New Statesman: Arms and the prince

Arms and the prince

Mark Thomas

Published 29 November 2007

Unfortunately the royal family has form when it
comes to schmoozing dictators and thugs

There are no prizes for guessing that standing on
the left of the photo is the chap who will, in
the absence of the revolution, one day be king – Prince William.

The two chaps on the right happen to be among the
most senior generals in the Indonesian military,
and the photo has caused a stir among MPs and
human rights groups. The meeting is seen as
being, at best, clumsy and inappropriate.
Nonetheless it left one Indonesian human rights
activist asking of the royal family: “Have they
become lobbyists for the UK arms industry?”

The Ministry of Defence has been forced to
disclose details of the meeting in response to a
Freedom of Information request. The meeting with
Air Chief Marshal Djoko Suyanto and Rear Admiral
Didik Heru Purnomo took place in February this
year in the hall of the Household Cavalry Regiment’s officers’ mess in

According to the MoD, the Indonesian chief of
defence forces was paying “a call” on the British
Chief of Defence Staff to “build defence
relations” and, “as is customary when hosting
foreign representatives, a visit to a military
unit was organised”. Thus, it just so happened
that the unit they went to visit was the
Household Cavalry. It also just so happened that
Prince William was the orderly officer of the day.

According to the MoD, “This was purely a chance
encounter.” Clarence House played the meeting
down even further, saying that the prince
happened to be introduced to the generals as
“they passed each other in a corridor”.

Unfortunately the royal family has form when it
comes to schmoozing dictators and thugs, so the
Palace line has not placated Roger Berry, MP for
Kingswood and chairman of the quadripartite
select committee on strategic export controls,
who said that as “arms deals with Indonesia have
been incredibly controversial in recent years it
is totally inappropriate that William should be seen to have any

The impact of a handshake cannot be avoided,
especially as the photos are being used as PR on
the Indonesian embassy’s website. The MoD claims
that Prince William was “not present in a royal
capacity”. However, Symon Hill from the Campaign
Against Arms Trade (CAAT) calls the claim
“bizarre”, given that “whatever he does is seen as having royal approval”.

Berry insists it is “not the kind of thing the
royal family should be touching with a bargepole”.

The current Indonesian military commander in
occupied West Papua is Colonel Burhanuddin
Siagian, an indicted war criminal charged with
crimes against humanity for his activities in
East Timor. Rather than see him face justice and
put him on trial, the Indonesian military moved him to West Papua.

For more than a decade there has been widespread
condemnation of UK arms sales to Indonesia. In
1996, Quaker activists used hammers to disable a
Hawk jet aircraft destined for Indonesia. And
there was outrage when Robin Cook’s ethical
foreign policy collapsed after Labour approved
the sale of the aircraft in 1997.

At their height from 1997 to 2000, UK arms sales
to Indonesia were worth roughly £100m a year, but
by 2004 this dropped to £1m. The fall is due
partly to the availability of much cheaper
Russian equipment. But it is also a response to
British public reaction to the regime’s brutality
in the final stages of the regime’s presence in
East Timor, and to the ongoing, vicious occupation of West Papua.

However, efforts are under way to revive the
trade. The Defence Export Services Organisation
exists to promote UK arms sales abroad and works
out of the MoD. At a symposium this year the
DESO’s then head, Alan Garwood, said that in
Indonesia the UK arms industry was “a resurgent
brand”. Although Indonesia had been “off our
Christmas-card list for many years”, it was back
on, he said. Ten years ago Indonesia was “second
only to Saudi Arabia in terms of its value to the
UK defence industry”, he also said.

It is apt that the Saudis should come into this
equation, given the timing of the recent state
visit by King Abdullah, the Saudi monarch. The
Serious Fraud Office investigation into
allegations of bribery and corruption between BAE
Systems and Saudi Arabia was dropped, after
pressure from Tony Blair, in December 2006.

The Saudis signed a deal worth billions for 72
Eurofighter Typhoon jets, made by a consortium of
which BAE Systems is a lead partner, in September
2007. The Queen wined and dined the Saudi king in October 2007.

“I am sure that the vast majority of British
people do not want the royal family to be
endorsing, even inadvertently, the arms trade,
especially to vicious regimes,” says Symon Hill
from CAAT. “It is vital that everyone
representing the UK learns to distinguish between
arms companies’ profits and the British public interest.”

But it is unlikely that Prince William will have
a chance encounter with anyone voicing that opinion.

Mark Thomas performs “More Adventures in Serious
Organised Crime” at The Venue, London WC2, from
1-15 December (except 9 December). For more information tel: 0870 264 3333.


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