Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 18:28 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 18:28 | SYDNEY

Australia, Indonesia and East Timor (3)


Graeme Dobell

16 October 2009 10:58

Here are a few tips for Australia's relations with Indonesia, should Australia decide to pursue the Indonesian military for murdering Australian journalists in East Timor:

  • Don't put much reliance on personal relations between leaders and foreign ministers.
  • Don't resort to megaphone diplomacy.
  • Don't be fooled by shallow talk of a special relationship.
  • Don't let our overall policies towards Indonesia be made hostage to this or that obsession with a particular issue.

You'll find the list of don'ts (and some to-do points) in Jamie Mackie's Lowy Paper on Indonesia, which packs a lifetime of wisdom into 150 pages.

The Mackie injunction about avoiding single-issue obsession is important for this discussion. It is advice that acknowledges the many interests at play in the constant and complex interactions between two extraordinarily different neighbours. As the first two columns in this series have argued, East Timor is one element of Australia's memory of Indonesia that will influence the future of 'the relationship'.

It is not in Australia's interest that so much of the Indonesian polity still denies the bloody reality of what was done over the 24-year occupation/incorporation of East Timor. It was predictable enough that the head of the Indonesian parliamentary commission for foreign affairs, Teho Sambuaga, would denounce any investigation of Balibo as a 'waste of time'. What was striking was that Sambuaga could go on to argue: 'We from the Indonesian government, as well as Timor Leste's government, have never found evidence of war crimes.'

The claim is laughable, yet it is a reflection of what has happened over the past decade. The Jakarta deniers can base their position on two inquiries: the Timor Leste Commission for Truth and Reconciliation and the Indonesia-Timor Leste Commission of Truth and Friendship. The forgive and move-on philosophy of the two commissions can be twisted by the deniers into proof that nothing wrong was done. The extent of the Indonesian apology has been an expression of deep regret from President SBY. No Indonesian officer has faced a legal charge.

East Timor has little option to acquiesce, but Australia does not have to be a silent partner in forgetting, even denying, history. And there are voices in Jakarta that do see the need to deal with the past. Wimar Witoelar's commentary on the Balibo investigation argued that dealing with such tragedies would have domestic benefits, giving Indonesia a better sense of itself:

We should enlighten the public on sensitive issues and show the world that Indonesia cares. We should remind the world that we are on the same side of the issues on human rights. Every country has crimes against humanity in their history. It is not how you failed but how you recover. If there is to be an investigation into Balibo, it should be done jointly. We have been very successful in Australian-Indonesian police cooperation.

Australia is strong enough to confront Indonesia over one moment in its bloody past in East Timor. And the relationship with Indonesia is strong enough to carry any push-back from Jakarta.

The fragility issue is really to do with East Timor. What would it do to East Timor to have Australia seeking some justice for its murdered newsmen, whereas Dili has been unable to extract a real apology from Jakarta, much less any justice? It would be ironic if a push to deal with the past ended up being more destabilising in Dili than in Jakarta.

This column started with Professor Jamie Mackie. I’ll finish with the words of another great Asianist, Professor Wang Gungwu, who does this country the honour of having chosen to be an Australian citizen. One of his many insights about his adopted country is that Australia’s liberal history gives it something special to contribute to the region: 'Paradoxically, what Australians value about their culture, the law, the respect for human rights, the parliamentary system, which are not features of Asian societies, are what attract Asians.'