Thu, 11 May 2000

Indonesia-Australia ties after the fray

By Jusuf Wanandi

JAKARTA (JP): Relations between Australia and Indonesia plunged after the East Timorese atrocities caused by the prointegration militia and supported by elements of the Indonesian Military. Intervention by the Australian Army prevented them from causing greater damage; the latter was possible with the support of the UN Security Council and the consent of the Indonesian government.

In hindsight it could therefore be argued that Australia has not only helped the East Timorese from experiencing further misery, but also limited the damage to Indonesia's respectability in the international community. This is, of course, not the way the Indonesian public and especially the Indonesian Military sees the matter.

It should be recognized by Australians that their leader's rhetoric and the way the military actions were undertaken were excessive and arrogant. They inevitably hurt the feelings of a lot of Indonesians. The style and the rhetoric were what angered Indonesians and what they reacted against.

Yet it was not a deep-seated feeling. With the exception of some of the youth instigated by the Indonesian Military, it was quickly understood by the public that the atrocities committed by the militia with the support of some elements of the Indonesian Army were terrible.

As they were the cause of the intervention, the atrocities have become the center of public attention and the target of investigation by the National Committee on Human Rights. The committee has been active and courageous in investigating the abuses and atrocities.

Anger toward Australia also is not deep-seated because East Timor was always a fiefdom of the Indonesian Army and the Indonesian public was always kept more or less in the dark about its developments.

The Indonesian public as such does not feel a deep and emotional attachment to East Timor. Therefore, while the separation was painful and hurt the Indonesian psyche when it happened, the feeling will not last for too long.

If Indonesians can make an honest analysis of the events and undergo self-criticism, it will be much easier to recognize that this painful episode in bilateral ties should not become a great stumbling block for a healthy relationship and intensive cooperation between close neighbors such as Indonesia and Australia.

This is critical not only for peace, security and prosperity of both nations, which is a paramount reason for the relationship, but also for creating regional order and strengthening regional institutions within the Asia Pacific. These include the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC), Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), as well as the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific region (CSCAP) which were established and promoted through cooperation between the two countries.

Now that Indonesia is in the process of democratization, the relations between the two countries will be much deeper and sustainable because so many leaders, people and institutions have to be involved to make it work.

It is also the guarantee that it will also be more rewarding for both despite the complexities and sometimes the criticism that one has to endure in democracies about the relationship. In that light, efforts to restore and balance the relationship have to be lauded.

One such effort was the series of discussions and interviews organized by the AustralAsia Centre of the Asia Society, under the leadership of Ambassador Richard Woolcott, in early May in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. They were attended by more than 250 business and media people, academics and officials.

In addition to the author, in his capacity as a director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, two other Indonesians participated: Bambang Harymurti, editor-in-chief of Tempo magazine and Djisman Simandjuntak, executive director of Prasetiya Mulya Graduate School of Management. The group has shown friendship to Australia by simply being honest about the relationship and about developments in Indonesia.

The effort was well-received and reciprocated by the Australians in attendance and through their active participation. The meetings and discussions attest to the great reservoir of goodwill Indonesia still has among Australian leaders and opinion makers.

They also were not hesitant in questioning and criticizing the unwillingness of their own government under Prime Minister John Howard to reach out and support the budding democratic government of President Abdurrahman Wahid, who still needs a lot of goodwill and assistance from a close neighbor such as Australia.

The writer is chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta.