"Issues" Feature, The West Australian, 21 Feb 2000

by Brian Toohey

One of the ways President Obdurrahman Wahid has helped consolidate power in Indonesia is to tell a joke about the deposed Indonesian dictator, Mr Suharto.

The joke goes something like this: A few years ago while taking the night air during a visit to New York, Mr Suharto asked a local prostitute how much her services cost. Told $400, he promptly offered $50 only to be spat on by the offended hooker.

The next morning, he was having breakfast with his widely despised wife at a pavement café when the prostitute came along. She stopped, pointed derisively at the first lady, and shouted: "There, see what you get for $50".

The Australian Financial Review's Jakarta correspondent, Tim Dodd, says the President has used the story to appeal to the deep-seated anti-Suharto feeling in Indonesia as part of his successful campaign to sack former armed forces chief Mr Wiranto.

Although he had been Mr Suharto's trusted appointee as head of the Indonesian military, Mr Wiranto gained an influential position in Mr Wahid's cabinet late last year despite presiding over the destruction unleashed in East Timor.

Earlier this year, Mr Wahid apparently came to believe Mr Wiranto had a continuing role in Mr Suharto's "dark forces" which are trying to destabilise his struggling democratic government. Last week, Mr Wahid finally used a damning Human Rights Commission report on Mr Wiranto's complicity in the violence in East Timor to force his dismissal.

Although Mr Wiranto no longer holds official office in Jakarta, Australian policymakers who thought he was on the side of the angels still hold their jobs in Canberra. They do so without showing the slightest hint of understanding what an appalling mistake they made in backing the military strongman. Instead, they show every sign of believing they are the worthy recipients of the praise bestowed on Australia by United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, during his visit.

Mr Annan is correct to thank Australia for the contribution our troops have made in East Timor. He is also right to acknowledge the part played by Prime Minister John Howard in mobilising international support for UN intervention to stop the bloodbath which followed East Timor's August 30 independence ballot.

But it is worth recalling that the commitment of Australian troops required Mr Howard to overturn the basic thrust of the policy which had been urged on him by the top echelons of the Foreign Affairs and Defence departments.

Essentially, these policymakers pined for what many still regard as the glory days when prime minister Paul Keating fawned all over Mr Suharto.

One key premise of the policy was that Australia gained from having a strongman like Mr Suharto to keep the Indonesian and East Timorese people under his thumb. As a result, Australia provided a repressive régime with an extraordinary level of military and intelligence assistance.

Defence Minister John Moore recently revealed that Indonesia had been supplied with sensitive defence science information under a program initiated under Mr Keating.

With Mr Wiranto in charge, policymakers regarded it as entirely acceptable to provide combat training for the brutal special forces units, Kopassus.

Australia's generosity did little to moderate Mr Wiranto's behaviour. He allowed Kopassus to spearhead the campaign of terror and revenge which has left East Timor in ruins. Bizarrely, he also suggested in a recent interview that Australian forces had supplied arms to Falintil independence supporters before the ballot.

The claim makes as much sense as the widespread reports in the Indonesian media that Australian troops tortured and burnt the bodies of militia members.

Australian troops serving with the peace force have acted with great restraint.

Although disgusted by the evidence of rape, torture and murder committed by Kopassus, the Australian troops have helped restore order without taking advantage of many opportunities for retaliation.

During the past week, ABC and SBS television have provided well-documented reminders of the policy failures which preceded the carnage in East Timor.

The ABC's Four Corners noted that the head of the Foreign Affairs Department, Ashton Calvert, in February last year vigorously rejected calls from a senior United States State Department official, Stanley Roth, for peacekeeping troops to be deployed before the August 30 ballot.

The thrust of Mr Calvert's position was that Indonesia could be trusted to behave. [Dr] Calvert, who had earlier served as an adviser to Mr Keating, even described Mr Wiranto as less of a problem than the Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas.

Four Corners provided new information on the suicide of an Australian intelligence official, Merv Jenkins, in Washington last year.

Despite denials by Foreign Affairs, one of the most plausible explanations for Mr Jenkins's distress is that he had been punished for refusing to cut back on the flow of crucial intelligence to the US which undermined the Australian policy of trusting Mr Wiranto.

The SBS dateline program made a strong case that the militia violence was funded by several Indonesian government departments as well as by World Bank aid money diverted from helping the poor to killing them. The program, based on interviews with militia defectors and documents which escaped destruction in Dili, noted that many of the officials who funded the militia still hold senior posts.

In these circumstances, it would still seem premature to accept that the same officials are really committed to helping Mr Wahid build a tolerant and democratic society. His credentials are still to be fully demonstrated. He is yet to show that those who committed crimes against humanity will be punished.

Until that happens, Mr Howard is well justified in not being nearly as enthusiastic as most of his official advisers to recapture the ardour of the Suharto-Keating era.

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See also http://members.iinet.net.au/~jenks/dfattim.html