A lesson for researchers

Oxford historian Peter Carey appears in a Gerindra party film.

Many readers will by now be familiar with the controversy surrounding retired Oxford University historian Peter Carey and his appearance in the propaganda film, ‘Sang Patriot: Prabowo Subianto’. The film is about the Gerindra party’s presidential candidate, disgraced former military officer and former Suharto son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto. It’s a slickly produced hagiography that traces, among other things, Prabowo’s ancestors and their role in the struggle against the Dutch, Prabowo’s career in the military, and his other achievements. Carey’s appearance in the film was criticised in a review on the Asian Correspondent website and Carey subsequently responded to it and other queries in a series of posts, explaining that the interview had in fact been shot for a different project altogether, many months earlier. He has thus tried to distance himself from the film. However, for reasons I explain below, aspects of his response remain problematic, and contain important warnings for other scholars researching Indonesia.

I first saw the film myself in mid-March this year, when I attended an event organised by the Gerindra party in Palembang, South Sumatra. About 200 party supporters were present, and one item on the agenda was the showing of the film. At the end of the film, a party activist told the audience that the film was the ‘answer’ to anyone who wanted to make accusations about human rights abuses by Prabowo. Though I did not attend any other Gerindra events like this, the people showing the film were introduced as Kader Penggerak Desa (Village Mobilisation Cadres) who had been especially sent to South Sumatra from Jakarta to energise the Gerindra campaign. Presumably, similar cadres have been showing the film in other party meetings across the country and its audience could have reached many hundreds of thousands of people by now. Carey, in other words, has appeared in a major piece of political propaganda promoting Prabowo’s presidential campaign.

The extracts from the interviews with Carey appear in the early parts of the film. Carey is well known as the leading expert on Prince Diponegoro and the ‘Java War’ in the early 19th century. His commentary is mostly about this period. He also states (in my own translation) with regard to the family and forebears of Prabowo (two of whose ancestors played a prominent role in that war): “It can be said that this is a family line who are not persons who want to be lickspittle [he says this word in English], who don’t want to be a yes man [also in English], or don’t want to be a person who just goes along with the crowd.” It’s not clear from the context of the interview whether he means to include Prabowo in this praise. But it’s possible that he does; earlier in the film he talks about the six generations of the family line that run “to Mas Prabowo and Pak Hashim [Prabowo’s brother]”. Anyway, the producers of the film try to make the association explicit by featuring a picture of the young Prabowo immediately before Carey makes his statement.

Let’s be clear. Prabowo is no ordinary political candidate. As is well known, he faces accusations of involvement in serious human rights abuses, including responsibility for the abduction and disappearance of political activists in 1998, and for even worse events in East Timor in the 1980s. Prabowo responds angrily when questioned by the media about these matters.  

Moreover, it’s not just Prabowo’s past that is the problem. It’s also the possible future that he heralds. In my view, the prospect of a Prabowo presidency is the greatest threat that Indonesian democracy has faced in more than a decade. We do not know for sure whether a President Prabowo would destroy Indonesia’s democratic institutions and curtail civil liberties. But his record, his public rhetoric and what we know about his private personality suggest such outcomes are real possibilities. Anyone studying his public speeches, for example, can see easy parallels with authoritarian-populist leaders elsewhere, with their fiery (and hypocritical) denunciations of the Indonesian elite, his promises of firm leadership, and so on. Moreover, he has publically stated that he wants to take Indonesia back to the authoritarian 1945 Constitution. The Gerindra manifesto ominously aims for the return of a ‘pure’ presidential system. Prabowo has repeatedly stated he regrets not organising a coup in 1998 to overthrow President Habibie. One need be neither a political genius nor a fantasist to see an Indonesian Putin, or worse, in the making.

When I saw the film, and knowing a little about Peter Carey, especially his research in East Timor and his reputation as a person who is committed to human rights principles, my immediate thought was that he must have been tricked somehow to appear in the film. After the negative review of the film appeared on the Asian Correspondent website, including a line about Carey ‘selling his soul’, it was pleasing to see that he did respond in a series of Internet postings. In the first, a Facebook posting, he made it clear that the interview “was in fact made over a year beforehand in the context of a much longer 90 minute interview which was made in the aftermath of the publication of the Indonesian version of my Power of Prophecy.” Accordingly, “….. The interview in Sang Patriot is therefore out of context.” In the second post, he also explained: “my particular contribution on the historical side the interview I made was not aimed at propaganda. It was an historical reflection and as it appeared in the film was taken out of context.”

