Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Xanana's big announcement

(Backtrack to 1999. Xanana Gusmao and the author. Gusmao had just been released from gaol in Jakarta.. but was still being held under house arrest in Jakarta. I had just conducted an interview with the East Timorese leader.)

East Timor's politics has suddenly got very interesting indeed with President Xanana Gusmao announcing he's ready to become the troubled country's prime minister, after he ceases to be head of state.

Gusmao will not seek re-election in
East Timor's presidential election on April 9th - instead he intends to join a newly formed political party after the vote.

"By becoming prime minister, there will be hope for change for the people. I will seek to improve everything," he has told AFP. During many past interviews, Gusmao has confided he has no stomach for leadership and would rather be a pumpkin farmer.

East Timor's current premier, Jose Ramos-Horta, is the favourite to win the presidential election. After that, a legislative poll is supposed to follow, but a date for it has yet to be set.

As a guerilla leader, Gusmao fought Indonesia's 24-year occupation of East Timor
and enjoys hero status amongst his people.

Ramos-Horta spent the entire Indonesian occupation in exile as leader of the country's independence movement and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

The two men could end up swapping their current jobs if elections go their way.

But expect fierce campaigning from East Timor's biggest political party, Fretilin, and regrettably expect more violence.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Tribute to a great conservationist

It's six months since a tragic helicopter crash in Nepal killed all 24 on board.
It was the worst-ever helicopter accident in Nepal, and one of those on board was my sister, Australian scientist Dr Jill Bowling.
Jill was the UK director of conservation for the WWF, and died together with other WWF officials, the Nepalese Minister of State for Forests, Gopal Rai, his wife, senior officials of the Forest Ministry, Nepalese wildlife experts, two journalists and four crew members.
The helicopter was a Russian-built Mi-17, chartered by the WWF conservation organisation to transport V.I.P's to a function marking the hand back a conserved area - known as the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area - to a local community in far eastern Nepal.
The hand back ceremony had just taken place and the V.I.P. party boarded the helicopter in Ghunsa, a village in Taplejung district, for the return trip to Nepal's capital Kathmandu.
Soon after takeoff the helicopter crashed in a rugged mountainous region dominated by ravines and gorges.
It took two days for search teams to reach the crash site on foot.
Soon after confirmed news of Jill's death my father and I flew to Nepal. On route I wrote this tribute which was published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Many people have read this tribute and contacted my family to offer their condolences. I deeply appreciate the overwhelming response and extend the invitation to leave further comments here.
Also visit the WWF -UK and search for Jill Bowling.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Breakthrough malaria treatment

Aussie Scientists discover malaria treatment

Scientists in Australia's tropical north say they have discovered an effective treatment for the potentially deadly vivax malaria.

This is a major breakthrough because vivax is the commonest strain of malaria and is the scourge of many developing countries.

Researchers at the Northern Territory's Menzies School of Health Research say they have successfully trialled two treatments for the vivax strain of malaria in Timika in West Papua (the easternmost province in Indonesia).

The treatment combines a Chinese herbal extract and a longer-acting anti-malarial drug used to combat another, even more potent strain of the disease found in Africa.

In Running Amok, I write about malaria research going on in Timika (page 230) - not the good work carried out by the Menzies School - but a more dubious experiment being carried out by one American researcher using locals as live bait to catch and collect malaria-carrying mosquitoes! Timika is an extraordinary town carved out of the tropical jungle. Men from all over Indonesia have flocked to work at the nearby Freeport mine - one of the richest gold mines on earth. It's Indonesia's "wild east" - a place of considerable social and ethnic as well as health problems.

On page 190-191 you can also read about my wife Kim's ordeal with vivax malaria - including days of cold fits and high fever. We suspect that she was bitten during a stay at a luxury resort on the island of Lombok. Kim describes how the whole experience felt like near death. Luckily she was treated relatively quickly with Primaquine at an Australian Embassy clinic.

Most malaria sufferers don't have the advantage of being treated quickly or with access to the right drugs. Each year there are up to two million deaths from the disease.

It's reported that malaria causes the death of an African child every thirty seconds, and the main victims are young children and pregnant women.

The value of this new treatment can't be underestimated. It not only stops the malaria infection but it also protects sufferers from reinfection.

More about the history and cultural issues at Freeport

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Everyone in Indonesia has an airline story

How very true.

