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The 'prickly' relationship between Australia and Indonesia

Sydney Morning Herald - September 19, 1995

Max Lane It's surprising that any observer of Indonesian society and politics could accept the official line that Indonesia's approach to the resolution of issues is "consensual".

Indonesian politics during the three decades of the self-styled New Order has been characterised by the opposite of a consensual approach. It has been based on political exclusion and disenfranchisement of greater and greater sections of the population namely, all those who disagree with the Government's policies.

Yet the former Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott, on this page on September 11, explained the often "prickly" relationship between Australia and Indonesia as the result of "the different natures and cultures of our two societies. (Australia's) pursuit of issues is often confrontational. In Indonesia, such processes tend to be consensual".

The confrontationist style of the current regime is nowhere more evident than in East Timor where there is the persistent use of violence to suppress social discontent. There are a number of political organisations in East Timor which have popular support, including Fretilin, the Timorese Democratic Union, the Timorese Socialist Union, the 1.2. Group and others. Yet none can operate openly.

Indeed, there have been repeated statements by Indonesian officials, such as General Herman Mantiri and the Vice-President, General Try Sutrisno, that those who don't know their place should be put in it and shot if necessary. Outside of East Timor, the situation is the same: confrontation, not consensus.

Since January this year, there has been a series of demonstrations and rallies by new student, worker and political organisations calling for improvement in the below-survival wages being paid to factory workers and for the repeal of the 1985 laws restricting political life. These demonstrations have ranged from a few hundred outside parliament buildings to the July 18 textile workers' march to the Bogor regional parliament attended by more than 13,000 people. More and more people are confronting the Government to demand their rights.

And the Government in turn is not seeking to achieve a consensus with them, but rather to arrest them. Some of those involved in such activity have later been found dead. Many are in jail. Many have been tortured.

And these are but the latest attempts by the Soeharto Government to exclude sections of Indonesian society from Indonesia's political life. Here's the record: 1965-66: Members of the two largest political parties, the Indonesian Communist Party and the Indonesian National Party, and a range of associated trade unions, farmers' federations and women's organisations were massacred by the Indonesian military.

Estimates of the number killed range from 500,000 to 2 million. Another 15,000 were jailed for 14 years each. More than 20 political organisations, including trade unions, cultural organisations and farmers' federations, were banned, along with a number of political parties, including the biggest, the Indonesian Communist Party, which was a legal party, operating openly. The total membership of the banned and purged organisations was at least 10 million.

1972-78: The nine political parties still allowed to operate were forcibly merged into two. Many political leaders were forced out of politics and new mechanisms were set in place to allow the Government to intervene in the internal affairs of the two parties.

In 1974, when university students on the major campuses protested at these and other policies, hundreds were jailed for a year or more. Only three were ever charged and tried.

Several newspapers sympathetic to the students' criticism of anti-small business policies, corruption and lack of democracy were also closed down. In 1978, the Government went further and abolished all student councils in all universities. The Minister of Education and Culture said students had no legitimate opinions to express.

1980-1990: In 1981, President Soeharto accused his critics of being opponents of the State and its ideology. In response, a group of about 50 former cabinet ministers, prime ministers, provincial governors, retired military officers and intellectuals issued a petition claiming that the President was becoming too authoritarian. All newspapers were banned from reporting the statements and the activities of these people throughout this decade. A range of other social and political critics were also included in the ban.

New laws were introduced in 1985 to consolidate these restrictions on political life. The measures included bans on new political parties and on activities by political parties in small towns and villages and a law that all social, cultural and political organisations be based on the same ideology. Such laws were possible because all members of parliament must be vetted by the security apparatus before they can stand for election.

But on one point Richard Woolcott is correct: Indonesia is a very diverse society. This is especially true of its political traditions. The full spectrum, from far right to far left, has always existed in Indonesia and still exists today.

By excluding virtually every political current, except the military and its cronies, from the political process, the Suharto Government is helping produce a new consensus. More and more Indonesians are coming to the conclusion that political action in defiance of the Government is the only way to achieve a more open society.

This year has seen an amazing expansion of political campaign groups; the Indonesian Centre for Labour Struggles, National Students in Solidarity with Democracy, People's Democratic Union, Surakarta People's Union, National Peasants' Union, People's Democratic Alliance, Alliance of Independent Journalists and many, many more. This expansion is taking place even though leaders and members of these groups are being jailed, beaten or tortured.

I have no doubt that Richard Woolcott is scornful of the increase in protest activity in Indonesia. Certainly his article offers no hint that open confrontation with the Government is on the increase. He is certainly scornful of political action by Australians in opposition to Australian Government policy, attempting to dismiss it with references to "staged demonstrations".

He is obviously out of touch with public sentiment, ignorant of the thousands upon thousands of people who have signed petitions and are still signing petitions calling on Indonesia to get out of East Timor and for Australia to sever links with the Indonesian military. But then his notion of democracy in general is pretty insipid: "Australia is a full democracy in which the rights of the individual to dissent are a paramount."

And his exasperation with dissent of the East Timorese who have fled military rule to Australia even undermines this insipid definition. The right to dissent is not the essential feature of a "full democracy" but the right of the majority of the people to have a government which will carry out the policy they want. This is clearly not happening as regards Australian policy on East Timor and Indonesia.

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