STORY: The Sultan of Java (all 4 parts)

The other day I was surprised to get an e-mail from the Sultan of Java.  He was a brilliant oddball I had met in the early nineties in a chat room set up by some graduate students at M.I.T., where he himself had just finished a Ph.D. in physics (I had been finishing up my Ph.D. in mathematics at Harvard at the time).  After a few months of hanging out on the internet (just then starting to get cranked up), when spring finally broke some of us would get together Thursday afternoons for a few hours of informal soccer along the Charles River, and that’s how I’d met him in person.

We would all hit a well-known bar in Harvard Square after our soccer, and although he was a Muslim and did not drink alcohol, he would join us and down caffeine-free diet cokes.  He and I hit it off from the start, since we both shared an interest in so-called non-linear systems and had a common dream of being able to model such phenomena mathematically (briefly, a non-linear system is a set of stochastic phenomena whose outcomes are explicable after the fact but not before – two classical examples are weather and the price movements of stocks and commodities).

He was an unusually attractive young man (I am not gay, but nor am I blind), indeed almost beautiful.  He had exquisite café-au-alit skin, jet-black hair, very long eye-lashes, and he was tall and muscularly lean.  He had taken his undergraduate degree at Oxford University  and spoke a clipped Oxbridge English in his deep, rich voice.  He came from one of the oldest and largest families in Java, and their personal history went back about half a millennium before the Dutch colonized the islands.  They survived that, they survived the oil-thirsty rapacity of Hirohito’s brutal war machine during World War II, and they survived the unspeakable revolutionary chaos of the post-war decades.  Under the dazzling corruption of Suharto’s regime the family had multiplied its already considerable wealth many times over and become super-rich.

But it was my friend, the Sultan of Java, who, a few years after finishing his Ph.D., had increased the family’s wealth by truly astonishing proportions:  first, his interest in non-linear systems had led him to write a complex currency trading program, and he had anticipated almost to the day the implosion of the Suharto regime in May of 1998 and the consequent disastrous collapse of the Indonesian rupiah.  Being right on the London Exchange about currency those crucial spring months in that 1998 ‘year of living dangerously‘ had made him (and his family) US dollar billionaires – yes, that’s right, billionaires  –  several times over.  And it had all be entirely legal.

But you’d never know about his wealth from being around him.  He was really quite unassuming, and though he dressed with a sophisticated elegance that his physique and pocket-book enabled him to push almost but not quite to foppishness, he very much wanted to be and indeed was ‘one of the guys.’  But even in the company of admittedly very bright people he stood out as something of an intellectual phenom in his own right.  He had an uncanny nimbleness of mind and, I suspect, a completely photographic memory.  In addition to fluency in English and Bahasa Indonesia, he was fully at ease in Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Malay, Japanese and several other Indonesian dialects besides Javanese (and when I first met him he was meeting regularly with a fellow physics student from Beijing who was teaching him Chinese).  It was actually quite unnerving for me to watch him do a Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle in about twelve minutes!

Of course he was not a Sultan of Java or anything else, but it was a sobriquet I privately attached to him the first time we met:  there was something so regal about him, both physically and intellectually.  And when I told him many months later of this nickname he smiled softly and nodded his head in amused agreement.  His real name was Wahil.

In any event, most of us had sort of lost touch after we all left Cambridge, but the Sultan of Java and I had, in spite of his travels all over the world looking out for the family’s wide-spread interests in every imaginable enterprise, kept in fairly close contact over the years, and it was he who now had e-mailed me — from Palawan, a large island in the archipelago that is the southwestern Philippines.  He had given me rather mysterious instructions to call him two weeks after receipt of the e-mail at a certain number in Puerto Princesa at six o’clock in the morning my time, as there was something he wanted me to help him with.  I was as surprised to receive his message as I was intrigued to learn what it was all about.

And tomorrow morning I will be calling him.

Palawan is an elongated sliver of insular beauty that shoots off the north-south vertical of the Philippines at about 220° and almost touches the tip of northern Borneo.  Parts of it are pristine and beautiful beyond the descriptions of the travel brochures  —  and in its southern parts infested with avaricious and savage bandits of every ilk masquerading as ‘freedom fighters’, ‘environmentalists’, ‘warriors for God’, and all the other usual suspects.

