Andre Vltchek is a Czech-born American writer who has written for Der Spiegel, Asahi Shimbun, the Guardian, and many other international papers. He has reported on the violence of the neo-liberal order from all over the globe, but especially from Indonesia, about which he has made a ground-breaking documentary: Terlena: Breaking of a Nation. Andre is also the author of several works of non-fiction and fiction in Czech and in English, the latest of which is Point of No Return, a colorful tale about an international reporter whose determined effort to distance himself from the horrors he covers is shattered first by a woman and then by the events of 9-11 — the “point of no return” of the title. On the net, Vltchek’s progressive writings can be found on ZNet and at the Oakland Institute.
Andre, can you tell us something about yourself and your career as an international reporter? What got you interested in war and economics in the post-colonial world? Did your upbringing in Eastern Europe condition the way you see events?
My upbringing in Eastern Europe played quite an important role. I grew up in Czechoslovakia — a country which called itself “socialist” but in fact was run by a depressing bunch of balding and overweight uncles with no spark and hardly any idealism. I was just a kid when Soviet tanks rolled in, putting an end to the “Prague Spring” or what was then called “Socialism With A Human Face.” It was a time full of contradictions. The fact that my mother was half Russian and half Asian did not help. I had to learn how to think when I was 3 or 4. I had to live through the conflict — political and personal — from an early age. When I think about it, I was always “in the opposition” — my entire life, in Czechoslovakia . . . in the US . . . everywhere.
I have never worked permanently for any news agency. I have a phobia of being permanently employed. I would first find the story which I wanted to cover and then I would find the media. If the media didn’t have enough money to pay for my investigation in the field, I would first have to make money by other means as a simultaneous interpreter or a consultant or by doing projects for the UN. Then I would hit the road and do what I wanted to do. I covered many conflicts from Peru to Sri Lanka, Nepal, East Timor, Turkey, Indonesia. And I lived in many different countries including the US, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Vietnam, Samoa, Indonesia. I can’t stay in one place. I have no place which I call home. It is sometimes very confusing and frustrating, but it is always fun.
You say that you first find the story and then find the media. Can you explain that unusual approach? What is it that draws you to a story? What do you think are the important uncovered stories of today and why?
Lila, the usual approach would be to work permanently for one media company and cover whatever they tell you to cover. I simply can’t do that. In order to write something — anything — I have to be obsessed with the topic.
I see the present arrangement of the world as criminal. A small group of historically bandit nations exercising full control over the rest of the world. I feel very passionately about it. Therefore I write on the subject as much as I can.
I can mention two enormous and uncovered stories from the region where I work right now:
One story is about the Indonesian ability to get away with an ongoing genocide. Since independence, Java has been acting like the most brutal colonial thug. It is intolerant, extremely nationalistic, and racist. In 1965, the Indonesian military and religious cadres managed to slaughter between 500 thousand and 3 million communists, leftists, atheists, and members of national minorities. That was after the coup backed by the US. It was probably the most brutal massacre anywhere in the world after Second World War — on par with the US killing in Indochina. But it didn’t stop there. In 1975, Indonesia occupied East Timor (again, an act encouraged by the West) killing and starving to death around 200,000 people — one third of the population. Systematic killing is still taking place in Aceh, Papua, Ambon, and parts of Sulawesi, in places which are striving for independence. Jakarta denies all this. Coverage of these events in the West is extremely shallow. The outside world sees Indonesia as a quite “normal” country, a democracy.
Another story I can mention is what I have named the “Pacific Wall.” The US, Australia, and New Zealand (buddies from the Vietnam war) have essentially fragmented the entire South Pacific region. It is incredible, but nobody in the West has heard about it. Even Noam Chomsky wrote to me that he had no idea this was happening.
