the jakarta lobby - mea culpa?

The Age, 4 March, 1999


President Suharto's sudden fall from power in May last year and East Timor's impending independence together constitute Australia's greatest post-war diplomatic failure. Neither event was anticipated by Canberra: the former came as a complete surprise, the latter has been strenuously opposed for over two decades.

Primary responsibility for this failure rests with the Jakarta lobby, an informal group of bureaucrats, academics and journalists who have tightly controlled Australian foreign policy towards Indonesia and East Timor. The Jakarta lobby has long regarded Australia's relationship with Indonesia as an exceptional case requiring careful management by 'experts' with a proper sympathy for and understanding of Jakarta's difficulties. As former Foreign Affairs head Richard Woolcott said in 1995, "we cannot allow foreign policy [in this area] to be made in the streets, by the media or by the unions" (Weekend Australian, 2.9.95), or, in the case of the secretly negotiated Australia-Indonesia Security Agreement, by the federal Parliament.

man of the world

Until recently, the Jakarta lobby had been remarkably influential. Consider, for example, its success in presenting the Suharto regime in a favourable light to Australia's political leaders. A CIA report on the purges organised by the Indonesian military against the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) shortly after Suharto came to power in 1966 claims that "in terms of the numbers killed the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20 th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War and the Maoist bloodbaths of the 1930s" (the CIA report is cited in A. Schwartz, A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia in the 1990s, (Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1994, p.20).

No-one seriously contests Suharto's responsibility for the bloodbath. He is as clearly culpable for it as Pol Pot was for Year Zero in Cambodia, though no Australian politician has suggested that he be charged with crimes against humanity. On the contrary, Suharto has been lauded by former Prime Minister Keating for producing a "tolerant society" and bringing "stability" to the region (AFR, 17.3.94), praise which has been echoed by Kim Beazley, who in 1989 claimed that "Australians pay far too little attention to the value to us of the stability" which the Suharto dictatorship "brought to the Indonesian archipelago". If the PKI "had been victorious in the mid 1960s", said Beazley, "our security prospects over the last two decades would have been very different from the favourable circumstances we enjoy today" (Beazley cited by Gerard Henderson in The Courier Mail, 29.1.93). Half a million deaths clearly haven't weighed too heavily on the conscience of the Labor Party.

Not to be outdone, Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer last year recommended that "when magazines look for the man of the world of the second half of this century, they perhaps should not look much further than Jakarta". Suharto's victims on the other hand, including 200,000 East Timorese in what has been described as the greatest slaughter relative to a population since the Holocaust, may suggest they look elsewhere. For three decades Suharto's human rights "failures" were always balanced against his "economic achievements" - now only a fading memory, and which were in truth rather modest by regional standards. Presumably there are still commissars in Russia saying similar things about Stalin's legacy.

Suharto's regime was characterised as "moderate" by Professor Jaimie Mackie, an Indonesian specialist at the ANU (Australian Outlook, no.28, 1974), and in a eulogy that would have made the dictator blush, journalist Greg Sheridan has argued that "even in human rights there is a case for Suharto" (The Australian, 20.5.98). It shouldn't therefore come as a surprise that in three biographical reviews written in May last year by Mackie, Sheridan, and his colleague Paul Kelly in The Australian, Suharto's role in one of the century's worst bloodbaths was passed over in silence (The Australian, 20.5.98). Can anyone imagine an obituary for Pol Pot which failed to mention the killing fields?

The "friends of Indonesia" regularly demonised Jakarta's critics. Ordinary people concerned about human rights under Suharto and those who campaigned for East Timor's independence were regularly defamed by Sheridan and Woolcott as "anti-Indonesian" and "racist" (R. Woolcott, Myths and Realities In Our Approach to Indonesia, The Sydney Papers, Winter 1992, p.81; Sheridan in The Australian, 30.10.98)). The imputation was always clear: Indonesia comprised Suharto and the military elite which runs the state. No-one else mattered. Criticism of them was a slander on the entire Indonesian nation.

