Stability rules

Despite rhetoric suggesting otherwise, Indonesian and Australian relations are generally solid and warm. East Timor and the Schapelle Corby case, while unquestionably placing strain on the relationship, are unlikely to cause any long-term damage. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher argues today that relations with our northern neighbour are too vital to be left to populism. He approvingly quotes former Prime Minister Paul Keating:

“The event of greatest positive strategic significance to Australia in the postwar years was the election of President Soeharto’s new-order government. Had it not been for that cohesive event – if the archipelago was breaking up – we would not be spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, we would be spending 6 or 7 per cent.”

Therefore, writes Hartcher, stability is essential. Human rights abuses? Ignored. The reign of terror perpetrated by Soeharto? Forget about it. Hartcher’s commentary fits into a dubious history of acquiescence with the actions of Indonesia. And these friendly relations allow Australia to spend less on defence, he glowingly assures us. This logic taken to its clear conclusion suggests that realpolitik should always take precedence in politics, and let’s not let the small issue of massacres get in the way.

Hartcher needs reminding of history. When Soeharto stole power in the mid 1960s, he massacred up to 1 million people with the assistance of the CIA. The invasion of East Timor in 1975 caused untold misery to the East Timorese people. Perhaps this is the kind of stability imagined by a government apologist like Hartcher.

Scott Burchill, senior lecturer in international relations at Deakin University, understands the real agenda behind the Indonesian/Australian relationship:

“The Indonesian military (TNI) has always been seen by the [Australian] Jakarta lobby as the best guarantor of social and political control of the Indonesian population. Australia’s de jure recognition of Indonesia’s incorporation of Portuguese Timor in 1985, the Timor Gap Treaty in 1989, and the 1995 agreement on security signed by the Keating government and the Soeharto regime, were the high watermarks of the lobby’s influence.”

Burchill emphasises the disparity between the political elite in both countries and the general populace. The former is in favour of close ties while the latter is more suspicious and questioning. Hartcher’s cards have been shown. He isn’t the first apologist and nor will he be the last.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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