Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Youths hiding in the grounds of Santa Cruz cemetary during purges by the Indonesian military
Youths hiding in the grounds of Santa Cruz cemetary during purges by the Indonesian military. Photo: Steve Cox.

Hawks And Doves

Andrea Needham smashed up a Hawk aircraft bound for Indonesia. Writing from a remand prison cell, she describes why she took drastic measures to beat swords into ploughshares.

Squall 13, Summer 1996, pp. 34-35.

We’ve been in prison since February 1st, after disarming - or conspiring to disarm - a Hawk ground-attack aircraft destined for Indonesia.

The first question you’re asked in prison is always: “What are you in for?” The second question is often: “How did you get caught?”

Our answer - that we rang a press agency from inside the hangar and asked them to notify British Aerospace (BAe) of our presence - is usually met with incredulity.

Actually using hammers to disarm the plane seems sensible enough to most of the women in here - it was going to kill people, so we stopped it - but the logic of staying around to face the consequences needs a little more explaining.

To start at the beginning: why take this action against Hawk? What’s wrong with selling weapons to Indonesia? Isn’t such trade good for the economy? The recently published Scott Report into the sale of arms to Iraq provides a useful starting point from which to answer these questions.

“Iraq is a highly unsavoury regime, with an established record of chemical weapons use and internal suppression (for both of which Hawks could in theory be used), although one that is rich in natural resources and potentially economically powerful.” This is taken from a memo sent by George Younger (then Secretary of State for Defence) to the Cabinet Office in July 1989, when the Government was deciding whether it should sell Hawks to Iraq. The following day, Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary sent her a note saying that despite the “...risk that we shall incur a great deal of trouble and odium for no reward... the pot of gold is enticingly large.”

These remarkably frank notes, never intended for the eyes of the public, came to light as a result of Judge Scott’s enquiries. It is certain that similar memos have been written with regard to the sale of Hawks to Indonesia, a country which could equally well be described as a “highly unsavoury regime”.

Around a million of its citizens were massacred in a purge of anyone thought to be “subversive” after President Suharto came to power in a coup in 1965. In 1975, Indonesia invaded the neighbouring country of East Timor and has remained there ever since in defiance of ten UN resolutions calling on it to withdraw.

Since that time, some 200,000 people - one third of the population - have been killed by the Indonesian military or died of disease or starvation brought on by resettlement policies.

This is a per capita death rate higher than in any other country since the Holocaust. But deaf to the cries for justice in East Timor, Britain has become Indonesia’s largest weapons supplier and is just starting delivery of the first of 24 Hawks, despite eyewitness evidence of Hawks from a previous deal (signed by the Labour government in 1978) having been used to attack villages in East Timor.

...some 200,000 people - one third of the population - have been killed by the Indonesian military or died of disease or starvation. Britain has become Indonesia's largest weapons supplier.

One doesn’t have to look far to find the motivation for this deal. Substitute Indonesia for Iraq in the quote above and there it is: [Indonesia] “is rich in natural resources and potentially economically powerful”. Having squandered most of their own resources, the West is turning to the developing world and competing to exploit resources there at a favourable rate. Indonesia has vast untapped reserves of oil, minerals and timber, as well as a huge supply of cheap labour, a combination which must be every businessman’s dream. In order to ensure access to these riches,

Britain must take steps to ingratiate itself with the Suharto regime - hence the no-questions asked Hawk deal.

Over the last three years, Indonesia has become the ninth largest recipient of British aid, receiving more than any other non-Commonwealth country. Aid has peaked around years when major weapons sales were being negotiated in a kind of mutual back-scratching arrangement; we give Indonesia aid, Indonesia signs deals to buy British weapons, British companies exploit Indonesian resources.

Clearly the truth behind the Hawk deal would be as unpalatable to the British public as was the sale of weapons to Iraq. The Government has therefore come up with a way out: the lie that, as Archie Hamilton (then Armed Services Minister) put it: “The point of selling Hawk aircraft to Indonesia is to give jobs to people in this country.”

But few people still believe the Government has any commitment to decreasing unemployment in the long term. If it had, it would be investing public money in labour-intensive areas such as health, education and the environment, which research has shown would create many more jobs than investing in high- tech military production.

