Subject: AFR/Toohey: Drawing the Line with Jakarta

Australian Financial Review Saturday, August 12, 2000

Drawing the line with Jakarta

Capital Idea,

By Brian Toohey

Well-trained soldiers dressed in Indonesian battle fatigues, and carrying Indonesian semi-automatic rifles, are trying extremely hard to kill Australian and other UN troops in East Timor. Yet influential commentators persist in urging Australia to ignore this malevolent behaviour in an effort to repair relations with Indonesia.

These commentators are living in a fantasy world. The Indonesia they have in mind no longer exists. More importantly, it is most unlikely to be reincarnated in the foreseeable future.

The soldiers crossing the border to attack the UN troops are reportedly members of militia groups which the Indonesian military previously established, funded, trained and armed. Even making the dubious assumption that Indonesian Special Forces no longer directly participate in these militia units, we are now supposed to believe the military can't stop the murderous cross-border raids.

The invaders recently killed and mutilated a New Zealand peace keeper, killed a Nepalese peace keeper and wounded three others. Unless the cross-border raids are stopped, it can only be a matter of time until some Australian troops are also killed and mutilated.

Obviously, the Indonesian Government has a lot more on its plate to worry about than East Timor. Which is all the more reason for it to order the military to disband the militia.

The Indonesian military's command structure is still intact. The military could stop the raids if it wanted to. But there are disturbing signs that it doesn't. Worse still, it has the support of many other members of the Indonesian elite, apparently including the Vice-President, Megawati Soekarnoputri.

The position of the Indonesian elite is much the same as if a democratic German government regarded it as perfectly normal after World War II to keep sending para-military forces into France to murder Allied troops. Yet former diplomats, who hanker for the era when Australia enjoyed "good relations" with the Soeharto dictatorship, want to turn a blind eye to the continuing raids across the East Timorese border.

The argument runs that Australia was somehow at fault for leading the UN force which stopped the carnage after the August 30 independence ballot. From this perspective, Indonesia is entitled to be upset at Australia for allegedly betraying a friendship.

The reverse is the case. Indonesia should be profoundly grateful to Australia. Without Australia's intervention, Indonesia would have gone on to suffer even greater ignominy over its appalling behaviour in East Timor.

Last October's election of President Abdurrahman Wahid gave Indonesia the chance for a fresh start on the road to democracy. Although Wahid shows signs of wanting to respect East Timor's clear vote opposing occupation by Indonesia, he has been continually frustrated by friend and foe in the Indonesian elite.

The attitude of many members of the elite - ranging from the Soeharto old guard to Wahid's reformist rivals - does not bode well for the future of Indonesian society. Although on a lesser scale, it is as if key politicians in Germany and Japan in 1946 refused to accept that their wartime leaders had done anything wrong, preferring instead to blame the Allies for an embarrassing loss of face.

Even Megawati, supposedly a friend of Wahid, has encouraged those who refuse to accept that the occupation of East Timor was wrong. On Wednesday, Wahid tried to respond to criticism of the chaotic nature of his Government by giving Megawati greater responsibility for domestic policies. But few regard Megawati as more competent than Wahid, let alone more committed to human rights and democracy.

At this stage, it is difficult to see how the move will do much to prevent Indonesia descending further into turmoil and economic ruin. Just as in Russia, those who benefited from the previous dictatorship are reluctant to surrender power and economic privilege, while the reformers often seem united only in their ineptitude and tolerance of corruption.

Whether Indonesia is in serious danger of disintegration, as Wahid warned last week, is unclear. But the stability imposed by Soeharto's brutality seems just as unlikely to be restored as the stability enforced by Stalin. This doesn't mean that authoritarian measures won't be tried - merely that they will no longer yield the sort of stability so admired by Australian policy makers in the past.

It will certainly be much more difficult to create stability at the point of a gun. No-one can confidently predict what will happen. But there is a reasonable chance that Aceh will break away from Indonesia. Likewise for West Papua.

Even if Australia could influence the outcome, no vital interests are served by a policy which insists that the arbitrary boundaries inherited from the Dutch should be maintained at almost any price. So far as many people in Aceh or West Papua are concerned, Javanese colonialism is no improvement on the Dutch version.

If they succeed in breaking free of Jakarta's control, Australia will have to get used to dealing with a couple more countries in the region. While this will require a little more willingness to adapt to change than is common among backward-looking Australian policy makers who regard the Dutch borders as sacrosanct, other countries have managed to live with the emergence of new neighbours in the post-colonial era.

Even if another strongman doesn't try to hold the old Dutch empire together, the importance attached to meetings with shaky leaders such as Wahid is easily over-rated. More practical assistance to pro-democracy forces at the grass-roots level might help at the margin, but visits from foreign leaders are not likely to count for much.

On Wednesday, a former US ambassador to Jakarta during the reassuring days of the Soeharto dictatorship, Paul Wolfowitz, joined the chorus of critics slamming the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, for not going to Indonesia to meet Wahid. Although couched in terms of the need to support democracy, Wolfowitz echoed the tired line about the dangers of letting the tail (East Timor) wag the dog (Indonesia) in policy formulation.

There would be no problem if Indonesia were prepared to behave like a responsible member of the international community and accept East Timor's territorial integrity. But what is Howard supposed to say to Wahid: "Here's a bag of money as a token of our friendship. And don't worry, I won't be so impolite as to mention the ongoing efforts to murder Australian troops."


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