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Indonesia and East Timor: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Background paper by Gareth Evans published in abridged form in The Australian, 27 September 1999

Achieving East Timor's independence without further suffering is going to be much more popular than reconstructing our tattered relationship with Indonesia. But both goals are equally imperative if we are to protect our national interests and work effectively again on the wider regional and international stage.

To get our foreign policy back on track with any of our regional neighbours is not going to be easy, particularly after last week's rhetorical orgy from the Prime Minister about "Australian values", our "special place" in Asia as "a European, Western civilisation" and – most extravagantly of all – our role as regional "deputy" to the US global policeman.

The starting point is to get our own thinking about Asia in general, and Indonesia in particular in particular, back into some kind of rational shape. To persuade a sceptical public about Australia’s relations with Indonesia in the future, we have to begin by understanding both what was right about our policy, and what went wrong, in the past.

Looking Back

Successive Australian Governments certainly pursued good relations with Indonesia. That was obviously true of those of Hawke and Keating all the years I was Foreign Minister. But we didn't pursue "Good Relations" as a policy end in itself. It was rather a means to multiple other ends, both realistic and idealistic in character. Ends like protecting our security. Advancing our prosperity. Solving problems like Cambodia, where Indonesia's regional leadership mattered. Helping the fourth-biggest country in the world, and the biggest Islamic country, manage its own social, economic and political transformations. And, not least, helping the people of East Timor.

Clearly not all these objectives, particularly the last, were fully realised. Part of the reason is that Labor and Coalition Governments both made some mistakes, the biggest probably being our congenitally overoptimistic belief in the Indonesian military's capacity for redemption. But when things went wrong it was overwhelmingly for reasons beyond our capacity to influence. Understanding past mistakes is the key to not repeating them. But when identifying Australian candidates for the rack, or self-flagellation, it is important to separate fact from fiction and to understand just what it was possible, and not possible, for Australia to achieve at each step along the way.

First, Australia was in no position militarily to stop or reverse Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975, any more than we could by ourselves have moved in against Indonesia's will to stop the carnage in 1999. There is still an argument as to whether the then Labor Government could have done more to discourage Suharto. While the record is absolutely clear that Whitlam was firm and unambiguous throughout in opposing Indonesian military action, additional diplomatic representations could and should have been made after Portugal abandoned the territory in August. But there is no reason to suppose they would have made any practical difference: Suharto, and even more his generals, knew all too well that the international mood of the time was absolutely against involvement in another Asian imbroglio.

Second, there was nothing morally offensive about the Coalition Government's decision in 1979, later endorsed by Labor, to extend de jure recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor – a decision triggered by the need to advance the Timor Gap international boundary negotiations. The critical point (which used to make Ali Alatas enormously irritated with me whenever I made it – which I did long before the 1998 ALP Conference resolution) is that Australia continued to recognise East Timor as a non-self-governing territory entitled to self-determination. This was its status under Portuguese sovereignty and continued to be the case under Indonesian sovereignty.

Two other legal/moral points just for the record. Australia was not the only country to give de jure recognition: thirty-one other countries did the same expressly or by implication. And East Timor was never disadvantaged by the Timor Gap treaty: in the event that it became independent, the new country was always going to inherit Indonesia's revenue rights under it. When the oil and gas flows, the new Dili Government won’t be missing out on any royalties.

Thirdly, before the economic crisis of 1997 and its political aftermath changed everything, we all had to live with the fact that there seemed no realistic chance of Indonesia ever agreeing to a fully fledged act of self-determination in which independence was an option. Hindsight vision is always 20-20, but the most that then seemed achievable – and East Timorese leaders with whom I discussed this at the time didn’t disagree – was significant political autonomy, combined with a massive wind-back of the Indonesian military presence, and other measures of cultural recognition and development assistance.

