THERE ARE plenty of people in Indonesia who have good reason to hate Western governments and big business. Tragically, some of them may have directed their anger in awful fashion at ordinary holidaymakers. Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous state and stretches over hundreds of islands.
Its economy has been devastated by the huge financial crisis that swept Asia in 1997. Millions of people were thrown out of work, with many facing hunger. Indonesia’s currency collapsed. It couldn’t pay its enormous debts. Mass demonstrations followed. An occupation of parliament and clashes with the army drove Indonesia’s dictator General Suharto from power in 1998.
Many people still live in dire poverty in Indonesia. This is because the current president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is continuing with an austerity programme backed by the International Monetary Fund. Indonesia’s government is also continuing its repression of movements demanding independence, such as in the oil-rich Aceh province. This comes after Indonesia was finally forced to leave East Timor in 1999, though not before unleashing a final wave of terror.
In the wake of last week’s bombing the media have focused on Islamic organisations in Indonesia. Islam is the religion of the overwhelming majority of the population.
People looked to religion for some hope in the face of poverty and oppression brought by colonialism. Holland had ruled Indonesia with a brutal hand from the 17th and 18th centuries until 1945. The West also encouraged Islamist organisations as a counterweight to the influence of the left in the 1960s.
Now many of the main Islamic organisations are working with the government, and support its IMF-backed policies. Indonesia’s vice-president is leader of one of the country’s main Islamic parties. But some Islamist groups have reacted to the continuing poverty that blights millions of lives in Indonesia by lashing out, usually at people who have no responsibility for the suffering of ordinary people.
So in some areas Islamist groups have targeted Christians, for example. And some may have been behind last week’s bombing. Most of the tourists killed were from Australia. That country’s right wing prime minister, John Howard, has sought to cynically exploit the horror of the bombing.
His talk of human rights sits badly alongside his record of turning boats with desperate refugees back from Australia and throwing those who do get to Australia into brutal detention centres. Howard also sent Australian troops to fight alongside the US and Britain in Afghanistan.
Australia’s big businesses are key players in carving up the region’s oil and mineral reserves. Howard now threatens ‘action’ and is stepping up his support for George Bush’s ‘war on terror’.
If last week’s bombing is used for that there is only one certain result. It will fuel more poverty and more bitterness against the major Western powers, and some of the anger will rebound in the form of more terrorist attacks.
BETWEEN 1,000 and 1,400 people died in a ferry tragedy in West Africa recently, and the world’s press hardly noticed. The ferry Joola sank off the west coast of Senegal at the end of September. It was meant to accommodate 536 passengers and 44 crew.
But at least 1,034 people are believed to have been on board, and possibly 1,500, as under fives and many adults were not ticketed. Rescuers, mainly fishermen, risked their lives to help. They described trapped people screaming for hours. But there were no proper resources to help them and they eventually suffocated.
The disaster has everything to do with poverty and the way world capitalism works. The Joola was a flat-bottomed craft designed for lakes and work very close to coasts.
When it sank it was 11 hours away from land and in heavy seas on the Atlantic Ocean. The ferry was state owned and run by the Senegalese army. It is typical of the rudimentary and dangerous transport that African people are forced to use. ‘Structural adjustment’ austerity policies, inflicted on Senegal by the IMF and World Bank in the 1980s, mean there is little money available for any public sector projects.
The present government of Abdoulaye Wade and its predecessors have supported the IMF’s prescription and cut back on health, education – and transport. Fares have also risen, meaning that many people try to crowd onto boats without paying or are allowed on by the staff as an act of solidarity. There are several reports that the Joola was swaying dangerously as it left port and was so unstable that it capsized after passengers raced to one side to take cover during a storm.
The fact that people were travelling by ferry was itself a legacy of colonialism. This area was fought over by European powers, principally Britain and France, throughout the 19th century. The prize these early imperialists craved was control of the West African slave trade. France eventually seized what is now Senegal.
But the British took Gambia, a tiny state bordering the River Gambia. This enclave, inserted into the heart of Senegal, almost splits the country. These ridiculous boundaries formed the basis for post-colonial independence in the 1960s.
So today people moving from the south of Senegal to the north avoid border problems and taxes by getting a ferry rather than a bus. Many of the passengers on the ferry were women travelling to Dakar to sell palm oil and mangos. Others were school children returning to the capital, Dakar, after the holidays.
The poor suffered in this disaster, and poverty is set to get worse. In an internal paper last year World Bank officials predicted that despite ‘debt relief’ Senegal’s debt by 2018 would be larger than it is today. At the moment Senegal’s debt repayments take over 14 percent of its entire national production. Although foreign aid has tripled in the last 15 years, two-thirds of it goes on debt repayments.
Around 60 percent of the population have no access to healthcare. A quarter of the population live on less than $1 a day. Quite rightly, there was extensive press coverage of disasters like the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise when 194 people died in 1987, or the sinking of the Estonia that saw 852 die in 1994.
Yet when more black people died than in these two horrors put together, the global media hardly noticed, let alone tried to explain the background to what had happened.
Two inspiring strikes show the way forward
We shouldn’t let them hide from the truth