Subject: SMH/D.Jenkins: Indonesia - Australia: Under the scar tissue

Sydney Morning Herald Mrch 21, 2001

Under the scar tissue

Photo: John Howard and Abdurrahman Wahid ... on the way to building bridges. Photo: Mike Bowers

Indonesia's President Wahid arrives in Australia early next month as both nations move to heal strains caused by Canberra's intervention in East Timor. But, writes Asia Editor David Jenkins, Irian Jaya and Aceh may bring further crises.

When Abdurrahman Wahid won the Indonesian presidency in October 1999, a member of a prominent Jakarta think tank suggested that John Howard arrange to become the first foreign leader to call on the new head of state.

Such a visit, the analyst suggested, would do wonders for the bilateral relationship, which was under severe strain following the Australian-led military intervention in East Timor.

Australian officials were not impressed. "They just don't get it," said one. "This is not a tributary relationship."

As Wahid prepares to make his first visit as President to Australia - only the second time in 56 years of independence that an Indonesian president has bothered to set foot in Canberra - the bilateral relationship is in better shape than anyone had a right to expect 18 months ago.

All the same, the scars of Timor are still there. Many Indonesians felt shamed and humiliated when the Howard Government sent troops into East Timor, which Australia, almost alone among Western nations, had for 20 years recognised as a sovereign part of Indonesia.

In Jakarta, there was very little readiness to admit just how appalling Indonesian behaviour had been for a quarter of a century, every readiness to pounce on the sometimes insensitive but perhaps unavoidable triumphalism in this country over the successful deployment of Australian forces.

The Australia-Indonesia ministerial meeting in Canberra last last year served as a convenient circuit breaker. Jakarta now seems ready to move on, even if some Indonesian MPs have made a career out of keeping the issue alive.

Australia, too, is ready to move on, though perhaps a bit less ready than Indonesia. Canberra wants Jakarta to follow through on the trials of army officers responsible for a campaign that left more than 1,000 East Timorese dead and which saw another 250,000 driven across the border into Indonesian West Timor.

Many Australians, appalled by the carnage of 1999, are now even more wary of Indonesia than they were before. Feelings run especially deep within the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the Indonesian National Army (TNI), institutions which enjoyed close ties only two years ago. In the ADF, some officers suggest, only half in jest, TNI stands for "trust no Indonesian.''

There is a lot of bridge building to be done. Even Wahid seems to labour under some misapprehensions when it comes to this country, his 10 pre-presidential visits here notwithstanding. Not long after he became President, Wahid trotted out the line that Indonesia was more important to Australia than Australia was to Indonesia.

That argument, which has been promoted, assiduously and inexplicably, by at least one retired Australian ambassador, was never especially persuasive, even when Indonesia was one of the East Asian success stories, confident of its place in the world and suffering from more than a trace of hubris.

It seemed an extremely threadbare proposition by the time it found endorsement from an Indonesian president in 2000. After all, Australia had just energised and led an international peacekeeping force in East Timor.

We had, as many Indonesians mistakenly saw it, "prised off" one of their 27 provinces and helped set it on the road to independence. We were ready, it was widely and mistakenly believed, to go out and do it all again, perhaps in Aceh, Ambon or Irian Jaya (Papua).

It's hard to see how Australia could be seen as anything less than hugely important to Indonesia. The truth is, that each country is important to the other and it is rather pointless to calibrate which is the more important.

Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor notwithstanding, successive Australian governments worked hard to maintain good relations with Soeharto's government, seeking to put some "ballast" in the relationship. That was helped by the surge in two-way tourism, by the great numbers of Indonesians studying in Australia and by the steady growth in two-way trade.

Today, however, there are new challenges for Canberra, some exposed by the receding tide of Indonesian expansionism.

Indonesians may now give less expression to the sense of bitterness and betrayal that was so apparent when Interfet went storming into East Timor, if only because they have new separatist issues to worry about, not least in Aceh and Irian Jaya, to say nothing of horrific inter-religious and inter-ethnic violence in places such as Ambon and Kalimantan.

But that, too, poses enormous problems for Canberra. If Indonesia begins to disintegrate - and a surprising number of Indonesians have begun to speak openly of that possibility - it will greatly complicate the strategic picture for Australia.

We may find ourselves dealing not with one large and troubled republic but with up to half a dozen smaller - and no less troubled - states, some rich, some poor, a number of them quite possibly at odds with one another, with outsiders invited to make invidious choices between them.

The alternative to what we now have, it is sometimes said, is "three Bruneis and five Bangladeshs". That could be a nightmare. As one Indonesian asks: "Do you really want to be dealing with 1,000 little Gus Durs?"

