Special Report: Indonesia Update


Professor M.C. Ricklefs

The Burma Road? Or Thai Style? Two ways ahead for Indonesia

In 1990, the military in what is now called Myanmar dismissed an overwhelming election result against them, and took the country down a dark road of international isolation. By contrast, the Thai military in 1992 failed in what may have been their last coup attempt. Thailand is now a somewhat chaotic but open democracy. Indonesia today stands at an Asian crossroads - will it choose to follow the way of Myanmar or Thailand?

Among the most worrying signs pointing down the 'Burma Road' is the way Megawati's party, biggest vote-getter in the June 7 election, is snuggling up to the military, and up to Golkar. Some Golkar functionaries, in language reminiscent of the New Order, are speaking of a 'consensus' government that they hope will emerge from the upcoming Consultative Assembly (MPR) meeting in November.

This would spit in the face of the electorate, which saw Golkar and Struggle PDI as rivals, not as potential coalition partners. Armed forces commander and defence minister General Wiranto, meanwhile, has just strengthened his own hand with a state security law that gives more power to the military. Golkar and Struggle PDI party insiders speak about General Wiranto as a likely presidential or vice-presidential candidate.

However, even a military-dominated government has to play the political game. And General Suharto in his day had some cards to play that General Wiranto does not have up his sleeve. Suharto was a Cold War warrior whose anti-communist profile as national saviour won him strong support both domestically (from Muslims and the business community) and internationally (from the West). Moreover, the oil boom soon gave him the wherewithal to buy the cooperation of crucial elites.

The communist party has been dead for three decades, and the Cold War ended in 1990. The oil boom collapsed in the mid-80s and today the economy is broke. Add to that a record of blatant human rights abuse by the military, and General Wiranto will not find it easy to sell himself as a national saviour. Indeed if he (and those soliciting his favours) press ahead with the idea of an unpopular military-supported 'consensus' government he could well steer Indonesia towards international pariah status not much better than that accorded to Myanmar.

Indonesia in Thai style, on the contrary, would get on much better with the rest of the world. Yes, there would be endless scandal and intrigue, and it would be hard to know who exactly was in charge. But investment would probably return more readily than it would to an Indonesia soaked in the blood shed by a government that has abandoned 'reformasi'.

Dr Gerry van Klinken, Lecturer, School of Asian and International Studies, Griffith University, Brisbane

Australia, Indonesia and East Timor

Successive governments of Australia have sought to maintain positive engagement with Indonesia under the Soeharto regime and, since its fall in 1998, with its successor Habibie government. East Timor - conquered brutally by Indonesia in 1975 - has been an irritant in this relationship but Canberra has consistently sought to prevent the East Timor issue from dominating its relations with Jakarta. The Australian government was willing to negotiate with Indonesia over Timor Gap resources and to recognise Jakarta’s incorporation of East Timor as a province of Indonesia de jure.

When the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence from Jakarta, there was briefly a possibility that the complex East Timor-Indonesia-Australia nexus might be resolved positively. But the Indonesian side ensured that would not happen. As the pro-Indonesian militias and their Indonesian military patrons unleashed a reign of terror in East Timor, Australia had to accept two painful lessons: (1) The Indonesian military was no less brutal than in the past and was as immune to international criticism as ever. (2) Australia was powerless to prevent a terrible human rights tragedy in East Timor.

Australian public outrage has expressed itself in massive news coverage, direct involvement in humanitarian activities, public condemnation of Indonesia including the burning of Indonesia flags, and support for Australia playing a leading role in the UN peace-enforcement mission in East Timor.

Reaction in Indonesia has been what one would expect from a brutal military, a weak government and a populace with strong nationalist instincts born of a long history of colonial rule and external interference. Australia is seen as a partisan antagonist which aims to break up the country, the first step being the detachment of East Timor. Even though there are ‘rent-a-crowd’ elements involved, there is also genuine outrage at Australia’s apparent interference and presumption of moral superiority towards Indonesia. Tokyo and Washington have real influence in Jakarta but Canberra has little, even though it may have served the interests of both sides to pretend at times that they had a ‘special relationship’. So anti-Australian outbursts cost the regime little and may bring it domestic support.

For the foreseeable future, Australia will have a major role in supporting an independent East Timor. That nation will bear a legacy of hostility towards Indonesia, which will be reciprocated from Jakarta. Australia, as East Timor’s principal patron, is going to find it difficult to rebuild positive relations with Jakarta. More likely are relations which are formally correct but mutually untrusting. Some would say that, at least, would be a more truthful foundation for relations than the myth of a ‘special relationship’.

WATCHPOINT: Asian Analysis will continue to examine the sitution in Indonesia.


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