“Strange that he’s carrying a pig. Isn’t everyone here Muslim,” I asked the young man standing beside me.

“He’s from the forest.  His people don’t have a religion,” he replied.

“None, at all?”

“No, they believe in forest spirits.”

“Where is he going?”

“Into the forest. His people live there.”

Endangering the primal spirits of the land

The archipelago’s first people understand God as a host of presences in the forests, on the mountains, everywhere throughout Nusantara.  Mountains, had the most important status in the spiritual understandings. Early religion frequently involved the worship of mountain deities and a belief that ancestors also dwelt in the mountains. [i]

Forests too were important affording access to a realm crowded with forest spirits.This man no doubt followed such a primal path. In Riau, his people once called themselves Batin. They lived in swidden-clearings often close to rivers trading forest products downstream as Dayak groups did. Some came to be named after their rivers and, like other beings inhabiting the forests, were often forced from their places into areas of swamp forest or secondary re-growth.

Habitat loss and endangered species were well documented, tigers and orang utan the iconic faces of this process. Yet, El Nino’s smoke haze, plaguing Singapore and Indonesia’s cities masked another tragedy the threat to Riau’s Indigenous people. Sadness and disquiet filled me.

The People

The man on the motorbike was travelling into a forested area.  It seems that, as with the nearby people of the Kampar peninsula 20kms south on the mainland, he was Indigenous and most likely related. Where forests remain in this part of Riau the Indigenous people use them for hunting, charcoaling, fishing and small-scale farming, while supplementing their incomes with wage labouring for the concessionaires (oil, gas, logging and plantations).

Most of the communities with customary territories on the southern side of the Peninsula were relocated to the northern side of the Kampar river.  This isn’t a recent phenomenon in Indonesia.  I saw it being applied back in 1988 when visiting the Mentawai Islands.  Then people were taken from their Uma on the dendritic branches of rivers and concentrated in camps near the main branches.  The same process is evident in Kalimantan.

Despite this enforced relocation Indigenous people, all over Indonesia, still go back to their territories where they farm, hunt, fish, gather herbs, fruits and resins or do a little cash cropping.

Many Indigenous people, in the Riau area will refer to themselves as Melayu at first asking but their roots lie far back in prehistoric times.  In historic times they have been ruled by coastal Hindu, Buddhist and Malay kingdoms. Often referred to as Siak by the ruling kingdoms, they adopted the generic name Batin for themselves. They lived in swidden-clearings often close to rivers trading forest products downstream, just as Dayak groups did. Some came to be named after their rivers and, like other beings inhabiting the forests, were often forced from their places into areas of swamp forest or secondary re-growth.

Habitat loss in Riau

Riau has experienced one of the fastest rates of deforestation in Indonesia. When I attended middle school, 50 years ago it was known as an area of equatorial forest and swamp of great diversity but intensive resource extraction (logging, oil and gas) and conversion of forests to oil palm and pulpwood plantations means that today the province has lost over 80% of its original forest cover.

Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact

Just as I began to write this piece I received an email from Emmanuela Shinta.  It linked to a new book

HerStory3: Championing Community Land Rights and Indigenous Women’s Leadership in Asia, published by Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact. 

Click on the cover to download your copy.

The notes on the publication read

“This book, as a compilation of indigenous women’s “her stories”, is a reflection of the conditions and struggles on the ground of indigenous women. They are the stories of Katima, Jannie, Endena, and 13 other indigenous women who are extraordinary women in their own right. They are in the hearts and minds of other women and villagers because of their suffering, struggles, sacrifices, commitments, dedication and lifetime achievements in advancing the dignity of women and indigenous peoples.

This is now the third volume of her stories to be produced by AIPP to amplify the voices and struggles on indigenous women across Asia. This year we are focussing on indigenous women as land rights defenders, in line with the Global Call to Action on Indigenous and Community Land Rights.”


[i] Kempers, B. A. J.                  Monumental Bali: Introduction to Balinese archaeology and guide to the                                                     monuments. Periplus Editions. Singapore. 1991. pp. 4.



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