statistics tell a grim tale. In the first weeks of September this year, 70% of
all public buildings and private residences in East Timor were destroyed. At
least 75% of the population of the territory was displaced, with over 260,000
people being driven across the border into Indonesian West Timor. Even more
ominously, out of an estimated population of 850,000 at the time of the 30
August ballot for independence, 200,000 people are still unaccounted for -
though InterFET believes that if more people than first thought have been
scattered around the archipelago, this figure could be between 80,000 and
130,000. Optimists presume that most of these people are still hiding in the
mountains, too traumatised to return to their villages. Pessimists fear that
many may have been slaughtered by Indonesian military forces (TNI) and their
militia proxies. "We’re missing an awful lot of people here", says
Ross Mountain, the UN co-ordinator for humanitarian affairs in East Timor.
to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, rarely has such a short crisis resulted in
such extensive damage or touched such a large proportion of the population.
those who welcomed the election of President Abdurrahaman Wahid and his new
government as an opportunity to swiftly resolve the crisis, the early signs have
not been positive. According to Jakarta’s own National Commission on Human
Rights, systematic human rights abuses are continuing in the West Timor refugee
camps controlled by militia. Abductions and hostage taking, killings, sexual
assault and the forced recruitment of East Timorese into the militias are a
a recent private trip to West Timor, Australian MP Kevin Rudd claimed that NGO
and UN humanitarian agencies have been unable to visit half of the refugee camps
in West Timor, specifically those under militia control in the Belu district
(eastern part of West Timor). At the same time on an official visit to province,
US Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Gelbard said he was alarmed by the ongoing
influence of pro-Jakarta militia in refugee camps in Kupang and Atambua:
"bad things are happening in the militia-controlled camps in West Timor,
where hundreds of thousands of East Timorese are trapped..", he told
UN Security Council resolution 1264 (1999) stressed that it was "the
responsibility of the Indonesian authorities to take immediate and effective
measures to ensure the safe return of refugees to East Timor", only 20,000
of an estimated 260,000 displaced people have been allowed to go home.
also appears that the new government has made little effort to disarm the
militias, as they are required to do under Security Council resolution 1246
(1999), or taken steps to ensure that they cannot conduct cross border
operations against civilians, InterFET or UNTAET forces.
light of Indonesia’s behaviour in East Timor, an act of contrition for the
violence and destruction might have been expected from the first democratically
elected government in Jakarta since the mid 1950s. This would have accelerated
Indonesia’s return to the society of states, and signaled a break with it’s
recent status as an international pariah.
appears, however, that although an apology is required, it is one that should
come from Canberra to Jakarta. President Wahid has said that Australia was
"pissing in our face" on the Timor issue and that he would prefer
relations with Canberra to "remain cool" with a restoration of warmth
depending "on Australia, if they realise their mistakes before".
Indonesia’s new foreign minister Alwi Shihab agrees, saying that "it is
enough that they know we were angry and displeased".
to a world that is truly surreal, one where the perpetrators of heinous crimes
expect apologies from those who exposed and curtailed their genocidal behaviour.
Does the new government in Jakarta seriously expect Canberra to say sorry for
coming to the rescue of an unarmed civilian population that was being terrorised
by its armed forces and their militias? Apparently it does. What
"mistakes" did Australia make? I can think of two. Canberra waited too
long before preparing for a peace enforcement deployment and showed too much
respect for Indonesia’s illegal sovereign claim to the territory. And what
exactly is Jakarta "angry and displeased about"? Perhaps it’s the
realisation of its army’s contempt for basic human decency and its own
preparedness to breach international law.
President Wahid’s views have struck a chord with those in Australia who want an
early restoration of "good relations" with Jakarta. The editor of The
Australian thinks it is time for Canberra "to withdraw from the military
leadership role" in East Timor because "an ongoing military presence
by Australia could hinder the peace process by continuing to antagonise militia
groups", something that must be avoided at all costs. He also berates
resistance leader Xanana Gusmao for wearing army fatigues during his first
public appearances in East Timor after an absence of 7 years. According to The
Australian, Mr Gusmao should not consider himself a military commander and
understand that dressing in ‘jungle greens’ could be seen by some as
"adversarial": a business suit is more reassuring.
foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, has gone further in his desire
for business as usual with Jakarta. Attempting to exculpate Jakarta for its
crimes committed in East Timor, Sheridan argues that "the Indonesian people
are not the same thing as the Indonesian military", who are presumably from
Mars or another galaxy. According to Sheridan, the cause of all the trouble is
Mr Howard’s unfortunate habit of listening to the views of his constituents:
"the Government’s worst statement was the Prime Minister saying in
parliament recently that he wanted foreign policy to be in step with public
opinion", an appalling prospect given the exemplary performance of our
foreign policy elite in recent years.
Indonesian analyst, Bruce Grant, also sees Mr Howard as the problem. According
to Grant, the Prime Minister is "suspect" in Asia because he is a
monarchist, lacks "an emotional commitment to the fortunes of the
region", and loves cricket "which does not help in Indonesia".
Displaying a cultural deference is still Grant’s recommended strategy for
engaging with Asia. The onus is on Australia, and only Australia, to change its
ways. There is no suggestion of reciprocity, even in the light of recent
disturbing events to the country’s north. In Grant’s world ‘Asian values’ and
batik shirts are in, colonial sports and liberal democratic principles are out.
his autobiography, Bill Hayden noted that shortly after becoming foreign
minister in 1983, he "detected a preference among some to be overly
agreeable towards certain outside interests and accordingly not independent
enough in catering for the national interest. At its worst this could manifest
itself in a severe infection of ‘localitis’, where a diplomat serving too long
at an overseas post came to be more identified with the host country’s interests
has identified a widespread condition which continues to afflict Australian
journalists and policy makers. In a decent world, journalists who got Indonesia
and East Timor so badly wrong for so long would admit their errors, stop
criticising the victims of these terrible crimes as well as those who came to
their assistance, and seek alternative employment. They would also insist that a
fresh start to the bilateral relationship with Indonesia should, at the very
least, await an admission of responsibility for what the UN believes could
constitute crimes against humanity, and an immediate removal of the threat of
militia violence. In a decent world.
Lecturer in International Relations
School of Australian and International Studies
221 Burwood Highway
Burwood Victoria 3125
Phone: (03) 9244 3947 (Burwood Campus)
Fax: (03) 9244 6755 (Burwood Campus)
Mobile: 0419 355370
Email: [email protected]
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