June 2006



By Don Watson

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Back in the early ’90s I could find out about East Timor just by going shopping. The struggling supermarket across the road was run by an East Timorese man and his wife and teenage children. He had fought in the resistance to the invasion and remained a part of it in Melbourne. So long as the Indonesians were there, to go back would be to die. He was a cheerful character with a quick smile, but most times I saw him he told me how the people of East Timor were being terrorised; that they were being executed, tortured, starved; that a lot of people he knew had disappeared; that people who went into hospital in East Timor did not come out. Many of the things chronicled in the report of the East Timor Commission and related in Mark Aarons’ harrowing article in the April issue of The Monthly this man said to me in the supermarket aisles. It was genocide, he said.

This is how I knew. But one way or another, every Australian did. How much we knew depended not on whom we talked to, but how much we wanted to find out. All through the Indonesian occupation we knew. And knowing, we were happy to trade with Indonesia, go there as tourists, and without demur vote for governments – and in my case, work for governments – that wanted to be friends with the Suharto regime. Nothing we knew about East Timor persuaded us that we should take a less accommodating approach to Indonesia.

The man from East Timor knew I worked for Paul Keating, who was then the prime minister. He admired Keating more than he did any other politician in Australia, but he could not understand how such a smart man, and a man with his sympathies, could be so wrong about Suharto. Then again, Suharto was a smart man as well. Maybe too smart for Keating, he thought. It’s possible that he was right about this – or, if Suharto was not too smart, then too intransigent.

Either way, it’s irrelevant. The fact is that Suharto did not have to outsmart anyone. By the early ’90s, when this East Timorese man was running his supermarket, among the policymakers in Canberra no one who believed his sort of stories could recount them and expect to be heard. The policy was as the resurrection is to the Roman Catholic Church: the belief that pursuing close and friendly relations with Suharto was the only sensible way to pursue Australia’s interests was the first article of faith.

The second, following from the first, was that our relationship with Indonesia must not be made hostage to events in one of its minor provinces. Around this dogma layers of seemingly self-evident truth accumulated, and through them no countervailing thought or evidence could seep. A believer in the policy was like any other believer, including old communist believers. All evidence that could be denied was denied; all that could not be – corpses, for instance – was duly deplored, but as aberrant rather than typical of a vicious regime. And then there was the old maxim, the one about history’s often brutal course with which no wise person argues. The minds washed clean by historical inevitability are numberless.

The relationship was important because Indonesia was the most populous Muslim country in the world. It was a developing country offering numerous ‘complementarities of interests’. A successful relationship was a precondition of successful Australian engagement with Asia. Immeasurable economic and geopolitical benefits would come of advancing it, and none would come of retreat. In speeches, the ways we’d profit were recited like a catechism, and listeners left to reflect upon the costs of not living by the faith. But East Timor was as good as any other measure of the dictum: the more we talked to Suharto, the more trust and mutual dependence we established in Jakarta, the more the future of the two countries became entwined, the more chance to have some influence on the way the place was governed.

For people who said that ‘engagement’ really meant ‘appeasement’ there were several standard replies. Would they prefer a military invasion? Anyone for a Bay of Pigs? Would they make a case for sanctions? Or did they recommend no policy except moral suasion? Inertia plus outrage: to which Suharto would return his impassive stare, or leave the room, or read you his non-aligned nations speech on comparative national development, pointing out that there were no journalists and photographers making the case for human rights when the Western countries were colonising the world, including Indonesia, and slaughtering, exploiting and brutalising large numbers of its inhabitants. Indonesia did not lecture Australians on their treatment of Aborigines. Indonesia did not question the integrity of Australia’s borders. And so on. It was not beyond the right-wing general, the man most responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of leftists at the advent of the New Order, to outflank the Left on the left.

Besides, the people for engagement said, unless the East Timor lobby had evidence that Suharto had designs on Darwin or on other parts of South-East Asia, the charge of ‘appeasement’ was hyperbole, a convenient anachronism. Whatever else might be said about the Realpolitik of approving the occupation, East Timor was not granted to Indonesia as Poland and Czechoslovakia had been to Hitler, to stem his appetite for more. While all exercises in the realities of power that do not end in full-blown war or perfect peace may be, to a greater or lesser extent, morally deficient, they do not all constitute appeasement. On the contrary: in an imperfect world decent people frequently do best by minimising the number of victims and the extent of their pain.

Life under a murderous occupation – though the policy would never have countenanced such a term – might be better than life in a failed state, albeit one perennially dependent on Australian aid and Australian policing. What was more, in an imperfect world Suharto’s Indonesia was a lot better than its critics were willing to concede, or able to see from their lofty, Pilgeresque perches. It was not so hard to make a case for the Indonesian point of view: in 1975 they had acted as any nation might when a communist insurgency was mounted in a territory adjacent to their border, an erstwhile shamefully neglected colony of Portugal. If the hypocrisy of Portugal’s objections to its successors in East Timor did not, of itself, justify the Indonesian occupation, a sympathetic observer could see how it might have incited it.

Sympathetic understanding was the foundation of good policy. Where an unsympathetic observer saw Indonesia as closed and repressive, a sympathetic one saw that while it was not an open society, nor was it entirely closed or entirely repressive. True, from time to time, the TNI cracked a few heads in restive provinces. True, the local press was not what we might call free. And by Western standards the regime was corrupt – though the beneficiaries might say that nothing they were ripping from the national wealth could match the booty Europe had taken. With all its imperfections, this nation of 18,000 islands was home to 240 million people whose standards of health and education were improving and who were, for the most part, free to practise their various religions and live according to their various traditions. Indonesia was an advancing, relatively open, moderate Muslim nation. And above all, it was stable.

In this, another part of the argument lay. Paul Keating had always believed – and as prime minister publicly said – that Suharto’s control of Indonesia had been of incalculable benefit to Australia. To understand him one only has to think of what it would have meant had Indonesia remained unstable after Sukarno fell in 1966. And it was not just the economic opportunities and the military savings generated by the pro-investment, anti-communist Suharto: there was a psychological dividend. For the longer those 240 million Asians on Australia’s doorstep were kept in order by the general, the more peaceful became our sleep. We recoiled from the massacres of ‘communists’, but we found ourselves more relaxed when they were gone and we soon forgot the manner of their going.

Suharto gave us nothing less than the chance to shed our ancient fears of Asia. He was not the reason why we dropped the White Australia policy and began to take in Asian migrants, but he made it much easier to accept the change. It is more than a coincidence that the generation of Australians that took such pride in open immigration policies and declared pluralism, tolerance and diversity among the country’s defining characteristics corresponded to the rule of Suharto. And it is no mere coincidence that when Suharto fell and Indonesia began to register in Australian minds as it had in the old Sukarno days, as problematic and unreliable, the fear returned. We closed the borders, replaced the value of tolerance and diversity with chest-beating about Australian (and ‘Judaeo-Christian’) values, and before you could say ‘Australia for the White Man’ our leaders were proposing ‘citizenship tests’ for migrants.

That our era of openness should be so brief is hard enough for liberals to swallow. Harder still might be the idea that liberalism in Australia profited from despotism in Indonesia; that what we took for our own courage and optimism was really just the profit on Suharto’s ruthlessness; that at some deep level we were complicit. And isn’t this the rub: that countries only get that sort of courage when, every now and then, despite their dread and the attractions of sophistry, they practise it?

It was good policy, no doubt; but never less than cowardice as well. This is not to say Australians don’t deplore tyranny, but rather that we deplore it at our own convenience, and no more than the people of other countries and other times who, when it turned up on their doorsteps, notoriously turned their backs.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

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