Sunday, May 31, 2015

Villa Del Mare: Lola Wang Li and the secretive web of Chinese wealth


Villa del Mare is a mansion on Australia’s most expensive street, Wolseley Road, Point Piper. Chinese billionaire Xu Jiayin was forced to sell the mansion in March this year by Treasurer Joe Hockey. Xu is one of China’s wealthiest men. He founded Guangzhou Evergrande, which has a reputation as one of China’s largest and most aggressively expanding real estate conglomerates.

When Joe Hockey shocked the real estate world by forcing Chinese billionaire Xu Jiayin to sell his $39 million Point Piper mansion Villa Del Mare in March, the Treasurer wanted to demonstrate that he was serious about stopping foreigners from evading ownership restrictions and inflating the bubbling market.

The Treasurer showed he wouldn't be fooled by an intervening string of shelf companies that stretched via the British Virgin Islands to the headquarters of Xu's property development empire in southern China.

And it was also a way for government political advisers to nod towards the kind of sentiment that turned ugly over the weekend, when a race hate group attempted to provoke a protest rally to "stop the Chinese invasion".  

Last month, as Sydney's elite real estate agents were scratching their heads at the absence of any marketing campaign, Xu Jiayin's palazzo-style harbourfront residence was quietly sold to an Australian citizen, Lola Wang Li, who told the treasurer in a statutory declaration that she was "not associated" with the previous owner "in any way". 


If only the Treasurer had been invited to Villa De Mare on New Year's Eve, around the corner from local representative Malcolm Turnbull, he would have glimpsed the webs of fabulous wealth and power that had come together on Sydney's night of nights.

Xu was not at his Point Piper home. He had generously thrown open his doors in his absence. 

Taking refuge in Australia

Still, Hockey would also have learnt something about the fragility of life at the top in China which is pushing the mega-rich and powerful to take refuge in the safe harbours of Sydney and Melbourne.

It now seems that Hockey's move to uphold the law against foreigners buying established property has only underscored how little Australian authorities know about the changing identities, hidden connections and rivers of mysterious money heating up high-end real estate markets.

Fairfax Media can reveal that Lola Wang Li was one of the handful of exclusive guests for one of Sydney's grandest New Year's Eve parties at Xu's Villa De Mare, enjoying the view of the midnight fireworks so much she later decided to buy it.

Not only that, Fairfax understands the 48-year-old mother of young twins was there at the invitation of one of China's most famous "red princelings", Zeng Wei, the son of the former vice president, Zeng Qinghong, who was the great powerbroker of Chinese politics for two decades.

Associates say the owner, Xu, had lent his house for the night to Zeng and his former news anchor wife, Jiang Mei, whose 100-year-old Craig-y-Mor mansion was being knocked down and rebuilt just a few doors up the road.

And an investigation of title deeds and corporate filings in Australia, Hong Kong and mainland China reveals that the purchaser Lola Wang Li stands at the centre of a glittering circle of family members and business associates who have all clung close to political power to earn what people in China like to call "the first pot of gold".

Trickle now a pour

The story of Chinese money pouring into Australia began as a trickle in the 1990s, after Deng Xiaoping revived China's economic reforms following the "turmoil" of 1989 and as fears were rising in Hong Kong about returning under Beijing rule.

Lola Wang Li, also known as Li Nuo Wang and Lola Li (as is common in the Chinese community), made her first humble foray into Sydney real estate in 1997, the  year of the Hong Kong handover, with a two-bedroom apartment in Haymarket, overlooking Chinatown.

At the start of the new millennium, China joined the World Trade Organisation and the economy kicked into a decade of hyper-development. The combination of opaque Communist Party politics and open-market economics proved a heady cocktail, producing the greatest burst of extreme wealth the world has ever seen.

Some of that money began flooding into Australia around the Communist Party's 17th Party Congress, in November 2007, when the political machinations behind a crucial power transition to current president Xi Jinping were being thrashed out.

Lola Wang Li's husband, Li Liang, struck his pot of gold when he teamed up with Li Xiaolin, one-time business partner of Clive Palmer and the daughter of former premier Li Peng, whose family dominates China's state and private electricity industry.

