INDONESIA: Bali bird flu drill tests pandemic preparedness

BALI – Indonesia, indeed the world, had never seen anything like it. In a sleepy Balinese village, panic flares as some 20 people are feared to have suddenly been infected with avian influenza. The village is quarantined as medical workers clad in full protective body gear swing into action. The military and police are drafted in to halt what could be the beginnings of a deadly and disastrous global human bird flu pandemic.

The three-day simulated exercise from 25-27 April, which included a drill at Bali’s international airport aimed at preventing travellers from exporting the H5N1 virus, was held in the country most likely to be the epicentre of a significant human outbreak, if not full-scale pandemic. Indonesia has suffered 108 bird flu deaths, the highest toll anywhere in the world.

Fourteen deaths alone have occurred in 2008 as archipelagic Indonesia, which was initially accused of being slow to respond to its outbreaks, grapples with the virus now endemic in birds in 31 of the country’s 33 sprawling provinces.

Bayu Krisnamurthi, executive director of Indonesia’s National Committee for Bird Flu Control and Pandemic Preparedness, said the simulation was just part of Indonesia’s overall avian flu/pandemic preparedness strategy. He said more must be done in preparation for a possible pandemic. But he hailed the exercise, which it took around six months to prepare.

"It was very successful, particularly in terms of participation and the attention from international partners," he told IRIN, referring to the over 50 international observer groups who attended the massive drill.

The airport portion of the exercise drew bemused and baffled responses from some travellers, who were swamped by mask-clad workers and made to pass through scanners detecting body temperatures as part of the drill.

"Now we know where we have a lack of knowledge or skills. We know where the gaps are that must be improved in future – that’s what simulations are for," Krisnamurthi said.

Indonesia has suffered 108 bird flu deaths, the highest toll anywhere in the world. Fourteen deaths alone have occurred in 2008 alone.

Some of the lessons learned, which are to be analysed by Indonesian officials at a meeting in May, included the simple logistical difficulty of properly isolating a village and containing the disease’s spread, as well as communicating effectively on the ground between the many agencies coordinating the response.

"The understanding of a pandemic still needs to be improved,” Krisnamurthi said. “We need more training."

Some interesting hiccups emerged from the perspective of the international observers, Annu Lehtinen, the UN’s Regional Avian and Human Influenza Coordinator, told IRIN. For example, the tropical heat of Bali meant that medical workers could not stay outdoors in protective gear as long as they might in other climates, a problem which needs to be addressed in improving the effectiveness of the response plan to a pandemic.

How much the Indonesians take on board after the simulation will be the real test of the exercise’s success, said Lehtinen.

"I think the critical thing is how the evaluation results will be taken into consideration when revising the national plan and revising procedures,” she said. “It (the drill) was absolutely a step in the right direction… [but] it’s not enough,” she told IRIN. “You need to carefully take into consideration what has been learned."

Subhash Salunke, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Indonesia, said that though the exercise was held in Bali – where only two bird flu deaths have been confirmed – it involved national agencies, so broad lessons relevant across the nation could be learned. It was also useful for the international community, he said.

"It was a wonderful exercise for training staff in other provinces and districts, as well as other countries… because no other country has done this," Salunke told IRIN. "It was very satisfying that the Indonesian government has undertaken this and they are planning now to extend it to other provinces,” he said. “This can’t be a one-time exercise and then we forget about it."

The next step, the national commission’s Bayu said, will be incorporating the gaps that were found through the simulation into Indonesia’s national strategy, as well as holding more exercises in up to seven other provinces, with at least some in urban areas which would be, he conceded, "more complex".

Krisnamurthi said the simulations were helping to fine-tune Indonesia’s overall national strategy: "It’s learning while doing, and improving. We are building our ship while sailing it – it’s not finished."

Indonesian grandmother spreads green ways in smoggy Jakarta

BANJARSARI, Indonesia: Harini Bambang Wahono’s classroom is a kaleidoscope of greens, a fitting colour scheme for the 77-year-old grandmother who has been teaching green ways for almost 30 years.

A poster on the wall commands: "Reduce, recycle, reuse, replant" — the philosophy that Ibu Bambang, as she is known, seeks to spread throughout her Jakarta neighbourhood.

Doing so presents a particular challenge in polluted Jakarta, a mega-city of at least 11 million, but Ibu Bambang has won wide recognition for her efforts to re-green the Banjarsari community, a neighbourhood of narrow criss-crossing streets just off a traffic-clogged main road.

Homes are shaded by potted plants, bins encourage waste separation and residents recycle their garbage.

Photographs on Ibu Bambang’s classroom walls show visitors coming from as far away as Bangladesh to see how one person puts the slogan "think globally, act locally" into daily practice.

Barefoot, with large bifocals perched crookedly on her nose, Ibu Bambang runs through the lessons she teaches the 218 neighbourhood families and her stream of visitors.

