In my old papers I came across a letter to my family from Indonesia, written more than twenty years ago when I was a freelance journalist. So long ago, in fact, that I sent the letter by fax.
This was in the turbulent months after the fall of the dictator Soeharto, when Indonesia’s transition to democracy was being wrestled over by student activists, the old guard, the military and many other players; some heroic, some self-serving, some both.
The letter describes a day of protests and clashes around a major road interchange in the centre of Jakarta, as students and residents from the nearby districts confronted the security forces and some petty hoodlums who had been hired by the latter as deniable political muscle.
I’ve read that sixteen people died on that day; killed by the “non-lethal” munitions fired by the security forces, which could be lethal at close range, or by rooftop snipers. Two of the hoodlums were reportedly mobbed to death by angry crowds.
I remember the day in vivid images: hundreds of soldiers swarming across an office plaza; after dark, a lone protestor defiantly hurling stones at a phalanx of armed riot police whose padded armour and helmets gave them the look of samurai.
Also, the crunch underfoot of hundreds of the little plastic cups of mineral water which everybody drank in Indonesia. An Aussie cameraman tweaking back a tarpaulin to get a better shot of a body. A girl screaming in perfect English: “My friend has been killed because that asshole Wiranto wants to be president.” (Wiranto was the general who headed the armed forces at that time. He’s still around in Indonesian politics, though not in uniform any more.)
The international press pack was out in force on that day. I wrote to my family: “There was a weird symbiosis between the military and the media. They would advance, shooting, and so would the cameramen. When they fell back to avoid a barrage of stones, so would we. They [the security forces] more or less ignored us. I hope we justified our voyeurism by getting those brainwashed idiots all over the front pages.”
I had no good reason to be there. I was a freelance print journalist with no newspaper behind me: my press card was from the Banker magazine. I was there because I had a Graham Greenish notion of foreign correspondents and wanted to be one. (I did also write stories about banks).
Mind you, I wasn’t the only Western voyeur. I wrote that: “One of the British diplomats observing, young and skinny but posh and always wears a kind of black kung-fu top, said plummily: “I don’t actually need to be here, of course. I’m just here for pure enjoyment.” I added: “there might be an element of that in a lot of journalists.”
That was Rory Stewart, the writer and former politician, who was a junior British diplomat in Jakarta at that time and had a rather studied persona around town as an eccentric gentleman scholar-adventurer. We didn’t click at all and only spoke two or three times over a couple of years: later on, I regretted not making more of an effort.
Stewart’s brief was economics so he possibly didn’t have a very strong reason to be watching the confrontation in the streets. But at least he had an official reason to be in Jakarta as a representative of our government. No-one had invited me.
That day may have been a key moment in modern Indonesian history, when the old guard of the dictatorship realised that they could not rig the emerging democracy in their favour, as they had rigged Soeharto’s pretend democracy. (If you’re interested in the politics, then this is a lucid account by a foreigner who is an expert on Indonesia).
The transition to electoral democracy succeeded, even if some of the old guard and their habits have survived in the new Indonesia. We know now that sometimes the old guard wins outright and the transition fails horrifically, as it has in Egypt.
The presence of the foreign media in Jakarta must surely have helped the cause of democracy, if only by helping to deter the nastier elements of the military from really cutting loose against the students as they did in East Timor and Aceh.
But, frankly, a handful of reporters and camerapeople could probably have done the same job of informing the world as the milling crowd of onlookers I remember from that day. History certainly didn’t need me. I was a good writer but I didn’t have the toughness or the crafty people skills that a good foreign correspondent needs, and not long afterwards my career went in another direction.
The golden age of the stereotypical Western foreign correspondent – usually white, usually male, often favouring a blue cotton shirt and khaki chinos – may be over now in any case. There may always be a need or an appetite for people who can travel the world and give a credible account of what is going on to audiences back home.
But nowadays even the smallest, poorest country has articulate people on social media who can explain what’s going on around them, in good English, with more clarity and insight than anyone from abroad. The job of international media should increasingly be to find such people and support them to tell their countries’ stories themselves.
My stuff from that time reads now like a loose page from an old book which is no longer in print. And that’s fine by me, to be honest. The book was a gripping read, and reading it transformed me, but in truth it was someone else’s book. I only borrowed it.