Tue, 21 Mar 2000

Indonesia-Australia relations: After fear, before justice

By Richard Tanter

This is the first of two articles on RI-Australia relations.

ALICE SPRINGS, Australia: It's a bad time to talk about relations between Indonesia and Australia as if ethics were important. Over the bodies of East Timorese, Australian and Indonesian political leaders matched each other, measure for repulsive measure, each marked by racialised nationalism, self- interest and brazen hypocrisy.

Even as United Nations teams began their investigations of Indonesian atrocities in East Timor, the country's soon-to-be fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid declared that Australian pressure on Indonesia to fulfill its international obligations in East Timor amounted to "pissing in our face".

This was no isolated remark by a politician with an eye to a domestic audience. With an astonishingly small number of honorable exceptions such as Onghokham and brave little groups like Kiper and Solidamor, Indonesian intellectuals were paralyzed by the nationalism that saturates political thinking in that country.

Nationalism in denial prevented them from seeing the truth of the quarter century-long Indonesian colonial project in East Timor.

Yet the Australian government was no less hypocritical than the Indonesian -- if anything, more egregiously so. John Howard, a man who proudly displays his 1950s white Australian fantasies, accepted a journalist's summary of his position on East Timor as one where Australia was the 'deputy sheriff' of the United States.

More importantly, he used the catastrophic end of Indonesian colonialism in East Timor to recycle populist Anglo-Australian images of Australia as an outpost of civilization perennially faced with always potentially barbaric peoples to our north. The constantly reiterated phrases of "Australian values" and 'European civilization' were carefully spoken, but in the codes of Australian politics after Pauline Hanson, the message was clear.

The Indonesian reaction was understandable. After all, the two governments had been partners in crime for more than two decades. Moreover, Australian politicians and media commentators seem to have a talent for hypocrisy. The same people who less than a few months earlier were still denouncing any possibility of Timorese self-determination or substantial Australian pressure on the Soeharto dictatorship, overnight discovered the cause of freedom and democracy.

So it may well be a bad time to talk about exploring a completely different kind of long-term relation between these two peoples. Yet that makes it all the more important to do exactly that. I want to imagine a relationship between these two societies in the lifetime of my now young children -- a relationship built on the assumption that ethics and justice mattered.

We think ethically about all the rest of our lives. Why should international relations alone be severed from the mutual expectations of fairness and right that even children possess?

The core ethical assumption must surely be that what applies to me applies to the other person. What do East Timor and Kosovo show us if not the fact that moral communities do not stop at borders?

Indonesia and Australia are today part of the same global social and economic system. The hurricane of the Southeast Asian currency crisis arose from the same forces of globalising capital that induced the Hawke, Keating, and Howard governments to transform the industrial structure of Australia in the 1980s and 1990s in the name of "deregulation".

Indeed the two countries were formed by the same social forces that are still transforming the world today. A 100 years ago the now neighboring states of Indonesia and Australia did not exist. Extraordinary violence, as well as periods of great hope and sacrifice, accompanied their formation into two nation states. A century ago the armies and capital of the Netherlands and Britain were still conquering the Malay archipelago.

Ten years before Australian federation in 1901, Dutch imperial forces were in the last stages of invading Aceh. Until the coming of a new wave of imperialists in January 1942, Dutch imperialism broke the frame of indigenous Indonesian society and reworked it, at grotesque human cost, to Dutch advantage.

The new post-war Indonesian state followed exactly the outlines of the state the Dutch had carved out in blood. It was marked at its birth and for the next 50 years by the Cold War, and never quite recovered.

Always it was a partial state and a dependent economy. Thirty years of Soeharto's militarization was built on oil, American and Japanese economic aid, and American strategic hegemony.

For the indigenous peoples of Australia meanwhile, the British invasion which began in 1788, and which was still in process of unfolding in the north and center within living memory, brought almost every form of desolation imaginable.

The invading settlers from two small islands in the North Sea built a new colonial society founded on extraordinary state violence towards the lower orders, and on a callous solidarity of a caste of all "white men" over all others, indigenous and foreign.

By slim good fortune, the new Australian settler capitalism was characterized by a continuously expanding imperial need for agricultural commodities, and by a perennial labor shortage throughout the 19th century.

