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Australia, Indonesia and East Timor (2)

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14 October 2009 14:10

If Australia seeks to prosecute members of the Indonesian military command for murdering Australians in East Timor, how dangerous will that effort be for the relationship with Jakarta?

Stephen Grenville worries that any AFP inquiry into the Balibo Five 'will surely seriously damage the important relationship built up between the Australian and Indonesian police.' I'd suggest this is too simple a transfer of some of the assumptions underlying the old 'important relationship' with the Indonesian army to the newly important relationship with the Indonesian police. 

To show my cynical realist colours, consider that the Indonesian police might be quite happy to cooperate in an effort to deal with a clear-cut case of murder (see part one of this series for details) that also involved taking a slice out of the old foe that lorded over them for so long, the military. The old 'dual function' ideology meant the military could tramp all over the police force, which was a subservient part of the same security apparatus. In the new Indonesia, the police are a separate institution from the Army.

Australia once held its nose and embraced the Indonesian military as the one institution that could deliver stability. The bargain delivered order without much law. Now Australia seeks to help Indonesia's police and courts as instruments of law. They are certainly troubled and troubling instruments, but are doing some of the work expected of such institutions in a democracy. Australia just might be entitled to expect some help from such institutions in prosecuting a murder.

Another way to define the difference between then and now would be to say that Paul Keating's 1995 security treaty was a deal done with Suharto and a few of the generals in the presidential palace. By contrast, the Lombok Treaty reaches out to a series of power centres in the new Indonesia, not least law enforcement and legal processes. The Keating-Suharto treaty was a deal between two people. The Lombok Treaty has a better chance to be an agreement between two peoples.

To bring this back to realist turf, consider the AFP investigation as an expression of power. The realist creed is that of Thucydides: the strong do what they will, the weak bear what they must. Lee Kuan Yew argued in the 1980s that the US was strong enough to demand respect for its journalists and the US was rich enough to publish and tell others to be damned. Australian journalists, LKY opined, did not come from such a rich country and would have to be more cautious in dealing with Suharto.

Twenty years on, perhaps we can be a bit more confident in our power and purpose. Australia is strong enough to demand justice from Indonesia for murdered Australians — now that is the mark of a country with heft.

Realists pride themselves on being able to judge levels of relative power. Occasionally in our history, though, that ability seems to desert the pragmatists in thinking about Indonesia. We sometimes undervalue Australia's strengths and overstate the cohesion of the Indonesian system. The unnecessary fear of Indonesia that is common in much Australian popular opinion is echoed by a certain timidity in our leaders and bureaucrats. Surveys of public opinion reveal an unfounded fear of Indonesia as a possible military threat, while elite opinion fears offending Indonesia or damaging Australia's interests.

History tells some different stories about Australia's ability to be both adroit and robust in its dealings with Indonesia. Australia has twice stepped along the edge of a shooting war with Indonesia — during the Confrontation and in East Timor in 1999 — but never suffered a formal breach in diplomatic relations. Underline that point: Australia over the decades has shown considerable prowess and some power in its diplomacy with Indonesia.

Seeking justice for murdered Australians might produce some diplomatic problems. But that is familiar territory. The question for Australia is not about damaging the relationship. It is about whether to have that conversation with today's Indonesia about a past tragedy. The final column in this series, then, will be about how the justice imperative would impact on  the three-way dynamic between Australia, Indonesia, and East Timor.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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