BOOK REVIEW / Never say never-never land: An Empire of the East: Travels in Indonesia - Norman Lewis: Cape, pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
'LET US Smile Together' is not, as you might imagine, one of the snappier entries for a Eurovision Song Contest, but a disarmingly named pamphlet produced by the Indonesian Tourist Board containing useful tips for travellers. 'In all circumstances remain calm,' the booklet exhorts. 'Thus you will earn respect. It is typical of the national personality that there are six ways to say YES, but great efforts are made to avoid speaking the word NO. Let us remember to say YES whenever we can.'

After reading An Empire of the East it is easy to see the truth of this statement. The Indonesian government - custodians of a remarkable archipelago of 13,677 islands stretching over some 3,000 miles, containing not only some of the most abundant rainforest in the world, but also a greater variety of tribal peoples (over 300 distinct groups) than any other political entity in the world - likes nothing better than to say YES.

They have said YES, for instance, to logging and mining concessions which are cutting down the rainforest at a rate unsurpassed even by Brazil. They have said YES, too, to a policy of 'integrating' their tribal peoples, known as Pancasila, in which groups such as the 'Stone Age' Yali and Dani tribes of Irian Jaya are forbidden to practise their own religion or customs, or to use their own healers. They are even forbidden to live in their traditional long houses, which are being forcibly replaced by the sinisterly named, government-approved 'healthy homes'.

Although it feels like blasphemy to say so, there are times when the tone of this book is more than a little weary. But perhaps this is hardly surprising. After all, Norman Lewis has been writing about this kind of thing for a long time, ever since, in 1958, he went to Brazil to research what was to become his most famous essay, 'Genocide', about the atrocities committed against the Amazonian Indians in the greedy and violent scramble to conquer their forests. Now here he is in Indonesia a quarter of a century later, watching, if not actual genocide, then an alarming number of Brazil's errors, painstakingly copied. No wonder he sounds weary.

'Genocide' remains the work of which Norman Lewis says he is most proud. The public outcry when it was first published in the Sunday Times resulted in the creation of the charity Survival International, and even caused a change in Brazilian law. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that this book might do something of the same for the otherwise beautiful and gentle land of Indonesia.

'So what comes next?' he asks a man who has just turned half a million acres of forest in Aceh (Sumatra) into cement sacks. 'The big money's in tourism these days,' he is told. 'From now on it's golf courses. This is going to be a paradise for Japanese golfers.' 'But can there really be enough golfers in Japan - or even the whole world,' Lewis asks, 'to fill this terrible gap?'

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