Wide-eyed novice reporters, pork chops and Willie Phua on assignment in turbulent Indonesia...

 Warwick Beutler was the ABC's correspondent in Jakarta between 1977 and 1980. He writes here about Willie Phua and his time in Indonesia. A part of this essay was published in the book,    Capturing Asia.

The pork chop in a glass was the drug administered at the end of the day to help forget the often horrible images seen through the viewfinder.  There was no counselling for Willie or his clutch of young wide-eyed, exuberant but naive reporters when a village was napalmed, a ferry capsized or a rioting crowd was confronting tanks.  There were no telephone calls from head office to offer advice or support.  This cameraman worked on instinct, and a member of his brood was reckless if he defied the master.


Filming in Indonesia after the invasion of East Timor in 1975 was virtually impossible.  To capture anything controversial or newsworthy was almost certainly against the law, even if you were able to witness the event.  Places like East Timor and Irian Jaya were out of bounds for reporters and camera crews.  Flights there were controlled by the military. If by chance there was a civilian flight going that way, Willie and the novice would not get past the airport in Bali, which was a stopping off point for all flights going to eastern Indonesia.  Neither was there any point in trying to deceive or lie to the authorities.  Willie and his camera cases offered no disguise.  Bribery might have worked, but the amount required was beyond the ABC’s budget, and in any case, the military commanders on the ground at the destination would have pointed us straight back to Jakarta.


Indonesia in the second half of the 1970’s was tightly controlled by the Suharto government.  Often described as a military strongman, Suharto had come to power as Indonesia’s second president after leading troops against an attempted coup in 1965.  The communist party was accused of being behind the plot. Whether true or not, the claim was used as an excuse to mount a nationwide purge of communists and suspected communists.  From October 1965, a few weeks after the attempted coup, until early 1966, a bloodbath, urged on by the army, swept central and east Java, Bali and – to a lesser extent – other parts of the nation.  At least half a million people were slaughtered, perhaps as many as one million.  So intense was the massacre that rivers in east Java were said to have turned red as corpses floated to the sea.


Suharto wrested the leadership of the nation from a weakened Sukarno in 1967.  His “new order” government sounded fresh and different, and after the chaos of the charismatic Sukarno, it certainly was.  Emphasis was placed on economic development, improvements to health, education and living standards.  He won support from the west for his economic improvements, his strong anti-communist position and his general conservatism.  Leading Indonesian intellectuals went to American universities to be trained as economists and scientists.  They returned as “technocrats”, giving the military dominated government a human face.  Bright young soldiers also went to the United States for training, returning to critical roles cementing the government’s and the military’s authority over the nation. 


By 1975, when the East Timorese were agitating for their independence after Portugal abdicated responsibility for its colony, a confident Suharto was leading an increasingly authoritarian and corrupt regime.  Elements of the government – mostly in military intelligence – saw the opportunity for Indonesia to annex East Timor.  They also saw the possibility of a left wing, perhaps communist, government emerging if independence was secured.  And worse still, self-determination for the East Timorese was viewed by Jakarta as giving encouragement to other secessionist movements in the sprawling archipelago, especially in Irian Jaya and Aceh.

The running sore in the Australian-Indonesian relationship...


By September 1975, Indonesian special forces were launching incursions from west Timor.  In October, conventional military operations began.  Caught up in this were five Australian journalists and cameramen, killed by Indonesian troops in the town of Balibo, near the border between the two Timors.  Their deaths would represent the running sore in the Australian-Indonesian relationship right up to and beyond East Timor finally gaining its independence.


By December 1975, with 30,000 troops spread throughout the territory, the Indonesian military had control and, in a repeat of events a decade earlier, the massacres began.  Up to 100,000 people were believed to have been slaughtered.  In July 1976, Indonesia annexed the territory and it became – officially – the country’s 27th province.


After its Timor operation, the Indonesian military’s confidence grew, as did its influence in and around the Suharto government.  The military intelligence community was especially active in controlling journalists and their fields of activity.  It was led by General Ali Murtopo, a close confidant of Suharto’s, whose broad smile belied an assassin’s guile.  His protege was Brigadier General Benny Murdani, a dark, tough, intelligent, no-nonsense soldier who – unusually for a Javanese – was both blunt and direct.  Murdani, who would rise to become commander in chief of the Indonesian armed forces (ABRI) in 1983, was only 13 when he took part in the Indonesian independence struggle in 1945, and later distinguished himself in Irian Jaya in the lead-up to that final portion of the Dutch East Indies being handed to Indonesia by the United Nations.


