When international politics and humanity clash
Dewi Anggraeni, Melbourne
in today's world we see, witness, experience, at least hear of,
violence in varying degrees, every day. Consequently we also frequently
see, witness, experience grief and trauma around us. Regardless of how
hardened we have become, it still warms our hearts when we are able to
help lighten a burden, or help heal a trauma or grief.
We have indeed, knowingly for many, and unknowingly for others, done
just that, for the Vietnamese refugees who, in the 1970s, having left
their war-torn homeland, were waiting to be resettled in other
countries, on the islands of Galang and Bidong. Many Indonesians who
went to work with the refugees on Galang Island, some as official
workers, others as volunteers, developed deep and lasting friendships
with them, and have kept in touch with them until today. However last
month we also have, knowingly or unknowingly, undone a great deal of
that good deed.
The refugees who lived for years in Galang and Bidong feel that their
lives have been made a lot more pleasant that they might have been, by
the people who work with them in the refugee camps. Not only had they
been wrenched away by circumstances from their home and comfort
network, they were also nursing a deep trauma and grief as many of
their compatriots, who had been somebody's parents, siblings, relatives
and close friends, had not made it.
Together they had also gone through harrowing experiences on the way to
Galang and Bidong, because when they made it, they arrived there on
dilapidated and most often than not, leaky, boats. And as a former
refugee recounted, "We had to leave all our possessions behind. We got
to Galang and Bidong with nothing but the rags on our backs, starving
and barely alive, yet aware than we were luckier than many of our loved
ones who had perished on the way."
"That is why we can never forget the kindness of our hosts in Galang
and Bidong who received us and looked after us. Without them we would
not be here," said Hung Tran, another former Galang sojourner.
These were not empty words. During the post-tsunami telephone
fund-raising event conducted by Australia's Special Broadcasting
Service (SBS) Radio, the largest and most generous donations, by far,
came from the Vietnamese community. Within two hours, the Vietnamese
program collected over A$600 000, and even the number of Vietnamese
callers to the Indonesian program outnumbered others. And most of the
donors specifically asked that their money be sent to Indonesia.
When asked to explain this extraordinary generosity, the Vietnamese
community unhesitatingly confessed that they still remembered the
kindness of the Indonesian people during their time in Galang.
Like people all over the world who have suffered, the former refugees,
now Vietnamese communities in a number of countries where they have
resettled, also want to work toward healing. And one important gesture
is recognition of this suffering. So they built a memorial plague on
Galang Island, and on 24 March this year, organized a large reunion of
former refugees now living in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United
States, Canada, Switzerland and France, where the plaque was unveiled,
attended by officials from Batam Industrial Development Authority
(BIDA) as well as from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It was an extremely emotional event for those present. We were honoring
those who perished, and thanking the Indonesian people for helping us,
and the Indonesian authorities for allowing us to erect the plaque on
this historical island for us, said many members of the Vietnamese
Imagine the dismay of these people when they learned that last month,
the 3 meter by 1 meter plaque had been dismantled. When they inquired,
they were told that it had been carried out at the request of the
Vietnamese president to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, because it
was offensive to Vietnam.
Nobody is under any illusion that it is a clear-cut matter, or that it
is an easy decision to make for our president. We know very well that
it is weighted with political implications for Indonesia in its foreign
policy context. However in this era where the significance of human
lives are continuously dismissed unless they are filled with political
gains, it will not hurt to stop and ponder. We have built very strong
moral and emotional ties with communities who now live in different
parts of the world, and we also know that these ties last, as we have
seen their responses to the tsunami appeal, thirty years after what
they remember as Indonesia's kindness.
What politics can last more than a few years?
Can we not, for once, push politics aside, and build on what, however little, we have begun for humanity, thirty years ago?