Fri, 17 Nov 2000

Should Abdurrahman be going to Australia?

By Irawan Abidin

JAKARTA (JP): There have been debates on whether President Abdurrahman Wahid should be going to Australia and if so, when? The debate, unfortunately, has generated more heat than light when, to the mind of this observer, there is a perfectly rational way of arriving at an answer.

If President Wahid does go to Australia in January, as has been publicly intimated recently, the best things that can happen are as follows:

Instantly, the rift between Australia and Indonesia is mended, the wrinkles of misunderstanding are smoothed over and both countries resume being friends and cooperators.

There may be all sorts of demonstrations against Indonesia during the visit, but there will be no incidents of a sufficient magnitude to embarrass the visiting President.

The many members of the Australian press that are habitually critical of Indonesia, in deference to the visiting President, will tone down their criticisms and may even observe a moratorium. The NGOs likewise take a moderate tone on Indonesia.

Indonesian misgivings on the current enhancement of the Australian military establishment are allayed and there is a general surge of goodwill between the two peoples.

Trade and investment and other forms of economic cooperation between the two countries begin to pick up.

All these, of course, are possible. And the gains of such a successful state visit are tremendous. But in this real world many things can go wrong. Wisdom dictates that the risks should be considered.

Some of the bad things that can happen during the projected visit are as follows:

The Australian mass media could welcome the Indonesian President with a barrage of criticisms and attacks on his policies, style of governing and the Indonesian handling of the militia problem in East Timor, and whatever else they can think of. The Australian government would be totally unable to prevent that hostile barrage if the media decided to launch it.

Demonstrations of NGOs and other groups rabidly hostile to Indonesia could turn out to be unruly and could even get out of hand, to the discomfort and possible embarrassment of the visiting President.

If there is even a small incident, it could be magnified to extreme proportions by the media. There would be an angry reaction among the loyal followers of Abdurrahman in Indonesia, which the media would also sensationalize.

Because the visit would then be considerably unsuccessful, blame would be tossed back and forth between the two countries, not between the two governments, but between groups of hotheads in the two countries. Instead of improving, relations between the two countries further deteriorate.

That is, of course, the worst-case scenario. But considering that Indonesia has not had a streak of good luck during the past several years, the risk is real that it could happen.

Still, the gains of a successful state visit, which is always possible, are extraordinary and President Wahid is nothing if not a man courageous enough to take risks for worthy gains. He should not be overly criticized for desiring to make that state visit in the near future.

But to be perfectly rational about the matter, there is a way of achieving the same tremendous gains without incurring the attendant enormous risks. Here is how it could be done:

Both governments announce that President Abdurrahman Wahid will definitely go to Australian -- but not very soon. The visit will take place at some time in the future, decided by the two governments together.

In the meantime both governments are willing to be patient and work on their relationship at various other levels of interaction. It is made clear that the option of a state visit remains open, but it will only be taken when both governments have laid sufficient foundation to ensure its success. It is important that both governments make the announcement together.

Dialogue at various other levels is then broadened and intensified. A good occasion to launch that effort is the forthcoming Australia-Indonesia Ministerial Forum (during which the proposed joint announcement could be made).

During that event and at every opportunity afterwards, both sides consciously and deliberately strive to exchange positive statements that reflect a determined effort to improve relations and enhance cooperation.

This will not stop the critics of both governments, but a general public that has not taken sides against either government will at least be given a chance to discern that something positive and welcome is taking place. Moreover, the dialogue could lead to some effective goodwill and mutually beneficial initiatives.

The two governments then wage a publicity campaign aimed at the general public in both countries to report and promote that intensified dialogue.

Again this will not stop the critics but at least there will be a body of good news to counterbalance the "bad views" being expressed. This will take some expense and the use of some professional skills but it would be worth it.

Both sides build on every little progress that is made in this effort.

If all goes well, it may turn out over time that there is no need for President Wahid to go to Australia to mend relations with that country. If he does go, it would be for another purpose: to firm up what is already a growing, positive relationship.

At any rate he keeps the option of making that visit -- to be exercised when there is everything to gain and nothing to risk.

The writer is a Foreign Service veteran who has been Indonesian Ambassador to Athens and then to the Holy See. He has also served two terms as Director of Information of the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.