But this wasn’t all he explained. It turns out that Professor Carey has known the Djojohadikusumo family since the 1970s, not surprising given the nature of his historical research and the family’s connection to the events that are his interest. Much more problematically, as he explains at greatest length in a third post, he also has received, and apparently continues to receive, funding from them.

Hashim Djohadikusumo’s family foundation, Yayasan Arsari Djojohadikusumo (YAD) subsidised the translation into Indonesian and distribution of Carey’s biography of Prince Diponegoro. Hashim is Prabowo’s younger brother, a wealthy entrepreneur whose fortune was first made, like the children of many other officials, during the Suharto period when his father was an important economics minister and adviser. Hashim is also co-founder, with Prabowo, of Gerindra and the main bankroller of his presidential bid. Politically, they are inseparable.

Most problematically of all, Carey is also, it seems, drawing a salary from the same foundation, though he uses indirect language to acknowledge this point:

… I was approached in August 2012 by one of historians at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Indonesia, who had been a speaker at the Jakarta launch of the Indonesian edition of the Power of Prophecy, to ask whether I would consider teaching at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Indonesia. I agreed provided the post was supported. More than a year elapsed before that invitation was officially acknowledged by the university authorities (12 November 2013). By that time, YAD had agreed to support the post.

On the face of it, this comment suggests that Carey’s employment by the University is underwritten by the Djohadikusumo family, though we don’t know the precise extent of the ‘support’ provided.

This background places Carey’s appearance in the film in a different light, and helps to explain otherwise strange aspects of his public response. One would expect that someone with a history of concern about human rights matters would respond with expressions of alarm, anger, dismay, embarrassment, or perhaps even shame to find himself being used in a major piece of propaganda for a presidential candidate with Prabowo’s human rights record and possibly destructive future. Instead, Carey seems mostly to treat the controversy as if has offered him a pleasing opportunity to discourse on the Djojohadikusumo family line, the connection between history and politics, and similar matters.

Moreover, his responses are striking for what they leave out:

  • He does not condemn, or even criticise, anyone for misusing the footage or state that he regretted it had been used in this way.
  • He does not state that the footage was used without his permission. Indeed, in his New Mandala piece, he writes as if the real problem was that “it appeared that I had made a separate contribution to the film which was not the case”.
  • He does not call for the film to be removed from circulation or deleted from YouTube.
  • He does not make clear that he holds an unfavourable view of Prabowo or the prospects of a Prabowo presidency.

Instead, he presents a series of comments that seem artfully contrived to disassociate himself from the film in the minds of sophisticated readers, while ensuring that he does not say anything to offend the Djojohadikusumo family. Indeed, in one of his pieces he goes out of his way to praise them as a “‘brainy’ family of over-achievers” comparable to the leading families in the Irish freedom struggle against British occupation.

Carey presents all this in the mode of a professor engaged in a controversy in which he has no part, rather than as if he is responding to a piece of political propaganda in which he plays a major role. Indeed, he writes in his New Mandala piece, “as a UK citizen and a person with no voting rights in Indonesia, it is completely inappropriate that I express political views on any of the current presidential candidates. The election is for Indonesians and Indonesians alone to decide.” Seemingly intended to explain that he did not intend to endorse Prabowo, this limp statement seems equally aimed at removing the necessity of saying anything unpleasant about him.

In fact, as a moment’s reflection will tell us, there is no absolute proscription on individuals making comments about political candidates in countries where they do not hold citizenship. Anyway, it turns out that Carey himself had expressed his views about Indonesian presidential candidates not so long ago. In a public lecture in early March at the City University of Hong Kong, he had no compunction about making critical assessments of other Indonesian political leaders, including the current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Golkar presidential hopeful Aburizal Bakrie. Tellingly, however, in the same lecture he made no critical comments about Prabowo. Indeed, when it came time to discuss Prabowo and his prospects as a presidential candidate, all Carey did in the lecture was to make a seemingly bizarre statement that Prabowo “has major problems most significantly his relationship with the Indonesian Army and former generals like Wiranto, Tri [sic.] Sutrisno, Luhut Panjaitan – some of whom have political ambitions”.

No serious and disinterested observer of Indonesian politics would rank this as a major problem for Prabowo. He has many more significant problems, for instance his human rights record and the fact that his penchant for flying into violent rages is increasingly well known. But Carey’s statement is exactly how Prabowo himself would view things: Prabowo is known to be obsessed with his former army rivals from the critical period of 1997-98, whom he blames for his dismissal from the military and subsequent fall from grace. That Carey would reproduce such a line as serious political analysis raises the question of how influenced he has become by the Djojohadikusumos’ view of politics.

