Subject: Age: Apologists Are Revising History to Absolve Jakarta

The Age [Melbourne] Wednesday 15 March 2000

Comment and Analysis

Apologists are revising history to absolve Jakarta


Indonesia would not have been able to illegally occupy and terrorise East Timor for a quarter of a century without the support it received from the West, particularly Australia.

The tactics employed by pro-integrationists in Australia to ensure Canberra's diplomatic collaboration with Jakarta were often crude, but they were remarkably effective.

Death toll figures in the early years of occupation were revised down to mitigate Jakarta's crimes - an act of denial that would have made David Irving blush. Subsequent and regular atrocities, such as the 1991 Dili massacres, were untruthfully described as "aberrant acts" in an attempt to hose down public outrage. The victims were blamed for their "tribal war-like disposition", even as they were being slaughtered by Indonesia's military forces (TNI).

Canberra claimed that East Timor was entitled to self-determination provided it was under the umbrella of Indonesian sovereignty, a meaningless and insulting gesture. When this formula was rejected, the concept of self-determination itself was attacked as a threat to regional stability and "not a sacred cow". On its own, East Timor was said to be economically unviable, a reasonable conclusion if you steal its only significant natural resources.

As the violence reached a level beyond the apologetics of even the most loyal commissar, the perpetrators were described as "rogue elements" in an effort to exculpate the Indonesian state that the "rogues" themselves claimed to be serving. Meanwhile, critics of ongoing human-rights abuses were branded "racist" and "anti-Indonesian" by servants of power who inferred the only alternative to appeasement was estrangement.

Their most recent tactic is even more brazen. Rewriting recent history to shift the onus of responsibility for the collapse of relations between Canberra and Jakarta on to the Howard Government has become the latest modus operandi of the Jakarta lobby.

One might have been forgiven for thinking that, as a consequence of its state terrorism in East Timor, Indonesia bears most of the blame for the downturn. Not so.

According to ANU Indonesia specialist Harold Crouch, Howard's response to the slaughter in East Timor "was offensive to many Indonesians". The Prime Minister's limited cultural understanding of our northern neighbor means he "doesn't quite know how to convey things to Indonesians" - true enough given that messages such as "stop the killing" fell on deaf ears in Jakarta last September.

Former diplomat Tony Kevin also worries about Australia's "provocative" behavior. "Indonesian military and strategic elites will not quickly forgive or forget how Australian foreign policy cynically exploited their weak interim president in order to manoeuvre Indonesia into a no-win situation," says Kevin.

Australians may be surprised to learn they were seeking TNI's forgiveness for rescuing a defenceless civilian population from yet another Indonesian military attack. They may also wonder why Jakarta is absolved of the exclusive legal responsibility it sought to maintain law and order in East Timor before, during and after the August ballot.

However, raising these questions would only indicate just how "mired in anti-Indonesian attitudes" the Australian public had become.

If only Howard stopped basking in "jingoistic self-satisfaction over East Timor" and said sorry, bridges with Indonesia could be repaired. But, according to Kevin, Canberra isn't up to the task. "This Government would not know how to apologise for the way in which our diplomacy exploited and aggravated their president's misjudgment and the TNI's subsequent brutality."

Kevin's message is clear. The East Timorese should never have been given the choice of independence and it was Canberra, not Jakarta, that encouraged the TNI to turn the territory into a charnel house.

Support for this revisionism has come from Jakarta's new ambassador to Australia, Arizal Effendi, whose recent National Press Club address suggests that Jakarta "doesn't quite know how to convey things to Australians". Effendi claimed to be concerned about the "jingoism of using the humanitarian pretext to justify unilateral armed intervention into the internal affairs of a developing country, including by way of a coalition of nations outside the framework of the UN".

He didn't apparently know that InterFET was a coalition of 20 nations, authorised by the UN Security Council and, ultimately, the Government in Jakarta, and that the issue of "intervention" arose only for those nations that had granted Indonesia the right of territorial conquest. In the absence of any legitimate claim to sovereignty by Indonesia, most of the world saw the UN as finally administering one of its own non-self-governing territories.

Effendi's prescription for improving the bilateral relationship "based on mutual respect" and a desire "not to dwell further on what or who was to blame" for the downturn suggests Indonesia has not yet made a successful transition to democracy. Is there a "Canberra lobby" of Indonesian-based journalists, bureaucrats and academics, faithfully loyal to their southern neighbor, who will point out to His Excellency the importance of accounting for past crimes and media scrutiny of government behavior in a modern democracy? Perhaps President Wahid's new adviser, Henry Kissinger, can share his well-known love of democracy with Indonesia's new political elite?

The outlines of a new orthodoxy about events in East Timor last year are becoming clear. It's a mixture of inverted history and national self-flagellation. Despite the absence of any alternative regional responses to the slaughter, Canberra "took too much ownership of the process" (The Australian's Greg Sheridan), meaning the East Timorese should have been left to their awful fate. Indonesia has nothing to be sorry about and no reparations to pay. The Howard Government, on the other hand, was "meddling" in Indonesia's internal affairs and has been engaged in "triumphalism", "neo-colonialism" and "latent racism" (former diplomat Richard Woolcott). The sooner we get back to the "main game" (The Australian's Paul Kelly) the better.

Scott Burchill is a lecturer in international relations at Deakin University.

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