Apologising for Suharto led his Australian supporters into a state of denial. Shortly before the students brought Suharto down in May last year, Richard Woolcott was arguing that in Indonesia "there will be no 'people power' movement, comparable to that in the Philippines in 1986" (The Age, 16.1.98), a view endorsed by Paul Kelly in The Australian: "Indonesia in the 1990s is not a re-run of The Philippines of the 80s...There is no political reform movement.." (The Australian, 25.2.98).

the time has passed

The Jakarta Lobby was faced with a public relations challenge whenever evidence of another slaughter by the Indonesian military surfaced. Their strategy, as articulated by Woolcott just prior to Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975, has been to "act in a way which would be designed to minimise the public impact in Australia and show private understanding to Indonesia of their problems" (Brian Toohey & Marion Wilkinson, The Book of Leaks (Sydney 1987, pp.179-80).

Predictably, the two separate massacres in Dili, East Timor in November 1991, sprang the Jakarta Lobby into damage control mode. Concerted efforts to offset community outrage, deflect moral judgement and mute public criticism were made. The number of victims was minimised and evidence of a second massacre dismissed entirely. Sheridan and Woolcott blamed Portugal for the killings, while in an extraordinary article published in The Australian, former ANU Economics Professor Heinz Arndt called the massacre a tragedy, not because of the loss of life but because it inflamed anti-Indonesian hate campaigns in Australia (The Australian, 6.12.91).

Australians were urged to show understanding to the perpetrators of the crimes, rather than the victims. Such was the success of the disinformation campaign in exculpating Jakarta, foreign minister Evans found himself describing the latest in a long list of atrocities as "aberrant acts".

But it's not just the Jakarta Lobby's moral credentials which are in question. As recent events have shown, their political assessments were as deeply flawed.

Only three years ago Richard Woolcott claimed that "the East Timor lobby should accept that the time for an act of self-determination after 20 years has passed and that demanding independence is a lost cause which raises false hopes, prolongs conflict and costs lives" (Weekend Australian, 22-3.4.95). Similarly, former foreign minister Evans repeatedly argued that Indonesia's takeover of East Timor was "irreversible" and that "it's quite quixotic to think otherwise" (The Age, 27.6.94).

The poverty of this analysis is now obvious to all. However, the political changes that have begun in Indonesia are already proving to be a concern for those who mistakenly equate "stability" in the region with supporting the status quo. In the wake of Suharto's departure, Woolcott has argued that "it is foolish to suggest the fragmentation of Indonesia into a number of independent states need not concern Australia" (AFR, 3.6.98).

Putting to one side the question of Australia's capacity to prevent such a development, one lesson of the post-Cold War period seems to have been lost on 'experts' such as Woolcott: political and territorial boundaries are clearly not immutable. It is quite normal for nation-states to come into and go out of existence, as it is for their boundaries to shift. The USSR, Yugoslavia, and East Germany are merely recent examples of how transient political communities really are. Woolcott's claim that "historically, no state has willingly accepted dismemberment" will come as a surprise to Czechs and Slovaks (Weekend Australian, 22-3.4.95).

Far from being a threat to Australia's national security, the partial fragmentation of Indonesia may well defuse tensions which have been simmering in Aceh, West Papua, Kalimantan, East Timor and elsewhere. It is 'unrealistic' to believe that Java can resist these centrifugal forces. Scare campaigns by the Jakarta Lobby, whether they be attacks on the principle of self-determination, exaggerated prospects for civil war, concerns about the Balkanisation of Indonesia, the fear of Islam, or the cost to the Australian taxpayer, will not thwart these developments.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, the Jakarta Lobby frequently excoriated the Left in Australia for its support of Communist regimes, demanding apologies, corrections and regret. In light of their own enormous failures and moral transgressions, can we now expect the same from them?