The husband, better-known by his Cantonese name Lai Leong, burst onto the front pages of Hong Kong magazines in 2007 when his previously obscure Bermuda-incorporated company was renamed on the Hong Kong stock exchange as China Power New Energy Development Company Ltd and became a key investment vehicle for renewable energy projects in mainland China.

Li Liang's shares, held through one of his four British Virgin Island companies, shot up to be worth as much as $HK500 million, before he stepped down as chief executive in 2009. These days, in Sydney circles, Li Liang is known chiefly as a casino high-roller with a private jet and formidable Chinese connections.

Lola Wang Li turned heads in Vaucluse in 2008 when she door-knocked on the Hall family residence, asking the owners to name their price. She paid $16.6 million for the freshly-renovated Vaucluse Road mansion, which agents say remains comfortably above even today's market value.

Vicky Wang's connections

Throughout this time, Lola Wang Li's younger sister, Vicky Wang, had been busily helping Chinese investors navigate their way in Australia. She would meet her future husband, former NSW police officer Jamie Dickson, whose consultancy AJL Global helped advise Australian companies going the other way.

Among a string of private company directorships, Vicky Wang sits on an Australian company board with father-son property developers Wang Zhicai and Wang Shuo.

The elder Wang is famous in China for marrying one of the country's best known television stars, 41-year-old actor Wang Yan, who is currently headlining a citywide anti-smoking ad campaign in Beijing. They live under the radar in a luxury apartment in Kirribilli's Craiglea complex.

The younger Wang had become as famous as his stepmother, but for wholly different reasons. Already dubbed one of Beijing's four "capital playboys", his notoriety peaked when he pulled a gun on one of the other three and reared his station wagon into the friend's Audi, causing both a tabloid sensation and a flaming car wreck.

Vicky Wang is also a shareholder of an Australian company called Fruit Master International, along with Chinese shopping centre tycoon Dai Yong'ge – son of a former head of the Chinese central bank – and his wife Zhang Xingmei, who bought a Dumaresq Road Rose Bay mansion for $17.7 million in 2008.

And there is an even bigger name on the Fruit Master share registry: Zeng Wei, the former vice president's son. 

Zeng used the lustre of his father to win all kinds of concessions, which Fairfax has previously investigated. Among the most profitable was helping Dai's Hong Kong-listed company, Renhe Commercial, gain military approval to convert underground bomb shelters into a maze of glitzy shopping centres in southern China.

In 2008, immediately after Renhe had listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange and Zeng Wei's father brokered the deal that promoted Xi Jinping into his job as vice president of China, Zeng and his wife inspected the Point Piper trophy Villa del Mare, thought better of it, and then handed over $32.4 million for the former mansion Craig-y-Mor just up the road. This transaction, including the saga of knocking down a century-old home to build a bigger modern one, remains the most egregious example of China's Communist Party princelings flaunting their wealth abroad.

Such is the awe the Zeng Wei name carries in Chinese circles that once the couple had settled on their purchase, agents say it impacted on subsequent buyers of Villa del Mare. At least one offer fell through because Zeng Wei was considered so high in the social-political hierarchy that only someone of the highest standing could buy a home that equalled his.

Intensely secretive sale

And all of these glittering names and their stories could be found within the innermost circle of the latest Villa del Mare purchaser, Lola Wang Li, as she was celebrating among the lavish food and flower displays and musical performances on New Year's Eve.

Xu Jiayin, who was forced to sell the property, is the founder of one of China's largest property conglomerates, Evergrande.

Lola Wang Li's lawyer insists that Xu was not in any way "associated" with his client, Lola Wang Li, and therefore the Treasurer had not been deceived. He says Xu was not even home when he threw the doors open for his near neighbours. Fairfax Media makes no claim to the contrary and notes that Xu's private jet, an Airbus A319, was not in Australia at the time.

But the intensely-secretive manner of the sale, including Xu's offhand dismissal of other offers at the same price, reveals something not only of the extraordinary opulence of China's new uber-rich but also the insecurity that causes them to circle together and protect each other's privacy in safe harbours far from their original homes.

An average of two US-dollar billionaires are minted every week in China. They make their wealth without the constraints of rule-of-law but, equally, they know there is little to stop the even more powerful from taking it away.

