Subject: AFR: Howard & Habibie are powerless, but at least they agree
Date: Sat, 01 May 1999 08:44:22 -0400
From: "John M. Miller" <>

Received from Joyo Indonesian News:

Australian Financial Review Tuesday, April 27, 1999

Powerless, but at least they agree

By Peter Hartcher, Asia-Pacific Editor

John Howard's emergency summit today with the President of Indonesia is not the high-risk event as advertised - both men want the same thing.

This is not a classical diplomatic negotiation where the two sides seek to persuade each other of different positions. The reason the meeting is occurring at all is that the two leaders essentially agree on how to handle the future of East Timor.

Howard and President B.J. Habibie already agree that the Indonesian colony, annexed by force of arms and held at the heavy expense of blood, should finally be offered the option of independence.

And they both want this to be done in an orderly and peaceful manner, supervised by the United Nations. And they concur that Indonesia should not just storm off in a chaotic huff if the poor benighted East Timorese should exercise that option.

So while the TV reporters do their earnest stand-ups outside the Hilton Hotel at Bali's Nusa Dua today about the grave high-risk confrontation going on behind them, Howard and Habibie will be inside busily agreeing with each other.

The catch, however, is that neither man has the power to implement this happy vision. Although Habibie bears the title of president and lives in the presidential palace, it is a polite fiction that he can transmit his will to the streets and jungles of East Timor.

The fiction operates on two levels. The first is that he can issue orders to the Commander of the Armed Forces, General Wiranto.

Habibie holds office at the pleasure of the armed forces, not the other way around. Habibie was not consciously endorsed by anyone for the presidency but was an emergency stand-in when Soeharto was forced out.

He has no legitimacy, a truth so irrefutable that even one of his own top advisers, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, has stated it baldly and openly.

Habibie is unpopular with the bulk of the armed forces.

The second level is the fiction that Wiranto has untrammelled control over the armed forces. The Indonesian armed forces are not a military organisation but a military-political grouping.

Wiranto presides over a tense balance between powerful factions rather than a strict hierarchy of command, more like a leader of the Australian Labor Party than an Australian army general. He was obliged to rescind two of his most senior military appointments because of a revolt among his own officers. And the limits to Howard's powers are entirely obvious. Australia will never employ aggressive tactics to defend the East Timorese if those tactics might upset Jakarta. So if Howard and Habibie can agree on so much but enforce so little, why hold the summit at all?

The reason is that it suits both leaders. Habibie's policy of freedom for East Timor is not popular with either the reactionary or the liberal ends of the Indonesian political spectrum. The army and the hardline nationalists are very uncomfortable with it.

But so are populist reformist elements and their pin-up girl, Megawati Soekarnoputri. Only a soft middle of moderates like the idea. So the spectacle of an emergency summit with a foreign leader is useful to Habibie in shoring up domestic support for his East Timor policy.

And it suits Howard because, first, it might do some good. But, secondly, he needs to demonstrate to us that he has done everything reasonably possible to get a happy ending to the East Timor story.

The sad truth is that today's summit will succeed in diplomatic terms but fail in the only sense that really matters - delivering peace and freedom to the East Timorese.

Powerful interests in the Indonesian armed forces do not want to surrender the province. And if they are forced to withdraw, are determined to leave a civil war behind them.

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