The Sultan of Java had landed himself in a truly tricky situation, one fraught with horrific danger both to himself and to others.

He and some fellow investors from Europe and other parts of Asia had taken one of the family’s company jets —  a Gulfstream  — to Palawan to scout a site for erecting yet one more luxury tourist resort.  It was a field already crowded, and they wanted to get in on the action before saturation set in.  While traveling by jeetney along the gorgeous jungle-clad Eden that was the shores of southeastern Palawan a snake had entered the garden in the rag-tag and murderous shape of heavily armed ‘environmentalists’ who grandiosely called themselves the ‘Friends of Palawan Preservation’, or FPP for short.

The Sultan of Java and his investors had rented a motorized sixty-footer with captain and crew for a leisurely cruise from Puerto Princesa down through the emerald warmth of the Sulu Sea to the southern tip of Palawan.  There they had put in to a village and secured a jeetney for closer inspection of potential beach properties.  It was during this excursion that some thugs from FPP had ‘detained’ them, and in order to demonstrate their seriousness they had shot one of the Norwegian investors in cold blood.  Then they had picked my friend to hie it back to Puerto Princesa to secure ten million US dollars in ransom money that would secure the release of the rest of the group – which were of course being held as hostages to guarantee the Sultan’s return.

He was not a man given to panic, and he had sounded reasonably calm during our conversation.  But he was unmistakably under pressure, and vowed to me to do whatever was necessary to save his companions.  My first order of business was to be the arrangement of the cash through his bankers in New York, who were to have the money flown out – under heavy guard – in one of the company jets to Puerto Princesa.  This would take at least forty-eight hours, but he had the means to signal his captors that their demands were being met.

Next I was to get in touch with a younger brother I had once met briefly at the family compound in the highlands of east-central Java and have him initiate what the Sultan called ‘The Wyang Caper’  —  his brother would know what I meant and that I was for real in representing the Sultan.  When I enquired about this “caper” my friend pleaded with me not to ask but merely to do.  I would be safer that way, he responded ominously.  It was not hard for me to imagine that ‘The Wyang Caper’ was some kind of rescue operation his family and company had arranged long ago for just this sort of emergency.  I knew that the Sultan had served several years in the Indonesian navy between graduation from Oxford and starting his graduate work at M.I.T., and I assumed he had some fairly powerful contacts within the Indonesian military as well as private organizations of ‘international experts in violence’, as he had once referred to them in my presence.

He was irrevocably committed to keeping the Philippine authorities out of the loop on this operation, the government not being the most reliable or secretive when it came to dealing with the bandits in the southern Mindanao region.

Well, I made my calls.  With a terse thank you the Sultan’s brother assured me that things would gear up before I got off the line;  and the banker I spoke to in New York (to whom I relayed the same code as verification) said the cash would be in Puerto Princesa within forty-eight hours.

I could do no more, and tried to go about my business, anxiously awaiting further information about this dicey turn of events half way around the globe.

For the next few days I could not get events in far-off Palawan out of my mind, but as the days wore on without further news one way or the other, I admit that I gave less and thought to that world.  It was only about three months later that I received a coded communiqué from the Sultan in which he explained in broad outlines what had happened.

After making his calls to me and to New York, he waited around in Puerto Princesa another forty-eight hours until the cash arrived in a compact suitcase – of one hundred packets of one hundred used hundred-dollar bills each, neatly bundled and snugly stacked in a small case privately designed and manufactured for precisely this purpose.  He had returned by chartered helicopter to southern Palawan and delivered the cash to his captors.  They in turn had shot another hostage, a Japanese investor, to impress upon the remaining group that they were not to move from their present location for at least twenty-four hours, and then the thugs had set off into the remote recesses of the mountainous jungles.

Meanwhile, many hundreds of miles south in the city of Pontianak on the west-central coast of Borneo, elite units of Indonesian marines and hardened mercenaries flown in from distant parts of Afghanistan and Angola and other ‘trouble spots’ around the globe were readying a massive invasion of the area held by the Philippine rebels.  That the marines would undertake operations with mercenaries and that they would in effect invade a foreign country, however clandestinely, spoke volumes about the kind of juice the Sultan of Java and his people had with the military that just the past July had deposed the feckless Wahid and installed Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, as the new president of an imploding nation.  The Sultan and his family had a large estate in Menteng, the same upscale suburb of Jakarta in which Mega herself lived.

