When chiefs die out and natives dry out

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Roger Mitton

Roger Mitton

Roger Mitton

Last Saturday was Threatened Species Day. Held every September 7, it marks the death of the last thylacine at London’s Hobart Zoo in 1936. Better known as the Tasmanian Tiger for its back stripes, the creature still adorns the island’s coat of arms.

Extinction came by way of bounty hunters, disease, and the spread of that most destructive group: married white folks with kids and dogs. To this day, however, there are still alleged sightings of the elusive marsupial, most intriguing for its kangaroo-like pouch: the one for the male envelops and protects its genitalia.

Very fascinating, you may say, but where is it going and when can I get back to my ginger-nut latte and smartphone? Well, Saturday’s commemoration reminds us of other threatened species, some already on life support.


Australia’s Kevin Rudd is toast. The ex-prime minister was rendered extinct on Thylacine Day by smarmy arrogance, internal feuding and political cannibalism.

Other leaders probably expiring soon are the premiers of Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam, and opposition stalwarts in Indonesia and Thailand.

After degrading electoral or political blows with no pouches protecting their vitals, they now look hobbled and unlikely to recover full potency.

Consider former Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose ascent, as Foreign Affairs journal editor Jonathan Tepperman recently wrote, came after “the military, in connivance with royalists and the courts, overthrew the populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.”

Two years after those same Yellow Shirt royalists had stormed Government House and occupied Thailand’s airports, their puppet Abhisit was ushered into power. But lacking popular support, he was soon booted out when the Pheu Thai Party, run by the exiled Thaksin, won a handsome victory under the leadership of the billionaire former premier’s sister Yingluck.

Since then, much like Rudd’s Labor Party, Abhisit’s Democrats have been torn by infighting and strategic squabbling, while seeking to foment more anti-government protests. And despite a reputation for reasoned policies and civilised behaviour, the Democrats have stooped to thuggish volatility.

Last week, Democrat MP Chen Thaugsuban went amok and threw chairs at the Speaker, while days earlier his colleagues brutally attacked parliamentary guards. The Bangkok Post reported: “Jeering, interrupting and filthy language escalated into pushing, shoving, even grappling with police.” A front page photo showed one of Abhisit’s MPs trying to strangle a security officer.

As if that were not bad enough, Abhisit stumbled again by writing a self-promoting book, The Simple Truth, in which he blamed Thaksin’s Red Shirts for Bangkok’s lethal riots in 2010.

“I saw everything that happened,” he wrote in the recent English edition. “And I can confidently say that the true murderers were the same people who had earlier unleashed terror on our city.”

No, he could not, and did not, see everything. Yellow Shirts started to the rain of terror on the city, and their violence eventually led to Abhisit’s premiership.

Reviewing the book, academic Chris Baker wrote: “It offers no new information that is attested and reliable. The self-righteousness makes it hard to imagine Abhisit acting as a force for peace and unity in Thai politics.”

Indeed, Abhisit now appears destined for the same fate as the Tassie Tiger. But we shall mourn the latter far more. Plus: we have another bunch of troublemakers to nudge the way of the thylacine. Fast southward to Indonesia’s Papua province.

After a long day’s trek, fried chicken with rice and veggies make a mouth-watering dish, but in truth it demands a cold beer or two to wash it down. But that’s impossible in the highlands of the archipelago’s easternmost frontier. Even Wamena, the main town of the Baliem Valley, 1.7 km high, is bone dry.

Sure, foreigners can take two cans of beer up the mountain from the provincial capital, Jayapura — if they find the rare shop selling it. That’s even harder in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, ended last month.

A trivial matter, you may say, and on one level it is. While a beer would be nice after a six-hour trek up steep, better not add alcohol to the natives’ travails.

But then, distant Papua has more Christians and other faiths than Muslims, so why should the Islamic ban on liquor be imposed on the province? In Jakarta, booze, bargirls and other vices are there for the buying — even during Ramadan. If it’s fine in the capital, why not the boondocks?

Well, one good reason, worth supporting despite the double standard and the thirsting of visitors: The Dani, Lani and Yali tribal folks in the Baliem Valley, despite undeniable advances, are still unused to “civilised” ways.

Many forgo clothes, practice polygamy, eat an ungourmet diet of sweet potatoes and yams. But having been introduced to cigarettes, they now smoke furiously from dawn to dusk. They would do the same with booze, given a ready supply of intoxicants. Just look at the aboriginal people in North America and Australia.

What is inexcusable is the way meretricious proselytisers have exploited the isolated Papuans and filled their heads with religious cant. Few places in the world are as remote and sparsely populated as Papua, and yet have as many churches and mosques.

And the way priests and mullahs have plied the folk with guff about heavenly redemption and everlasting paradise grates far more than having to stay teetotal for a few days.

Even more grating is the way this imposing intolerance has spread to big cities like Bandung and Makassar, where it is tough to buy pork and liquor. Worse, neighbouring Brunei’s Islamic Religious Council banned daytime eating for everyone in Muslim-owned restaurants during Ramadan.

It’s shocking. No religious group should impose its beliefs on others, in Papua, Brunei or elsewhere.

Recently, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke out in parliament against this growing trend. “I am very concerned,” said SBY, “about the continuing incidents of intolerance and communal conflict we see, which are often violent.”

Likewise, Aqil Siradj, chairman of Indonesia’s biggest Muslim body, the Nahdlatul Ulama, urged the government to punish the Islamic Defender’s Front for raiding bars and nightclubs. When the Front, which evidently seeks to outlaw the 20th century, mounted an attack in July, it sparked a car chase that culminated in the killing of a pregnant woman.

This bigotry must stop. Not only so non-Muslims can enjoy a beer in peace, but to spare Islam even more undeserved disrepute. Sadly, the intolerance is getting even worse among different Islamic sects, with brutal clashes between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Sampang, East Java, recently.

Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, a Sunni, poured gas on the fire: he called on the Shia to convert “to the true teaching of Islam.”

In other words, bow your head or lose it, you infidels. We don’t need any more of that Inquisitorial pigheadedness, in Papua or Java or elsewhere in the world. Along with inept politicians, plainly, intolerant proselytisers should join the thylacine off the planet.

Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.

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