Subject: Age comment: The fence-mender Howard missed

The Age July 6, 2001


The fence-mender Howard missed


At a joint press conference during Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid's Australian visit last week, a senior journalist from Radio Australia's Indonesian section asked Prime Minister John Howard to describe the content of his letter on East Timor to former president Habibie.

Witnessed by a contingent of visiting Indonesian journalists and some Australian media representatives, Howard evaded the question, saying he did not want to hark back to the past. He preferred to look forward, to improving the relationships between the countries.

On the face of it, it was an innocuous incident, except for the fact that the question was actually a Dorothy Dixer.

Earlier that day, the journalist had been vainly trying to persuade a number of the visiting Indonesian journalists that they had been misinformed. These journalists believed that what Howard sent Habibie in December, 1998, was a letter suggesting that Indonesia should grant independence to East Timor then, and apparently Habibie obliged.

The tragedy that followed had not only devastated East Timor and its people, but also placed Indonesia and its people in a position where everybody could kick them and throw stones at them, and feel good about it.

Many Indonesians were not proud of what the military did to East Timor, before as well as after the 1999 referendum. In fact, numerous journalists and workers of non-government organisations had been shot at, bashed and generally threatened for trying to expose what was happening in the former province. Many more still were not aware of anything out of the ordinary until after the referendum. The post-referendum violence and atrocities were well publicised, in a much more open media then.

However, after some time, many realised that the international media did not appear to differentiate between the section of the military involved in this mayhem and the rest of the Indonesian community. Even the NGO workers began to see that they, while attacking the aggression towards the East Timorese, were nonetheless dumped with all others into the basket labelled "Indonesian aggressors" by the international media. So the workers stopped being vocal. Many were resentful, though somehow unable to define, let alone finetune their resentment.

In the meantime, in Australia just before the referendum, maybe for domestic political purposes, the Prime Minister hinted that he had an important role in the referendum, as he had more or less encouraged Habibie to solve the East Timor problems. And when the post-referendum atrocities by the outgoing Indonesian military and the East Timorese militia brought the predominantly Australian InterFET into the devastated land, only the most level-headed Indonesians believed that Australia was doing it out of the goodness of its heart, or at least to assist the troubled East Timorese.

Emotional campaigns were launched by those who were angry with Australia for "severing the province of East Timor from Indonesia", and for beating its chest with calls of triumph resounding around the world - in short, for presenting as a hero, while Indonesia lay emotionally wounded.

And because it was blatant, many Indonesians were persuaded that Australia had acted to boost its collective ego, and along the way, to spite Indonesia. Some even believed that Australia did not want the close northern neighbor to be too strong.

It is against this background that some of the visiting journalists last week believed that Howard had written such a letter to Habibie. It was part of the conspiracy, they were convinced, to knock down Indonesia and keep it down.

Unfortunately, by evading the question, Howard missed the opportunity to explain that he had only suggested that Indonesia grant autonomy to East Timor for a number of years, with a view to a referendum at the end of the period. The fact that it was Habibie and his advisers who decided to have the referendum then and there has now eluded those who believe that it was Howard. To them, Australia is responsible for the decimation of Indonesia's collective dignity.

The incident, nonetheless, is a sad indication that Australia does not recognise that there are Indonesians sober enough and, more importantly, trusting enough of its good faith towards Indonesia. Howard, I suspect, evaded the question because he thought he was being trapped, given that the questioner was Indonesian. Imagine the disappointment of the journalist who in reality designed the question for the Prime Minister to explain the truth of the letter issue once and for all.

Unfortunately, it seems that Howard is not alone in his suspicion of Indonesian motives. Judging from various letters to editors and the outbursts of talkback callers, there is a strong collective suspicion towards Indonesia as a whole that is yet to be eased out.

Let us hope that President Wahid's belated visit revived the good faith on both sides. The path to improved relationships is not only long and arduous, but fraught with dangerous rocks and deadly potholes.

Dewi Anggraeni is Australia correspondent for Tempo news magazine.


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