Sydney's princeling aristocracy

Xu's key patron, according to sources that include rivals, was the former Communist Party chief of Guangzhou city, Wan Qingliang, who was brought down for corruption last year.

And Lola Wang Li's husband, Li Liang, was forced to step down as chief executive of China Power New Energy in June 2009 as word spread that Communist Party leaders were scrutinising the dealings of his princeling patron, Li Xiaolin. The announcement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange said only he was departing for "personal reasons", while Li Xiaolin remains the company's chair.

Further away from elite politics, Lola Wang Li's ultra-cautious sister, Vicky Wang, has adopted an even lower profile since her business associate Wang Shuo was charged with illegal possession of firearms and destruction of property.

And for Zeng Wei, the central figure in Sydney's princeling aristocracy, the dangers have reached much closer to home.

His father brokered the deal that elevated Xi Jinping to the presidency. Their families used to holiday together at the Politburo's beachside resort of Beidaihe, where their villas were right alongside each other, according to friends who have visited.  

But according to close associates, Zeng's father, the former vice president and kingmaker of China, Zeng Qinghong, has recently found his movements in China restricted as part of President Xi's deepening political and anti-corruption purge.

For Zeng Wei, and many others, Sydney offers a safe harbour from the gathering storms in China. Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday, May 30, 2015

As Suu Kyi Stays Silent, Rohingya Crisis Exposes Asean Weakness

By allowing this humanitarian crisis to unfold right under its nose, Asean is starting to look more and more ineffective and irrelevant

On June 16, 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi finally was able to receive the Nobel Peace Prize that she had won back in 1991. In her acceptance speech, she applauded the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize had made the world remember the struggle for democracy in Myanmar. She noted: “to be forgotten … is to die a little.” Thus, she argued, the democratic movement could stay alive in Myanmar because it was not forgotten by the world, by the virtue of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Fast forward to today, and now the ethnic Rohingya are the forgotten people whose exodus has turned into a humanitarian crisis — forcing the world to remember. Thousands of Rohingya refugees left Myanmar to escape persecution and they were left adrift at sea after the Thai authority closed the usual human-trafficking route over land and began a crackdown after learning of grave abuses by the traffickers and discovering the existence of mass graves containing remains of likely hundreds of Rohingya victims.

In light of the crisis, Suu Kyi was pressed by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to do something. She was urged to finally speak out to help the mainly Muslim ethnic group and to stop their persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

Unfortunately, Suu Kyi demurred. Repeatedly stating that this is a complicated issue, Suu Kyi has not done anything — publicly at least — to try and stop the persecution of the Rohingya. She ignored their fate when Myanmar President Thein Sein drove them into refugee camps. She chose to forget this inconvenient problem, especially as it may bedevil her and her party’s political ambitions in Myanmar, where a vast majority of Burmese view the Rohingya in a negative light. They are mostly seen not as fellow citizens, but as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Ethical responsibility

The situation is quite ironic, considering that in her optimistic Nobel acceptance speech, Suu Kyi had expressed her hope that there would be a world without fear, where everyone joined hands to create a peaceful world with no refugees, homeless people or those without hope. Was this beautiful dream of hers simply a rhetorical device? A politically correct speech to satisfy her audience abroad?

Of course it would be unfair to simply dump the entire refugee problem in Suu Kyi’s lap, considering that she did not create the problem in the first place. Rather, it was the discriminatory policies of the Myanmar military regime that sparked the crisis. Still, as one of the world’s most prominent human rights activists, Suu Kyi bears a large amount of what the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has described as ethical responsibility. Such ethical responsibility does not come by choice — it is a responsibility everyone has, to some degree, to help others who are in need.

And that “everyone” includes Myanmar’s neighbors. The refugee crisis has turned into a regional issue, in which a couple of Myanmar’s neighbors, notably Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, are involved whether they like it or not. Countries have already provided humanitarian assistance to those stranded at sea and are allowing them to reside in refugee camps. But this isn’t enough.