As Foreign Minister, my persistence in pursuing this package and related human rights issues again regularly irritated my Indonesian counterpart (not least when I was praised on ABC radio in December 1995 by Jose Ramos Horta after some of my unpublicised UN efforts came to light). Such an autonomy package in fact seemed imminent on several occasions, never more so than in 1994 – until a well-intentioned statement from President Bill Clinton in Jakarta designed to pressure Suharto into acceptance produced, as this kind of diplomacy sometimes does, precisely the opposite result.

Fourthly, after 1997 the impossible suddenly seemed possible. It had nothing to do with the change of government in Canberra. Rather, the economic crisis saw Indonesia coming under international pressure as never before and desperate to garner international support. That and Suharto's downfall opened up brand-new options for the resolution of the East Timor situation. John Howard correctly called one of them when he wrote to President B.J. Habibie in December 1998, urging Indonesia to grant East Timor significant autonomy immediately and to hold out the possibility of a full self-determination ballot at an unspecified later time.

The trouble was that Habibie's response – inspired more by pique than high principle, and insufficiently canvassed with his military – went a quantum leap further than Howard had proposed, by throwing open the prospect of independence if autonomy were refused.

It was at this point that alarm bells should have jangled for Howard and Alexander Downer: East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao, in a December 1998 statement later echoed by Ramos Horta and bishop of Dili Carlos Belo, had called for up to a decade of autonomy before a referendum on independence was held. The East Timorese leaders knew all too well the potential for catastrophic violence if things were rushed. But the genie was now out of the bottle and no one in Australia raced to stuff it back in. The Government's only scramble was for credit, with the Prime Minister happily claiming – right up until the post-ballot carnage – that he had been the architect of East Timor's independence. And the media happily went along: this was a historic opportunity, the moment had to be sized, and caution was for wimps and appeasers.

Fifth, a lot more could and should have been done by the Howard Government to work for better security for the East Timorese during the ballot process and its aftermath. Once the idea of an independent ballot – rather than the long cooling off period preferred by the East Timorese leadership – had been accepted the whole process was going to put the safety of pro-independence supporters horribly at risk as the ALP rightly and ceaselessly insisted. The truth of the matter is that the case should have been argued much harder.

I am the first to acknowledge the extraordinary difficulty of persuading the Indonesian Government to accept a UN military or police presence with a full-scale peace-enforcement mandate. As those who have talked to Indonesian civil or military leaders would know, enormous national pride was at stake. But we barely tried at all. Indeed, we sought to dissuade other countries from pursuing the peacekeeping option. We should have months ago engaged in a full-scale effort with the US, which had enormous potential power over Indonesia through the IMF, to put pressure on them through the highest US political and military channels. Maybe we would not have succeeded. But we will never really know, because we never really tried.

At the very least we should have pressed, as I argued last April (The Australian, April 21) that a massive diplomatic effort be mounted to persuade Indonesia that if it did not control the violence then it would "deservedly become a pariah State". The Howard Government made no more than desultory efforts, even of this kind. And the fruits of that failure are now there for the world to see.

Looking forward

While it is distressing that they have deteriorated so quickly, this is not the first time our relations with our nearest Asian neighbour (which just so happens, it’s worth repeating, to be the fourth largest country in the world), have been in a comprehensive mess. In getting our foreign policy back into shape, it might be helpful to focus on the following:

Our quarrel in East Timor is with the Indonesian military, not its Government or people. The condemnation being heaped on the military for its appalling behaviour in East Timor – whether directed, tolerated or unable to be controlled from the top – is abundantly deserved. Our efforts over the years to help train and professionalise the military officer caste – which I supported and defended – have conspicuously failed and it is right for us and the world to break off relations with the military until a sea-change occurs and to pursue war crimes allegations wherever they lead.

