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State of Siege

State of Siege

5.0 1
by Eric Ambler

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All in all Steve Fraser had enjoyed his three-year stint in the former Dutch Southeast Asian colony of Sunda, and he’d been well compensated. But now he was looking forward to a last weekend in the capital before heading home. But Sunda was newly independent, and not entirely stable. An opposition faction with fundamentalist Islamic leanings was set on


All in all Steve Fraser had enjoyed his three-year stint in the former Dutch Southeast Asian colony of Sunda, and he’d been well compensated. But now he was looking forward to a last weekend in the capital before heading home. But Sunda was newly independent, and not entirely stable. An opposition faction with fundamentalist Islamic leanings was set on overthrowing the provisional government. And instead of enjoying a sybaritic weekend with the Eurasian beauty Rosalie, Fraser finds himself trapped with her by a fanatical group who’ve taken over the country’s radio station and made their headquarters in his friend Jebb’s apartment. As the government launches a counterattack, the couple’s survival depends on their ability to dodge bullets and the shifting loyalties of the coup’s lieutenants.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A superior Ambler tale of intrigue.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“As good as Ambler’s very best.” —The Observer

“A sophisticated , assured novel of third world politics where lives, as well as ideas, are armed and ideology creates a dangerous terrain.” -The Times

“All the elements that Ambler has dveloped to such an art are here.” —Chicago Tribune

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Random House
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2 MB

Read an Excerpt


The weekly Dakota from Selampang had never been known to arrive at the valley airstrip before noon, or to leave on the return journey before one. After the farewell party they had given for me the previous night, I should have slept until eleven at least. But no; I was wide awake, packed and ready to go at dawn.

Not that I had had much packing to do. Most of my clothes--the dobi-battered slacks and bush shirts, the mosquito boots and the sweat-stained hats--I had given, with my camp bed, to Kusumo, who had been my servant for the past three years. The few things that were left--shoes, some white shirts, underwear and other personal oddments--had gone easily into one small metal suitcase. The only suit that I possessed, I wore. Like a fool, I had ordered it by mail from an outfitters in Singapore, and it hung on me like a shower curtain; but that morning I did not care how I looked; nor, indeed, how long I had to wait for the plane. What mattered most to me just then was the fact that I was leaving, and that in my breast pocket, along with my passport and a ticket for a B.O.A.C. Qantas flight from Djakarta to London, was a letter. It was from the Singapore branch of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, and advised me that, on the completion of my contract as resident consulting engineer to the North Sunda Power and Irrigation Project, there stood to my credit the sum of fifty-eight thousand eight hundred and ninety-six Straits dollars.

Soon after eleven, I borrowed one of the maintenance department jeeps and drove across to the Chief Engineer's office to say goodbye.

Now that I was leaving the place I could look at it with friendlier eyes. As the jeep bounced along the corduroy road past the new attap houses and the row of quonset huts in which the European employees lived, I was even aware of a feeling of pride in what had been done.

It was a Colombo Plan project, and there had been no shortage of American and British Commonwealth capital to finance it; but it takes more than money and good intentions to build dams in places like the Tangga Valley. When I had first arrived at the site with the advance party, there had been nothing but swamps, jungle, leeches and a colony of twenty-foot pythons. It had taken the contractors nearly a month to get their first two bulldozers up from the coast; and there had been a period during the first year, just after the monsoon broke, when we had had to abandon all the equipment and move up to the high ground in order to stay alive. Yet now there was a camp as big as a small town on the site, and an airstrip, and, there, wedged in the throat of the valley, the huge mass of stone and steel and concrete that was the keystone of the whole project. Because of that dam, it had been possible to turn something like two hundred square miles of scrub country down by the Tangga delta into rich padi fields. That year, for the first time, Sunda would have surplus rice to sell to the neighbouring islands of Indonesia; and when the power station below the dam was completed and the transmission lines began to reach into the tin- and tungsten-bearing areas to the north, there was no telling how prosperous the young state might not become. The Tangga Valley scheme was something to be proud of. My own motives for going to Sunda had been in no sense noble or disinterested. I had been paid as much for working for three years in the Tangga Valley as I would have been paid for working for ten years, and tax free, in England. But there had been satisfaction in the job for its own sake, too. I might be sick to death of Sunda and delighted to be leaving it, but I had come to like the Sundanese and was glad that I had been of service to them.

There were two other men already in the Chief Engineer's office when I put my head round the door, but Gedge beckoned me in.

"Sit down, Steve. Won't keep you a moment." He turned and went on with what he had been saying. "Now, Major Suparto, let's get this straight . . ."