The root cause of the refugee crisis is Myanmar’s discriminatory stance toward the Rohingya, who it does not recognize as its citizens. Not surprisingly, with the refugee crisis seemingly no nearer to an end and with so much money and resources now being spent to deal with the consequences of Myanmar’s policies, member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have started voicing their displeasure in pointed terms to Myanmar and its president, Thein Sein. Myanmar, however, has bluntly stated that there is no humanitarian crisis, arguing that there is no proof that the immigrants are Rohingya, and the country refuses to attend any regional meeting that even mentions the word “Rohingya” on the invitation.

A dilemma for Asean

This creates a serious dilemma for Asean, as the regional organization was formed on the basic principle of non-intervention: fellow member states are not supposed to interfere in internal matters of any other member state. But by allowing this humanitarian crisis to unfold right under its nose, Asean is starting to look more and more ineffective and irrelevant. If it cannot deal with regional issues such as the Rohingya crisis, then how could it be expected to play a role in solving external problems such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which have the potential to devastate the region if they spiral out of control.

The exodus from Myanmar of a group of people that is politically inconvenient to remember by one of the world’s best-known human rights activists, has brought into the open a glaring weakness of Asean. This is a problem that many would prefer to be forgotten as soon as possible and that is presumably what the members of Asean will now try to accomplish: find a face-saving compromise that would sweep the Rohingya problem under the rug while continuing to pretend that all is well in the region.

However, should the Asean member states be willing to take this refugee crisis seriously, they could end up strengthening the Asean community and taking some bold steps toward a united vision and a shared regional identity.

It is high time for the Asean community to develop a common policy to solve regional problems, notably illegal immigration and human trafficking. This common policy, of course, should be binding and unanimously accepted, which to some degree would help bypass the principle of non-intervention, which often hinders efforts to resolve humanitarian crises.

A common policy would help Asean fulfill its ethical responsibility and help the organization gain respect as a grouping that not only talks the talk but also walks the walk when it comes to standing up for human rights in the region.

Asrudin Azwar is an international relations analyst from the Asrudian Center. Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer in international politics at the National Defense University (Unhan).


Getting Indonesia-Australia back on track

There is still a lot of anger in the hearts of many Australians and Indonesians.

The anger on the part of the Australians is easy to understand.

Two Australian citizens were executed by firing squad after having been found guilty of a capital crime by a duly constituted court and after all the legal attempts to save their lives had been exhausted. In the 10 years between their sentencing and their executions, they had reformed, become good people ready to serve their fellow human beings, notably through the drug rehabilitation program that they designed and carried out while in prison.

The anger on the part of many Indonesians is different: it is born of a deep-seated grievance against Western nations with which Indonesia interacted in the past. This grievance just happened to be focused on Australia because of the clumsy way the Australian government tried to save the lives of the two condemned men. The people of Indonesia felt that they were being dictated to and were not getting the respect they deserved. The anger reached boiling point when the Australian PM Tony Abbott very imprudently brought up the matter of Australian aid to Indonesia. This was regarded as an attempt to humiliate Indonesia into sparing the lives of the two death convicts. This is now all that comes to mind when Australia is mentioned.

Nobody remembers Australia’s role in the country’s struggle to keep its independence in the late 1940s.It might seem to be the dictate of common sense to let the storm blow over before saying anything about Australia-Indonesia relations, to be silent about it for a sufficient period of time to allow the negative emotions to dissipate. And yet there might be wisdom in addressing the problem right away.

In this regard it is always a good thing to be able to see things from the other person’s point of view. When I was undergoing training to become a diplomat, we were told to cultivate the habit of two-handedness. To be able to say: on the one hand, this is how I see the issue, and on the other hand, you may have a point that I must consider.

On one hand, Australia needs Indonesia as an economic partner; on the other hand, Indonesia equally needs Australia as an economic partner and as a collaborator in its regional architecture building.

That’s why I am optimistic that on both sides the wounds of recent controversy will heal. And my optimism is strengthened when I think of what PM Abbott recently said: “This is a dark moment in the relationship, but I am sure the relationship will be restored.”

Likewise, a few days ago, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said she hoped the relationship would normalize because, she said, “Indonesia needs Australia and Australia, I think, also needs Indonesia.”

