The Transition to Democracy in Indonesia: Australian Perspectives
"To think that we, for many years, lived along side a dictatorship and from Monday's election we'll be living alongside the world's third largest democracy is indeed very great progress from Australia's point of view. It gives us a much greater sense of security with Indonesia, a much greater sense of partnership with Indonesia. I'm glad that the Australian Government has made a very generous and solid contribution to helping the Indonesians with the elections."
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia
5 June, 1999
"Australians should feel more comfortable that our nearest northern neighbour is now in the family of democracies and no longer a dictatorship".
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia
8 June, 1999
Perhaps Australia's foreign minister thinks we are all amnesiacs?
By propping up the Suharto dictatorship for over three decades, both sides of Australian politics clearly demonstrated what they thought about the prospect of democracy in Indonesia. Suharto's iron grip and his repression of dissidents was always much appreciated in Canberra, hence the obsequious fawning that went with every ministerial visit to Jakarta. For the 'Jakarta lobby', security has always been equated with opposition to both political liberalisation and the right of self-determination for those captured by the Indonesian state. Their attitude to democracy is neatly summarized by the foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, who claims that in East Asia, "citizens are free to do anything they like except the things that are banned, chief among which is serious political opposition to government" (The Australian, 4 March, 1997). So what's the problem?
When former Prime Minister Paul Keating was asked why the 1995 Australia-Indonesia Security Agreement was secretly negotiated between Jakarta and Canberra, he was remarkably frank about his commitment to the democratic process: "if there had been a more public process, there probably wouldn't have been a treaty" (Australian Financial Review, 19 December, 1995). He was right, the Australian public were and remain completely opposed to treaties with dictatorships. Better, then, that the public remain spectators rather than participants in decision making.
Australia's foreign policy elite always sought to avoid raising uncomfortable issues with the government in Jakarta. When, for example, did an Australian Government ever take up the cause of any tapols (political prisoners) as, for example, they did in the case of Soviet dissidents during the Cold War? Answer? Never.
Former foreign affairs head and Australian Ambassador to Jakarta Richard Woolcott has never been convinced that democracy suits Asia, preferring what he calls "soft authoritarianism" as an antidote to the region's economic difficulties: "Westminster democracy is not the answer in East Asia at this time" (Australian Financial Review, 4 April, 1998 & 23 May, 1998). But as Prime Minister Keating's former policy adviser, Bill Bowtell, claims, "it is at best paternalistic, and at worst racist, for Australians to delude ourselves that the Indonesian people are not ready for democratic reforms" (Australian Financial Review, 25 May, 1998).
Informed political predictions are not Mr Woolcott's strong suit. Shortly before Suharto's fall from power in May 1998 he was claiming that in Indonesia "there will be no 'people power' movement, comparable to that in the Philippines in 1986". He went on to argue that "the challenge of Megawati Sukarnoputri has been overstated. She has no experience in Government and would be unacceptable to the main centres of political influence. While she is a focus of urban dissent, Ms Megawati has no chance of becoming President" (The Age, 16 January 1998).
Why did the Australian Government wait until June 1999 before it publicly described the Suharto and Habibie Governments as dictatorships? What were they so frightened of?
Perhaps if we really want to know what Mr Downer thinks of democracy in Indonesia we should look back at his comments during the 1997 elections when vote rigging, killings, and corruption elicited no concern whatsoever, only the phrase "well you know, it is a difficult place to run."
Australians will undoubtedly "feel more comfortable that our nearest northern neighbour is now in the family of democracies and no longer a dictatorship," but will their foreign policy elite?
Lecturer in International Relations
School of Australian and International Studies
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