Australians Can Again Be Our Best Mates

Australian Financial Review
17 January 2004
By Wimar Witoelar

When I was growing up in Jakarta in the 1960s and 1970s, the West was America. It was the hero of democracy for many and an awesome superpower for all. Australia was perceived as the nice guy, friendly and relaxed and not quite part of the high pressure of international power politics.

The picture shifted in the 1990s. The Australian consciousness of its Asian context in the early 1990s improved Indonesia's perception of its southern neighbour.

In his book, Engagement - Australia Faces the Asia-Pacific, former prime minister Paul Keating summarised the changing view of Asia: "The people of Australia, this vast continent on the edge of the Asian landmass, are slowly coming to terms with the implications of their place in the world ..."

Until the mid-1990s we did not feel there was an alternative to Soeharto. Hence the Australian government's efforts to engage with Indonesia were not seen as an endorsement of the regime - they were seen as a signal of encouragement to the Indonesian people. Unfortunately, when Soeharto was toppled in 1998 and Indonesia's reform movement tried hard to gain momentum the East Timor tragedy came. Many Australians fixed the blame on all of Indonesia although it was a work of the hardline Indonesian armed forces, the TNI, that we were opposing very strongly. This created the impression that the Indonesian reform movement was not regarded as significant by Australia. On the whole, it seemed that Australia did not take seriously the New Indonesia which was being created.

Relations between Indonesia and the West were severely weakened when our domestic concerns for human rights and anti-corruption reform, and Western support of these issues, were blown away on September 11, 2001. Overnight, the US lost its democratic focus and the richness of US society was eclipsed by the simplistic focus of the Bush government. In the book, Fixed Ideas, Joan Didion describes how, since September 11, there has been a determined effort by George Bush to promote an imperial America, reversing the previous decades-long intention to avoid the role as policeman of the world. The impression of a politically rich country has been replaced by an America decoupled between the government and the fine minds of its citizens. Bush has undermined world confidence in the US by his unilateralism, which has generated more enemies than solutions.

The distancing of the US and Australia from Indonesian society is extremely tragic. In The Bubble of American Supremacy, George Soros wrote: "It is generally agreed that September 11, 2001, changed the course of history. But we must ask ourselves why that should be so. How could a single event, even one involving 3000 civilian casualties, have such a far-reaching effect? The answer lies not so much in the event as in the way the US, under the leadership of President George Bush, responded to it ..."

The West which used to teach us human rights now put these lessons on the shelf.

By pulling itself closer to the Bush government, Australia lost its image of being a brave nation uniquely positioned in Asia.

Australians are still welcome and those who come to Indonesia blend with the local scene much better than most foreigners. But in the news, Australia became a Little America. Australia now is much less comfortable with Indonesia. We are portrayed as a security risk rather than a people seeking help in rebuilding our nation. To complete the misfortune, Indonesia's reform movement got derailed and we now are in danger of losing the reform momentum of 1997.

Now China is trying to be Indonesia's best friend. This giant nation, which used to be remote, is developing an affinity with Indonesia and the rest of Asia. The New York Times recently pointed out that China has wasted little time in capitalising on the US preoccupation with the campaign against terrorism to greatly expand its influence in Asia. The primary concern of the US is the presence of Islamic militants. China's main interest is in the economic sector. This is fine but ironic when the majority of the people still want to regard the West as the partner for business and technological progress.

So how would we like Australia to behave in its relations with Indonesia? As a practical person, I would not look too far for the answer, because it is already there in the Australian people: Just be more, well, Australian. As long as both Indonesia and Australia put their own people above superpower interests, bilateral problems are manageable.

Let Australia teach us about civil society, which is a living strength and the major pillar of the Australian nation, and let us deal with security problems without resurrecting military alliances which protect Indonesian public enemies.

We bear no grudge with past adversaries. The Dutch are our favourite soccer power, Japan is our major economic partner and Australians can again be our best mates.

From our vantage point in Indonesia, we understand there has been a bit of realignment in postures and mindsets since John Howard took over as prime minister. Unfortunately, most Australian opinion presented in the media seems to drift even further from ours, even from those of our enlightened public.

One example is the use of the word Islamism in the same breath as terrorism, and to see Indonesia as partly in the Islamism camp in the form of Jemaah Islamiyah. The word Islamism in these instances is used to represent radical terrorism. It is discouraging for moderate Muslims in Indonesia who are seeking support to have the saving rod of understanding taken away as they are resisting the pull of the quicksand of negativism towards the West.

It has become amusing but tragic to see Jemaah Islamiyah mentioned as a major political force when it is nothing but a security threat, admittedly a very serious one.

The mainstream Indonesian is not sympathetic to Jemaah Islamiyah. We have strong religious minorities who are not small in numbers and even larger in influence. There are about 20million Christians in Indonesia, which is more than the number of Muslims in Malaysia and more or less equal to the number of people in Australia. Jemaah Islamiyah, while powerful, is identifiable by a couple of dozen names, shadowy figures who are running around in the dark.

To look at radical Islamism as a reason to repudiate Australia's enlightened Asian policy of the recent past would be regrettable because Indonesia and Australia are better off as partners at the moderate centre of the East-West dichotomy. We need Australia to be at that centre rather than in the right wing of the American global structure. To have Australia drift politically across the Pacific is sad.

It has also been traumatic to see the US lose so much of its attractiveness and to lose that great country as a friend. And now we are losing Australia. It is a bad time to lose our two friends in the West. We just hope it is temporary.

The public perception is that Australia still could be a partner of Asia, but only when its leash is loosened by Washington.

Wimar Witoelar is an Indonesian columnist, a television talk show host and an adjunct professor of Deakin University.

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  1. From josie thompson on 07 February 2006 18:54:55 WIB
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