As a result the scales of class conflict were weighted sufficiently to the left to generate at least an appearance of social democracy, at least for those whose skin was pale enough.

These shared imperial origins extend into the twentieth century. Australian soldiers died in Southeast Asia in their thousands to defend European empires against a newer imperialism, thinking they were defending themselves.

The next generation fought in Korea and Vietnam for a cause no less imperial.

Today we stand at the beginning of the 21st century. If we look forward in time for comparable periods, what can we see for these entities we call "Indonesia" and "Australia"?

In 1933 the German literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote a terse set of theses on the philosophy of history. In one, Benjamin meditated on Paul Klee painting he owned and kept with him in his harried exile from Nazi Germany.

"A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.

"The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the debris before him grows skywards. This storm is what we call progress."

This storm shaped our countries, and has not abated; there are more dead, and yet more to make whole. After the linked catastrophic pasts of Australia and Indonesia and East Timor, there is a possibility of a shared future, if we can find it and face it.

Let me start with an extreme proposition. Unless there is some radical change in political dynamics, there will be war between Indonesia and Australia in the lifetime of my young children. This is not a matter of extrapolation of domestic trends visible at the moment, but of normal politics between neighbors with deep differences in a highly militarized world system in which war is normal over the long term.

Unless something surprisingly new happens, the two societies will continue to misrecognise each other. Each will still see the other through unacknowledged racist stereotypes. Australia will still suffer from a deeply deforming misperception of Islam that has deep roots in unexamined but ancient European ideas.

John Marsden is undoubtedly Australia's most popular fiction writer of recent years. A remarkable talent, Marsden has just published the last in a seven-book series of novels for young people known as the Tomorrow series, beginning with Tomorrow, when the war began.

This is the story of a group of teenagers in a rural area of south-eastern Australia who return from a remote bush camping trip to find their country successfully invaded, and all adults, including their parents, brutally imprisoned.

A writer of subtly delineated character and strong narrative, Marsden's series is the story of the group's fight to survive, resist, and help turn back the invasion.

For our purposes what is important is the setting of invasion, the sense of violation of a relationship with land and space, that Marsden handles equally well, but with a curious and probably deliberate lack of precision.

The invaders are unnamed. Their language is not English. Many of their soldiers have darker skins than most of the Australians, though they are in fact a varied lot. Their army is brutal. Though the invader is not named, the friends of Australia are firstly New Zealand and Papua New Guinea; somewhat more hesitantly, the United States.

Who then is the unnamed enemy? It is unlikely that many in his huge audience would have considered too many alternatives to Soeharto's Indonesia.

For all Marsden's considerable achievement and his attempt to avoid the worst aspects of the genre, the Tomorrow series is the latest and most successful example of the long-running Australian genre of invasion novels, of which there have been hundreds over the past century or longer.

To be a little unfair to Marsden, who is so much better than this suggests, the basic confrontation remains pacific white Australia versus the invading brutal non-whites from the north.

Marsden is at pains to acknowledge and hence neutralize the worst of this. His wonderful protagonist Ellie is well aware that she is the beneficiary of an earlier invasion, and wonders about the ghosts of the losers as she moves through the bush she knows and loves. Most importantly, she thinks about one of the basic moral issues: by what right do we monopolize this continent?

If I sit in the bush, and try to catch an imaginative glimpse of what it may have been like for people of another culture to have lived there, I cannot fail to wonder what it will be like for yet another culture to make the same attempt. For we must surely accept that there will be another shift at some point. For me, the important question is whether the next great historical transformation visited on the Australian landscape will be as violent and bloody, as ecologically ruthless, as the last.

Quite likely, the Southeast Asians will indeed come. But perhaps, too, that coming will be, not the stuff of a 'yellow peril' nightmare, but in some sense a return to the pre-imperial Southeast Asia in which borders mattered less.

The writer teaches at Kyoto Seika University, and often writes about Indonesian military politics. His co-edited collection East Timor, Indonesia and the World Community: Repression, Resistance and Responsibility will appear in book form in October from Rowman and Littlefield (New York). (rtanter@hotmail.com). This article first appeared in Inside Indonesia magazine.