It would help, of course, if the dialog between the two countries became more constructive. During the years that I served in the foreign ministry and dealing with Australia, I learned that indeed, in this age of information, countries scrutinized each other. This is a fact of international life.

But the developed countries of the West are the ones that are doing most of the scrutinizing, as the developing countries are more often distracted by their own domestic problems. Observation breeds criticism, and when officials express their views on issues through the mass media, they tend to grandstand and play to the gallery. This generates a lot of heat without shedding light on the issues to be addressed.

And sometimes the media are part of the problem. By providing information and commentary on issues, the media help shape public perceptions. Politicians and public officials have to deal with these perceptions that are eventually stripped of their nuances and reduced to their most simplistic forms. The traditional media have always tended to be sensational, but the most sensational of them all are social media. These days, so much misperception, so much prejudice and so much hatred are being perpetrated by social media.

The negative impacts of irresponsible media reportage and commentary are further complicated by the cultural traits of peoples. It is my impression that we Indonesians are a more emotional people than Australians and other Westerners who are more cerebral in their approach to issues. We tend to deal with others on a heart-to-heart basis, while Australians do it head-to-head. So in the case of a controversy such as that surrounding the Australian duo sentenced to death, many statements coming from Australia, which were meant to be simply sensible and practical, were received in Indonesia as hard-hearted and cold-blooded.

It would greatly help the relationship if we spent more time learning about each other instead of debating who is right and who is wrong. And there should also be a more robust manifestation of mutual respect. While we are unlike each other in terms of culture and traditions, the fact remains that we are geographically next-door neighbors. We are stuck with each other.

One of the most prudent things we can do is to invest in cross-cultural communication — in a way that shows respect for one another’s views. We can disagree while still showing respect for the person we disagree with. We must avoid the blame-game and refrain from speculation. Above all, we must avoid inflammatory language. We must shun megaphone diplomacy.

We must do more to promote social-cultural relations. Our cooperation in the field of education must continue.

At the same time we must make our economic partnership work for our peoples. They must feel and enjoy the benefits of that partnership.

We must work together to form a robust regional architecture through ASEAN-led processes, especially the East Asia Summit.

These are the ballasts of our bilateral relations. If we keep on enlarging and strengthening them, if we keep on learning about each other and showing respect for each other, our bilateral relations will grow from strength to strength in all the years ahead. It is the two countries’ shared responsibility.

Indonesians are a more emotional people than Australians and other Westerners who are more cerebral

The writer Wiryono Sastrohandoyo, served as ambassador to Australia in the late 1990s. The article first appeared in John Menadue — Pearls and Irritations blog.

Virginity test: Indonesia’s institutionalized misogyny

During the last few months Indonesia’s official record on the humanitarian front has been rather underwhelming at best. The execution of two Bali Nine members alongside other drug offenders and the initial hesitation to accept Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have seriously lowered the almost exuberantly positive expectations many expressed when Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was inaugurated as president last October.

The most recent international outcry about the so-called “virginity tests” that have been performed by the Indonesian Military (TNI) and police for what appears to be decades, might now become another disappointment as Jokowi has so far remained silent on the issue.Colloquially known as the two-finger test, “virginity tests” have been condemned as a dehumanizing and potentially traumatizing treatment by many human rights organizations for a long time.

During the simple procedure, a doctor puts two fingers into a woman’s vagina in order to check whether or not her hymen is intact, declaring her a virgin in the former case. The questionable rationale behind the tests is to ensure the stability of military families. Whereas such “virginity tests” might appear to be an absurd residue of a more oppressive system that governed Indonesia until not so long ago, their intention actually betrays a fundamental problem within a society in which poverty and lack of education still often put unacceptable pressure on female reproductive rights and women’s opportunities to express and experience their very own sexuality in a fulfilling, positive and independent manner.

Like everywhere else in the world where the procedure is performed, the tests themselves are merely a symptom of the rampant misogyny that debilitates wide parts of Indonesian society.

Even when considered from a purely medical perspective, the test does not serve its questionable purpose. The assumption that a woman with a torn hymen must have had sexual intercourse is simply inaccurate as a laceration can occur due to a myriad of reasons, including disease and injuries. Yet, while such medical inadequacies might already suffice to completely discard the procedure, they merely touch the surface of a pervasive systemic problem. The invasion of privacy is severe and leaves many women emotionally scarred.

