'I've gone places others haven't'

February 21, 2003

Olga Wojtas talks to the Scots academic recently freed from an Indonesian jail.

Lesley McCulloch, the Scots-born academic released from an Indonesian jail earlier this month, could have been free in November had she paid a $6,000 (£3,800) bribe.

Talking to The THES during a four-day visit to her parents before catching up on research commitments, she said: "My work is on military and police corruption, and I wasn't going to condone that kind of behaviour. How could I come out and talk about the corrupt process if I had paid my way out?"

Many would abandon such views when faced with the reality of police beatings, sexual harassment, pressure to sign false statements, insanitary and degrading prison conditions and the threat of a five to 20-year jail term.

But Dr McCulloch simply used her five months' imprisonment for visa violations to continue her research. During three harrowing months on remand in the provincial police headquarters, she daily logged the abuses she witnessed on scraps of paper.

Once she was moved to Banda Aceh prison, she collected information from more than 60 prisoners about the bribes they were obliged to pay to the police for a quick investigation, to the prosecutors for a quick process or a request for a lower sentence, and to the judge for passing a lower sentence. "These people are poor. Families were running around trying to get the money, selling things, begging," she said.

Dr McCulloch was briefly visiting friends in Indonesia's conflict-ridden province of Aceh and was making arrangements for a longer stay before going to a Washington conference. She was on a tourist visa, saving her single-entry research visa for the second visit.

"It wasn't my intention to do research, but I heard about a terrible situation down south that had flared up and decided to head down to check it out on my way to Jakarta," she said.

She was arrested and charged with violating the tourist visa conditions, but she claimed she had been kidnapped by separatist rebels while on holiday. She now confesses she had agreed this pretence with the separatists to protect her contacts, on the understanding that she would reveal the truth once she was free.

Her lawyers told her that had she used the research visa, and denied doing research, she would have been at greater risk of being charged with espionage.

Dr McCulloch developed an interest in Southeast Asia when writing a political science thesis on defence budgets at Aberdeen University. She then moved to Australia, which has a much greater research interest in the region. She has been researching human rights abuses in Aceh since 1998, and while in prison, she discovered that she and colleague Damien Kingsbury of Deakin University in Melbourne had won a coveted Australian Research Council grant for a two-year project on the Indonesian military.

"In Australia, the emphasis is much more on fieldwork than it is here.

You've got to get out there and get down and get dirty. Of course, not to the level I did," she said, laughing wryly. "What made my work so important and so interesting to so many was not that I'm a better researcher or writer than anyone else, but just that I had gone places where others hadn't and had it first hand. I'd got interviews with more than 1,500 victims and had seen so much myself."

Other researchers on conflict areas, who sat in offices gleaning information from the internet and phone calls, had their work dismissed by governments, she said.

"The (Indonesian) government says: 'We're not killing people in Aceh; if people die it's because they're fighting with us.' I've seen unarmed civilians being shot in the back, I go to places that are very remote where whole villages have been burned, women raped and people tortured. Most join the separatist movement because of atrocities they see as children. Aceh is a tragic place."

Is she an academic or a human rights activist? "I've a foot in both camps, and part of me would like to give up on the academic and go into the activist camp full time. But it adds weight to my work to be seen as an academic, and my aim is to effect policy change."

She admitted she was often afraid, initially fearing when British officials had no idea of her whereabouts that she might even be killed. But she spoke about her ordeal calmly and often with humour, and has kept her home visit short to carry out a series of seminars and public talks.

When she was finally allowed visitors, six weeks before her release, she was startled to find her Acehnese friends did not sympathise with her plight but wanted to discuss how best to use her story.

"After a while I left the personal and began to think more on the macro as well - how can I use what's happened to me to talk about the peace process and help the international community to understand? That's what I've been thinking about, focusing less on myself, which is probably why I don't feel the need to sit in a corner and rock quietly."

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