After conquering Timor, Murdani became a central figure in the Suharto regime.  As well as his intelligence duties, he was close to Suharto and made most of the critical decisions on the operation of the foreign media in Indonesia.  He decided which foreign journalists could enter the country, what they could do and where they could travel.  Authority for issuing journalists with visas to work in the country came through the Ministry of Information, but approval came from much higher up, usually Murdani or Ali Murtopo himself.  Approval took months, and those who succeeded in getting permission to live there were granted 12-month visas which could be extended for subsequent 12-month periods. 


The ABC did not have a camera crew living in Indonesia, but would arrange for Willie to visit, usually around an important anniversary or occasion.  Hence, approval would be sought for a visit around armed forces day, which would see Suharto review the troops and their equipment in a parade not unlike those staged by the Soviet leaders outside the Kremlin.  To film a braided Suharto with his military hardware always provided the perfect images to fashion stories about the latest obscenities reported to be taking place in East Timor or the potential threat Indonesia posed to its neighbours.  If Willie and his novice couldn’t get to East Timor, then this was the next best thing!


Another favourite was national day, August 17, when permission would be sought for Willie to make a visit to portray a nation celebrating the wonderful progress being made by the regime to improve the lives of its citizens.  Once in Jakarta however, it was quite easy for the camera team to sneak down to the shanty towns little more than a kilometre from where Suharto and his corrupt wife Tien lived in grand seclusion and film some of the worst poverty in the world.  The subsequent story would juxtapose the claims by the government of increasing prosperity with the reality of life in the slums.


For Willie, a trip to Indonesia was not easy.  He was Chinese, and in Jakarta, the Chinese were tolerated, but they were not liked.  In reality, the Chinese made the country function commercially.  They owned the shops, they arranged the deals, they were the grease which made the cogs turn.  Wealthy Chinese were very close to the Suharto government.  They were in intelligence, they owned the flour mills, they had the car distributorships.  And in addition to their Chinese names, all of them also had Indonesian names. 


Chinese became the scapegoats...

Suharto’s patronage of Chinese businessmen was a one way street.  It was fine when money was filling his corrupt coffers, but at the first hint of trouble, the Chinese became the scapegoats.  Unrest generated by government inadequacies was vented against Chinese businesses and encouraged surreptitiously by the government.  Shops would be torched, whether spontaneously or not, and the Chinese community would flee to the airport in their chauffeur-driven luxury cars to take up residence in their Singapore apartments until the trouble subsided.


At the grass-roots level in Indonesian society, there was a distinct dislike of Chinese by the Javanese.  So when a Chinese cameraman turned up at the airport to work for a western news organisation, not only the eyes of porters and taxi-drivers lit up.  Customs and immigration flaks fell over each other to feed from the potential honey-pot. 


Offended by the degree of corruption on open display in Jakarta, the novice once decided to stand on his high horse and refuse to pay when an ABC natural history unit team arrived to film dugongs.  The crew had the correct documentation, they had all the permissions, they were in the country for no political purpose, but they wouldn’t be allowed out of the airport until the palms of customs were greased.  The novice held out for the first day, waiting for the chief customs officer to end his shift and hand over to a less greedy deputy.  The deputy was no more malleable. 

On the second day, the novice was persuaded by the natural history team that morality was not a tradeable commodity.  He handed over several tens of thousands of rupiah in crisp bank notes and watched the fat customs chief count them slowly before dropping them in a top drawer already stuffed with cash.  Then, smiling, he attached his “chop” to the papers and delightedly waved the crew and their equipment out of the customs hall.


Aware of this, being Chinese and fully understanding that Indonesia simply did not function without corruption, Willie would always emerge from the customs hall smiling, stuffing notes back in his top pocket and supervising a small army of lackeys carrying camera cases, batteries, tripod and lights. “Satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima, enam, tujuh, delapan”, he would count aloud before he allowed the cases to be deposited in the taxi and the lackeys to be rewarded.  How much he paid was never revealed.  Being admonished by the novice for paying the bribes was met with a smile and a shrug.