Today on the
Indonesia Blogsite a frequently flying Jakarta-based expat writes:
Following the Garuda air crash, there will no doubt be lots of newspapers publishing air disaster statistics, but they will not cover the near misses and the shambolic state of the Indonesian air industry as a whole, writes a Jakarta-based expat.

My comment on this is that as a one-time frequent flyer in Indonesia I know most passengers consider Garuda the airline of choice. Merpati Airlines for instance, is considered a far more precarious ride.
I have one experience to share: Several years ago flying aboard a Merpati Hawker Cassa from the tiny Banda Islands to Ambon. All was fine on the one hour flight until we hit the tarmac at Ambon's Patimura Airport. Suddenly the wheels jammed and the aircraft skidded off the tarmac into the grass. It was a wild, bumpy ride which ended with the plane on its side and the right wing wedged deep into the ground. We the passengers had to squeeze out through the door which was now like an overhead hatch in a boat.

We emerged into the Ambon sunshine with the smell of fuel all around us and the sound of emergency fire engines rushing across the airfield towards our plane.

Clock one up to good fortune! MB

Related: How Indonesia became aviation's Wild West

Indonesian aircrash: a tragic twist of fate for Australians

Now being reported are some tragic explanations of why some of the Australian journalists and officials came to board the ill-fated Garuda 737. The following comes from the news service AFP:
Five Australians were among the 21 believed dead after the Garuda Airlines Boeing 737 crashed at Yogyakarta airport on Wednesday morning as they flew to the town ahead of visiting Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.
Some were due to have been on a plane that left the previous evening, but missed that flight when Downer's visit to a school in the capital Jakarta ran over schedule.
The Australian newspaper's Jakarta correspondent Stephen Fitzpatrick has described how, in a further twist, fate decreed he would live but fellow Jakarta-based journalist, the Australian Financial Review's Morgan Mellish, would die.
Both men were booked on a Garuda flight to Yogyakarta on Tuesday evening, but realised while following Downer on the school visit that they would miss the plane.
Discovering that the next morning's doomed Garuda flight was fully booked they reluctantly took seats on an Adam Air service leaving half an hour later "despite its appalling safety record," Fitzpatrick wrote.
But later that night, Mellish was having a drink with other journalists and Australian embassy officials when he was told there was a spare ticket on the Garuda flight in the name of an embassy staffer.
Embassy spokeswoman Liz O'Neill -- who is also missing and believed dead -- offered the ticket to Mellish "and his fate was sealed," Fitzpatrick said.
"I caught the Adam Air flight, which was turned around just minutes from Yogyakarta, after the Garuda flight crashed on landing," he wrote.
The other Australians killed were federal police officers Brice Steele and Mark Scott, and embassy staffer Alison Sudrajat.
Five other Australians, including Sydney Morning Herald foreign affairs correspondent Cynthia Banham, were injured in the crash.
Downer was to have travelled to Yogyakarta on his own official plane.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Lost for Words

Australia has producd some fine writers in the last 150 years. The works of these great masters such as Henry Lawson and Patrick White have reflected the uniqueness of the Aussie character, lifestyle and landscape. The quality of writing has been applauded worldwide, but why isn't this distinct branch of literature celebrated Down Under?

Early in December 2006, the Weekend Australian's Review section featured an article on the teaching of Australian Literature in universities entitled 'Lost for Words' (The Weekend Australian Review, December 2-3). It noted that undergraduates seemed less interested in studying Australian writing than in the past and put forward various theories as to why this had occurred. The article attracted much comment, including claims that there needed to be more teaching of Australian literature in secondary schools as well.

As a follow-up, Sydney PEN has organised a panel to discuss how much Australian literature is currently read, as well as how much was, is and should be studied at school and university. Elizabeth Webby, Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, will be the participating chair and other panellists include well-known writers Delia Falconer, John Hughes and Emily Maguire, who are also teachers of literature and creative writing. More...

5.30 for 6.00pm, Wednesday 21 March 2007
Mitchell Theatre, Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts
Level 1, 280 Pitt Street SYDNEY NSW 2000
RSVP: (02) 9262 7300 or

Inquiries: Kathryn 1300 364 997

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Canberra spotlight on travel writing

"Bowling is far from the caricature foreign correspondent, braving bullies and bullets to "get the story". Instead he reveals himself as the sensitive family man.."