Even though sanctions often appear to be absent for women who “fail” the test, at least in the military, the performance of “virginity tests” takes an extremely private part of a woman’s personal life and, unacceptably, makes it relevant to her professional career. Such serious violations of human dignity in the name of establishing high moral standards might appear cynical at first glance, but their existence can hardly be surprising given the widespread dictate of how a good and proper woman must behave.

In the traditional patriarchal world order, a woman’s body is considered her main asset and the majority of female gender roles are defined through her sexuality as she is pushed along a preconceived life path from object of male desire to motherhood. Because the female womb is crucial to the continuation of patriarchal power, its submission was a cardinal aspect in the establishment of the power structures essentially still ruling societal life today. The most insidious and effective method of absolute control over women has always been performed through their bodies, the most basic level possible.

And since ancient times little — if anything — has changed: even today patriarchal minds (which are not exclusive to men) still strive to hold more or less absolute power over the female body. In this worldview, women must not be granted the right to make decisions regarding their own sexuality.

When the ostensible importance of not having sexual intercourse outside of wedlock is discussed, it is therefore no coincidence that it almost always happens in the context of female sexuality alone. To the patriarchal spirit a woman’s social standing is almost completely determined by her sexual conduct, by whether or not she complies with the oppressive rules regarding her own body. If she does not, she becomes a “prostitute”. Whole religious institutions were created by influential patriarchs of yesteryear in order to strengthen this system of oppression.

And it seems to have worked rather well. Today we live in the 21st century among robots and spaceships, and still female virginity is considered something glorious, something sacred; instead of the unspectacular thing that it actually is to anyone apart from the woman in question: the rather mundane personal condition of not having had sexual intercourse.“Virginity tests” are a patriarchal instrument to put women in their place, to remind them that at the end of the day political participation and the improvement of work conditions do not change the fact that their own vaginas, uteri and in fact their whole bodies do not belong to them. Such tests are institutionalized misogyny. Abolishing them will of course not magically solve every problem women are facing in Indonesia today. It can only be a tiny step in the right direction by slowly stabilizing hopes that Indonesia can finally make another step forward on its long and onerous journey toward true sex and gender equality.

The invasion of privacy is severe and leaves many women emotionally scarred.

Markus Russin, Bogor, West Java _The writer, who holds a master’s degree in psychology from Yale University in the US, is a freelance writer and editor for various publications.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

New hope for Indonesia’s ethnic minorities


On 29 May 2014, seven people were injured during attacks on a Catholic prayer service in Sleman, Yogyakarta. In June 2014, stone-throwing Sunni hardliners attacked a nearby church claiming it did not have a building permit. On 4 August 2013, a bomb exploded in a Buddhist temple in Jakarta, injuring three people. The following day Molotov cocktails were thrown into the yard of a Catholic high school in Jakarta.

Some of the most ferocious attacks have been directed at Indonesia’s Ahmadi and Shi’ite communities. On 6 February 2011, an angry crowd in Cikeusik, Banten, murdered three Ahmadi men while a local policeman looked on. On 29 August 2012, more than 1000 Sunni villagers attacked a Shi’ite community on Madura Island, off the northeast coast of Java, burning homes and killing two people. The villagers were forced to seek refuge in a local stadium where they remained in temporary shelters for 10 months. On 20 June 2013, Sunni groups and religious leaders staged a mass protest to rid the stadium of the ‘blasphemers’, forcing the desperate leader of the Shi’ite community to agree to relocate the community to a town two hours away on the island of Java.

Rising intolerance toward religious minorities in Indonesia is a product of the spread of Sunni takfiri (extremist) ideologies, as well as the increasing activism of Sunni hardliners in Indonesia’s democratic politics. State laws and regulations also facilitate intolerance and religiously motivated violence.

Indonesia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion but a range of national and local laws undercut the constitutional safeguard and provide a cover for religious bullies. The primary legal enabler of abuse against religious minorities is the 1965 Presidential Decree on the Prevention of Religious Abuse and/or Defamation (Blasphemy Law) which defines and criminalises ‘deviant’ religious practices. The Blasphemy Law remains in place despite the fact that Indonesia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2005.