I sat down and listened.

Gedge, the man in charge of the job for the contractors, was a South African civil engineer of great ability and experience who had spent most of his working life in the East. Moreover, he had done so from choice. He had worked for many years in China and, since the Japanese war, in India and Pakistan. There, he had made no secret of the fact that he preferred Asians to men of his own race, not merely as working associates but also as friends. Among the Europeans, he had, not unnaturally, a reputation for eccentricity, and from time to time inaccurate rumours that he had Communist sympathies, or six Eurasian concubines, or that he had secretly become a Buddhist, would find their way across the bridge tables.

At the moment, however, his feelings towards his Asian collaborators were anything but friendly. He was having trouble with them. Indeed, since Major Suparto and his five brother officers had arrived from Selampang six months earlier, there had been practically nothing but trouble.

Sunda used to be part of the Netherlands East Indies. In 1942 it was occupied by the Japanese. When the Dutch returned three years later, they were confronted by a Sundanese "Army of Liberation" and a demand for independence which they were unable in the end to resist. In 1949 Sunda became a Republic.

The moment of greatest difficulty for all revolutionary leaders seems to be the moment of success; the moment when, from being rebels in conflict with authority, they themselves have suddenly become the authority, and the fighting men who procured the victory wait jealously, and inconveniently, for their reward. Armies of liberation are more easy to recruit than they are to disarm and disband.

At first, it looked as if the Provisional Government of the new Republic of Sunda were dealing shrewdly with this embarrassment. A policy of dispersal was applied to break down esprit de corps. No unit was disbanded as a unit. Men who came from the same district were collected together and then transported back to that district, before being disarmed and demobilised. Meanwhile, the Government rapidly built up the small regular army on which their authority was to rest in the future, and used it against any of their former supporters who showed fight. And, of course, some did; particularly the younger soldiers, who frequently banded themselves together and terrorised the people in the villages. But this sort of brigandage had little political importance. For some months after the proclamation of independence by President Nasjah all seemed to be going fairly well.

Unfortunately there was an aspect of the problem that the Government had neglected. In their anxiety to dispose of the rank and file, they had not troubled to do anything about disposing of the officers; and by the time they had realised the gravity of that mistake, it was too late to retrieve it.

There were several hundreds of these surplus officers; many more than could conceivably be absorbed by the regular army or by the new police force. Moreover, many were not officers in the, ordinary sense of the term, men sensitive in matters of loyalty, but guerrilla leaders and ex-bandits who had both fought and collaborated with the Japanese occupation forces before doing those same things with the Dutch colonial troops, and who might reasonably be expected to start fighting the new Government in Selampang if the promised Utopia did not immediately materialise; or if they became dissatisfied with their share of the spoils. With such men, making revolutions may easily become a habit. Machiavelli thought that the wise usurper should, as soon as he comes to power, trump up charges against his more ambitious supporters and have them killed off before they can get into mischief. But not all politicians are so wary or so practical.

Even when the danger had become manifest, the Nasjah Government underestimated it. Struggling with vital day-to-day problems of administration and caught up in the political battle being waged over the new Constitution, they felt that they had no time to spare just then to deal with petty discontents. No doubt something would have to be done soon, but not now. With the peculiar innocence of politicians in office, they even assumed that as long as the surplus officers continued to draw their pay and allowances they would remain loyal to the leaders of the Republic. Had these men not fought to make it all possible? Were they not, after all, patriots?

The politicians soon had their answer. By the time they were ready to submit the Draft Constitution to the General Assembly, there was an insurgent force of nearly three thousand men operating in the central highlands. It was led by an ex-colonel named Sanusi, who promoted himself to General and rapidly gained administrative control of an area which straddled the only two roads connecting the capital with the northern provinces. Moreover, Sanusi was a devout Moslem and issued a series of manifestos calling upon all True Believers to join his Sundanese National Freedom Party and declare a Holy War on the infidels in Selampang who had betrayed the new state at the very moment of its birth.

The riots which ensued caused some casualties among the Eurasian population of the capital, but order was eventually restored without much bloodshed. Although most Sundanese are Moslems and a majority of the men wear the black cap of Islam, religion is not an important factor in their lives. It was General Sanusi's hold on the interior of the country which constituted the real problem. A punitive expedition sent against him had to withdraw ignominiously when one of its regimental commanders deserted, together with all his men and most of the expedition's ammunition supply. A subsequent series of air attacks on what was believed to be Sanusi's headquarters resulted, because of the hazardous flying conditions in the mountains, in the loss of two out of the ten obsolete planes that constituted the Government air force.