But we should not blame the whole country for the misbehaviour of its soldiers: disgust with the military is now enormously widespread in Indonesia itself, especially since the shooting of students in Jakarta last year, and its role and influence is eroding. The present civilian government has not covered itself in glory – either in the cynicism with which it initiated the East Timorese ballot or in its talking down the military's role subsequently – but it hasn’t been the major villain any more than the people have been. To burn Indonesian flags, picket their embassies, ban Garuda, boycott Bali and cancel aid are all understandable reactions, but all they do is feed the chauvinist nationalist sentiment on which military hardliners thrive, and make even harder the democratic transformation now struggling to take wing.

Australia is leading the UN military operation not because of our own particular hang-ups, but because we are reflecting the collective concern of the whole international community. We should not be spooked by the strident claims of some Indonesian spokespersons, and a few more recalcitrant regional friends, that Australia is playing regional policeman out of colonialist instinct and residual racist sentiment. We are leading the UN force because we are on the spot, sufficiently militarily capable and responding to a wholly genuine, principled and world-wide demand for urgent action, to which all regional governments have subscribed.

Nonetheless, in getting our message across to Indonesian opinion leaders, it would help enormously if the Prime Minister did not harp on "Australian values" as the key to our commitment, let alone muse about our role as a deputy in the region to the US global police chief. The values we are upholding here are certainly Australian, but they are also genuinely universal – reflected in the UN Charter and Declarations – and not at all culture-specific. Under Labor governments, we used to try to capture this theme in our foreign policy by talking of democracy and human rights in the context of our commitment to "good international citizenship". But the Howard Government's Foreign Policy White Paper explicitly abandoned this concept in favour of talk about Australian values. It’s no wonder a great many decent Indonesians see us as arrogant and patronising.

We should still see our security interests as being best pursued with Indonesia and our Asian neighbours rather than against them. One of the unhappiest features of the present breakdown in relations has been Jakarta's tearing up of the 1995 Australia-Indonesia Security Treaty and the casual acceptance of that decision by the Howard Government. The treaty (a government to government, not military to military agreement) was carefully designed to have no application whatever to a potential crisis in East Timor – or Aceh or Irian Jaya or anywhere else Indonesia's domestic writ ran. It's not to the point to say it didn't prove relevant to the present situation: it wasn't meant to be.

What it did do was to make absolutely clear to Indonesia, our region as a whole and any possible potential aggressor, that we saw our security as best guaranteed with our biggest neighbour rather than against it. It was an important strand, moreover, in a whole web of security relationships being gradually woven in the region around the same theme. (And in realpolitik terms, for those who like that sort of thing, it was an important element in building a critical mass in South-East Asia as a counterweight to some heftier military presences further north.)

It is alarming there should now be such throwaway talk about the manifest need for Australia, in the light of the present situation, to significantly build up our military capability. There may be good reasons for that, quite independently of our relationship with Indonesia but it is devastating – after more than a decade of close engagement with the region and major steps forward in co-operative security – to see such an immediate resurgence of "threat from the north" sentiment. Are we condemned forever to be locked in this time warp?

One of the hardest things to manage in the conduct of any country’s foreign policy is the balance between realism and idealism. In Australia’s Asian environment, playing to the gallery won’t keep you out of trouble: most of the time you can be expected to be booed from your idealism by your foreign audience and for your realism by the domestic one. The intelligent course is not to opt for one of the other, but to steer a balanced course between both. In rebuilding our relationship with Indonesia, and conducting our foreign relations generally, we could do worse than go back to some of the key principles that guided our actions for most of the 1980s and 1990s:

Always be conscious that Australia can never lead internationally through our own military or economic might, or that of our old friends, but only through the power of persuasion.

Always give pre-eminence to Australia’s national interests, but define those interests broadly, as including not only security and economic concerns, but also interests in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen.

Always be prepared to be creative, pushing the policy envelope as far as it will reach, on human rights and anything else worth pursuing, but be conscious of the limits of what is achievable – and stop short of anything that is actually counterproductive.

Always explain frankly what is or what seems to be possible, and don’t create expectations internationally or domestically that you are not likely to be able to satisfy.

And always, but always, be reluctant to advise or embrace courses of action which involve the shedding of other people’s blood.