I don’t know Peter Carey personally. Back in the 1990s, however, I did know several of the activists who were abducted, allegedly by Kopassus troops under the command of Prabowo, including two who never returned. My personal reaction about Carey’s appearance in the film is informed by this background and I have tried to temper my views and to understand Carey’s position. Perhaps it is best to read this story not as a betrayal but as a tragedy: duped into being used in a piece of political propaganda, Carey has found himself unable to repudiate or offend his patrons. It’s a sad episode, especially for someone who has a record that is otherwise exemplary (for example, he has dedicated a good part of his life to helping victims of land mines in Cambodia).

Even so, there is no avoiding that Carey has made questionable judgements along the way, chief among them being to accept funding from such a source. This episode should be a warning to all academics researching contemporary Indonesian politics and society at a time when many successful Indonesian businesspeople – oligarchs, some would call them – are increasingly engaging in philanthropy, including by offering grants to overseas educational and research institutions. We need to scrutinise carefully the sources of our funds; safeguard our independence; and examine carefully how our behaviour may be perceived.

Professor Edward Aspinall researches Indonesian politics at the Australian National University.

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Update: Dr Peter Carey responds to this piece as below: 

Response to Ed AspinallJakarta, 26 May 2014 

Thanks to Ed Aspinall for reminding me that life is full of morally ambivalent choices. This has certainly been my experience since I first entered the public world of Non-Governmental Organisations in the late 1980s.

The bottom line for me is what good will come from a particular association rather than the moral high ground. I took this choice way back in December 1989 when I co-founded the UK disability charity, the Cambodia Trust, and agreed to respond to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s invitation to work with his government of former Khmer Rouge cadres for the benefit of his country’s 38,000 landmine victims and 56,000 polio sufferers.

The same held a few years later when one of my Oxford mature students from Japan introduced me to the man formerly imprisoned by General Douglas MacArthur as a Class A War Criminal, Ryoichi Sasakawa, and his Sasakawa (now Nippon) Foundation, which consistently supported the Trust’s work in Cambodia and enabled its subsequent expansion throughout Southeast Asia.

In my estimation the good derived from this association far outweighed the negatives. As a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, my salary derived in part from the College’s holdings in the UK armaments industry, in particular British Aerospace, then busy supplying Hawk jets to the Indonesian army in occupation of East Timor. I tried to get the College to disinvest but failed. But I did not resign my Fellowship.

And talking about that Indonesian military occupation- where were the good scholars of ANU when the Timorese were experiencing their darkest days during the 1977-9 Encirclement and Annihilation Campaign on Mt Matebian? A big ZERO if I recall correctly with some like the late Professor Heinz Arndt acting as cheerleaders for the Indonesian military.

Personally, I have no apologies to make. I have acted throughout during my time here in Indonesia in good faith. As regards the ‘Sang Patriot’ film there is nothing more to add. I have said how I came to appear on it and I have indeed asked for it to be withdrawn.I have also never met Prabowo.

And as regards the use of seemingly obsequious epithets, it was Professor Robert Taylor of SOAS who long ago took me to task for not using the correct honorifics in my book on Burma (The Challenge of Change in a Divided Society, 1997) when it came to referring to the likes of Suu Kyi (Daw Aung San Suu Kyi), and Ne Win (U Ne Win). So I always err on the side of caution in these matters, although I know that honorifics are not high on your agenda in your parts.

As for the Yayasan Arsari Djojohadikusumo (YAD), which supports my teaching at the University of Indonesia (Universitas Indonesia), this is a credible organization which has facilitated the work of international scholars from Leiden and other reputable universities in the past.

It cooperates with respected international partners such as the Goethe Institut and is at present involved with them in the planning and execution of a major exhibit at the Indonesian National Gallery in February-March 2015 on the image of Diponegoro in modern Indonesian art and memory. Without its support the Indonesian ‘Mona Lisa’ – Raden Saleh’s 1857 painting of the Capture of Diponegoro at Magelang on 28 March 1830 – would have been consigned to the dustbin (they paid for its entire restoration saving it from cracking and fungal growth).

Contemporary Jakarta is not comfortable Canberra suburbia – it is more like Medici Florence or Hogarth’s London in which the role of private individuals and patrons fills the gap often left by a scelerotic central government. I could go on, but frankly with the news from Bangkok, the readers of New Mandala have more important issues to worry about just now than a continued debate over this rather ridiculous documentary. In six short weeks we will know the outcome and if indeed the judgement of history is against me – then you will have done me a service. For what is in a name?

Dr. Peter Carey is Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College, Oxford, and YAD Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Indonesia (FIB-UI). 

 

About Edward Aspinall