Subject: IPS: Only Time Can Thaw Australia-Indonesia Ties


By Sonny Inbaraj

DARWIN, Australia, Nov 1 (IPS) - Australia's ties with Indonesia are perilous, with President Abdurrahman Wahid extremely critical of Canberra after the tensions in East Timor, but analysts say time will bring the two neighbours back together.

Last week in announcing his new Cabinet, Wahid warned that it was up to Australia to decide if it wanted to restore relations with Indonesia after differences over the former Indonesian province.

Wahid or Gus Dur, as he is popularly known, told reporters in Jakarta he wanted to speak frankly about relations between the two countries rather than use diplomatic language.

''If Australia needs to be accepted by a nation of 210 million people, we will receive with an open heart,'' Wahid said. ''If they want to separate us, it's okay.''

''It depends on Australia if they realise their mistake before,'' he added.

On Wahid's election as president on Oct 20, Prime Minister John Howard pledged that Australia would be a sympathetic neighbour and was ready to extend the hand of friendship and support to build, at an appropriate pace, a better and stronger relationship.

Wahid, who heads the conservative Nahdlatul Ulama Muslim organisation with 34 million members, is 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 military-supported militias went on an orgy of killing and destruction, Wahid called for a jihad, or holy war, against the multinational troops.

The Nahdlatul Ulama leader claimed that Australia had been ''pissing in our face'' on the Timor issue and suggested that Jakarta downgrade relations with Canberra.

Certain quarters in Jakarta blame the Australian press for fanning the flames of Indonesian nationalism by publishing blown- up pictures of Australian Interfet troops pointing their rifles at the heads of captured suspected militia members in East Timor.

Almost daily there are demonstrations outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. Bullets have been fired at the embassy, and Molotov cocktails have been tossed into embassy grounds. Australian tourists and businesses have also been targeted.

''I have a number of times spoken to the Australian media to be very careful and do not wake Indonesian nationalism,'' said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a foreign policy adviser to former president BJ Habibie. ''Once you awaken it, it's very difficult to put it down again.''

''We have been down the road of Indonesian radical nationalism before. It has taken over 30 years to calm that down,'' Anwar said referring to the period during Sukarno and the onset of Suharto's New Order Regime in 1965.

Suharto stepped down as president in May 1998 after bowing to student demonstrations in Jakarta.

On Oct 20 the new Indonesian parliament voted to relinquish claim over East Timor and accept the results of the Aug 30 UN- supported ballot, where East Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence from Indonesia.

A week later, the UN Security Council voted to set up an interim administrative authority called the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).

UNTAET formally took over the stewardship of East Timor and is responsible for everything from visas to currency and the enormous task of reconstruction.

The proposed 10,000-strong UNTAET is scheduled to arrive in December, a quarter century after Indonesia invaded East Timor.

''East Timor's separation is resented by many of Indonesia's elite. Australia, in particular, and Western countries in general, are widely regarded as having been insensitive and unresponsive to Indonesia's feelings about East Timor,'' said Alan Dupont, a director at Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

Added Dupont: ''Wahid's oblique reference to foreign interference in internal affairs suggests he shares at least some of these perceptions.''

But David Jenkins, Asia editor of the 'Sydney Morning Herald', argued the Indonesian parliament's decision to cut loose East Timor could augur well for Canberra-Jakarta ties in due time.

''There is a sense that, for better or for worse, East Timor is no longer Indonesia's problem, that Indonesia has an interest in moving on and forgetting about Timor,'' said Jenkins. ''This can only be good for Canberra -Jakarta ties.''

''For the first half of the year, relations are expected to be lukewarm. And while they may improve after that, some argue that it could be two or three years before the situation is back to normal,'' Jenkins said.

Jenkins said Australia's diminished role in the blue-helmeted force expected to take over from Interfet could also help quell tensions in Jakarta.

''Once the Australian military profile is lowered, as it will be towards the end of the year when a full UN force is in East Timor, the level of irritation in Jakarta is expected to fall,'' he pointed out.

But there are more encouraging signs with the appointment of Wahid's close confidante Alwi Shihab as the nation's new foreign minister, and second-tier diplomatic moves to improve dialogue between Jakarta and Canberra.

After meeting the Australian ambassador, John McCarthy, last week before his appointment, Shihab said the new government would look for way to restore ties and overcome past differences relating to East Timor.

''There is no need for us to remain angry,'' Shihab was quoted as saying. ''It is enough that they know we were angry and displeased.''

In an attempt to thaw relations, Dr Jusuf Wanandi of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies wants to invite Wahid to a private conference with leading Australians in the first attempt to overcome antagonism between the two countries.

According to the 'Australian Financial Review', Wanandi has agreed with one of Australia's leading intellectuals, Ross Garnaut of the Australian National University, to convene an unofficial conference early next year in Jakarta to begin the process of rapprochement.

''I want to get maybe 15 leading people from each country together for a few days next year to start rebuilding,'' Wanandi explained. ''I will get Gus Dur to give his blessing for this conference and maybe he could participate. He would probably love to open it.'' (END/IPS/ap-ip/si/js/99)

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