Tracks of Asian life on divergent paths - from The Canberra Times 24/02/2007

TWO BOOKS about Australian journalists coming to grips with Asia - and there the similarity ends. Mark Bowling's is a story about the usual hardships, frustrations and more than occasional dangers involved in reporting for the ABC on Indonesia during one of the most troubled periods in that country's recent past - descriptions sharpened in the context of renewed attention to the fate of the Balibo Five during the Indonesian invasion of East Timor more than 30 years ago.

lain Finlay and Trish Clark, as befits a late middle-aged couple who have lived and worked together for four decades, travel at a gentler pace. Not a gun is raised, or a blow struck during their stay of more than year in the Vietnamese capital as workers for Australian Volunteers International: their greatest dramas involve severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and bird flu. The battles they describe are now part of history.

Bowling is far from the caricature foreign correspondent, braving bullies and bullets to "get the story". Instead he reveals himself as the sensitive family man, constantly concerned about his wife, Kim, and children left alone in their temporary Jakarta house while he rushes from one trouble spot to another. "Kim feared for my safety, she feared that my work would consume me, that the close-knit family life we cherished would be blown apart, and that our relationship would crumble," he writes.

At other times he describes eloquently the panic that any reporter feels when threatened with becoming "part of the story": literally running for his life when spotted by a wild mob of pro-Indonesian militiamen in Dili: tear-gassed during student riots in Jakarta - "I remember the soldiers' clenched teeth, the look of hate in their eyes." Bowling arrived in Indonesia just in time to cover the last days of President Suharto. He saw the short, doomed reign of Bachartuddin Habibie, the mounting crisis around his successor, "Gus Dur" Wahid, and the rise of Megawati Sukarno Putri, and the first Bali bombings form a bloody epilogue to his four-year assignment.

He was present for the birth pains of East Timor: he looked into a mass grave in Aceh and experienced the fry of sectarian strife in Ambon, yet still found time for "colour" stories on exorcism Indonesian-style, starving Sumatran tigers and the misery of Jakarta's garbage-dump dwellers.

Somehow Mark's relationship with Kim survived Indonesia and they have settled with their four children in Darwin. I am left with the impression that Running Amok has been written as a form of catharsis, and that he will not be thirsting for more adventure any time soon.

Finlay and Clark, two of the founders of the long-ru ning television program Beyond 2000, were fulfilling a long-held promise to themselves to do some overseas volunteer work when they accepted an assignment in Hanoi with the English-language service of the Voice of Vietnam radio network.

There is really nothing in Good Morning Hanoi that the average working tourist might not discover and experience during a prolonged stay there. The couple get a taste for the culture and make many good friends among their Vietnamese colleagues, neighbours and other overseas volunteers, especially Rebecca Hales, a young teacher.

They give seminars and lectures, and start a program featuring news of entertainment and other events around the country which they bequeath to a couple of their younger colleagues, delaying their departure to take in the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Dien Bien Phil, which ended French rule in the country and ushered in the "American War". Finlay and Clark are two good-natured Australians with a genuine desire to reach out to the people they have come to help, and only occasionally do the frustrations with the stultifying Vietnamese bureaucracy show through. There are a few dark moments and historical slip-ups (Richard Nixon was not the United States president during the 1968 Tet Offensive) but mostly everyone has a jolly good time. Good Morning Hanoi will be useful to anyone planning an extended visit, or even just a holiday, but that is about the sum total - a kind of superior guide book with a lot of anecdotes attached.

Graham Cooke is a former Canberra Times journalist.

Rebel leader caught in the crosshairs

ChannelNewsAsia is reporting that Australian soliders are closing in the mountain hideout of Major Alfredo Reinado, about 50 kilometres south of the capital Dili. Reinado has been partly blamed for deadly civil unrest last year, and more recently accused of stealing firearms.

Whether he is arrested or not, Reinado remains one of Timor Leste's most intriguing figures as the tiny new nation heads towards a Presidential Election on April the 9th. Parliamentary elections are due to follow.. and one thing is for certain.. these are precarious times for East Timor.

Amidst this volatility, a Gold Coast filmmaking team is planning to head to Timor Leste. Producer Linda Arnold has written to me explaining that she and filmmaker husband, Philippe Deseck believe that "one of the ways we can help is by increasing public awareness of what the East Timorese have been through andthe problems they face now to build up their new nation." She adds that reading Running Amok was "the source of our inspiration".

Follow Linda and Philippe on a remarkable filmmaking journey by visiting their website . This will be a worthwhile but expensive project, and they are seeking donations and sponsorship. Linda confides on the website: "I decided then that I wanted to create documentaries and TV programs that would make a difference in the world. So I’ve quit working on Big Brother and put all my savings towards “East Timor”.