Having swallowed these humiliations, the Government were forced to examine the problem more realistically. They believed that Sanusi possessed neither tanks nor artillery, and that without them he would be obliged to remain in the hills. They knew, too, that any further loss of face on their own part would shake the public's confidence badly. Foreign sensibilities had also to be considered. Arrangements were almost completed for large United States dollar credits to be placed at their disposal. An appearance of calmness and stability must be preserved at all costs.

So they decided to bluff.

A communiqué issued by the Minister of Public Enlightenment announced that the "Sanusi gang" had been rounded up and liquidated, and a directive to newspaper editors ordered them to refrain from all further allusions to the "incident." Political murders committed by Sanusi's undercover agents in Selampang were to be blamed on "colonialist reactionaries." For inquisitive foreigners who wanted to know why it was still impossible to travel by road from the capital to the north, there was a bland statement that, in view of the extensive damage to bridges and mining of roads carried out by the retreating Dutch forces during the war, land communications would take at least a year to restore. Meanwhile, both sea and air transport were readily available.

At the same time, the Minister of Defence was instructed to take special and secret precautions against any further treachery in the armed forces. The reliability of every army officer was to be carefully tested by the use of agents provocateurs. A list of the dissident was to be compiled and steps taken to render them harmless. Sanusi was to be left to cool his heels in the mountains until a full-scale offensive could be mounted against him.

The feeling of security which the Government derived from the making of these decisions did not last long. The inquiries made by the Minister of Defence soon provided the frightening information that there was open talk of a coup d'etat among the officers, that a group was already in secret communication with Sanusi, and that it was doubtful if more than a third of the officers of the Selampang garrison could be relied upon in an emergency.

The Council of Ministers' first reaction was to panic, and for an hour or so, apparently, there was wild talk of asking for a British warship from Singapore to stand by. Then, they pulled themselves together and gave General Ishak, the Minister of Defence, special powers to deal with the conspirators. Within twenty-four hours, sixteen senior officers had been shot and a further sixty were in prison awaiting court-martial.

The immediate crisis was over; but the Government had been badly frightened and they did not forget the experience. The news from Indonesia of the "Turko" Westerling incident intensified their anxiety. If a small force of Javanese counter-revolutionaries led by a few mad Dutchmen could capture a city like Bandung under the very noses of the lawful Indonesian Government, a large force of Sundanese insurgents under Sanusi could probably capture Selampang. Only the Selampang garrison, with its Japanese tanks and armoured cars and its six German eighty-eights, prevented their trying. If Sanusi could ever neutralise the garrison by allying himself with a Fifth Column conspiracy of the kind that had so nearly succeeded before, the game would be up. From now on there must be extreme vigilance. Reliable police spies must be found to report on the activities of all officers and former officers. The malcontents must be dealt with shrewdly. With a determined trouble-maker, a knife in the back would be the only safe solution. With a more self-interested man, however, a well-paid civil appointment might be the best answer. If, besides purchasing his loyalty, you could also expect to gain his services as an informer, an even more lucrative post could be awarded.

As self-interest seemed to be the dominating characteristic of most of the officers on the list of suspects, the new policy worked. From time to time there were plot scares and midnight executions, and for one period of a month martial law was declared; but although the roads to the north were now permanently in insurgent hands (Sanusi impudently collected taxes from the villages in his area), the Government did not lose any more ground. The losses they suffered from now on were in terms of morale rather than territory.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
“A superior Ambler tale of intrigue.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“As good as Ambler’s very best.” —The Observer

“A sophisticated , assured novel of third world politics where lives, as well as ideas, are armed and ideology creates a dangerous terrain.” -The Times

“All the elements that Ambler has dveloped to such an art are here.” —Chicago Tribune

Meet the Author

Eric Ambler is often said to have invented the modern suspense novel. Beginning in 1937, he wrote a series of novels that were touted for their realism, in which he introduced ordinary protagonists who are thrust into political intrigue they are ill prepared to deal with. In the process he paved the way for such writers as John Le Carre, Len Deighton, and Robert Ludlum. He was awarded four Gold Daggers and a Diamond Dagger from The Crime Writers Association, named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers Association, and was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth. In addition to his novels, Ambler wrote a number of screenplays, including Rebecca, which he collaborated on with his wife, Joan Harrison. Eric Ambler died in 1998.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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State of Siege 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
mschmidt62 More than 1 year ago
One of the better Ambler novels I have read. The subject--instability in new democracies in the developing world, aggravated by a desire of some for an Islamic state--is every bit as relevant today as it was in 1956. There are lots of places Ambler could have screwed it up, but he always hits the right note.