Indonesia’s highest Muslim clerical body, the Ulama Council, has also become increasingly active in identifying ‘deviant’ behaviour and issuing fatwas. On 21 January 2012 the Ulama Council of East Java declared that Shi’ism itself was blasphemous. This prompted a gubernatorial decree that imposed penalties on anyone who ‘propagates blasphemous teaching’. The decree effectively legitimised violence against the Shi’ite community.

The preceding administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) was routinely criticised for its failure to protect the rights and welfare of Indonesia’s religious minorities. At times the SBY government even appeared to encourage intolerant behaviour. In 2006 a Joint Ministerial Decree established the Inter-religious Harmony Forum, a council of religious leaders whose job was to facilitate the permit process for places of worship, but mounting evidence suggests that the Forum often hindered applications for Christian church permits.

More provocatively, in 2008 the government announced a Joint Ministerial Decree restricting Ahmadiyah activities outside of Ahmadi communities. SBY also appointed religious conservative ministers to parliament. They included Gamawan Fauzi, the minister for home affairs, who suggested relocating minorities rather than bringing their intimidators to justice, and Suryadharma Ali, the minister for religious affairs, who publicly declared that Ahmadi and Shi’ites were heretics.

Hopes are now high among religious minorities that Indonesia’s new President, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), will restore Indonesia’s reputation as a tolerant and pluralistic Muslim majority nation. Jokowi has a record of taking a pluralistic approach. As governor of Jakarta, he defended a Christian district head when radical Muslims attacked her credentials. He was also known for his close working relationship with his deputy governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is Christian and of Chinese descent. Significantly, in his 2014 presidential campaign Jokowi identified ‘intolerance and crisis in the nation’s character’ as one of the three main challenges facing Indonesia.

Jokowi’s pluralism and religious tolerance are demonstrated through his political support base. He is backed by secular pluralist parties, such as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and the National Democratic Party, and pluralistic Islamic scholars. He is also backed by the National Awakening Party, which is closely affiliated with the largest moderate Islamic organisation in Indonesia — Nahdlatul Ulama.

Although Jokowi has yet to make any public statements on the question of religious minority rights, at the end of 2014 his newly appointed Minister for Religious Affairs, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, announced plans for new laws to protect religious communities. This is a promising step but, unless the 1965 Blasphemy Law is rescinded, it is unclear how much impact the new law will have.

It also remains to be seen whether Jokowi will be able to shepherd such a law through Indonesia’s rambunctious parliament. With only 37 per cent support in the parliament, passing any legislation will be difficult for Jokowi. And there is no sign that the protection of religious minorities will be a legislative priority. The minister’s bill could languish for years. It will be even more difficult for the Jokowi administration to deal with the often discriminatory Sharia-based by-laws passed by regional governments.

If Jokowi believes that ‘intolerance and crisis in the nation’s character’ is one of the biggest problems the country is facing, it is not yet clear how he plans to solve it.

Ihsan Ali-Fauzi is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Democracy at Paramadina University, Jakarta. Ben Hillman is a Senior Lecturer at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asia’s Minorities‘.


Returning terrorists can reveal the horrors of IS with more credibility than anyone else. So why strip their citizenship?

Returning terrorists can reveal the horrors of IS with more credibility than anyone else. So why strip their citizenship?

ISIL, as it confronts us in Australia, is not a conventional army or even a structured terrorist organisation, but a movement to which people recruit themselves.

As things stand, you could murder the Queen, the Governor-General and the Prime Minister, and keep your citizenship. You'd be guilty of treason. You'd almost certainly go to prison for life. But you'd die as an incarcerated Australian, even if you had dual citizenship.

Australians, you see, can be just about anything. We can be frauds, armed robbers and rapists; embezzlers, torturers and serial killers. We'll be named, shamed and imprisoned for these things, but none of them we deem sufficient to extinguish our nationality. If you're born an Australian citizen, it's damn hard to lose that.

Are these people of more use to us stuck in Syria than they would be telling other Australians about the horrors of ISIL with vastly more credibility than anyone else?  