Those red plastic bags? They can be transformed into plastic flowers to decorate a coffee table. Your organic kitchen waste? This accelerator will turn it into odorless compost in a few weeks. And that potted plant keeps away mosquitoes.

"After the environment becomes green and clean, we become healthy too," she lectures. "If we throw away our garbage, only hundreds of years later will it become earth again. It is a very long time. We have to do something so that our earth is not full of waste."

— Green beginnings for an environmental hero —

Ibu Bambang’s father, an agricultural official during Indonesia’s Dutch colonial period, taught her the importance of living in harmony with the land.

"I am still consistent in my love for plants and in managing waste," she tells AFP during an interview in the fan-cooled classroom attached to her home.

"This is even more relevant now, with the issue of global warming."

In 1980, she moved to Banjarsari with her husband, who became the neighbourhood head. Ibu Bambang, a former teacher, led government-sponsored programmes aimed at improving community life, including one on environmental sustainability.

"I thought: What if I turn this neighbourhood’s environment into one that I have always dreamed of since I was small — one full of plants, one that’s clean. That’s where it all started."

Initially it was tough, as some housewives were illiterate or had very little knowledge of plants, or even basic hygiene and cleanliness.

"Therefore I tried a very personal approach — offering to teach them to read and write, until later they saw me as some sort of mother," she says.

"Only after that, I asked them to help gradually, slowly turn this environment into a green environment."

In 1996, UNESCO enlisted Ibu Bambang in their efforts to introduce integrated waste management at the neighbourhood level.

Jan Steffen, a UNESCO programme specialist, believes the grandmother has held more than 1,000 training sessions since then, received visitors from 31 of 33 Indonesian provinces, as well as about 10 countries in the region.

While similar programmes in Jakarta have launched successfully, they have tended to peter out, Steffen says.

"That’s what makes Ibu Bambang unique: she has not only given a lot of energy towards these initiatives, but she has maintained it over a decade," he said. "She is, in her own modest way, an environmental hero."

— Global warming will destroy our earth; we have to save our earth —

In 2003, Banjarsari was seen as such a success that the government declared it a tourist destination, with visitors able to buy medicinal plants and compost sold by residents, thus giving the neighbourhood an economic incentive for their environmentally-friendly habits.

Now Ibu Bambang provides guidance to other neighbourhoods — about 20 so far — where residents wish to turn green.

Still, not everyone participates. Ibu Bambang estimates just over half the households on Banjasari are fully on board with her programmes. Those opting out are too busy with their work "or too lazy or just do not care," she sighs.

Despite her impeccably green credentials, Ibu Bambang claims not to know too much about climate change — but she has the fundamentals down pat, saying: "I only know that global warming will destroy our earth and we have to save our earth."

Her voice will be heard through a documentary being shown at a global climate change conference Indonesia is hosting this week.

The key UN conference gathering some 190 countries is taking place in Bali with the aim of setting a strategy for negotiations to beef up action against climate change after 2012.

Indonesia, home to massive peatlands and natural forests, follows the United States and China as the world’s third biggest producer of greenhouse gases.

Ibu Bambang realises her efforts at the grassroots of society are a vital component in raising awareness of the threat of global warming.

"I will continue my activities until the end of my life, maybe, rather than do nothing.

"I am being highly sought after by many, but paid by none," she laughs.

"But I am very happy to do that, I am very happy that I can do something for my people, for my country."

Southeast Asia gears up for palm oil boom

JAKARTA, Sept 16, 2007 (AFP) – Southeast Asian nations are gearing up for a palm oil boom as interest in biofuels soars, but activists warn the crop may not satisfy a global thirst for energy that is both clean and green.

They caution that oil palm plantations require massive swathes of land — either what’s left of the region’s disappearing forests, denuded plots that would be better off reforested, or land critical to supporting local people.

Governments and companies have been scrambling to cash in since palm oil prices jumped last year due to spiking demand from China, India and Europe, where biofuels should comprise 10 percent of motor fuels by 2020.

Indonesia has launched a particularly ambitious biofuels expansion programme, which aims to see Southeast Asia’s largest economy source 17 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2025.

Evita Herawati, an assistant to Indonesia’s minister of energy, said 5.5 million hectares (13.5 million acres) will be set aside for biofuel plantations by 2010, 1.5 million hectares of which are for oil palm.

The main objective is "to create jobs and alleviate poverty," with some 3.5 million new jobs being eyed by 2010.

"A lot of forest has been cut down but they didn’t use it at all. We would like to use it for this programme," she told AFP, adding that so far 58 deals worth a total of 12.4 billion dollars have been signed with companies.

She estimated that just in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo island, about 5.5 million hectares are available for use — an area far larger than Denmark and a bit smaller than Sri Lanka. Nine million additional hectares are available elsewhere, Herawati said.

The issue of where the land will come from worries activists, who point out that much of Indonesia’s peatland forests have already been destroyed, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide.

Rully Syumanda, of Indonesia’s environmental watchdog Walhi, said proposing palm oil plantations has been used in recent years in Indonesia "as a pretext to clear land and take the more valuable logs".

