Strange book and whitewashed governments

May 1, 1991

Strange Neighbours — The Australia-Indonesia Relationship
Edited by Desmond Ball and Helen Wilson
Allen & Unwin, 268 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Robin Osborne

The most important difference between Australia and Indonesia — aside from the obvious differences of wealth between a developed country and an underdeveloped one — is not our relative sizes, skin colours or cultural contrasts but the fact that while we have a multiparty democracy, Indonesia, despite the ruling clique's claim to the contrary, does not.

A corollary of this is that the principal human rights of Australians are not generally abused, while those of many Indonesians are. It would be dangerous to assume that this makes us a "better" society, but it is certainly fairer than the one run since 1965 by General/President Suharto, his family, cronies and key military.

Even the most uninformed tourist visiting Bali soon realises this obvious disparity. How then, can it be almost totally overlooked by the 16 supposedly leading analysts whose chapters about the Australia-Indonesia relationship make up this book?

The answer lies in who the authors are.

One is pictured on the front cover, smiling broadly as he signs away the already stolen rights of the East Timorese, the people who, ambassador and technologist Hasnan Habib tells us, were planning to create a "regional Cuba".

Funny, I don't recall Cuba having billions of dollars' worth of accessible oil.

The smiler is our foreign affairs minister, Senator Gareth Evans, who's shown with his counterpart, Ali Alatas, in the aircraft over the Timor Sea where they agreed that the oil in the Timor Gap would be divided between the two countries. Evans has come a long way since — as the contributors' notes say — he was an academic lawyer specialising in civil liberties law.

There are academics from both Australia and Indonesia, none of whom is known for rigorous criticism of the Jakarta regime, and members of the pro-Suharto think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Their papers were presented to a 1989 Canberra seminar on the subject sponsored by, surprise, our Department of Foreign Affairs, ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and the CSIS — and brought to book form by co-editors Helen Wilson and Des Ball.

One would have hoped that the latter, whose work on Pine Gap and the USA's weapons program is well known, would have known better than to get involved in a whitewash of this kind.

Yet even Dr Ball is content to use such a euphemism as "unlike in our ... political structures" to describe the political impotence of Indonesians. Nowhere in the book is there a description of that country's bizarre "electoral" system, while the words "democracy" and "elections" do not appear in the index.

The extensive bibliography excludes all notably critical books on Indonesia, such as Jim Dunn's Timor, A People Betrayed or Funu by Fretilin's Jose-Ramos Horta who, now teaching at University of NSW, remains a major thorn in the two countries' relationship.

"We have ... different systems of government", writes Harry Tjan, an extreme right-winger who holds a different view of Catholicism to many of his faith and believes the Vatican should sever ties with the popular East Timor Church.

Such contrasts need to be "fully recognized and well understood", he says but does not elaborate. Of course everyone at the seminar knew the details, but readers of this collection will be none the wiser.

Instead they will hear of other villains, such as the Russians and Libyans in the Pacific and the Australian media, which are anti-Indonesian and ill informed.

While many would see the seminar, like the four preceding it, as the product of a pro-Indonesia "lobby" in Canberra, Andrew MacIntyre from Griffith University, whose paper is generally better than most, dismisses such a view as "simplistic".

He writes: "It is not that Australian foreign policy makers have been supine or somehow in fear of Indonesia, rather it has been that in their eagerness to cultivate a stronger and more positive relationship they have created an atmosphere of unrealistic expectations in both Australia and Indonesia".

Although Bill Morrison, former Whitlam minister and our ambassador in Jakarta, 1985-88, was at the top of this pile of eager beavers, he now urges the importance of getting "our sights agreed before we start raising them".

The book resembles Indonesian parliaments where, because of prior caucusing and a fear of reprisal, there is a striking lack of discord. It seems that everyone at the seminar agreed on everything, ranging from diplomatic tactics through to perceptions on Cambodia and the Philippines (why those two chapters were included, I'm not sure).

Yet a careful search reveals journalist Goenawan Mohamad saying "you will be guilty of ethnocentrism if you judge Indonesia by your own standards", and Dr MacIntyre concluding that "Indonesian politicians, like the Indonesian middle class, share many of the same sorts of ordinary concerns and views of their Australian counterparts. The sooner both sides come to realise this the better." While that's a start, no-one tried to say what ordinary people in both countries think, as opposed to what their diplomats and dictators say they should think and tell us they are.
Robin Osborne is the author of Indonesia's Secret War: The Guerilla Struggle in Irian Jaya.

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