|Indonesia's message: Researchers risk jail
By Damien Kingsbury
sentencing of Australian-based academic researcher and
sometime Asia Times Online contributor Dr Lesley
McCulloch to five months' imprisonment in Indonesia has
sent a clear signal that the Indonesian military's
tolerance for what it regards as foreign interference in
domestic issues has come to an end.
was sentenced to five months on Monday for allegedly
violating a tourist visa while in Indonesia's troubled
province of Aceh in September. It is the first such
sentence to be handed down for a foreigner in Indonesian
McCulloch's American associate,
Joy Lee Sadler, a nurse, was given a four-month sentence
for the same offense. The pair have been under arrest
since September 11.
In one sense, the five-month
sentence given to McCulloch and the lesser sentence for
Sadler appear to be a compromise. The Indonesian
military, the TNI, had pushed for McCulloch to be
charged with the far more serious offense of possession
of military secrets. In the end, both McCulloch and
Sadler were charged with violating a tourist visa, which
can bring up to a five-year sentence. And the
prosecution, in the end, only asked for nine months in
However, of the dozens, probably
hundreds, of people who have been arrested for allegedly
violating a tourist visa in Indonesia, usually for
associating with separatists or other political
outcasts, all but one have simply been deported without
sentence. This includes from such troubled places as
Aceh, West Papua, and East Timor. The one exception was
of a journalist who was once held in West Papua for
several days before being deported.
Bali bombing, dozens of foreign journalists also worked
in Indonesia on no more than the three-month "short
stay" visa granted upon arrival. But not one was
questioned over the conflict between their visa and
their work, or the formal requirement to have a
The question is, then, why
have McCulloch and Sadler been jailed? Aceh is a
particularly sensitive issue for the TNI, as it has been
unable to defeat the region's 26-year-old separatist
movement. And in the United States, a ban on the sale or
supply of military equipment, imposed after TNI-inspired
carnage in East Timor in 1999, has continued to be
enforced because of human-rights atrocities in Aceh.
Even during Aceh's current ceasefire, some 15 civilians
have been murdered by the TNI. McCulloch had earlier
published reports of such abuses, as well as on the
TNI's legal and illegal business interests in Aceh.
There is therefore little doubt the TNI was
angry with McCulloch and wanted to punish her
personally, and it repeatedly intervened with the
prosecution in the McCulloch case. But more important,
the TNI also wanted to send a clear message to other
foreign researchers and journalists who continue to
expose the TNI's uglier side.
In Sadler's case,
she was said to have distributed medicine to villagers.
Her sentence therefore reflects a general opposition to
foreigners being present in problematic places. Related
to this crackdown, senior TNI officers have recently
said they will investigate the reasons for all visitors
to such places as Aceh, West Papua and Maluku, despite
there being no travel bans to such places. Needless to
say, almost all visitors to these places, apart from aid
workers (which Sadler was, unofficially) and
journalists, are academic researchers. Yet the
conditions for obtaining a formal research visa are
exceptionally difficult; one needs a sponsor within
Indonesia and exceptionally few are prepared to support
politically sensitive research.
conditions of the standard "short term visit" visa that
McCulloch and Sadler were traveling under remain
unclear. The official Indonesian Embassy website in
Canberra makes absolutely no mention of what is or is
not allowed under such a visa. Indeed, the website notes
tourist destinations and facilities in Aceh and
Ambon/Maluku (the West Papua tourism page is missing).
As such, the vast majority of academic
researchers and short-term journalists use a short-visit
visa, almost always without problem. Official policy on
travel in Indonesia, then, seems to be divided between
what is publicly acceptable and what is privately
unacceptable. Or put another way, travel in Indonesia is
divided between what is and what is not politically
Now the precedent for not knowing the
difference, or for exploring the margins, is jail.
It is fair to say that McCulloch was not in Aceh
as a conventional tourist. Her detailed knowledge of the
conflict there precluded that. But it is also fair to
say that the formal conditions of her visa and the
status of Aceh mean that her jail sentence, and
Sadler's, is clearly predicated on political reasons.
That they risk the possibility of becoming
political prisoners is the clear message being sent by
Indonesia to foreigners. It is one that will continue to
worry foreign academic researchers until it is formally
Dr Damien Kingsbury is head
of philosophical, political and international studies at
Deakin University, Victoria, Australia, and is the
author of the forthcoming book Political Power and
the Indonesian Military (Routledge, April 2003).
Kingsbury and Dr Lesley McCulloch recently received an
Australia Research Council grant to conduct a three-year
survey of the TNI's business interests.