Our hollow men keep to the script

The Age, July 27 2008

Tom Hyland

Our dried voices, when

We whisper together

Are quiet and meaningless

TS Eliot, The Hollow Men

IT WOULD be reassuring to think the ABC-TV series The Hollowmen is what it says it is: a comedy-drama. But the shenanigans in the imaginary prime ministerial office portrayed in the series draw on real events. It’s still great fun, but at times it seems more documentary than mockumentary.

Last week’s episode had political advisers, spin masters and bureaucrats in a flap over an imagined massacre of West Papuans by Indonesian militias. Their dilemma was how to respond: not what to do, but what to say.

Getting the words right got them entangled in all the unctuous evasions and equivocations of diplomacy. Could we demand certain things? Maybe urge would be better. Could we even refer to Indonesia? Perhaps we could appeal for restraint, without naming anyone.

The fictitious massacre had echoes of East Timor in 1991, when Indonesian troops fired on a crowd at a Dili cemetery, and 1999, when the army terrorised the entire population before and after they voted for independence.

In response to the first atrocity, then foreign minister Gareth Evans was uncharacteristically lost for words before settling on “aberrant” to describe behaviour that was in fact consistent with the army’s record. By 1999, Alexander Downer was foreign minister. He came up with “rogue elements” to describe generals who could call on all the resources of the state to wage a campaign of terror.

In April 1999, when Indonesian police, soldiers and militia butchered 59 refugees at a church in the town of Liquica, Downer issued a statement that, if you heard it on The Hollowmen, you’d think was a black joke. He urged “all parties to exercise restraint”. (In 2002, I interviewed Natalina dos Santos, who was 14 when her father was killed in Liquica. She clung to her father’s hand as he was hacked to death.)

When it comes to more distant atrocities, there’s no problem getting the words right.

When the Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic was arrested last week, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith declared it “an unambiguously good thing”. When an international prosecutor sought a warrant to arrest Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes, the government applauded. It said the creation of the International Criminal Court meant “all those who commit, encourage or tolerate heinous crimes understand that their actions today may lead to international prosecution tomorrow”.

Not quite. When heinous crimes are committed closer to home, and criminals prosper without fear of prosecution, Canberra is lost for words.

It’s almost two weeks since the Indonesian and East Timorese presidents accepted the report of the Commission of Truth and Friendship, which found the Indonesian state overwhelmingly responsible for the 1999 atrocities.

Our Government hasn’t said a word – not one quiet, meaningless whisper – even though those atrocities prompted Australian military intervention.

(Here it’s been helped by the media. When our foreign minister held a news conference three days after the report was released, it didn’t rate a mention. Instead, Smith was peppered with 17 questions on the arrest of ABC reporter Peter Lloyd on drug charges. The transcript of the encounter, and the sizzling indignation of the journalists, reads as if the scripts of The Hollowmen and Frontline had merged. They asked Smith how he felt when he heard of the arrest, and to comment on Lloyd’s emotional state.)

The fact the Government hasn’t responded to the commission’s report doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a line. Asked about the report before it was officially released, Smith endorsed the need “to draw a line on the terrible events of the past and to move forward”. Funny thing is, Canberra doesn’t draw a similar line under events in the Balkans and Sudan. But it was mute in April when Eurico Guterres, the only person jailed by a Jakarta court for the 1999 atrocities, was freed.

Downer also kept to the script when the most detailed account of crimes committed in East Timor, the report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, was released in 2006. His response was scorn for its criticism of Australia’s role, and cynical evasion. Unresolved issues of justice were “essentially issues for East Timor to work through”, his spokesman said.

In an editorial on the Commission of Truth and Friendship, The Jakarta Post criticised the Indonesian Government for not prosecuting those responsible, saying Indonesia risked “severe consequences from the international community if we continue stubbornly to defend human rights violators”.

Severe consequnces? Indonesian editorial writers obviously don’t watch The Hollowmen.

Tom Hyland is The Sunday Age’s international editor.

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