He estimates that nearly 17 million hectares of Indonesia’s forests have been cleared ostensibly for oil palm plantations since the 1960s, but only six million hectares have been cultivated.

Though he concedes that the government is now making efforts to reforest, catch offenders and audit the industry, Syumanda said these were "insignificant compared to the damage that is being inflicted on the environment".

Rudi Lumuru, from Sawit Watch, an industry monitor, meanwhile said much of this "empty" land is actually used by local people. He reckons more than 500 communities have been embroiled in conflicts with more than 100 palm oil companies, typically from Malaysia.

"This land has been used since a long time ago by the people. They live on the land, they grow on the land," he said. "The government says people can make money, but it’s about transition of culture. The culture of the farmers, it’s rice, coffee, cocoa — it’s not palm oil."

— Compensation too little to deter corruption —

While compensation payments may be meted out, they end up being meagre thanks to endemic corruption, he added.

The Indonesian industry says it is cleaning up its act.

"The industry now is trying to avoid destroying land," said Derom Bangun, executive chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Association. "Companies no longer clear land by burning or in ways that harm the environment or wildlife."

Indonesian companies have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a WWF-led initiative to engage palm oil companies, and is trying to abide by their principles, he said.

Technology minister Agusman Effendi said that economic factors as well as "sustainability of the environment and the way the government can give extra support to the poor" needed to be considered.

"The ‘what’ has been defined clearly, but the ‘how to’ is the thing that has been criticised by the public," he said.

Companies in Malaysia, the world’s largest palm oil producer — expected to be eclipsed by Indonesia this year — are being lured here by the vast expanses of already-cleared land.

Malaysian plantations minister Peter Chin insists palm oil production does not damage the environment and said Malaysian companies will boost productivity by replanting with higher yielding clones and adopting good agronomic practice.

"We are committed to ensuring that whatever we do now is not at the expense of the environment and our future generations," he said.

According to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, 65 percent of Malaysia’s total land area of almost 33 million hectares is comprised of forest. Palm oil plantations use 12 percent.

Alvin Tai, plantation analyst at OSK Securities, said most of the companies listed on the Malaysian bourse are expanding in Indonesia as landbank in Malaysia is limited.

He said most major plantation firms were RSPO members and "they have the resources to maintain those standards. It’s the smaller plantation owners that are a concern".

— As prices rise, farmers devote more land to palm oil —

Meena Rahman from Friends of the Earth Malaysia disputes the government’s claims and says the group is particularly concerned about projects in Sarawak, on the Malaysian side of Borneo island.

She says there is evidence that 1.5 million hectares of land that was to be set aside for protection and water catchment purposes has been planted with oil palm as well as pulp and wood trees.

"Maybe what Peter Chin is saying is that they are planting palm oil in areas that have already been logged — but they should allow reforestation to take place instead of allowing palm oil expansion," she said.

Malaysia’s northern neighbour Thailand is also getting in on the game.

High prices for palm oil, driven by Bangkok’s search for alternative fuels, have driven more and more farmers to convert rubber and fruit plantations to grow oil palm, an official from Thailand’s agriculture ministry said.

Local prices of palm oil have almost doubled to more than four baht (seven cents) per kilogramme (2.2 pounds) from two baht last year.

Last year Thailand had some 32,000 hectares planted with oil palm, but the area is expected to jump to 81,000 by year end. An additional 400,000 hectares of unused farmland in the south could also be used, the official said.

The government has provided soft loans to help farmers make the switch, and is considering a floor price for the crop, she said, adding that "we don’t have environmental issues" linked to palm oil, like Thailand and Malaysia.

The Philippines meanwhile has about 25,000 hectares under cultivation, but some 454,000 hectares of "disposable land" — pasture or shrubbery — mostly in the south, has been earmarked as well, the agriculture department said.

So far however, only one Singapore-based company has come sniffing, seeking at least 25,000 hectares of land.

Suharto win puts Indonesia court under scrutiny: analysts

JAKARTA, Sept 11, 2007 (AFP) – A decision by Indonesia’s top court to award ex-dictator Suharto millions of dollars in a defamation suit calls the judiciary’s integrity into question and imperils press freedom, activists and analysts warned Tuesday.

The Supreme Court ordered on Monday that US-based Time magazine pay damages to Suharto to the tune of 106 million dollars for publishing an article in 1999 that alleged the former president squirrelled away billions of dollars abroad.

Time said in its story that it had traced some 15 billion dollars in wealth accumulated by Suharto and his six children following a four-month investigation across 11 countries.

This allegedly included nine billion dollars in cash transferred from a Swiss to an Austrian bank shortly after Suharto stepped down in May 1998.

The court also ruled that Time apologise to 86-year-old Suharto, who has never stood trial over persistent allegations of massive corruption during his 32-year rule.

