Subject: Khaki Diplomacy Under Post-Timor Constraints [+Rein in Militia: UN commander]

The Australian 10 March 2000

Khaki diplomacy under post-Timor constraints

By Jakarta correspondent DON GREENLEES

"I FELT we were leading the charge in a way. Gareth Evans and Ali Alatas had already established their good relationship and that was important. But I think we were really out in front."

The quote, referring to the former foreign ministers of Australia and Indonesia, is from ex-defence force chief Peter Gration, recalling how the military took the lead in repairing relations between the two countries after one of their periodic breakdowns in the mid-1980s.

Retired major-general Gration's comment was made in 1997, when the defence organisation was still flushed with the successful negotiation of a security agreement with Jakarta two years earlier.

Defence had paved the way for the agreement by overcoming the diplomatic chill caused by a story in The Sydney Morning Herald by journalist David Jenkins on Suharto family corruption.

Diplomat Pera Wells, in a research paper on the security agreement, says Major-General Gration battled considerable bureaucratic resistance to become the first senior Australian visitor to Jakarta after the article ran in 1986.

Last year, the decade of hard work put in by military chiefs was destroyed by the conflict over East Timor.

Even some of the leading Australian advocates of close defence co-operation questioned whether there had been any benefit, given the systematic military abuses coming to light in the province of Aceh and carried out in the open in East Timor.

On the Indonesian side, emotions ran high over Australia's leadership of the East Timor taskforce. Public opinion in both countries hardened against each other's military.

What is left of one of Australia's most developed military-to-military relationships comprises exchanges of small numbers of officers at staff schools.

One senior commander at armed forces headquarters in Jakarta said the relationship with Canberra had returned "right to ground zero".

"It's at a standstill right now," he said. "We are back to square one."

The question is to what level and how the relationship should be rebuilt. Senior officers on both sides believe there is a common interest in some level of co-operation.

Major-General Sudrajat, a former armed forces spokesman now on the expert staff at Jakarta headquarters, argues that the key is to resume open information exchanges because of the shared interest in "peace and security" in the region.

"We don't have any good communication with the defence force of Australia, which is very bad. We don't want to break it off," he told a conference on the bilateral relationship held in Jakarta last week.

But Major-General Sudrajat and other high-ranking Indonesian commanders accept it will be much harder to rebuild the relationship now than after the 1986 Jenkins article. This time the military is neither in a position nor has any desire to be the "locomotive" for better ties.

The Indonesian side is waiting for some political cover before they seek significant contacts. It is expected to come from President Abdurrahman Wahid's planned mid-year visit to Australia, which might open the way to some exchanges of senior officers.

The more elaborate military contacts, including exercises and specialised training, are unlikely to take place for a long time.

If the purpose of military training was to improve the professionalism of the Indonesian armed forces, the lesson of Aceh province and the lost East Timor is that it failed.

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