Willie’s knowledge of the Indonesian language was as meagre as the novice’s.  They could both order a very cold beer:  “Bir Bintang, dingin sekali” and knew how to bargain for any service they needed.  But, additionally, Willie had in his kit bag the universal Asian language: smiles, frowns, gestures, laughs, bows and back slaps.  He spoke with his face and his hands, lighting up, shaking his head, nodding knowingly in slow up and down movements.  He won every argument when the other party smiled and also started nodding slowly. Agreement was confirmed by slapping his hand on the shoulder of his interlocutor.

"The novice" alongside Willie Phua...

He knew the novice was no help as a fixer.  He was putih (white). He was uncomfortable with bribes.  He was direct, sometimes rude and uncompromising.  He couldn’t negotiate.  He looked like a colonial.  He looked (and perhaps was) arrogant.  And he was young.  How could anyone take him seriously?   So the novice was told by Willie to wait by the car and mind the bags, or “wait here while I find out if there’s a hotel room”. 

Sometimes the novice’s wife would travel with them, which drew instant crowds in an already grossly over-populated country.  But it certainly helped smooth the path with officialdom, especially when carrying a blond baby through immigration or customs control.  All attention on the baby, no scrutiny of the papers or the camera cases.  Drug smugglers take note:  if you want to get past Indonesian Customs, always carry a fair-haired baby!


Willie’s film excursions to Indonesia depended largely on what was happening in other parts of Asia.  If there was a coup in Thailand – as there was, regularly – Willie would be sent there.  If an Indian election was coming up, you wouldn’t have a chance of getting Willie for a month.  And if an Australian Prime Minister or foreign minister was swanning around the region (which they did, but with less frequency than they do today), Willie would be assigned to provide the film coverage.  


Filming in Indonesia in the late 1970’s was hard physical work.  The camera was heavy, the batteries were heavy, the tripod was heavy and if lights were needed, extra people were required to share the load.  In Bali to film a royal wedding for the ABC’s Weekend Magazine program, Willie found it almost impossible to get the right shots.  The costumes were spectacular, the ceremony mesmerising.  But there were no high vantage points from which to show the scale and the splendour of the occasion.  And when he plugged in his lights, the royal court fell into darkness.  Even for Balinese royalty, a back-up generator was an unnecessary expense.  So Willie jostled with the other photographers and cameramen, frustrated that he could not produce his best. Consider that he was not just the camera operator.  He was the director, the sound engineer, the lighting technician, the continuity expert and much more.  He was literally a one-man band, with the novice merely fulfilling the role of bag carrier.  


Only the Balinese knew how the wedding ceremony would unfold, and even then, we had the impression that there was much improvisation taking place during the four to five hour event.  Willie could not keep the camera rolling indefinitely and there was a limit to the number of magazine changes he could make.   If he missed the most important highlights because he was changing rolls in the film bag, he couldn’t exactly ask the young prince to hold up the proceedings for a few minutes.  It was like Baz Luhrmann trying single-handedly to film a coronation in Westminster Abbey, albeit that the event was less newsworthy.  From a visual perspective, the result was stunning, notwithstanding the huge impediments Willie faced.  But the master considered his work to be not up to the high standards he demanded of himself.


A visit from an Australian Prime Minister or Foreign Minister to Indonesia provided an added bonus for the ABC cameraman and journalist, and posed a diplomatic dilemma for Benny Murdani and his intelligence crew.  It was acknowledged that the Australian dignitary would want, and be entitled to television coverage from the Australian media, but how could Indonesian authorities prevent the crews from slipping away and filming less desirable events in the country?   Approval for Willie to visit Jakarta was not denied.  What Murdani’s team had to do was limit the period he could be in the country and to ensure the novice was so tied up with the official visit that he didn’t have time to let the camera stray too far.


Blocking access to correspondents...