That's what is so significant about the Abbott government's policy, confirmed this week, to strip dual nationals who've joined ISIL of their Australian citizenship. It reveals that these crimes exist in a separate category, characterised not merely by their badness, but by their betrayal.

That's what makes terrorism such a special case even though it kills so few Australians compared to, say, car accidents or domestic violence. Those events we characterise (however incorrectly) as private tragedies: offences against private victims. Terrorism is an offence against our public selves. The scale of its repugnance lies not in the direct damage it does, which is limited, but in the symbolic damage inherent in such a violent rejection of the collective us.

That's why there's a catharsis in stripping citizenship from these people. It's a secular act of excommunication. And, just like its religious counterpart, it makes us feel better about those still in the fold. We're purifying ourselves of disbelievers. But this implicitly requires us to view terrorism in one of two ways: either as war, or as unconventional politics.

The war analogy, of course, has dominated our discourse on terrorism since the September 11 attacks, and explains why it is that the only other way for a dual national to lose an Australian citizenship acquired at birth is to serve in the armed forces of a country fighting ours. But hereabouts we run into problems. First, that if the post-9/11 era has taught us anything, it is that treating terrorism as war has been a ghastly failure. It has only compounded the disaster and amplified the problem to the extent we now consider a terrorist attack on home soil more likely than at any other time in our history.

But secondly – and more intriguingly – this approach is increasingly at odds with the way governments and security organisations are talking about terrorism. This is the era of "radicalisation"; of lone-wolves and kids succumbing to radical propaganda. Islamic State, as it confronts us in Australia, is not a conventional army or even a structured terrorist organisation, but a movement to which people recruit themselves. That's why the Prime Minister spends so much time talking about the role of the internet. It's why we talk about young Muslims being "groomed" by recruiters in a similar way to the victims of paedophiles. We're beginning to recognise that we can't simply bomb terrorism out of existence. The task now is to persuade people not to be seduced. No military can do that. That is a task of politics.

The trouble, though, is that we take the logic of terrorism as politics only so far before we abandon it. Take the other major recent development: Australians who've gone to Syria only to discover that beneath Islamic State's utopian promise is a gruesome lie. Now they're trying to get out and come home. And as more Australians inevitably make the same discovery, we'll see a lot more of this.

This might just be the best news we've had in a year. We've been sweating on precisely this kind of crack in the edifice of IS propaganda. The truth is that we can brand IS as "death cult" all we like. We can condemn it on some kind of relentless loop if it satisfies us but, in practical terms, none of it means a thing when it comes from the mainstream. Radical politics expects mainstream rejection – indeed it requires that for its own legitimacy. When we tell ourselves how evil IS is, we need to be clear: this is a performance for our own benefit, not to persuade people who might otherwise be charmed.

The one thing radical politics cannot withstand is when its own true believers reveal its hypocrisy. The Caliph may have no clothes, but it's his subjects who must call it out. And yet it is precisely at this juncture that we refuse to take advantage.

Asked about the possible return of such people, the government eagerly reiterates: we don't want them back, but if we must receive them, we have no interest in anything other than punishing them. That impulse is easy to understand: after all, the crime is clear. But is the impulse strategic? Are these people of more use to us stuck in Syria than they would be telling other Australians about the horrors of IS with vastly more credibility than anyone else? Is the aim to punish them, or stem further recruitment? Are we after vengeance, or some manner of victory?

To be clear, I'm not advocating such crimes go unpunished. Even the lawyers of these people accept they'll be prosecuted. But it's telling that we can see nothing beyond this; that we so resolutely refuse even to acknowledge this potential gift because we're too busy reiterating our hatred for these people. Somehow, it was easier to accept the idea of Soviet spies defecting to the West in the Cold War than it is for us to imagine someone might have joined ISIL naively, and has discovered their error.

Maybe that's because they rejected us first. Maybe it's an extension of the catharsis we feel when we extinguish someone's citizenship. But here's the danger: by rejecting anything that doesn't begin and end with condemnation – as if by reflex – we're surrendering the politics of terrorism in precisely the way ISIL so effectively isn't.

Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist and winner of the 2014 Walkley award for best columnist. He also lectures in politics at Monash University.