The ruling showed the Supreme Court was out of touch with "the new situation now prevailing in Indonesia," said Amiruddin, a campaign coordinator for Elsham, a private policy institute.

Suharto’s downfall ushered in an era of reform to the world’s fourth most populous nation, but many have been disappointed over the pace of change in some areas — such as the judiciary, where Suharto’s shadow still looms large.

"We can only surmise that the characteristics of many of the Supreme Court judges have not changed from, let us say, 10 years ago. They continue to put Suharto on a pedestal, as he if he was a god," Amiruddin told AFP.

"The only way (to instigate change) is to inject young blood into that institution," he said.

Fadjroel Rachman, who heads an Indonesian research group working to uncover Suharto’s crimes, said he feared the "scandalous" decision may colour other court action underway against Suharto and his youngest son Tommy.

State prosecutors are bringing a civil suit against Suharto over alleged corruption related to some foundations he chaired. They are seeking 1.5 billion dollars in returned state assets and damages.

Tommy meanwhile is facing criminal and civil graft-related suits.

"The Supreme Court is being used to save corruptors… The individuals in the Supreme Court behind this case are Suharto’s proteges," Rachman charged.

He noted that head judge Bagir Manan, who was on the three-judge panel ruling in Suharto’s favour, had cut a jail term Tommy was serving for ordering the murder of a judge.

Manan was also on a panel that quashed the conviction of a pilot for murdering a high-profile activist critical of Suharto-era abuses.

"This is suspicious," he said.

Supreme Court judges — at most, 60 — are selected by a judicial commission and approved by parliament. They retain their post until retirement.

Gunawan Muhammad, former editor of the Tempo weekly news magazine, said that the impact of the decision was to cast "the Supreme Court itself in a bad light," adding that it was also a worrying move for press freedom.

Frans Hendra Winata, a member of the national commission of law, described the ruling as a significant setback for a formerly shackled press which has flourished since Suharto’s demise.

The press "will not be able to help efforts to eradicate corruption and with this verdict, it is now clear on whose side the Supreme Court is… The press will now think twice before reporting on corruption," he said.

Julia Fromholz from Human Rights First, a New York-based organisation that monitors accountability in Indonesia, said the decision stood in stark contrast to the failure to bring rights cases from Suharto’s era to trial.

"The courts have long failed to hold past and current officials accountable for their actions, but this decision even further highlights the persistence of impunity in Indonesia," she told AFP.

Three years on, killer of Indonesian activist still at large

JAKARTA, Sept 6, 2007 (AFP) – Three years after the high-profile Indonesian activist Munir Said Thalib died on an Amsterdam-bound flight after imbibing a lethal dose of arsenic, the mystery of who ordered his death looms large here.

Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said solving the September 7, 2004 murder of Munir, a 37-year-old father of two, would be a test of the nation’s progress in reform since the end of the repressive Suharto era.

So far, Indonesia has failed.

Pollycarpus Priyanto, a Garuda pilot who travelled off-duty on the fateful flight and is accused of links to the powerful national intelligence agency, BIN, was convicted of the murder in 2005.

Munir’s supporters believe someone else masterminded the killing and have campaigned to find out who, suspecting the answer lay within the ranks of BIN.

When the Supreme Court quashed Priyanto’s conviction in October last year, his supporters were stunned.

"We didn’t even get a scapegoat. This was crazy," Usman Hamid, a human rights worker for Kontras, one of the organisations founded by Munir, told AFP.

Thanks to widespread international support, a new head of the police’s criminal investigation department was appointed in 2006 and a new attorney-general installed this year, and the case has been rekindled.

A Jakarta courtroom has been hearing startling fresh testimony from a cast of characters seemingly plucked from the pages of a paperback thriller as state prosecutors seek to have the Supreme Court review their decision.

There’s the long-haired musician, who told police he saw Priyanto with Munir at a coffee shop at Changi airport during transit. He then changed his testimony on the stand, alleging he was whisked to Singapore, where he was warned he would be charged with the murder unless he testified to seeing the pair together.

There’s the detained former Garuda head Indra Setiawan, who was mortified to hear a tape recording aired in court of a phone conversation in which Priyanto assures him the pair have nothing to worry about.

"Almost 90 percent of state functionaries are on our side," including the Supreme Court’s chief and his deputy, the pilot said on the tape.

"And the justice will not be there, will never be there. You are only being sought to go after me, and this is in reality only a political game, so that SBY does not get prodded by the NGOs," Priyanto said, referring to the president by his initials.

Setiawan testified he had received a classified letter from BIN asking that Priyanto be assigned to corporate security, a move that allowed him to gain access to Munir’s flight.

The letter — now missing — links Priyanto solidly to the agency.

Then there is the junior intelligence agent, who told police he was ordered to kill Munir and recounted various plots, including asking a paranormal expert to cast a hex on the activist.

But he later told the court he was only ordered to monitor Munir.

Opinion on how the case will pan out, with its inconsistent evidence, is mixed.

