Wed, 22 Mar 2000

Indonesia-Australia ties: After fear, before justice

By Richard Tanter

This is the second of two articles on RI-Australia relations

ALICE SPRINGS, Australia: Imagine, just for a moment, that ethics did matter, and that there was a decision to treat the peoples within the two societies we now call "Indonesia" and "Australia" as members of a single system, with shared moral responsibilities.

Almost immediately infantile fantasies arise: in the "Australian" case, the fear of loss, the fear of being swamped. Not racist in themselves, but the constitutive racism of Australia certainly gives such elemental fantasies added power. I cannot really imagine the "Indonesian" side of the well of fantasy, but it would be deep.

Now let those night fears return to sleep, and try to imagine a path we might tread towards this single system involving an "Indonesia" and an "Australia". A path in which ethics mattered.

Let me put another extreme proposition. Within 50 years -- let us say 100 years to be conservative -- the states we now call "Indonesia" and "Australia" will not exist, and the shape and location of the underlying societies will be quite different.

The end of the Cold War apart, the most startling change in international relations in the past 50 years has been the establishment of the European Community.

Beginning from the construction of a "common market", the European Community is now halfway to living up to its name. There are EC-wide legislative, executive and judicial institutions, each of which has a complex but precisely defined constitutional relationship to national counterparts. National sovereignty has not disappeared, but it is greatly circumscribed.

Is it absurd, starting from our two instances of "Australia" and "Indonesia", to think about an Asian Community, or a Southeast Asian Community?

Already both countries are part of the stuttering Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum, which is attempting under US leadership to eliminate barriers to trade within a much larger region in the name of economic deregulation.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir, understandably concerned about the ideology of blanket deregulation and excessive US influence on APEC, has proposed a Japan-centered East Asian Economic Caucus, though Japan's public disinterest has stalled further discussions.

These trade-centered models of "community" present only one limited aspect of the possibilities. Why not begin with some simple re-thinking about borders between "Indonesia" and "Australia"?

The oldest tradition of foreign trade in Australia long antedates western colonialism. For at least 300 years before 1907, Makassan fishing praus brought Indonesian fishermen to the northern coastline of Australia searching for trepang.

Aboriginal people, in places hostile, in places friendly to the visitors, received new technologies, new diseases and vocabulary for their languages. Some accompanied their visitors back home. At the end of the 19th, the South Australian government imposed a tax on "foreign" trepang harvesting, killing the Makassan trade in a decade.

Yet while the colonial legal borders were inviolate, the memories of the trade remain in both Sulawesi and Arnhem Land even today.

Building on the Mabo case which led to recognition of prior ownership of the Australian continent by its indigenous inhabitants, Campbell Watson has proposed that Australia recognize the traditional fishing rights of Indonesian fishermen from the island of Roti.

For more than 400 years these people have fished for shark, trepang, trochus, sponges and mollusks in the shallow waters around Ashmore Reef off north-western Australia. The Mabo decision of Australia's High Court in 1992 rendered notions of land title and land usage less singular and absolutist.

In the same way of thinking, our borders would become just slightly more permeable. As we know from exemplary models such as the joint management of Uluru-Katatjuta National Park in Central Australia, our ability to understand and protect the environment is strengthened rather than weakened by fusing indigenous and industrial approaches to land management.

How should such issues be settled? The present approach is that 'the line is the line'. International law puts the 200-mile exclusive economic zone at a certain point on the seabed. But the truth of the matter is that the rulings of international law represent frozen power, the embodiment of past victories and defeats.

It represents a moral advance on violence, but its moral limits lie in its inability to question its origins. Even here in our outermost sea-boundaries, the core questions confront us.

And what of two other fundamental questions: immigration and labor? Let us never forget that the first act passed by the first Australian parliament was an immigration control act to secure "Australia for the white man".

Much has changed since then, but immigration control is a universal preoccupation of Australian politics. Anglo- conservatives worry about the changing character of "our part of the country", to use Geoffrey Blainey's telling phrase. Serious environmentalists rightly fret about the impact of even the present dispersed population level on a largely arid environment. Moreover, the achievements of Australian labor were built on the exclusion of non-white labor.

Yet the mobility of capital in this age of globalization mocks and exploits the caste solidarities of national labor. Nothing is easier than to close a factory in Wangaratta and move it Tangerang.

If we were to take ethics seriously in this single system, we would be looking for ways to equalize labor conditions in the two places. That is in fact already happening, but on the worst possible terms for both sides.

What is needed is some framework that will begin to allow a flow of labor between the two parts of this single, imaginary system of "Indonesia" and "Australia". At the same time there should develop a "leveling-up" (instead of the current 'leveling-down') of the political and environmental playing field in which labor is bought and sold.

Democracy is a remarkably universal value. Indeed all the contemporary arguments for the reform of both Indonesian and Australian politics use the idiom of "democracy". Yet our existing democratic institutions are derived from eighteenth century European political thinking about regulating power within nation-states.

The global capitalist economy flows over and through this system of nation-states. Today the globalization of international finance and the dominant ideology of government deregulation has rendered national governments, democratic or otherwise, almost powerless.

Democracy, in Australia as much as Indonesia, needs rethinking on the basis of shared trans-national interests to regulate highly mobile capital. What is needed is a new stage of democratic innovation that operates above and beyond borders, that identifies areas of shared responsibilities and risks, and where moral notions of "citizenship" and "obligation" rise above the seas that divide the two geographies.

An Asian version of the European Community would involve a great deal more than APEC's deregulation of trade barriers. After centuries of nationalist war, Europe has invented a new category of citizenship -- the European, that co-exists in carefully defined ways with national citizenship.

Is a new category of shared "Indonesian-Australian" citizenship inconceivable?

It's a bad time for these thoughts after 30 years of Soeharto plus Timor. But for those long years Indonesia was not the expression of the shared aspirations of Indonesians.

On the contrary, Australia, together with the United States and Japan, made possible the violation of Indonesia. In time, there is a good chance of decent government in Indonesia. And there is always the historical chance of regression in Australia.

But what if ethics were to matter? We might then expect that the needs of 210 million or more "Indonesians" have some claim in addition to those of 20 million "Australians".

A new framework of decision-making, a new concept of trans- national democracy, a recognition that ecology, economics and morality mock borders. This is the new agenda that might show the way to unfreezing the arbitrary results of colonial history, and bring a measure of justice.

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). ( This article first appeared in Inside Indonesia magazine.