The Transition to Democracy in Indonesia: Australian Perspectives

"To think that we, for many years, lived along side a dictatorship

and from Monday’s election we’ll be living alongside the world’s third largest

democracy is indeed very great progress from Australia’s point of view. It

gives us a much greater sense of security with Indonesia, a much greater sense

of partnership with Indonesia. I’m glad that the Australian Government has

made a very generous and solid contribution to helping the Indonesians with

the elections."

Alexander Downer

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia

5 June, 1999

"Australians should feel more comfortable that our nearest northern

neighbour is now in the family of democracies and no longer a


Alexander Downer

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia

8 June, 1999


Perhaps Australia’s foreign minister thinks we are all amnesiacs?

By propping up the Suharto dictatorship for over three decades, both sides

of Australian politics clearly demonstrated what they thought about the

prospect of democracy in Indonesia. Suharto’s iron grip and his repression of

dissidents was always much appreciated in Canberra, hence the obsequious

fawning that went with every ministerial visit to Jakarta. For the ‘Jakarta

lobby’, security has always been equated with opposition to both political

liberalisation and the right of self-determination for those captured by the

Indonesian state. Their attitude to democracy is neatly summarized by the

foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, who claims that in

East Asia, "citizens are free to do anything they like except the things

that are banned, chief among which is serious political opposition to

government" (The Australian, 4 March, 1997). So what’s the


When former Prime Minister Paul Keating was asked why the 1995

Australia-Indonesia Security Agreement was secretly negotiated between Jakarta

and Canberra, he was remarkably frank about his commitment to the democratic

process: "if there had been a more public process, there probably

wouldn’t have been a treaty" (Australian Financial Review, 19

December, 1995). He was right, the Australian public were and remain

completely opposed to treaties with dictatorships. Better, then, that the

public remain spectators rather than participants in decision making.

Australia’s foreign policy elite always sought to avoid raising

uncomfortable issues with the government in Jakarta. When, for example, did an

Australian Government ever take up the cause of any tapols (political

prisoners) as, for example, they did in the case of Soviet dissidents during

the Cold War? Answer? Never.

Former foreign affairs head and Australian Ambassador to Jakarta Richard

Woolcott has never been convinced that democracy suits Asia, preferring what

he calls "soft authoritarianism" as an antidote to the region’s

economic difficulties: "Westminster democracy is not the answer in East

Asia at this time" (Australian Financial Review, 4 April, 1998

& 23 May, 1998). But as Prime Minister Keating’s former policy adviser,

Bill Bowtell, claims, "it is at best paternalistic, and at worst racist,

for Australians to delude ourselves that the Indonesian people are not ready

for democratic reforms" (Australian Financial Review, 25 May,


Informed political predictions are not Mr Woolcott’s strong suit. Shortly

before Suharto’s fall from power in May 1998 he was claiming that in Indonesia

"there will be no ‘people power’ movement, comparable to that in the

Philippines in 1986". He went on to argue that "the challenge of

Megawati Sukarnoputri has been overstated. She has no experience in Government

and would be unacceptable to the main centres of political influence. While

she is a focus of urban dissent, Ms Megawati has no chance of becoming

President" (The Age, 16 January 1998).

Why did the Australian Government wait until June 1999 before it publicly

described the Suharto and Habibie Governments as dictatorships? What were they

so frightened of?

Perhaps if we really want to know what Mr Downer thinks of democracy in

Indonesia we should look back at his comments during the 1997 elections when

vote rigging, killings, and corruption elicited no concern whatsoever, only

the phrase "well you know, it is a difficult place to run."

Australians will undoubtedly "feel more comfortable that our nearest

northern neighbour is now in the family of democracies and no longer a

dictatorship," but will their foreign policy elite?


Scott Burchill

Lecturer in International Relations

School of Australian and International Studies

Deakin University

For a critical analysis of current international issues and events

visit IR Online at: http://arts.deakin.edu.au/IR/


Leave a comment