Murdani’s men were getting better at controlling the movements of Willie and other foreign camera crews (not that many gained entry), but they could not control what was being said.  In one sense, that didn’t matter too much – at least not in the early days.  The Indonesian embassy in Canberra was ill-equipped to provide consistent and accurate reports back to Jakarta on what ABC Television was showing and what the journalists were saying.  And so long as it was only being broadcast to a domestic Australian audience, the damage – in Indonesian eyes – was limited and could be tolerated.  But increasingly, they came to realise that stories from Australian journalists in Indonesia influenced public opinion in Australia and reinforced the anti-Indonesian view which had grown sharper since the East Timor invasion.  Murdani took the view that denying access to the country was the best way of controlling what got out, and that without pictures the story had little or no impact.  He was right, of course.


But what really irritated the Suharto regime was Radio Australia, the overseas arm of the ABC.  Since independence, ordinary Indonesians had relied on foreign broadcasters, and especially Radio Australia, to provide independent and more reliable accounts of what was occurring in the country.  No one trusted the official media, and no-one believed the government’s account was objective.  So in the late Sukarno/early Suharto period, it was not uncommon to walk through a rural village and hear the entire Radio Australia news bulletin blaring from every house – all in the Indonesian language.  Radio Australia’s announcers were pin-ups in Indonesia.  


East Timor changed everything.  Radio Australia became, in Jakarta’s eyes, a mouthpiece for the communists and anti-Indonesians who sought an independent nation.  News bulletins, current affairs programmes and general commentary were all seen as subjective and anti-Indonesian.  No matter how often the ABC and Radio Australia asserted that a “balanced coverage” was being broadcast, the Indonesian government could not see it.  There were times when any reasonable observer taking a truly objective view would say that Radio Australia bent too far in its desire not to offend Jakarta.  Heated arguments raged behind the scenes about journalists’ copy being toned down, or injected with adjectives such as “alleged” or phrases like “reported to have”, and “said to have”.  Worse still, facts reported by journalists were simply taken out of the story because they were “red hot”.  Self-censorship became a way of life for some of Radio Australia’s editors.


Indonesia could have jammed Radio Australia, but it did not have the ability or resources to do so.  Its method of dealing with the recalcitrant broadcaster was to apply pressure on the Australian government and, when that failed, to take more drastic measures to restrict the access of the ABC to the country.  The Australian government, in turn, was also in a very difficult position. 

East Timor... pragmatic but unprincipled step...

Having taken the pragmatic but unprincipled step of recognising Indonesia’s takeover of East Timor, Australia tacitly gave its approval to whatever human rights abuses were taking place there.  But the Australian government, of course, could not influence – and would not have dared to try to influence – the Australian media’s continued reporting of events in East Timor. 

Although it was difficult to get any information at all out of the territory after the 1975 invasion, tit-bits did come out, including news of a widespread famine.  To the Indonesian government, stories such as this were seen as “negative”, “unhelpful” and indeed “unfriendly”.  Such “bad news” should simply not be reported.


To some degree, Murdani, Murtopo and Suharto had a very simplistic view of the media, born out of their military training:  if media organisations are causing the government trouble, then close them down.  No subtlety here.  No notion of a free press, or living in a democracy.  And so they did.  They closed newspapers, threatened journalists and when that didn’t work, threw the troublemakers in jail. There were thousands of journalists, intellectuals, lawyers and doctors suffered such a fate since the rise of the Suharto regime.


Most of them were rounded up after the attempted coup of 1965 and despatched to the prison island of Buru in eastern Indonesia.  Willie and the novice went to Suharto’s gulag in December 1977 when the government announced that it was about to release them after more than a decade of incarceration without trial.  Fourteen thousand of the country’s best and brightest were holed up in a camp carved out of the jungle on an island thousands of kilometres from Jakarta.  The intellectual pool in the young nation was not so large that it could afford to have this enormous talent simply waste away.  But that’s what happened.


It took twelve hours by boat from Ambon to reach Buru.  Indonesia’s pre-eminent novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, was one of the prisoners forced to subsist from the jungle and from what they could grow in the soils they cleared.  There was absolutely no contact with other people or the outside world.  No communications.  It was years before the authorities allowed paper and pens into the camp. They built their own shelter.  The strong survived starvation, torture and disease, but Pramoedya recorded 315 deaths. 

A depressing island full of injustice....


Buru was a depressing, sombre place where prisoners recounted tales of maize being the only food available. 