Munir’s widow, Suciwati, told AFP that her grief "requires justice" and that she remains optimistic that the conspiracy will eventually be exposed.

"I’m expecting a good surprise that will bring this case closer to capturing the masterminds and bringing them to justice," she said.

But Ken Conboy, a security analyst who has written a book on Indonesia’s intelligence service, is not convinced.

"Recent Indonesian history is filled with these frustrating mysteries," he said.

"If someone intended this to shut (Munir) up, to send a signal to activists, it hasn’t been the result. The result is that the activists haven’t bowed down to this and Munir is much larger in death than in life," he told AFP.

Asmara Nababan, a member of a fact-finding team appointed by the president to uncover the masterminds — whose report was never made public — believes Priyanto should be re-convicted.

"But to find the one who made the decision… the evidence presented in the court is not enough," Nababan, a former secretary-general of the national human rights commission, told AFP.

He noted that BIN has been "an untouchable institution" for many years and that while Yudhoyono spouts the right rhetoric, he is not sure "that there is really 100 percent support from the president to police."

"If you recall the statement of the president — this is a test of history… I hope we pass this test with a good grade but we’ll see."

Dossier links Indonesian intelligence to activist murder

JAKARTA, Aug 15, 2007 (AFP) – Indonesian state prosecutors have compiled an array of fresh evidence that implicates the powerful state intelligence agency in the murder of a rights activist, according to a document obtained by AFP.

Munir Said Thalib, Indonesia’s most prominent rights activist, was poisoned as he travelled from Jakarta to Amsterdam in September 2004.

He had made many enemies during the rule of dictator Suharto, and after his 1998 downfall.

In a plot worthy of a spy thriller, an off-duty pilot from the state-run airline Garuda Indonesia, who is accused of links to Indonesia’s intelligence agency BIN, was convicted of slipping a lethal dose of arsenic into Munir’s food or drink during his flight.

But in a move sparking international outrage, the Supreme Court last year overturned the verdict against Pollycarpus Priyanto, citing insufficient evidence.

A charge that the pilot used a falsified document to board the same Garuda flight as Munir, however, was upheld and he was jailed for two years, although he walked free shortly afterwards.

Now, amid escalating international pressure to find the culprits, state prosecutors are requesting a so-called judicial case review. This would see the Supreme Court reconsider its own decision, based on an admission of fresh evidence or any errors or consistencies in its verdict.

A dossier detailing the evidence is expected to be submitted to a lower court on Thursday, which will determine whether the request is admissible.

If the review goes ahead, the Supreme Court will hear testimony from a series of new witnesses that again points the finger at the pilot, Priyanto, but also finally links him to BIN, according to the dossier seen by AFP.

Connections between Priyanto and BIN have long been alleged — the pilot made some 41 phone calls, for instance, to a senior BIN official around the time of the murder.

But the new evidence is tighter, said an optimistic Usman Hamid, a human rights worker with Kontras, an organisation founded by Munir, who has also seen the dossier.

In it, prosecutors ask why the Supreme Court, which ruled Priyanto was guilty of using the falsified document, did not insist on finding out why he needed to use it; why he offered to swap his business class seat with Munir, who was in economy; and why he had called Munir, whom he did not know, before the flight.

"This is what should have been looked into during the appeal process — the extent of the correlation between the use of the false document with the death of the victim, Munir," state prosecutors say in the document.

Testimony from five new witnesses is recounted, including that of a junior intelligence agent, Raden Mohammad Patma Anwar, who told investigators that he had been ordered by a superior to kill Munir before presidential elections in October 2004 — a month before his death.

Among a series of potential scenarios plotted for Munir’s death was one involving a paranormal expert casting a bad spell on him.

A colleague of the agent "managed to meet with the paranormal expert, but the hex did not work because Munir had a kris," the document cites the agent as saying. A kris is a traditional sword believed to ward off evil.

The agent also said he had seen Priyanto in the parking lot of the BIN headquarters.

Testimony is also recounted from a musician on board the flight who claims he saw Priyanto deliver a drink to Munir during transit at Singapore’s Changi airport.

"The witness saw Pollycarpus coming from the drinks counter carrying two drinks glasses… The witness saw Munir talking to Pollycarpus while drinking," it says.

A medical doctor says the arsenic that killed the 38-year-old father of two appears to have been administered during the transit period.

As well, former Garuda director Indra Setiawan, who is in custody and is expected to be charged with being an accessory to the murder, recounts that he signed a letter assigning Priyanto to assist the carrier’s corporate security unit following a written demand from a senior BIN officer.

The incriminating BIN letter disappeared along with Setiawan’s bag from his car in December 2004, but his testimony alone would link Priyanto to BIN.

Matt Easton, a senior associate with Human Rights First, a US-based organisation that has followed the case closely, said that a credible review of Priyanto’s case is a first step for Indonesia’s judicial system.

"But police and prosecutors can’t stop there if the Indonesian government is serious about holding those who planned and ordered Munir’s murder accountable," he said in an email.

