Where torture goes (almost) unpunished

Indonesian soldiers accused of posting torture videos on YouTube receive jail sentences for “disobey

On a recent post, one commenter asked why I bothered writing about the "piffling matter" of the Quran-hating Pastor Terry Jones being banned from coming into the UK. Shouldn't I be drawing attention to what's been happening in Belarus, instead?

Well, I will leave that to those better qualified. What I would like to do is raise the situation in Papua, where three Indonesian soldiers have recently received sentences of between eight and ten months in jail for their involvement in a horrendous case of torture that included holding a burning stick to a man's genitals. The verdict has perhaps understandably been overlooked in the UK, given the news from Tunisia and Egypt and the Palestine-related WikiLeaks. So let me repeat it.

They were convicted on charges of "disobeying orders", not torture, and none has been discharged from the army. It's been reported on in America and Australia, but seems to have escaped the notice of plenty of papers here.

But then Papua and the state with which it shares an island, Papua New Guinea, barely register on the European consciousness anyway – even though Papua was a Dutch and Papua New Guinea a British colony.

This history is just one reason why we ought to be a little more aware of Papua's misfortunes – not least because the Netherlands' control of the western half of the island was the justification for its eventual inclusion in Indonesia in the first place. Had the Dutch not been such brutal imperial masters in that part of the world, and had they not been so savage in their attempts to reclaim the East Indies after the Second World War, they perhaps might have been in a stronger position to argue that greater attention should be paid to the wishes of Papua's inhabitants.

Instead, when the Dutch finally left, the territory formally became part of Indonesia after the laughably named Act of Free Choice (or "Act Free of Choice", as the Australian academic Ron May put it recently) supposedly confirmed that union was what the Papuans wanted.

Many have referred to what happened since as "slow-motion genocide": transmigration of large numbers of Javanese whose presence has then created "facts" on the ground; at least 100,000 Papuans dead as a result of the military occupation – about one-sixth of the population; and widespread torture and summary execution. Very little of which, unlike the killings in East Timor, appears to merit more than the odd inch in British newspapers. (For an honourable exception, see this report by George Monbiot in 2005.)

That Papua today is part of Indonesia, a situation that any genuine act of self-determination would have rejected, is a result of European colonisation, as is the border with Papua New Guinea – a division still not recognised by the indigenous people who live there.

This might suggest that we have some historic responsibility to the region and its travails over the last few decades. Or is the reason for our lack of interest – in, for instance, the recent lenient sentences for the Indonesian soldiers – that we view it in the same way as did John F Kennedy's adviser Robert Komer? Is it for us, too, just "a few thousand miles of cannibal land"?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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