Extensively equipped with helicopters, coastal vessels, and lethal munitions by the United States, the invasion force had made a stealthy approach toward the target area by night and marshaled all forces on a tiny island lying in the extensive archipelago of the Balabac-Bugsuk group just off the southern tip of Palawan.  As predetermined, the force arrived just in time at the marshaling point to receive coded satellite messages from the freed hostages as they finally made it to the shore-line about twenty miles south of a city named Valdez.  This was the code that they were safely away from the bandits, and the counter-coup operation proper could begin.

Early the next morning the hostage party was taken off the beach by motorized rubber dinghies launched from beyond the surf line by the missile boats. The party was exhausted and mauled by insect bites, but otherwise in reasonable condition, given the ordeal they had just endured.

Because of his past service in the Indonesian navy, the Sultan insisted on assuming second-in-command status of one of the Mandau class missile boats for the gruesome mission that followed.  A Korean rip-off of an American design, she weighed close to 300 tons, and with some 25,000 shaft hp her top speed was above 40 knots.  Bristling with computerized launch platforms for high-energy piercing armaments she was a formidable offensive weapon for running coastal patrols against the pirates and smugglers who infested the increasingly violent and disputed waters of the South China Sea.  In this case, along with half a dozen similar vessels and a clattering contingent of military helicopters, she outclassed the resources of the FPP thugs by a ridiculous margin — as they were shortly, and briefly if horribly, to discover.

Well, I made my calls.  With a terse thank you the Sultan’s brother assured me that things would gear up before I got off the line;  and the banker I spoke to in New York (to whom I relayed the same code as verification) said the cash would be in Puerto Princesa within forty-eight hours.

I could do no more, and tried to go about my business, anxiously awaiting further information about this dicey turn of events half way around the globe.

For the next few days I could not get events in far-off Palawan out of my mind, but as the days wore on without further news one way or the other, I admit that I gave less and thought to that world.  It was only about three months later that I received a coded communiqué from the Sultan in which he explained in broad outlines what had happened.

After making his calls to me and to New York, he waited around in Puerto Princesa another forty-eight hours until the cash arrived in a compact suitcase – of one hundred packets of one hundred used hundred-dollar bills each, neatly bundled and snugly stacked in a small case privately designed and manufactured for precisely this purpose.  He had returned by chartered helicopter to southern Palawan and delivered the cash to his captors.  They in turn had shot another hostage, a Japanese investor, to impress upon the remaining group that they were not to move from their present location for at least twenty-four hours, and then the thugs had set off into the remote recesses of the mountainous jungles.

Meanwhile, many hundreds of miles south in the city of Pontianak on the west-central coast of Borneo, elite units of Indonesian marines and hardened mercenaries flown in from distant parts of Afghanistan and Angola and other ‘trouble spots’ around the globe were readying a massive invasion of the area held by the Philippine rebels.  That the marines would undertake operations with mercenaries and that they would in effect invade a foreign country, however clandestinely, spoke volumes about the kind of juice the Sultan of Java and his people had with the military that just the past July had deposed the feckless Wahid and installed Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, as the new president of an imploding nation.  The Sultan and his family had a large estate in Menteng, the same upscale suburb of Jakarta in which Mega herself lived.

Extensively equipped with helicopters, coastal vessels, and lethal munitions by the United States, the invasion force had made a stealthy approach toward the target area by night and marshaled all forces on a tiny island lying in the extensive archipelago of the Balabac-Bugsuk group just off the southern tip of Palawan.  As predetermined, the force arrived just in time at the marshaling point to receive coded satellite messages from the freed hostages as they finally made it to the shore-line about twenty miles south of a city named Valdez.  This was the code that they were safely away from the bandits, and the counter-coup operation proper could begin.

Early the next morning the hostage party was taken off the beach by motorized rubber dinghies launched from beyond the surf line by the missile boats. The party was exhausted and mauled by insect bites, but otherwise in reasonable condition, given the ordeal they had just endured.