The fresh evidence has left Kontras’ Hamid optimistic. For him, nothing short of Indonesia’s democracy is at stake.

"I cannot imagine how the Indonesian government, Indonesian democracy, can continue if those individuals remain untouchable in the future," he told AFP.

"Law enforcement is just an illusion if we are not able to solve this case. The evidence is there, the witnesses are there. We have no excuse to get out of this situation."

Indonesians told ‘inconvenient truth’ of climate change

JAKARTA, July 19, 2007 (AFP) – In a darkened auditorium on a weekday afternoon, Indonesians are warned that floods in their capital will become more catastrophic and the haze-inducing fires blazing through their forests are partly to blame. A message from Al Gore has arrived.

For the first time in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation and its third largest carbon emitter, a tailored version of the climate change slideshow delivered by former US vice president Gore and featured in the smash movie "An Inconvenient Truth" is underway.

Emerald Starr, an American environmental engineer based in Bali, was one of 200 people trained directly by Gore last year to spread his environmental message around the world.

While Starr has presented the results of his week-long training several times on the resort island, this is the first show to include detailed Indonesian data provided by environmental group WWF, so the impact is strong.

Graphs with soaring and plunging lines are interspersed with startling images of devastation: drought-scarred landscapes in Australia, the wreckage of a typhoon in the Philippines, flood victims in India.

The several-hundred strong audience gasps at photographs of polar bears and penguins perched on melting chunks of ice, as statistic after statistic shows that humans must take responsibility — immediately — for climate change.

Some 60,000 species have disappeared in the past 100 years; 30 new diseases have emerged since 1976. And if current trends continue, a map of Indonesia bleeding blue shows what will happen as a result of rising sea levels by 2070.

"Two islands off Madura (an island off the north coast of Java) are gone and Jakarta — you can imagine the devastation," Starr says.

Indonesia’s main contribution to global warming is through the burning of its forests. Companies typically have concessions of 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) — three times the size of Jakarta — and some as many as a million, or twice the size of Bali, Starr says.

While the wood is used for pulp, palm oil plantations soon follow, though the companies are supposed to replace the trees with acacia.

"Actually Indonesia has very good environmental policies, but they need to be enforced," Starr explains.

The audience is receptive, but they want to know whether the talk will be repeated elsewhere in Indonesian, rather than English.

"Somebody in the audience is training tonight and if anyone here tonight is interested in that please come and see me," replies Starr, who may deliver his presentation to a UN conference on climate change on Bali in December.

They are also thirsty for more knowledge on what they can do practically. Starr tells them to recycle; to carpool; to change their light-bulbs.

"Never underestimate the power of individual citizens taking steps individually," says Starr, who is not paid for his time here. "Everything you do matters. Nothing is frivolous at this point."

— "All of us have a mission" —

Arif Hasyim, a 35-year-old director of a biogas company, is taken aback by the Indonesian data and tells AFP that people must get organised.

"I myself was quite shocked with what’s happening in Indonesia. It actually had more of an effect on us, because when you’re talking about climate change, (you think of it) happening somewhere else, but not to us," Hasyim says.

"But what about the follow up? What do we have to do? All of us have a mission to gather people together again to move on, from just getting information to the action."

Eric Natanael, a 33-year-old environmental engineer, says the show was "like half of a complete presentation. The other half is what you can do, really, in real terms".

Hundreds of businesspeople are expected to attend Starr’s evening session, but some are here now, including Suzy Hutomo, the CEO of the Body Shop Indonesia.

"I see now that the impact for Indonesia is very real," she says.

"The Body Shop has been ‘green’ but personally now I intend to spread the message to people I know, to my customers."

After meeting with audience members, Starr is pleased with the reaction.

"People were so enthusiastic," he says. "I believe people are going to go out and do something and start making some changes in their lives from this. That’s the most exciting part."

Dr Love brings good sex to Indonesia

JAKARTA, July 17, 2007 (AFP) – When Singapore’s Dr Love invites you up to his hotel room, you don’t say no. And once you’re inside, he doesn’t disappoint.

The doctor’s got plans for educating close to the entire world about sex. The starting point is his laptop — and Indonesia.

Wei Siang Yu, nicknamed "Dr Love" for his flamboyant, non-conventional methods of sex education for Singaporeans, has now launched his innovative programme in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

Indonesians can send anonymous questions about sex via mobile phone text messages. And an avatar called "Nova" — a virtual character with artificial intelligence — will then answer.

Some might get a personal response from one of the Indonesian doctors on the panel behind "Nova". But all the queries will be compiled and responded to on the "Love Airways" website, where anyone can log on and learn, he says.

"It’s a boarding pass — it’s like a journey," the enthusiastic Australian-trained doctor gushes, as he logs on to the site.

Backed by Fiesta, a major condom brand in Indonesia, the site also features a sex forum where users can ask each other questions.

"The best solution is not just to tell people what to do and not to do, but rather to create a big forum using multi-media… This way we get the real questions," says Dr Love.