(The novice mis-heard this at first, believing the prisoners were telling him they had only mice to eat!)  Nearly all were in their prime when the authorities rounded them up, mostly on the false claim that they were communists.  But as hard as conditions were, and as bitter as the prisoners were entitled to feel about their deprivation of liberty, they were both courageous and stoic.  It was a human condition that Willie was to record through his lens time and time again in Asia – human acceptance of severe hardship, tragedy and adversity.  Earthquakes, floods, coups and wars.  The willingness of refugees to cast off for Australia in over-crowded leaking boats.


Willie was moved by the images he saw, but he did not allow his emotions their free rein until well after the film was in the can and in the safe hands of a courier taking it from the bedlam of Jakarta’s Halim International Airport to Sydney.  At the end of the day, he’d shower, then meticulously prepare his equipment for the next day’s filming.  The camera would be cleared of sweat and dust, the magazines re-loaded, and everything tested.  Then he’d join the novice for his first Bir Bintang of the day, dingin sekali (very cold), of course! 

It was in this reflective time that the pictures he had shot would come to life.  He saw the injustice of Buru, and despised it.  He saw the corrupt officials as white ants destroying all that was good in Indonesia.  Coming from Singapore where Lee Kuan Yew was turning an impoverished post-colonial city-state into one of the fastest developing economies in the world, Willie could not understand why the Indonesian people could not begin to enjoy the same opportunities.  He recognised that Indonesia’s problems were immense compared to those in Singapore, but he also knew that the greed and corruption of Indonesia’s ruling elite were the main handicaps to progress.

But Willie was also very much an Asian, recognising that injustice, impoverishment, war, neglect and despair had always been by-products of the rule of despots and tyrants.  What was important was to find a way of working, living and eating within the constraints imposed by the despots and their followers. 

Willie and his raw novices...


So this is what Willie taught his troop of raw novices. He kept them away from trouble, warning where the boundaries were.  He blunted their sharp edges and demonstrated that the colour grey had many more shades than black and white.  He taught them the value of smiling when there was nothing to smile about and of laughing while handing over a bribe.  He showed them Asia’s other cheek – soft, subtle, eternal – represented by a brilliant sunrise atop a Javanese volcano, or a procession of Balinese women carrying offerings to a temple, or the calls of the street vendors plying their trade in the cool of the evening.  His images captured the sounds and rhythm of Asia just as much as they caught the cruel day-to-day events.  If only he could have harnessed the smells of Asia too – that would have completed the portrait!


Willie Phua would laugh at the suggestion that he is a teacher.  He would scoff and protest that he is merely a humble cameraman who enjoys the occasional pork chop in a glass.  But to the dozens of novices he has tutored over the years, he has been not only their mentor in exploring and explaining the region.  He is the reason they fell in love with Asia.



Warwick Beutler

January 2009





By early 1980, exasperated by the constant carping about East Timor coming from Australia and the Australian government’s reluctance to silence it, the Suharto regime decided to step up its policy of denying journalists access to the country.  Warwick Beutler returned to Jakarta after a brief period of leave to hear rumours that his visa would not be renewed when it expired at the end of June.  Murdani confirmed this in a number of phone conversations with Beutler, the final one occurring on a Saturday evening when Beutler and his family were attending a barbecue at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.

When Beutler told him that he was at the Australian Embassy, Murdani was clearly shocked, believing that a diplomatic incident was about to erupt, with Beutler refusing to leave and the Australian government ready to protect their citizen.  Beutler assured Murdani, however, that there were no hard feelings.  He understood and accepted Indonesia’s right to take the action, and he would abide by it by leaving the country before his visa expired about seven days later.  He then began organising a farewell party before leaving for Singapore.  In subsequent months, all other Australian-based journalists in Jakarta either left the country voluntarily or had extensions of their visas denied.  The ABC would not be allowed back until 1991.


Beutler continued to work in Asia for another year before returning to Australia.  From 1987-1990 he was ABC Radio’s Washington correspondent.  He is now in private business, unrelated to the media, in Canberra.




Warwick Beutler and Willie Phua on Baru island in Indonesia in 1977.

Warwick Beutler (right) with Willie Phua and Hamish McDonald at the launch of the book on Willie Phua, Capturing Asia, on July 9, 2010.

Willie Phua on assignment.