Fri, 08 Dec 2000

Ambassador McCarthy ends 'satisfying' four years in RI

By Meidyatama Suryodiningrat

JAKARTA (JP): For four years John McCarthy has been Australia's most senior representative in Indonesia, overseeing an often precarious relationship which in his time has reached both ends of the extreme.

This months he returns home at least in the knowledge that ties between Jakarta and Canberra, albeit not at its peak, is on a positive upward trend.

"At the end of the day I've had a satisfying four years here, I can go with any complaints," McCarthy said in a farewell interview with The Jakarta Post.

"It's one of these big countries that becomes more complex the longer you stay here," he said describing Indonesia.

When he first arrived in the country no one could have predicted what was in store for McCarthy. In fact, at the time, no one could have foreseen the turn of events for the whole country.

He has gone through three presidents, two eras -- New Order and Reform -- and one crisis after another.

During the initial phase of his arrival here it was the Soeharto era "at full play". Not long after it moved into the monetary crisis, political turmoil, the B.J. Habibie era and now for the past year the presidency of Abdurrahman Wahid.

As McCarthy puts it, "you're dealing with a whole new world".

As a consequence the approach to diplomacy too has changed.

"The way one operates as a diplomat has changed, in that there is now a need to concentrate on more diffuse centers of power in Indonesia. In 1997 the main emphasis was really on the presidency and ministries, and to some degree the Indonesian Military (TNI)," he said.

"You now have more power going to the regions, parliament, the press and business is beginning to reactivate ... which means everybody's busy".

The advent of the reform era in particular has brought a new dimension in the relationship.

"In a sense it should logically mean that there is less difference between our two systems then was the case before. You are now embarked on your own democratic road and hence the Australian perception of authoritarianism in Indonesian which used to be a problem should diminish".

"I think that is a plus ... Equally however you now have many different opinions in Indonesia and everybody is free to express their opinions. And sometimes you will get things said about Australia, or other countries, by different parts of the community".

"(But) I think we can deal with that".

When talking to McCarthy one cannot escape the subject of the continuous swing in the pendulum of ties between Indonesia and Australia.

After several years of very amiable ties in the early to mid- 1990s, the bottom simply fell out in 1999. The East Timor issue, which has always been a very precarious dimension to the relationship, aggravated the matter so much to the point that demonstrators were burning Australian flags and jumping Embassy walls.

Given the frequent ups and downs, are ties between the two countries thus really built on a strong enough foundation?

McCarthy seemed realistic: "It maybe that in the 90s we were a bit euphoric about the relationship about the progress being made, and now we need to look at a bit more stabler framework which will stand the test of time, and I think this is not something that can be done quickly".

He points out that when two countries are as close as Indonesia and Australia are, there are bound to be uncertainties.

"It's easier to have uncertainties between neighbors than distant countries, regrettably," he said while pointing out that East Timor through the years remained a controversial and often sore point.

"I don't think you can discount either what is broadly termed as the cultural factor, which means that you have two countries very close to each other with very different cultural backgrounds and histories.

"And hence I think there can be some sort of quite often public misunderstandings ... Misunderstandings among the public is probably putting it better".

"All that said, I think the relationship is now on the mend again although it is not a rapid process," he remarked.

While the East Timor issue can slowly been moved to the background "cultural differences" in effect will continue to remain a factor for some time to come.

McCarthy believes that over time this too can be diminished with the increased people-to-people interaction such as business contacts, education, mutual visits.

Oddly when asked about his personal darkest days here as ambassador McCarthy ranks the calamitous events of May 1998 as first, and only placed the storm of demonstrations and protests before and after the East Timor ballot in late 1999 as second.

"For everybody it was about May 1998," he recalls.

While it was not easy working at the embassy amid the seeming public animosity following the East Timor ballot, McCarthy remarked that "I don't think things were really as bad in terms of treatment to Australians".

"Sure there were demonstrations and so on, but my feeling is that the stories I heard about Indonesians being mistreated in Australia or Australians being mistreated in Indonesia nearly always ended being wrong once investigated.

"So I think in large I think that was not so much a difficult period as often it seemed from the outside, nonetheless it wasn't straight forward at all".

When asked more bluntly if in his dealings with political elites he may have felt some animosity by some who may have not been happy with Australia's role, McCarthy, being the experienced diplomatic that he is, was cautious at first.

"Oh I think it's not universal, it very much depends on whom you talk to. I don't think one can expect everyone in this country to change their views rapidly.

"East Timor was a difficult process for some Indonesians to go through. Given the prominent role we played you'd expect some resentment from some. We just hope that with time that resentment will erode," he said.

But after a brief pause, McCarthy added more revealing words: "that's rather a long way of saying 'reactions have been mixed'".

"I would say this: that right through the crisis most Indonesians were extremely courteous to me and members of my staff. There was some hostility in some quarters but that was to be expected".

Having gone through and felt much of the trials and tribulations that many of the 210 million in the country have, it is no surprise that anyone would feel some sort of kinship to this country, not the least McCarthy.

When asked to take of his diplomatic mantle off and speak a few parting words, McCarthy cautiously expressed hope for the growth of Indonesia's fledging democracy.

"While I think democracy can work in Indonesia. I think people need to understand that it will take time for democratic institutions to take hold in the way that you would like them to, but it is certainly worth persevering in that path.

"But in the end these things are not things a foreigner can tell a country. The people have to make up their own mind about how they want to live in the future".