It works like this: New Zealand and Australia are now demanding “transit visas” from people who just land at their airports and change planes at the transit area. The US is demanding the same at its gateways in Guam and Hawaii. As a result, the US, New Zealand, and Australia have full control over any movement of people in this vast region. For instance, if a citizen of Samoa has to visit Papua and New Guinea (PNG) or the Solomon Islands, he or she has to apply for an Australian transit visa as there are no direct flights between the two countries. To get such a visa is almost impossible. In the meantime, local airlines are collapsing one after another, being taken over by carriers such as Virgin Blue. Continental Micronesia has basically got a monopoly in Micronesia. Anyone going from Palau to FSM or Marshalls has to go through Guam, undergoing a humiliating immigration and customs procedure. If someone from the island of Yap (FSM) wants to fly to his own capital, the only way to get there is by Continental Micronesia, via Guam. If, let’s say, a reporter from Philippines wants to get to the Marshall Islands to cover some story related to US military missile testing there, he or she would need a US transit visa, as, again, the only way to get there is to take Continental Micronesia via Guam. If an Indonesian citizen has to fly to Chile or Peru (no visa required), he would have to apply for an Australian transit visa, which is almost impossible to get, or otherwise spend days and tons of money flying through Europe. That’s total control of this enormous region. The US, Australia, and NZ can now freely decide who can go where in the Pacific: they can decide who can visit PNG, FSM, or the Marshalls. They can also monitor the movement of people. Isn’t this a tremendous story? I actually worked in all these places: PNG, the Kingdom of Tonga, Samoa (West and US), Fiji, Palau, FSM. I have testimonies from their government officials, UN workers, common citizens. I have observed intimidation tactics at immigration facilities in Guam, Brisbane, Sydney, Auckland. But you bet no mainstream media is interested in this story!
WESTERN TERROR: From Potosi to Baghdad by Andre Vltchek
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Yes, indeed. I can also see why it’s a story that the traditional media outlets might be wary of covering. Would it be accurate to say that what we are seeing is control being extended by the traditional colonial powers and their allies over a great part of the world? Do you see this as a return to the colonial period, as some have? Certainly that is the argument of both a non-fiction work of yours like Western Terror from Potosi to Baghdad and your novel, Point of No Return. I would like you to talk a little bit about this “re-colonization” as you have depicted it in your writing.
I don’t really see it as re-colonization, since I don’t see the “New World Order” as being new. Colonization never stopped. The desire to steal and control never disappeared. There were just some tactical maneuvers, some adjustments. We used to live in a bipolar world — that was what helped Africa and other parts of the world to gain independence from the traditional colonial powers. But how strong were these newly independent nations after centuries of plunder? Many of them lost their culture, their language, their way of doing things. As Argentinean writer Abel Posse once put it: “even our gods were in exile.”
But one thing is different now. Even the most brutal and cynical colonizer of the past felt that he had some moral responsibility towards the country he was occupying. Of course, he did go ahead and rape everyone and everything around anyway . . . but at least he felt obliged sometimes to show some benevolence, so he would be able to sleep at night. The French built schools, hospitals, operas, and municipal buildings in Indochina. The British empire built infrastructure, an administration system, and an education system — their own, of course — in India. Not much compared with what they had stolen or destroyed first; not much considering they were not supposed to be there in the first place. But they made some pro-forma effort.
What is amazing is that modern colonialism has developed into an unbridled cloud of locusts with no emotions, no spirituality, no center. In the past, colonialism was the act of a particular nation. And each nation consisted of politicians or monarchs, soldiers, and business people; but it also had thinkers, writers, clergy — most of them complacent but some progressive — people of good will who didn’t want others to suffer. And the former colonial powers still had to face their own citizens. Today, the colonizer is a faceless system of intertwined multi-nationals. It is some sort of secretive club — definitely not democratically elected and definitely not transparent. It doesn’t have to answer to anybody. Its only goal is to make money and to control. And to do it as quickly as possible. It does not deal in morality or philosophy. If it destroys the planet in the process, so be it. If it ruins democracy somewhere in Latin America or Africa, who cares?
POINT OF NO RETURN by Andre Vltchek
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Can you expand on your reference to the facelessness of this New World Order? After all, despite the internationalism of global organizations, they are usually dominated by the former colonial powers. In what way is what we are seeing today so very different from the past? Do you believe that this facelessness encourages the disengagement from politics with which you charge contemporary artists and writers in Point of No Return and elsewhere?
It is very simple. One hundred years ago, oppressed people knew exactly who their enemy was. If they had chosen to, they knew whom to fight. The enemy had a face. The oppressor had his flag, his language, his weapons, and his uniform. It was all very straightforward. Brutal but simple.
These days, billions of people living in gutters all over the world have no idea whom to blame for their misery. Sure, they can blame multi-nationals, but that’s abstract. One could reply — which multi-national? And what exactly do they do? How do they function? How do they steal? Then it gets very complicated, because companies are much more secretive than countries, even empires. Or poor people somewhere in Africa might say — let’s blame it on the United States. Well, I am not so sure about that either. The US is both victimizer and victim. I have written a lot about this aspect of the empire. The US has a disproportionately larger underclass than any other rich country on earth. And even middle-class people live in constant fear of losing their jobs, getting sick, having to pay for the education of their kids. Citizens of the US are targeted by propaganda more than citizens of Europe and Japan.
