Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Margaret Thatcher and an Indonesian Island

FOR some of the British 1979 was an epoch-making year as it was the year that Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives to a General Election victory and became Prime Minister.

Recently regular Tempo columnist Julia Suryakusuma extolled Thatcher’s virtues, a point of view I, as a Brit, decidedly do not share. Iron Lady this, Iron Lady that…
The Sheffield steelworkers, their jobs on the line from Thatcher-derived attacks on their industry, got it right with their slogan, ‘Smelt the Iron Lady’!

Be all that as it may, the opening under Britain’s fastidious 30-year rule of the Public Records for 1979 reveals in the form of Cabinet documents a most intriguing connection between Mrs Thatcher and Indonesia. This comes by way of the disclosure that she had proposed to Malcolm Fraser, then-Australian Prime Minister, that a possible solution to the matter of Vietnamese boat people who had been pitching up in the British colony of Hong Kong and on Australia shores was to ‘purchase an Indonesian or Philippines island’.

The lady was wholly unwilling to allow these unfortunates, among them many women and children, access to Britain. She turned her face stonily against the public lobby demanding they be given refuge. There was a real danger, she argued, of a public backlash if they were given council housing at public expense.

Instead, why not Indonesia or the Philippines? She must have thought that either country would willingly trade part of its sovereignty to allow the establishment within its boundaries of a new Anglo-Australian enclave, indeed a colony, albeit one in which the people had no claims on British or Australian rights.

The records show that she mooted the idea to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew who steadfastly opposed, apparently fearing that the island would soon rival Singapore, a strangely paranoid thought given the massive disparity there would be in population figures. Perhaps he believed that Thatcher had in mind Batam or one of its Riau neighbors but there are no islands specified in the documents.

There is no record of her having mooted this to Dr Mahathir, the Malaysian Prime Minister, a man with resolutely hostile views of the Vietnamese refugees. But what of Indonesia itself? Sukarno, long a thorn in Britain’s colonial flesh was himself long out of the way. Suharto, the West’s poster boy, may have had a totally different line on relations with the Western powers but it is a reasonable surmise to say that he had enough political savvy to have politely rebuffed the British; a nationalist backlash would not have been to his liking.

Indeed, such a backlash could very well have occurred. It had only been five years since the violent anti-Japanese Malari disturbances in Jakarta and Indonesian nationalism would have seen in the establishment of a British colony within the country’s boundaries a further cause for the outpouring of resentment.

Indonesian readers may wonder what on earth Prime Minister Thatcher was thinking about when she approached Malcolm Fraser with this proposal. My first reaction was that it was simply a case of buck-passing, ‘We do not want the problem so someone else can deal with it’. My second reaction was to recall a salient feature of Thatcher’s political makeup; as a Conservative of her generation she was a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist, a believer in the Empire.

Did not Britain still in 1979 have its imperial outposts around the world among them islands such as, well, the Falklands, where she was to make her bloody mark, and Diego Garcia in the Chagos archipelago, which island Britain would shamefully rent out to the Americans and where torture under rendition would take place?

The postscript to this story is that Indonesia did in fact receive Vietnamese refugees, granting them an island to stay on while they awaited their hoped-for moves to a third country. But it was no Anglo-Australian colony!

by David Jardine, Southeast Asia-based writer. Tempo Magazine

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