Subject: The Age: Jakarta's In No Sorry State

The Age [Melbourne] Tuesday 16 November 1999

Jakarta's in no sorry state


SOMETIMES statistics tell a grim tale. In the first weeks of September this year, 70per cent of public buildings and private residences in East Timor were destroyed. At least 75per cent of the population was displaced, with more than 260,000 people being driven across the border into Indonesian West Timor.

Even more ominously, out of an estimated population of 850,000 at the time of the 30 August ballot for independence, between 80,000 and 130,000 are unaccounted for and, according to UN peace-making force InterFET, are likely to remain so.

"We're missing an awful lot of people here," says Ross Mountain, the United Nations coordinator for humanitarian affairs in East Timor.

For those who welcomed the election of President Abdurrahaman Wahid and his new Indonesian Government as an opportunity to swiftly resolve the crisis, the early signs have not been positive.

According to Jakarta's own National Commission on Human Rights, systematic human rights abuses are continuing in the West Timor refugee camps controlled by militia.

Abductions and hostage taking, killings, sexual assault and the forced recruitment of East Timorese into the militias are a daily occurrence. Few have been allowed to return home.

In light of Indonesia's behavior in East Timor, an act of contrition for the violence and destruction might have been expected from the first democratically elected government in Jakarta since the mid 1950s.

This would have accelerated Indonesia's return to the society of states, and signalled a break with its recent status as an international pariah.

It appears, however, that although an apology is required, it is one that should come from Canberra to Jakarta. Wahid has said Australia was "pissing in our face" on the Timor issue and that he would prefer relations with Canberra to "remain cool" with a restoration of warmth depending "on Australia, if they realise their mistakes before".

Indonesia's new Foreign Minister, Alwi Shihab, agrees, saying that "it is enough that they know we were angry and displeased".

Welcome to a world that is truly surreal, one where the perpetrators of heinous crimes expect apologies from those who exposed and curtailed their genocidal behavior.

Does the new government in Jakarta seriously expect Canberra to say sorry for coming to the rescue of an unarmed civilian population that was being terrorised by its armed forces and their militias? Apparently it does.

What "mistakes" did Australia make? I can think of two. Canberra waited too long before preparing for a peace enforcement deployment and showed too much respect for Indonesia's illegal sovereign claim to the territory. And what exactly is Jakarta "angry and displeased about"? Obviously not its own army's campaign of terror.

Predictably, Wahid's views have struck a chord with those in Australia who want an early restoration of "good relations" with Jakarta. The Australian thinks it is time for Canberra "to withdraw from the military leadership role" in East Timor because "an ongoing military presence by Australia could hinder the peace process by continuing to antagonise militia groups", clearly something that must be avoided.

The newspaper also berates resistance leader "Xanana" Gusmao for wearing army fatigues during his first public appearances in East Timor after an absence of seven years. According to The Australian, Gusmao should no longer regard himself as a military commander and should understand that dressing in "jungle greens" could be seen by some as "adversarial".

The foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, is also keen to "make up" with Jakarta. Attempting to exculpate Jakarta for its crimes committed in East Timor, Sheridan argues that "the Indonesian people are not the same thing as the Indonesian military", who are presumably from Mars or another galaxy.

The Australian's proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, has a distaste for foreign policy driven by "humanitarian and moralistic concerns". Sheridan believes the cause of the problem is John Howard's unfortunate habit of listening to the views of his constituents: "The Government's worst statement was the Prime Minister saying in Parliament recently that he wanted foreign policy to be in step with public opinion."

Clearly this is an appalling prospect given the exemplary performance of our foreign policy elite in recent years.

In his autobiography, Bill Hayden noted that soon after becoming Foreign Minister in 1983, he "detected a preference among some to be overly agreeable towards certain outside interests and accordingly not independent enough in catering for the national interest. At its worst this could manifest itself in a severe infection of `localitis', where a diplomat serving too long at an overseas post came to be more identified with the host country's interests than Australia's".

Hayden has identified a widespread condition that still afflicts Australian journalists and policy makers.

In a decent world, journalists who got Indonesia and East Timor so badly wrong for so long would admit their errors, and stop criticising the victims of these terrible crimes and those who came to their assistance.

They would also insist that a fresh start to the bilateral relationship with Indonesia should, at the very least, await an admission of responsibility for what the UN believes could constitute crimes against humanity, an immediate removal of the threat of militia violence, and the safe return of all the refugees.

In a decent world.

Scott Burchill lectures in international relations at Deakin University. E-mail:

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