And this global dictatorship is not controlled only by the United States. There is almost the whole of Europe involved, too. And Japan. And Singapore, and lately Korea and Taiwan. There are tens of thousands of local members of elites who would sell their own mother in order to be accepted into the ruling clan. Look at Peru, Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia — how brutal and racist their elites are. They are also part of that clique which is controlling the world.
As to the disengagement of artists — that’s a totally different story. The reason is mostly financial. Artists and writers have to eat, too. And they want to be admired, to be “relevant.” In the Reagan era, conservatives began to win the propaganda battle and discredited everything intellectual. The aura of glory around great writers rapidly disappeared. Suddenly, an artist was nobody, unless he or she would manage to make a huge sum of money. In order to make money, artists would have to be published and promoted. In order to be published and promoted, they would have to be careful not to offend the publishing houses which were increasingly becoming part of the system of multi-nationals. And so on and on. Those who went against the establishment were made irrelevant.
The only exception were those who managed to offend the system on such an enormous scale (like Chomsky or Moore) that it gained them a huge following and, therefore, from the point of view of publishers, they were worth being considered as commodities.
Well, you are involved in publishing too at the moment, aren’t you? Tell us about your vision for Mainstay Press and what you hope to accomplish. Tell us also about the reaction to your fiction and to your film work, for instance, to the documentary, Terlena.
Approximately one year ago, I was approached by two great writers — Tony Christini and Mike Palecek. They had read my stuff about Arundhati Roy. After some planning, the three of us decided that we were going to launch a publishing house. That’s how Mainstay Press (www.mainstay.org) was born. Our funds are extremely limited but our plans are enormous. We would like to help to bring progressive political fiction back to the mainstream!
I say “back” because it became marginal only quite recently. People are not stupid: they want to read books, even novels, about the issues which are important — about politics, war and peace, discrimination, poverty, manipulation. . . They want to know who controls their lives, who is tampering with their country. They have been deprived of the knowledge by the mainstream media, publishing houses and bookstores. Look at the past: Hemingway was a bestseller and so was John Steinbeck. Joseph Heller, too, trashed the military in Catch-22 and the corporate world in Good as Gold. And Richard Wright’s Native Son — what a book, what a novel about racism! Just thinking about it gives me goose-bumps. And you know what — it sold! So this recent development — this marginalizing of the political novel — is absolutely unnatural.
As I mentioned before, both the other founders of Mainstay Press are brilliant authors. Tony Christini’s Glory is just out and so is his Homefront. Both are great works of pure and tremendously relevant political fiction.
Now, about my film Terlena — Breaking of a Nation. It is a 90-minute long documentary about how Suharto’s US-backed dictatorship in Indonesia systematically destroyed people — teachers, intellectuals — as well as any independent thought. It is the longest and most complete film about the horror of Indonesia up to date. I dumped all my savings into it — I simply had to do it but I am terrible with getting funding. The film has been shown all over the world: in New Zealand, Vietnam, Holland, Spain, Uruguay, Chile, Malaysia, in New York. . . . I was even invited to run seminars at some prestigious universities like the one in Auckland NZ, at Hong Kong University. . . . But when it comes to commercial distribution — nothing. It’s too open, too “controversial.” Still, people think it is powerful. I guess the most touching reaction I got was when I showed it in Santiago de Chile and a woman came to me, tears in her eyes, saying: “I survived Pinochet’s dictatorship. I had no idea that the same things were happening on the other side of the world.”
You are also working with two towering progressive figures — Noam Chomsky and the great Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Can you tell us something more about both collaborations and about their criticism of the “apolitical” stance of some liberal intellectuals and artists?
EXILE: Conversations With Pramoedya Ananta Toer by Andre Vltchek, Rossie Indira, and Nagesh Rao
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I wrote a book with Pramoedya Ananta Toer called Exile, together with Rossie Indira. I also used him in the film — Terlena — as one of the main story-tellers. Pram, as he is known in Indonesia, is probably the greatest living Southeast Asian writer. He is older than 80 now and unfortunately he can’t write anymore. This book of conversations is his last testimony. Chomsky read it when it was still a manuscript and called it, “Fascinating . . . endlessly sad.” And it is sad. Pram is living in something that can be only described as internal exile. He feels rejected by his own country.
Pram spent many years in Buru concentration camp — that’s where Suharto’s regime was sending those great intellectuals it didn’t dare to kill. Buru is an island — close to Ambon — in the middle of nowhere. Pram has been nominated for Nobel Price year after year, but now many people are joking that he is like an Indonesian Solzhenitsyn — only he spent years in the “wrong” camps.
