Chapter 4: An Announcement
Hadisukarno and I were sitting together in the mess hall at Bidang Selatan Barracks when Tan Ai Lin rang. The little rotary telephone mounted on the wall began to shake aggressively, accompanied by the sound of grating metal. A Lieutenant answered it.
“Bill? Bill Fisher?” He asked the room.
“For you,” he said, pointing the handset towards me. I held it to my ear, and heard Tan’s voice coming out of the speaker, distorted and crackly, but not to such a degree that he was incorrigible. He was excited, panicked almost, and his message was simple:
“Switch on the wireless: Byakko Daily Service.”
I did as he requested.
“-Due to this, I, Christopher Turner, Governor of Byakko, I have, ah, consulted with my closest advisors. As I said earlier, we have made the decision, ah, in consultation with the government in Matilum, to slowly move Byakko towards independence. We anticipate that these movements shall be complete by the end of 1967.” A brief round of applause was emitted by the wireless, and then a newsreader began to speak of other topics. There wasn’t a person in the room listening to him. Brief murmurs, which had been heard at the utterance of the word ‘independence’ had been steadily growing to shouts and cheers.
I spoke to Tan, who was still on the phone.
“So where does this leave us?”
“Good question. And I reckon it’s yours to answer. You’re the leader…”
“You can say that, but you’re my advisor. Anyway, I suppose this leaves us in a state of mission accomplished? For now, at least.”
“Hardly! If we want to win any post-independence elections we’ll need to try and show ourselves as being as involved as possible with independence. We shall need to campaign for the best possible terms. And also, did you hear what he said? By the end of ‘67. Sixty. Seven. We can’t afford to wait that long.”
“Agreed. I’ll call Mr. Li.”
“Good call. Farewell, Bill,” and with this he hung up.
As the leaders of the two largest parties in Byakko, we decided that we would openly publish ‘Requests’ (as everyone had taken to calling it). Empire Square (later to be renamed as Parliament Square and which is, I believe, nowadays known as Nation Square) felt like a good location to publicise our feelings. We had typed up three copies of the document, and, keeping one as a master copy, Li and I met that evening with the other two in the square. We brought with us glue and nails – our intention was to stick up our requests on the wall of the Governor’s palace. Sticking up notices is a terribly old form of protest – peaceful, attention-grabbing, and requiring very few people.
It was a harder task than we had anticipated. The document was thirteen pages long, and the glue simply refused to stick to anything. We were just about getting the fourth page down when a loud shout rudely interrupted us.
Li and I both swore. Li turned and was about to run, but…
“If you try to run I’ll shoot you! I said don’t move!”
We froze, and watched as a figure slowly moved towards us, sub-machine gun in one hand and flashlight in the other. As he advanced out of the darkness I became able to make out the fact that he wore the walking-out uniform of the 1st Regiment, same as me. A guard. My brain began to whir, gears spinning away at high speed, trying to produce some sort of excuse to get me out of that mess.
I have never been a good liar. That’s what spokespeople are for. During my time in power, any announcements I made myself are probably true. If they were made by a government spokesperson, they are probably nonsense.
Thankfully, an excuse was not needed. The guard recognised my uniform and recognised Li’s face.
“Oh!” he said. “Mr Li, of the SDP? I want you to know, you have my upmost support. And it seems you’ve got a guard with you already, so, as you were. Looking forward to ‘67, I assume?”
“If I have my way, it’ll be ‘65.” Responded Li, looking as calm as ever.
“Well, good luck with that!”
With these parting words, the guard went off and continued his patrol. Seeing a well-known public figure with a member of the 1st Regiment, he had come to the mistaken conclusion that we were in fact allowed to be there. A useful rule for these kinds of things is that if you look like you are meant to be somewhere, people generally assume that you really are meant to be there. This can be exploited to great effect.
We were almost finished with the notice-sticking when the guard came round again on his patrol.
“Still here, Mr. Li? What even is it that you’re putting up, anyway?”
“Requests.” I interrupted him.
“Requests for the government with regards to independence.”
“Mind if I have a read?”
“Go ahead, that’s why we’re putting it up here, in the end.”
The soldier peered at our papers, struggling to make out the words in the low light of the very early morning.
“Not exactly thrilling stuff, is this?” He stated, matter-of-factly. Li just looked at him, slightly taken aback. After a few moments to collect himself, he spoke.
“What do you mean? Don’t you understand the importance of this? This document has the potential to shape the entire future of Byakko as an independent nation! It’s when ordinary people take no interest in the things that could change their lives that things change their lives for the worse!”
The soldier, surprised for a moment by Li’s excitement, regained his composure and sauntered off. I admit it, this disinterestedness did leave my slightly worried about our electoral future.
With our task complete, we went our separate ways. Neither of us had cars, so we both trudged down towards the metro station. There was a saying we had in those days: to take the metro once in a day is lunacy – twice is suicide. It always made me laugh to see that written at the bottom of the menu at a restaurant in southern Percival.
In all seriousness, the metro network in those days was truly awful. Very much unlike the electric, underground trains we have now, the trains were all diesel-engined, ran overland and didn’t work properly. The reforming of the rail network is probably Li’s greatest success. One other brilliant feature of the metro was that it managed to somehow connect all the places you didn’t actually want to go to, and were roughly twenty minutes’ walk from where you did.