Support for a united Indonesia makes sense not just because it is an attractive and romantic notion, one that still resonates with the great majority of Indonesians.

It is worth supporting because, in theory, it shares more equitably the nation's abundant but unevenly distributed natural resources. Most of the country's resources - natural gas, gold, oil, copper, timber, rubber, palm oil and fish - are found in the Outer Islands.

More than half of Indonesia's population lives in Java, which accounts for only 7 per cent of the nation's land area. A modified form of "Javanese imperialism", based not on the brute force and exploitation of the Soeharto years, but on principles of equity and enlightened self-interest, makes a great deal of sense.

Java, without the Outer Islands, would be the great lead sinker of South-East Asia, an indigent state with 110 million people living in half the land area of Victoria, to which Australia would be expected to contribute generously and from which significant numbers of boat people might one day conceivably set sail.

This is clear enough in Canberra, but not so clear to many Indonesians that it is in Australia's interests to have a prosperous, stable and united Indonesia. Nor is it clear to some Australian non-government organisations and human rights activists. They focus on the repression in Irian Jaya or Aceh and see independence as the most desirable outcome. They may be right. But governments are not NGOs and Canberra can hardly be expected to back separatist movements in a neighbouring state.

That would not only accelerate a process of fragmentation that is not necessarily in Australia's interests. It would be seen in Jakarta as an extraordinarily hostile act, proof the Timor intervention was not just a flash in the foreign policy pan but a harbinger of something much more maligned and dangerous.

It would mean decades of enmity in Canberra-Indonesia relations. That would in turn poison our relations with the rest of Asia. Does this mean that we have to commit ourselves, come what may, to the integrity of the Indonesia's present boundaries? If we backed a referendum in East Timor, what's wrong with backing a referendum in Irian Jaya?

Does it mean that we should not wag reproving fingers when the Indonesian army goes in boots and all against separatists in Irian Jaya and Aceh?

Our room for manoeuvre is limited. Commonsense suggests that it would be extremely unwise for Australia to give public support to breakaway movements in Irian Jaya or Aceh.

That does not mean, however, that we should remain silent if the TNI behaves with customary brutality in those regions. Nor does it preclude us from recognising new states if and when they appear on our doorstep.

The problem for any Australian government is that public opinion may swing further behind those calling for independence in Irian Jaya and Aceh if, as seems possible, the human rights abuses continue unchecked.

That, after all, is what happened in East Timor. One minute Gareth Evans, as Australia's Foreign Minister, was saying that East Timor's incorporation was irreversible; the next, we were pressing for a referendum.

Those sort of pressures may easily build again. Canberra may need to be more flexible and less dogmatic than it was over East Timor.

These issues, which are bound to become more important in the years ahead, provide the backdrop to Wahid's visit. One way or another, it seems incredible that with so much at stake, Indonesian presidents have been so remiss about visiting Australia.

Trying to get on with the backyard neighbours

PHoto: Friendly cuddles . . . President Soeharto in Townsville in 1975.

Former President Soeharto made two visits to Australia during his 32 years in office, a big-production tour in 1972 and a quick working trip to meet Gough Whitlam in Townsville ahead of the 1975 Indonesian invasion of Portuguese East Timor.

The first visit marked a high point of sorts in the bilateral relationship. But the botched and brutal invasion of East Timor was to dog the relationship for a quarter of a century.

Australia got off to a good start with the new Indonesian republic, supporting it during its 1945-49 struggle for independence against the Dutch.

However, relations came under constant strain in the period 1950-65. We didn't like President Sukarno, we didn't like the Indonesian claim on West New Guinea and we didn't like the growing influence of the Indonesian Left. We were wary of Jakarta's increasingly close relations with Moscow and Beijing.

Much of that changed in 1965 with the collapse of a left-wing coup attempt, an event which brought General Soeharto to power.

"Our 30 years of fairly cordial relations with Soeharto contrast sharply with what went before," notes Professor Jamie Mackie of the Australian National University in Canberra.

"During the 20 years of Sukarno and Menzies, we were quite seriously at odds with each other and we could go back to that. With Soeharto, we didn't have much choice. You had to work with him or be excluded."

Many of the strains in the bilateral relationship in the 50 years to 2000 stemmed from three cases of European decolonialisation - by the Dutch in West New Guinea, by the British in what is now Malaysia, and by the Portuguese in East Timor - as well as from Indonesia's prickly nationalism and sometimes overweaning ambition.

To Canberra's dismay, Sukarno twice resorted to armed force to resolve diplomatic differences, against the Dutch in West New Guinea (1961-63) and against the British, Australians, New Zealanders and Malaysians (1963-66).

Soeharto did the same thing in 1975 when he couldn't gain control of East Timor by diplomatic means. 

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