"It’s about real content. It’s about sex education made by the people for the people."

With his buttonless white shirt, trademark square glasses, checked trousers and white shoes, the 37-year-old, who is something of a celebrity in Singapore, looks more DJ than doctor-turned-inventor.

"The world has been running sex education campaigns presuming that people will follow what the system wants — but we don’t actually know what is on the ground, qualitatively," he says.

Sex surveys, he complains, have sample sizes that are too small and answers that are unreliable.

"Talking about sex is pretty much taboo still in Asia," he says.

Indonesia already has mainstream relationship advice readily available in the media, as well as commercial public seminars offering advice on sexual health. But nothing packaged quite this slickly.

Giving people an opportunity to ask questions anonymously will help public health educators find out what communities really want to know, he says.

Dr Love is upbeat about the prospect of Indonesians getting involved, saying they are more relaxed about such things than their reputedly straitlaced Singaporean neighbours.

"The Singaporean threshold of good quality sex may not be the same as the threshold of good quality sex in Indonesia. I think the people here are more relaxed. They understand quality is very, very important," he says.

And is Dr Love fearful of ruffling feathers among Indonesia’s small band of radical Islamists? Not really.

"Number one, we are not aligned with any religion… We are not bringing foreign content to impose on the culture," he responds.

"I don’t drive the content, they will drive it themselves."

The Indonesian programme follows similar campaigns run for 10 days in both Holland and Singapore, though this one is rolling out indefinitely — and it is the first time a so-called AI avatar is being used.

"Imagine you have a computer system that gathers 20,000 questions and answers that come from Indonesia, answered by doctors… Later on in this AI system, the avatar will be able to answer your question or help you to pick questions and a relevant answer to your query," he says.

"You are going to educate your own avatar in your country, to represent you and answer your questions."

Besides the website, which is in English now but will soon be in Indonesian, the answers to more common questions will also be disseminated via the Love Airways magazine.

The glossy is already on the shelves in conservative Singapore, and is scheduled to debut here late this year.

The "adult wellness" magazine, backed by his company Meggpower, touches on everything from where to escape with your spouse for a romantic holiday to sexually transmitted diseases.

A late-night television advice show similar to one Dr Love hosted in Singapore is also in the pipeline for Indonesia.

The text message programme will be rolled out to Malaysia next, followed by India and China.

The campaign is "a revolution of the whole landscape of sex education where now you can ask a question in privacy — anytime, anywhere," he says.

"At the end of the day, it’s a whole total revamp of sexual health epidemiology in the world."

Indonesia’s new investment stance: a confusing step forward?

JAKARTA, July 15, 2007 (AFP) – Indonesia’s new list of foreign investment limits by sector has caused head-scratching among investors. But analysts and the government say that despite confusion, it is a step towards untangling the infamous bureaucracy of Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

Indonesia is seeking to court foreign investment, with leaders insisting they are addressing concerns about entrenched corruption, red tape and legal uncertainty so the sprawling and unclear list immediately raised eyebrows.

The 61-page regulation, purportedly aimed at protecting the national interest and bolstering the development of domestic small and medium-sized enterprises, was unveiled early this month and replaces a 2001 list.

It compiles a dizzying array of sectors and subsectors and their level of protection: for instance foreign ownership of a karaoke bar is set at a maximum of 50 percent, landscape architectural services at 55 percent and hospital services at 65 percent.

But Anton Gunawan, a Citibank investment analyst, praised the list for its relative clarity.

"In general, this list is much clearer than previous ones, which were not so transparent and contained a lot more grey areas. The current list is much more detailed," he told AFP.

What remains puzzling, however, are the criteria that were used to determine the size of permissible foreign share ownership, he said.

"If we want to talk majority, minority, then it is a simple 49-51 percent thing…. But what people want to know is, for example, what does it mean to have a 95 percent ceiling compared to a 65 percent ceiling?"

Indonesia’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Kadin) chairman Muhammad Hidayat has been meeting with members who are similarly baffled.

"What is the philosophy behind the choice of divisions for foreign ownership?" he asked.

Hidayat declined to comment further ahead of a meeting with Indonesia’s coordinating economy minister Budiono on Monday but said Kadin would seek a series of explanations.

"We would like to convince the government not to reject the DNI (negative investment regulation) but to make the DNI more complete and more simple in business terms…. There are several grey areas," he said.

Among the controversial changes are tighter limits on foreign ownership of cellular operators, from 95 percent to 65 percent; of insurance companies, from 99 to 80 percent; and pharmaceutical companies, which have an upper limit now of 75 percent, down from 100.

Other sectors, however, have been opened to foreign competition, including health and education.

Muhammad Ikhsan, a special adviser to Budiono, said this was the first time an array of sector regulations had been put into one umbrella list.

While some sectors on paper now appear more closed than previously, he said in practice they were never actually open — if a foreign company approached a ministry seeking permission to invest in a sector, they were rebuffed.

