Subject: IPS: Spy Scandal Mars Wahid's Planned Australia Visit

EAST TIMOR: Spy Scandal Mars Wahid's Planned Australia Visit By Sonny Inbaraj

04/25/2000 Inter Press Service

DARWIN, Australia, Apr. 25 (IPS) -- A spying incident involving an Australian soldier serving with the United Nations in East Timor has scuttled Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid's planned visit to Australia next month.

Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab told a news conference in Jakarta yesterday that Wahid, who was planning to visit Australia in May to repair bilateral ties, may postpone the trip for two months or even cancel it outright.

He said Wahid took into consideration the recent incident involving an Australian soldier who was ordered out of East Timor over a spying operation in Indonesian West Timor which embarrassed Australia and prompted a high-level apology from the United Nations to Indonesia.

"If the opportunity for a visit is not useful, it would be better to postpone it," Shihab said. "No doubt, there is some impact from the spying incident relating to the visit."

Wahid announced in Hong Kong late last week he would visit Australia at the end of May for talks with Prime Minister John Howard in a bid to normalize relations after the East Timor saga last September. This was to be the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since Wahid was elected president on Oct. 20.

To date, Wahid, as head of state, has visited more than 20 countries but has yet to set foot in Australia, its southern neighbor.

"At the end of May, I shall go to Australia and I will talk to John Howard," Abdurrahman told the Asia Society in Hong Kong at the last day of his recent overseas trip.

This was a far cry from Wahid's statement before he was sworn in as president that Australia had been "pissing in our face" on the Timor issue and suggested that Jakarta downgrade relations with Canberra.

Wahid, who heads the conservative Nahdlatul Ulama Muslim organization with 34 million members, was one of the many Indonesian leaders who thought East Timor should remain part of Indonesia.

When the Australian-led International Force in East Timor (Interfet) landed in East Timor on Sept. 20, after Indonesia's military-supported militias went on an orgy of killing and destruction, Wahid called for a "jihad," or holy war, against the multinational troops.

At the end of last week, it seemed that all parties were intent to let bygones be bygones. Wahid also said that he would make a brief stopover in the north Australian city of Darwin to meet with East Timor independence leader Xanana Gusmao.

"It has come to the point where I will use my transit point in Darwin to ask Xanana Gusmao to meet me there and to talk about the idea of developing human resources in East Timor ," Wahid was quoted as telling the Jakarta Post.

But Wahid's decision to visit Canberra was made before the Indonesian media blew up the spying incident. The media hype in Jakarta over the incident prompted the Indonesian government to issue a strong statement castigating Australia over the scandal.

"The Indonesian government deeply deplores the recurrence of the espionage activities involving Australian nationals which only serves to impede the normalization of bilateral relations between Australia and Indonesia," said the statement.

Responding to the media reports, the Australian Defense Force issued a statement saying an Australian peacekeeper who was not named, based in southwest Suai, paid an East Timorese man 20 Australian dollars last week to collect information about suspected militia strongholds around Atambua in Indonesian West Timor .

At a news conference at the West Timor border last week, U.N. peacekeeping chief General Jaime de los Santos said under the U.N. charter military intelligence was not authorized and U.N. peacekeepers could not go all the way into West Timor .

"I have repeatedly told my subordinate commanders not to do this because it is a violation. The incident which happened was very unfortunate and I condemn this action," said General de los Santos, who later apologized to Indonesian Defense Chief Admiral Widodo.

Despite the apology, there is still tension at the border.

Udayana Military Commander Maj. Gen. Kiki Syahnakri, who oversees Indonesia's military operations in Bali and West Timor , admitted that various incidents occurring in the border between Indonesia and East Timor have impeded efforts to restore bilateral ties between Indonesia and Australia.

"The various problems that have emerged near the border shared by Indonesia and East Timor have no doubt affected efforts to restore Indonesia-Australia ties which were strained in the wake of the popular consultation in Lorosae (East Timor )," he said in Bali, on Apr. 22.

But border incidents involving incursions by small gangs of heavily armed militiamen into East Timor occur on an almost regular basis. The U.N., which is administering East Timor in its transition to independence, has repeatedly urged Indonesia to clamp down on the militias.

Though the Indonesian Foreign Ministry remains ambiguous on the exact date of Wahid's visit to Canberra, many Australian officials, however, feel the spy scandal was too trivial for the president to put off his trip.

Major-General Peter Cosgrove, who planned and commanded the Australian-led operation that restored peace in East Timor after militia violence last September, told reporters he believed the soldier had done the wrong thing with good intentions.

"You can't see it in any other way than the young man striving in this way -- which probably turned out to be misguided -- to achieve a bit of extra foreknowledge on the activities of these marauding militia," he said.

"It was not appropriate, but we should probably keep it in the context that this was quite a junior man who was acting in a well-intentioned and misguided way."

But reading between the lines, the Indonesian Foreign Minister seemed to be in a conciliatory mood. "I told the president that there were some hard feelings among some (Indonesian) communities," Shihab said, "but at the same time, there is a need for us to have good relations with Australia."

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