Now, I am in the middle of writing a book with Chomsky. A book about the US involvement in Asia. He has always been very kind to me — for many years we had a close correspondence which I still treasure. His friendship means a lot to me, as I consider him to be one of the greatest thinkers today, but also a very warm and wonderful human being. The last time I came to New York, when Terlena was opening, he was in the city, speaking at Colombia University and NYU. We met in West Village and ended up walking for hours. We grabbed two cups of coffee and ended up talking in the park, on a bench. I wish I could do it more often . . . say, once a week!
Toer and Chomsky both write that the apolitical position is the most thoroughly political position. To live in a society and pay taxes is to accept the power relations in that society and thus to be political and to a lesser or greater degree complicit in the acts of the state. Thus, the invasion of Iraq, the dispossession of Palestinians, the threats directed against Iran, the failure to address the needs of the poorest countries and the weakest groups during the so-called development round of the World Trade Organization can take place only because not enough people protest or rebel against these developments. And they stay silent out of fear of reprisals, intimidation, or isolation. That being so, what do you consider viable forms of resistance available to citizens — not simply of the US — but of all countries in which the Empire has its outposts?
I recently interviewed Eduardo Galeano and I asked him a very similar question. He snapped at me: “I hate it when people expect me to say ‘the way to do it is . . . ‘.” He claims that people will find the way to resist and intellectuals just have to listen to them and support the form of struggle they choose. I respect Galeano tremendously, but I am not sure that there is really so much time to wait until people decide. . . . There are billions of men, women and children living in misery while we are waiting. So I think that both the masses and the intellectuals have to think — either together or in parallel. And ask exactly the question which you asked: “What is the way . . . ?”
As I said before, this system does not have a traditional identity. It is impossible and insane to fight it in any conventional way. It doesn’t have a motherland, capital city, or any particular building from which it runs its operations. It doesn’t have a flag which you can burn or a face which you can ridicule.
I think that the most important task is to identify it, how it functions, of what it consists, its strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, we have to document the crimes it is committing. We know very little. We have to learn more. Once we learn more, we have to share this information with the public. We have to find the vehicle to do it; we have to learn how to inform people.
To claim that we are marginalized will not do. We are, of course, but we still have to find the way to approach masses of people: how to create our own independent media networks, publishing houses, newspapers.
This system has managed to marginalize the truth. Look at Chomsky. It is understood that he is brilliant, but the system has attached a sticker to his forehead, claiming that he is “radical.” No matter how often I read his books, I can’t figure out what is radical about him. What he writes is logical. There are hardly any analytical mistakes. So what I am saying is that the truth has to again become “mainstream,” not something that is labeled as extreme.
But there are many different ways to resist. Look at Venezuela. There, the government decided that it is simply going to prevent the system from stealing from the people. And the government received a mandate from the people through the vote. And all these mighty corporations and oil companies suddenly couldn’t do anything! When Chavez declared that he was going to raise taxes, they protested, resisted, but in the end, they had to accept it. The same may happen in Bolivia with its natural gas. We have to study these examples and draw our own conclusions.
Yes, I am always surprised at how little power people think they possess when the truth is really the reverse. If everyone, everywhere, together simply drew the line at certain things, then we would not have the present set-up at all. For one person, it might be refusing to pay taxes, for another it might be environmental activism, for someone else, adopting a simpler lifestyle that eliminates the demand that drives many corporations. For those who are better off, it might mean refusing to invest in companies guilty of violations of human rights or refusing to do business with someone; for others, it could mean showing their clout as consumers — tuning out a show, boycotting a company. Or, on the positive side, buying a book or making a donation. Reducing wasteful energy consumption. Even if it means social ostracism, writing, signing petitions, demonstrating. And always, everywhere speaking up for what is true and just and resists the corruption of power. Andre Vltchek — your work is a great step toward that goal. Thank you.
Andre Vltchek’s Writings:
1. Point of No Return (Mainstay Press, 2005)
2. Exile — Conversations with Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Haymarket Books, 2006)
3. Saya Terbakar Amarah Sendirian! — Pramoedya Ananta Toer dalam perbincangan dengan Andre Vltchek & Rossie Indira (Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, January 2006)
4. Western Terror: From Potosi to Baghdad (Mainstay Press, February 2006)
Lila Rajiva is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore. She has an advanced degree in politics from the Johns Hopkins University and has taught at the University of Maryland. Her writings can be found on Dissident Voice, CounterPunch, and AlterNet, among others. Her book The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media was published by Monthly Review Press this year. The schedule of her speaking engagements is available here. Would you like to invite Lila Rajiva to meet and talk to your group? Contact Martin Paddio at <email@example.com>.