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HARD NEWS 10/9/99 - Blood and Fear

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HARD NEWS 10/9/99 - Blood and Fear

GOOD DAY MEDIAPHILES ... it is the genius of Paul Holmes that he somehow contrives for you to watch his show just when the shit is hitting the fan.

And so it was on Wednesday night, that having wandered into the living room, I found myself waiting while Holmes padded - very well, if the truth be known - and then watching as the Prime Minister emerged from her apparently delayed motorcade to stand in front of more cameras than she'd ever seen before and conduct much the most serious briefing in her political career.

And you could tell. Her speech, couched, cautious, inviting the Indonesian government to call the UN if it couldn't manage, was very probably the work of her departing Foreign Affairs minister. Don McKinnon. It would have sounded better if he'd actually delivered it.

But this is Jenny Shipley's Apec. And so she ploughed into it, taking big gulps of air between every sentence, speaking a little too quickly, and, at one point, stumbling badly on her script. I don't know about you, but it made me bloody nervous.

She seemed no more composed the next day. She plainly has the fear and it's hard to escape the conclusion that, as the people of East Timor face genocide and Indonesia looks down the barrel of a military coup, she's very lucky she's still got McKinnon to call on. Can you imagine Max Bradford handling this stuff?

Yet even McKinnon's trademark softly-softly approach has been rendered farcical by events. We could insist all we wanted that Timor would had no place on the agenda of an economic summit, but humanity dictated otherwise. For all that we sought to spare the sensibilities of President Habibie, he isn't coming now - and could well now be irrelevant anyway.

If nothing else, this week's events have shown how painfully narrow is New Zealand's international dialogue. While the New Zealand government dodged the issue, the Canadians, of all people, called and chaired a crisis meeting in Auckland.

And why is it that the Australians seem so much more confident in their public life? Their Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Affairs minister Alexander Downer, who had far more call to tread carefully than we did, didn't. They were forthright, they were critical, they were frank.

Yet at every step New Zealand has baulked. A day after McKinnon said it would be premature to suspend out ties with the out-of-control Indonesian military, the Americans did just that.

It's impossible to watch a people and their places being steadily erased by thugs without feeling that something, anything should be done. But what? A couple of Australian newspapers actually canvassed the idea of going to war with Indonesia, but that, frankly, is not a starter.

The one thing that shouldn't happen is for the United Nations to abandon the fledgling democracy it helped to create. For so long as UN people want to stay there and provide shelter for the innocent, they ought to be there.

I often wonder if, in these situations, there is a level of diplomacy where diplomacy is left behind - where people get shouted at and bullied and told they will be cut off at the knees if they don't pull into line. If that ever happens, it needs to be now.

But what do Indonesians themselves think of the bloodbath taking place at the tip of their archipelago? From the look of Internet newsgroups, they seem to have bought the line that what is going on in East Timor is a civil war. That, having wilfully cut themselves off from their adoptive nation, the crazy Timorese are killing each other.

Timor is no stranger to internal warfare. Back when the Portugese were kicked out of Jakarta and came to stay in 1664, there were warring tribes in Timor. But that's not, as we know, what's happening now.

The Portugese left the East Timorese with a Catholic faith in an Islamic region and a nationhood bloodily overtaken by the Indonesians 24 years ago. Since then the military has run Timor the way enterprising Dutch and Portugese soldiers did back in the age of empire - as a kind of black market canton; shipping coffee out and alcohol in, even levying taxes.

What we now call Indonesia has, for most of human history, been that way. It could well be that way again, assuming other islands and ethnic groups haven't taken the hint. The fourth most populous nation in the world may be breaking up. It's possible to conceive a post-modern future of economically independent island nations for the archipelago, but you can't get there from here. All there is now is blood and fear.

Here at Apec, of course, they don't like to use the words "nation" or "country". Delegates and media don't officially hail from either of those, in Apec-speak - they're from "economies".

And what of economics? Well, I can report that aspects of this Apec are not terribly well organised. The first Apec trade fair which has not been supported by a host government has suffered an embarrassing collapse, with 30 angry exhibitors demanding answers.

And earlier this week, trying to get any sense out of the hordes of media handlers assigned to the Apec CEO Summit was all but impossible. For some unknown reason, the whole thing is being directed from the Prime Minister's press office, where they may or may not have their phones switched on and may or may not feel like helping you.

Still, there were a few laughs. Having been bluntly informed by one of the PM's press flunkies that we weren't nearly important enough to even watch from another room at the Maritime Museum when Clinton gives a speech to the CEOs on Sunday morning, my colleague and I asked for details of the CEO Summit Gala dinner out at Ellerslie, to be addressed by Jiang Zemin. There were, we were told, four press pools: one which would stand in the foyer as delegates went past; one which would stand in the bar as delegates went past and one which would stand on the escalator as delegates went past.

And then there was one called "writers". Oooh, that'll be us, we said. No, you don't want that, really, we were told. You won't be able to see anything or hear anything - the Chinese just wanted some people there looking like they were taking notes. Welcome to the big time.

We are, of course, in the glare of the world's media as a city this weekend. Having been watching CBNC Asia this week - thanks, Ihug Digital TV - I can report that the Auckland War Memorial Museum looks quite marvellous. They've been showing a shot of it every time they mention Apec, but of course don't tell people what it actually is. I'm sure most of Asia thinks its our Parliament buildings.

So we tart up the town, remove the new rubbish bins we've only just bought and keep an eye out for Madeleine Albright down the shops. We will be inconvenienced, but we hopefully won't feel too sorry for ourselves.

While the PM rushed to greet the camera on Wednesday, Holmes talked to Neil Finn, who has written a terrace song, called 'Can You Hear Us' to accompany the All Blacks World Cup rugby challenge. It's a good song to sing along to, and it'll ship with a great video on the CD itself. When you include the amazing haka ad produced for Adidas, you have to conclude that even if we don't win the World Cup, we'll certainly have the best media.

Holmes flippantly suggested that perhaps Finn should go down and play a few songs for disappointed Apec delegates. "If I thought playing my guitar would do anything to help the people of East Timor," said Finn. "I'd be out there doing it." Quite ... G'bye!


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