Because of his past service in the Indonesian navy, the Sultan insisted on assuming second-in-command status of one of the Mandau class missile boats for the gruesome mission that followed.  A Korean rip-off of an American design, she weighed close to 300 tons, and with some 25,000 shaft hp her top speed was above 40 knots.  Bristling with computerized launch platforms for high-energy piercing armaments she was a formidable offensive weapon for running coastal patrols against the pirates and smugglers who infested the increasingly violent and disputed waters of the South China Sea.  In this case, along with half a dozen similar vessels and a clattering contingent of military helicopters, she outclassed the resources of the FPP thugs by a ridiculous margin — as they were shortly, and briefly if horribly, to discover.

You see, behind all that Western education and European sophistication my Eastern friend from the Orient, the Sultan of Java, was at heart an Old Testament kind of guy rather than a New Testament sort.  He wasn’t really into that ethic of turning the other cheek but much preferred his own steroid version of an eye for an eye whereby you take two eyes for one.  He had personally coöpted and implemented the idea that ‘vengeance is mine’.

The choppers, all equipped with infrared sensors, soon picked up a group of some forty marchers beneath the overarching canopy of jungle.  Since this part of Palawan had its share of bandits, the Sultan, being literally just, wanted to be sure they had the right group.  Marines shimmied down from the helicopters in advance of the projected march of the bandits and, blending into the thick jungle along the trails, shortly verified that this was indeed the FPP.

I never did find out how he had pulled it off, but the Sultan had somehow gotten his people to tap into some databank somewhere that spewed out photos of those FPP who’d made the mistake of hitting on him, and these had been faxed via satellite to the helicopters and distributed to the marines.  Once the latter returned verification, the vengeance business swung into high gear.

The electronics officers on the choppers slaved their infrareds to the firing computers on the missile boats so their launchers could lock on to the co-ordinates of the FPP.  Then they proceeded to rain down a relentless hellfire of brimstone and concussion grenades to the side of and behind the confused and panicked marchers.  In this way they were forced to turn toward the sea, away from the relative safety of their far-flung mountain redoubts, and sort of marched bit by bit by the murderous salvos from off shore right down to the beaches where, just beyond the waterline, heavily armed mercenaries with little mercy in their eyes and no welcoming smiles on their grim faces awaited them with machine guns, safeties off.

As a military operation it was a kind of classic of its genre.

The Sultan personally came ashore, recovered the suitcase with his ten million dollars, and directed the mop-up.  He had all the ‘environmentalists’ strip off all their clothes.  Some were forced to dig holes in the sand at the waterline, others to tie fellow bandits to long tow lines whose other end was attached to missile boats, and a third set – the lucky ones – were summarily executed by the raking fire of heavy machine guns.  I won’t go into the details of what happened to those still left alive.  But suffice it to say that each one, either as he saw the tidal surf come in and begin to lap at his mouth – buried as he was up to his neck in the surf line – or fill it – dragged bouncing as he was behind the Mandau boats — no doubt fervently wished he had been taken down by those machine guns chattering in their universal language

The beach and a trail leading up into the jungle were eventually decorated with the grisly remains of those foolish unfortunates, and signs in several of the local dialects explained why they had ended up this way and how others could expect similar if not worse treatment for the kinds of violations they had been in the habit of perpetrating at will on both locals and tourists.

Not a peep was heard in the press about this punitive expedition by a foreign power on Philippine soil.  My own take is that the locals, sick to death of the depredations that had been visited on them with impunity for too long by these gangsters without any effective response from Manila, simply ignored the whole episode with silent thanks, operating on the time-tested Asian principle that heaven is high and the emperor is far away.  No doubt the feckless politicians in the distant capital did learn of what had happened and decided not to look this particular gift horse too closely in the mouth, busy as they were with trying to sort out the new corruption of the new government while gearing up for the show trials of the old corruption of the old Estrada regime.

But the Sultan of Java  and his Wyang Caper had at last rebalanced the chi in his universe. It was a decisiveness beautiful to behold in execution as in conception.  What a man!

This entry was posted in STORY and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s