People Are Going To Be Slaughtered

Delivering the 25th annual Menzies lecture last October, foreign minister Alexander Downer declared that “bit by bit, leaders of governments that suppress human rights are being made to feel uncomfortable, however much they bluster and hide behind sovereignty arguments.”

Towards the end of his oration, Mr Downer praised NATO’s bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, suggesting “it was not until NATO stepped in to fill the void that a successful humanitarian intervention was undertaken that stemmed the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.”

Given these comments, how should we view the foreign minister’s claim this week that renewed assaults by the Indonesian military (TNI) against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) cannot be stopped by outside intervention because Aceh “is part of Indonesia, and the Indonesians are going to have to sort out these problems themselves”? Why should the world respect state sovereignty in South East Asia but not in the Balkans?
History rarely presents ideal comparisons, but the contrasting fortunes of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA/UCK) and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) are striking. Facing persecution and the threat of ethnic cleansing from troops loyal to Belgrade, a Muslim separatist movement in southern Yugoslavia (with Al Qaeda links) persuaded the world’s most powerful military alliance (NATO) to bomb Serbia until it surrendered its political authority in Kosovo. NATO forces and a UN occupation government were then installed to work with the KLA in keeping the peace between Serbs and Albanians in the province, with varying degrees of success.

In northern Sumatra, a Muslim separatist movement (without AL Qaeda links) which has already seen over 10,000 of its nationals killed since 1976 in a long-standing struggle with forces loyal to Jakarta, now faces an escalating military assault and the prospect of 200,000 people being cleansed from the province. Appeals to the West and the UN for assistance and protection are met with either indifference or outright hostility. “The violence perpetrated by the separatist movement is absolutely unacceptable,” declared Mr Downer, who couldn’t muster the same admonition for the more violent TNI.

Defence Minister Robert Hill, whose military forces breached Iraq’s territorial integrity in recent weeks, said “Indonesia’s got the perfect right to maintain its internal integrity and we regret those who are in armed revolt.” Senator Hill is determined to re-establish closer ties between the Australian Defence Force and Kopassus, Jakarta’s special forces with a history of state terrorism and links to Islamic extremist groups such as Laskar Jihad.

How can Canberra’s diametrically opposite responses to the KLA and the GAM be explained?

Like his predecessors, Mr Downer seems to have a greater attachment to Indonesia’s territorial integrity than many Indonesian citizens, especially those who live in provinces such as Aceh and West Papua. Without evidence or explanation, he seems convinced that the detachment of the republic’s eastern and western most provinces from Jakarta’s brutal and exploitative rule will trigger centrifugal forces across the archipelago. There is no reason to believe this is likely.

He also seems to be convinced that secession will inevitably lead to horrendous violence. This is possible. However, those who warn of bloody consequences if Indonesia fragments – or only frays at the edges –  must answer a prior question: how many Indonesian lives are worth the preservation of its existing political boundaries? Answers are rarely forthcoming, even as the toll mounts.

There are few reasons to believe that Indonesia’s territorial boundaries are more immutable that those of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, East Germany or Israel. It is therefore naïve of Australia’s strategic planners to base their projections on either wishful thinking or unfoundered worst-case scenarios. A more realistic approach is to bank on inevitable change and seek to influence developments in a favourable direction. The alternative policy betrays our wider duty to humanity and exposes us to complicity in the misery of others.

Let’s recall the Government’s belated humanitarian arguments for breaching Iraq’s sovereignty recently, and Prime Minister Howard’s warning that “the cost of [doing] nothing is potentially much greater than the cost of doing something.” In Iraq, Serbia and Afghanistan, apparently, but not in Indonesia. Despite the illegitimacy of its imperial mission, the boundaries carved out by Dutch colonialists centuries ago are now sacrosanct, at least in the eyes of Indonesia’s southern neighbour. The Australian, which led the call for an attack on Iraq in the local media, now argues that “there is little we can do” about Aceh except “lament the probable humanitarian disaster of a full-scale civil war.”

Another human catastrophe beckons. As President Megawati shores up her nationalist credentials in the lead up to next year’ election, the TNI is free to perform its traditional role of internal repression safe in the knowledge that the West will again avert its eyes from a slaughter.

Clearly it’s not just repressive governments who “bluster and hide behind sovereignty arguments.”

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