Fortunately, many people can see beyond government lies to recognise the gross immorality of the Hawk deal, and thousands of people have been campaigning to stop it since it was first announced in 1992. People have written letters, signed petitions, held marches, rallies and vigils, met with BAe, lobbied MPs, talked to BAe workers, held peace camps, and carried out NVDA.

Despite this massive opposition to the deal, by early last year it was becoming increasingly clear the sale would proceed, with delivery scheduled for early 1996. We knew that once the planes left Britain there’d be little more we could do, so the obvious thing seemed to be to stop them leaving by disarming them. This kind of action, potentially involving a long jail sentence, is not something to be entered into lightly.

We met once a month for a weekend for nearly a year, and spent many long hours discussing not just the practicalities of the action, but the philosophy of it; our fears, and our coping strategies. The practicalities turned out to be the easy bit, and consisted largely of long cold days and nights lying in fields outside the site, peering through binoculars to get information about routines, security patrols, entry points, cameras. Talking about, and coming to terms with, our fears - whether of the action itself, prison, trial, being parted from our loved- ones - was very much harder. But it’s vital, I believe, to consider all these issues before setting out on this kind of course, and it has paid off in terms of our ability to not only cope in prison, but to use our time here constructively and to make it a positive experience.

The first Ploughshares action took place in the United States in 1980 when eight people, inspired by the Biblical injunction of Isaiah to “beat swords into ploughshares”, used hammers to disarm nose-cones for nuclear missiles. Since then, a further 55 actions have taken place in the US, Australia and Europe (ours was the third in Britain).

Activists are by no means exclusively Christian; many act out of other beliefs, ranging from Buddhism to Anarchism. They have disarmed weapons ranging from Trident submarines to automatic rifles. Almost all activists have been prosecuted and most have been jailed.

All Ploughshares activists take full responsibility for their acts of disarmament. I believe what we did in disarming a Hawk was lawful - we were simply acting to prevent crime - and so there was no reason to run away when we’d finished our work.

Whilst “hit and split” actions - such as those of some animal liberation groups - can be very effective in purely practical terms, they are too easily dismissed by the state as terrorism or vandalism and the real issues get ignored. By staying to claim their work, Ploughshares activists can bring the issues into the public domain and use their trial as an opportunity to expose government crimes.

On the negative side, some might say, is that activists end up in jail as a result and are thus unable to carry on the struggle. But this is to make the assumption not only that nothing good can come out of being in jail, but also that we are indispensable. In fact, knowing that people are in jail for their beliefs can galvanise others into action. And we are far from indispensable; the struggle against the Hawk deal continues even as the first planes leave for Indonesia.

For me, this action has been enormously empowering. I think for all of us there is an issue which catches our attention and won’t let go; it’s a constant nagging, a grip on our conscience which demands action. It might be nuclear weapons, roads, live exports, vivisection or any of a thousand issues. For me it was East Timor. I’ve never felt so strongly about anything else, and although I’ve been arrested many times for minor offences, I have never been prepared to risk a long jail sentence over any other issue.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the power of the state: what can I, as an individual, do to resist? Taking this kind of action, and being prepared to face the consequences, is a very liberating experience. Once we’re no longer bound by fear of the sanctions which can be employed against us, we can do anything. Paradoxically, although I’m now in jail - and am likely to be here for some time - I feel more free in many ways than I did on the outside, when my actions were often tempered by fear of the consequences. The prison may have my body, but it hasn’t got my spirit.

We’re sometimes asked why we choose to be martyrs for this cause. Our response is that we’re not martyrs; we’re just ordinary women who were able to carry out a small act of resistance to a grave injustice. We’re just four people in the great history of resistance in Britain, from the Abolitionists through the Suffragettes to the Greenham women and the people in the trees at Newbury. We’re no different, no better, no braver. We were just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, with hammers in our pockets.

Related Articles
Disarming Women - The four ploughshares women recently acquitted for breaking the nose-cone of a Hawk jet fighter were but the tip of a growing movement. Neil Goodwin reviews its history and the implications of the acquittal. Squall 14 - Autumn 1996
To Do The Right Thing -Andy Johnson interviews Chris Cole, currently in prison for hammering £100,000 worth of damage to BAe military equipment as part of the Swords Into Ploughshares peace movement. Squall 10 - Summer 1995.