Rejected. That’s how they returned it.
“Application rejected” was stamped on a visa application to speak at a seminar in Jakarta. With this, I will now reach an arbitrary but quite substantial decade on Indonesia’s “black” list.
It has been widely assumed that Indonesia’s practice of black-listing people disappeared when president Suharto was pushed from power in 1998. But, despite its era of “reform” and relative democratisation, Indonesia’s draconian black list remains.
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The black ban was placed on my entry to Indonesia not long after Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became President in 2004. Along with another Australian academic, I was banned after making critical comments about the Indonesian army’s escalation of violence in the province of Aceh.
Along with a third academic, Dr Lesley McCulloch, and American journalist William Nessen, we comprised a small group deemed too troublesome to be allowed entry into Indonesia. Yet despite serving six months in Indonesian prisons for visa violations, within weeks of her release McCulloch’s ban was lifted and she was allowed to return.
By early 2005, I was advising the Free Aceh Movement in the Helsinki peace talks. Six months later, the talks ended three decades of separatist conflict and introduced democracy and a high degree of autonomy to that long-troubled province.
Despite the good outcome for Aceh and Indonesia, the Indonesian military (TNI) lost a substantial proportion of its illegal business interests in Aceh. The TNI was angry. It had two officers on the country’s immigration committee, who were ordered to ensure that I not return.
Visits to the Indonesian consul-general in Melbourne and embassy in Canberra to ask why I was banned produced the reply of either “I don’t know” or “visa violation”. Yet no violation could be identified.
The other banned academic did what what some viewed as an about-face on the Indonesian military and had his ban lifted. The Indonesian consul-general in Melbourne said that if I also wrote positive articles about Indonesia my own case might be reviewed. I replied that my writing on Indonesia was often — if not always — positive.
Soon after, I learned that I had been banned anew for working on the problem of West Papua. It was like being executed, buried and then dug up to be shot again!
The purpose of a black ban used to be to cut off a researcher from his or her site of work. However, with the advent of email, Facebook and Skype, such bans have limited practical impact on the flow of information.
Some Indonesian friends regarded the black ban as misplaced. In 2008, then governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf, flew to Melbourne to convey that Yudhoyono had lifted my black ban. I was, he said, free to return to Indonesia.
On this advice, a planned two-day stop-over in Indonesia en route to Singapore became a trip from Melbourne to Sydney via Jakarta. The TNI had overturned Yudhoyono’s listing of my ban. The game continued.
Having been more recently assured that the ban had expired, colleagues at the Islamic University of Indonesia invited me to present at a seminar and wrote a letter to the Indonesian embassy in Australia requesting a visa. Yet above the “application rejected” stamp was the hand-written words “masuk daftar cekal” (“banned entry list”).
Indonesia’s democratisation process has been imperfect. Notably, reform of the TNI effectively ended around 2008, and it retains numerous “offline” business interests, along with entrenched coercive powers.
But the TNI seems to still be angry over the loss of some of its power and income that came as a consequence of the Aceh peace agreement. I assume it was also not happy with my writing about its involvement human rights abuses and corruption.
If that is the case, being banned from Indonesia is a small price to pay. That was so for the past decade. It now seems it will continue to be so.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University