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Don’t Pick Deadly Partners


AN irrational and unsubstantiated fear of Indonesia’s disintegration has long driven Australia’s foreign policy planners to place a premium on stability in relations between the two nations.

This obsession with preserving the status quo has been based on a fundamental misreading of international politics that, in turn, has morally compromised our diplomacy.

Canberra has reflexively accepted the sanctity and immutability of Indonesia’s boundaries, when recent experience suggests that the lines marked on political maps have a habit of being contested and redrawn. Successive Labor and Coalition governments have either ignored or failed to notice the connection between secessionist movements in provinces such as West Papua and Jakarta’s military brutality and economic exploitation. In fact, Australia’s foreign policy elite has drawn precisely the opposite conclusion, naively accepting Jakarta’s claims that the military (TNI) is a force for unity and stability across the archipelago.

In the 1990s it became clear that some of Australia’s Indonesian “experts” in government, journalism and academia had a greater commitment to the republic’s territorial integrity than many of the people living in the country.

The ethical cost of these errors has been substantial. The shelf life of the brutal Suharto dictatorship was extended with Canberra’s unctuous, uncritical support. East Timor’s nightmare was intensified and its freedom thwarted by Australia’s recognition of Jakarta’s illegal occupation. A nascent democracy movement in Indonesia was discouraged or ignored. And despite pro forma rhetoric, Canberra became indifferent to the level of destruction and human suffering resulting from the defence of Indonesia’s existing boundaries.

Australia’s preference was for “stability” in Indonesia, regardless of what was being stabilised by a ruthless military clique.

So it’s not surprising to hear, after October 12, expressions of nostalgia for the “golden era” of Suharto’s iron fist and calls for closer ties between the militaries of both countries, as former Fraser adviser Owen Harries argued on this page last Tuesday. Suharto may have been corrupt and one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century, the argument goes, but at least he kept Islamic militants and separatists under control. Better still, he saved the Australian taxpayer billions of defence dollars. Democracy in Indonesia, it seems, is not worth the investment because it has failed to deliver the Holy Grail to Indonesia’s neighbours – stability.

CANBERRA and Washington have been keen to re-establish links with the TNI since the September 11 attacks last year. In Australia, calls for the prosecution of officers responsible for the atrocities in East Timor before and after the 1999 independence ballot have been dropped, despite Australian intelligence that would convict them in any court worthy of the name. In the US, the Department of Defence has sought to circumvent congressional bans placed on military links with the TNI in 1999. The Bali bombings have added to the push for “business as usual”.

This certainly appears to be the view of Defence Minister Robert Hill, who is keen to renew old friendships with Indonesia’s special forces, Kopassus, in a joint counter-terrorism arrangement with the Australian Defence Force. Hill will be hoping the public has forgotten that Kopassus created the East Timorese militias which shot at Australian troops in 1999, that it has been training Islamic extremist groups such as Laskar Jihad to murder thousands of people in Maluku and Sulawesi, and that last November it assassinated Papuan independence leader Theys Eluay. Or perhaps he isn’t familiar with the notion of moral complicity.

Kopassus has more than “a colourful history, a difficult history, a problematic history as far as human rights violations in Indonesia are concerned”, as Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd puts it. It’s a state terrorist outfit with an appalling history of violence across the Indonesian archipelago. Gareth Evans, and yesterday Paul Keating, now acknowledge the folly of backing the Indonesian military to crack down on terrorism. Better late than never. John Howard, Alexander Downer and Hill can’t say they weren’t warned.

Scott Burchill is lecturer in international relations at Deakin University in Melbourne

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