"This is the first time we have synchronised all regulations. In the past, there were a lot of conflicting regulations," he told AFP.

"We are still open to discussion about what sectors we make more open."

Ikhsan said about 111 subsectors are now more open, but 32 could be considered more restrictive, with others basically keeping their status quo.

"What we want to do is to make it transparent, fully clear, and also give certainty for old and new investors," he said, noting that the changed levels of investment were not retroactive.

Ikhsan said general guidelines to accompany the regulation would be drafted based on Kadin’s questions.

"This is not final. It’s still open for evaluation," he said.

"They deserve to complain because we need to explain it more — even among ourselves we need explanations about how to interpret the regulation," he conceded.

In an editorial on the new regulation, the Jakarta Post noted that much more needed to be done in Indonesia to lure foreign cash than just creating level playing fields.

"Opening up business sectors to foreign investment does not automatically mean foreign investors would come in their hordes," it said.

"Therefore we should see this new regulation and negative list as an initial step. It needs follow-up action to woo investors, which in turn would create employment and then wealth for our people."

Indonesia winning plaudits in post-9/11 terrorism battle

JAKARTA, Sept 7, 2006 (AFP) – The Bali bombings brought the horror of September 11 to Asia, but Indonesia took a different approach to the United States in tackling the Al-Qaeda threat which has met with considerable success.

The 2002 blasts on Indonesia’s palm-fringed island of Bali claimed the lives of 202 people, mostly western holidaymakers, in the bloodiest attack to follow the September 11, 2001 atrocities in the United States.

It opened a Southeast Asian front in the so-called "war on terror" by the United States and its allies, and put the spotlight on the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where politicians had denied a terror threat existed.

Indonesia surprised many observers by swiftly tracking down the main militants and putting them on trial.

In contrast, the United States has secured only one conviction over the September 11 bombings and has instead chosen to hold hundreds of terrorism suspects indefinitely without trial in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and other unknown locations.

In total, Indonesia has arrested and tried more than 30 militants from the Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah regional network. Three key bombers are on death row awaiting execution.

It was largely pressure from a sceptical public that forced Indonesia — then just emerging as a democracy in the wake of former dictator Suharto’s long rule — to use its justice system to pursue those responsible, analysts said.

"There was an awful lot of pressure from politicians. I don’t think they could have taken a harder line upfront," Jakarta-based security analyst Ken Conboy said.

The police had to convince a public — inclined to believe the attacks were the plot of anti-Islamic foreign governments, or that Indonesians were incapable of launching such a well-planned operation on their own — that the threat was real.

To do so, they allowed Amrozi, one of the key bombers, to speak to the media while in custody. His laughter and carefree demeanour outraged many relatives of the victims.

"They had a purpose: to show they hadn’t coerced a confession out of him. He willingly spoke and that changed a lot of minds in the country," Conboy told AFP.

"The way police handled the original arrests helped people realise that there was a terrorist network. They overcame their collective denial."

Working with counterparts from around the world, the government campaign erased the top layers of the organisation, leaving only lower level, ad hoc cells operational, Conboy said.

"You could basically count on one hand the real dangerous aggressor JI figures," he said, adding that these would include Malaysian fugitive Noordin Mohammad Top and Zulkaernan, both among Asia’s most wanted men.

Indonesian police also took a unique approach in dealing with terrorists after their arrests, said Sarlito Wirawan, a senior psychologist from the Universitas Indonesia who has worked with police on cases.

"After they are in detention, they are treated very humanely. Police chat with them, pray with them… They are not pressured under a barrage of questioning," he said.

"This approach has helped several of the suspects, if not change their views radically, at least make them more cooperative."

And due to tight family and friendship ties, just a few helpful suspects have been significant, he said.

"This has made it easy for the police. Once a suspect is caught it is relatively easy to follow the thread and catch the others," he added.

The Southeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group Sidney Jones outlined the distinct approach Indonesia employed to deal with the overall terror threat compared to the United States.

"I think the difference is that the Indonesians have been scrupulous about abiding by the rule of law," she said.

"That is, not engaging in wider spread arbitrary arrests, not holding people for long periods without charge, abiding by existing criminal procedural standards, bringing people to trial in trials fully open to the public and letting them go when they have served their sentences."

Indonesia largely did so unexpectedly, she said, after it was accused of not taking terrorism seriously.

"I think the way that Indonesia has handled terrorism after the first Bali bombing has pretty much silenced that criticism," she said, noting that the country was also only a young democracy.

"I don’t think anybody would have expected a country that had as bad a human rights record under Suharto and a problematic legal system would have done as well with handling terrorism cases."

But despite the successes, the threat of small-scale attacks persists in Indonesia, analysts warn.

"I think there probably will be another terrorist bombing, probably in the next couple of months, simply because some of these guys like Noordin Top, that’s all they do," Conboy predicted.

"Unless you catch them, that’s what they’re working towards. He’s not going to hang up his explosives vest and say he quits."