As such, on this night, I walked for twenty minutes to get to the station, rode on the train for five minutes, and then had to get off because it had broken down. By the time I got back to barracks, it was roughly half three in the morning. Our initial fears of public disinterest, based on talking to that soldier, turned out to be unfounded.
After a night of nowhere near enough sleep, I was sitting in the mess hall, stabbing at a piece of bacon with my fork as the wireless played in the background. I believe it was tuned to Byakkan Army Wireless Service (a station set up by a pair of veterans from Mastor to provide entertainment for soldiers while off on exercise). Actually, it must have been, for they were playing jazz. Only BAWS played jazz in those days. A song ended, and the newsreader spoke:
“The government awoke this morning to find a series of demands pasted to the wall in Empire Square. The documents are supposedly signed by the leaders of Byakko’s main political parties. The demands have been taken as a critique of the government’s decision to move Byakko towards independence, most notably calling for cross-party involvement in the process, and a speedier timeline. There will be a full report on this topic at nine. In other news….”
I smiled inwardly. The first headline on the news? We were big. How big would remain to be seen, of course. I managed to put it all out of my mind, for I had work to do. When you’re an army, what do you do in peace? You train.
Aged 49, my time as a combat soldier had passed. Instead, I had stayed on as an instructor. Throughout the my time, the rifle skills of the average Byakkan soldier had put him above his peers. Of course, we had lost quite badly: our best stories from the Mastorean War were about losing battles, but we were not entirely massacred. It was my job to ensure that this tradition of excellence continued.
There was one particularly good shot in my class that year, Lawrence Baker. He shall appear in this story later on – in 1979. He was the cause of one of worst catastrophes in Byakkan political history.
But back to 1964. The day passed uneventfully. Across the whole class, we fired off around 5,000 rounds of ammunition from our old R-20s and R-21s. It never truly ceases to amaze me that we were using those bolt-actions all the way up to Tanjung Pinang in 1966.
That night, I slept well – in the midst of all the action on the range, my mind had dropped all thoughts of independence or politics. Walking from the barracks to the mess hall in the chill of the early morning, I heard a shout from my left.
I turned to see a mysterious figure fading out of the dawn mist. Tall and imposing, this figure wore a long, black coat, and was smoking a cigarette. His head, tilted down, was shielded from my view by a dark fedora. I knew at once who it had to be.
Tan Ai Lin is a character who has spent this whole era in political obscurity. He was deputy leader of the party until ‘75, and a minister in my government, but people who have heard of him are few and far between. Due to his notable irrelevance, it is unlikely you even know what he looks like. The best way to describe him is probably to imagine the classic look of a triad member in those days: a tall, Chinese man, wearing a smart suit and a knee-length trench coat. On his feet, he wore well-made leather shoes, and on his head, a fedora and – even in the early hours of the morning, or late at night – a pair of sunglasses. To those who did not know him, he was quite an intimidating presence. This gangster appearance was greatly enhanced by three things: the gang tattoos all the way down his left arm, the suppressed pistol always to be found holstered under his coat, and the fact that in his earlier life, he had, in fact, been a gang member – not here in Byakko, but across the straits. It’s not a story he likes to tell, and as such not one I have heard.
But, regardless, on that day, someone who looked like Tan Ai Lin stood in front of me, wearing sunglasses at five in the morning. He spat out the cigarette butt and raised his head. I was correct. Tan Ai Lin it was.
“You busy today?” He called out to me.
“Course not, it’s Saturday,” was my reply.
“Well, meet me by the gate then. We can get breakfast in town.”
I walked across the base to the gate in question and checked out with the guard on security detail. Lin beckoned me to follow him. And, without waiting to see if I did, hurried off in the direction of the docks. I jogged briefly to catch up with him.
“Get in,” Lin gestured towards his car. Well, to call it a car would be a slight overstatement. Only one of the doors was functional, so to get into the passenger seat you had to climb over the driver. The bodywork was rusting away like mad, the paint peeling. When Lin turned the key in the ignition, it took several attempts to get the tiny engine to sputter to life, spewing a bluish cloud of smoke from the rear. But, regardless, a car is a car, and in those days a car was the way to get around Byakko. Relatively familiar with the island’s geography, I could tell Lin was taking us to the centre of town – but why? I tried to ask him, but he did not reply. Perhaps he was ignoring me, saving up the surprise. Perhaps he simply couldn’t hear me over the thunderous rattle that came with driving his car along one of the still-unpaved roads between Bidang Selatan and Byakko proper. Who knows?
As we came closer, I realised we were headed back to Empire Square. I must confess, I was slightly taken aback by the sight that greeted us. Lin parked up two or three streets away from the square itself, and, after brushing off all the dust that had got into the car with his hand, spoke for the first time in a while. His voice betrayed his excitement – whatever reason he’d brought me here for was obviously something good.
“This is going to shock you! I’ve never seen anything like it in Byakko before!”
“Empire Square! The number of people: it’s crazy, my friend…”
We rounded the corner, and there it was: the independence protest of 1964.
Next Chapter: The Beginning of the End