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NAPSNet Special Report

Recommended Citation

Harold Crouch, "DON’T RUSH TO WRITE OFF OUR INDONESIAN LINKS", NAPSNet Special Reports, September 15, 1999,

September 15, 1999

This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles on the crisis in East 
Timor.  This article is by Dr. Harold Crouch, senior fellow in the 
Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National 
University and author of "The Army and Politics in Indonesia," (Cornell 
University Press, 1988).  This article appeared in the Sydney Morning 
Herald on Tuesday, September 14. 

A guide to all NAPSNet East Timor Special Reports is available online at:


Sydney Morning Herald Tuesday, September 14, 1999


Harold Crouch

The Indonesian people, too, resent what the military is doing in their 
name in East Timor.

Australia's inability to prevent the devastation by the Indonesian 
military in East Timor following the referendum result has led to fierce 
condemnation of Australia's softly-softly approach to Indonesia during 
recent decades.

The critics claim Australia's relationship with Indonesia is at its 
lowest point in decades, and a former foreign minister, Bill Hayden, has 
even said: "I don't think the relationship can ever be the same for this 
generation and probably longer."

The view that a different Australian policy in the past could have 
averted the present disaster is, however, based on totally unrealistic 
expectations about Australian influence in Indonesia.

The softly-softly approach was not designed to give Australia a voice in 
what the Indonesian Government - and especially its military - considers 
to be Indonesia's internal affairs, but to minimise the likelihood of 
direct confrontation between the two countries.

One of the successes of Australian foreign policy for several decades has 
been the virtual elimination of the Indonesian "threat."  That Australia 
has been able to get away with such a low level of defence preparedness 
is one indication of this.  One consequence, of course, is our inability 
to intervene militarily in East Timor, but I do not recall present 
critics demanding the trebling or quadrupling of defence spending to give 
us such a capability.

Similarly, critics claim Australia's support for the "fatally flawed" 
referendum in East Timor contributed to the present situation.  But I 
don't recall their voices in August demanding the referendum be cancelled 
while Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos Horta were calling for it to go ahead.

Anti-Indonesian feeling is rising in Australia, as seen by attempted 
disruption of Garuda flights, the burning of the Indonesian flag, demands 
for trade boycotts and so on.  While understandable, such actions miss 
the target, which should be the Indonesian military, not Indonesia as a 
whole.  Flag-burning offends all Indonesians, including the passionate 
critics of the Indonesian military.

Many Australians seem to be shutting their eyes to the extraordinary 
political changes in Indonesia in the past 16 months.  Indonesia is no 
longer ruled by a repressive military-based regime but is moving, if 
fitfully, in a democratic direction.

One of the results of this political change is the lifting of constraints 
on public debate.  While the Indonesian military has been trying to give 
the impression its intervention in East Timor is to stop a "brutal civil 
war", the free press shows the military and police are backing the pro-
integration militias responsible for the killing and arson.

As the full extent of the atrocities are revealed to the Indonesian 
public in the next few weeks, it is likely that anti-military sentiment 
will be strengthened.

Meanwhile, debate in the Indonesian Parliament last week on a new 
emergency law showed once again widespread public distrust of, and 
antagonism towards, the military, which is suspected of trying to find a 
way to restore its old powers.

General Wiranto's success last week in obtaining President Habibie's 
endorsement of martial law in East Timor was interpreted in some quarters 
as indicating that the military runs the Indonesian Government.  But 
Sunday's decision to accept UN peacekeepers runs counter to that 

During the past 16 months the military has been hugely discredited in the 
eyes of the Indonesian public and forced to carry out significant 
reforms.  Serving military officers can no longer be appointed to 
civilian positions in the Government, the police have been separated from 
the armed forces and the military refrained from interfering in the 
recent general election.  The military, however, is still a significant 
political force and is represented in the Parliament and the People's 
Consultative Assembly, which will elect the president and determine the 
future of East Timor.

Most crucially, President B.J.Habibie has not been able to assert his 
authority over internal military operations in East Timor or other 
troubled provinces like Aceh, Irian Jaya and Ambon.

But the military is still far short of controlling the Government.  It is 
doubtful that the military today has the capacity to carry out a coup, 
even against the increasingly discredited Habibie Government.

Such an action would be met by massive opposition in the streets of 
Jakarta and other cities.  This would make government unworkable and put 
an end to any hope of economic recovery.

The future depends a great deal on the presidential election in November.  
Even without East Timor, Habibie's prospects seem to have been fatally 
wounded by the scandal involving Bank Bali.

It is likely that his own party, Golkar, will drop him as its candidate 
and it is possible the party's anti-Habibie wing will support Megawati 
Sukarnoputri, thereby reducing her dependence on military votes.

Prediction is risky in Indonesian politics, but we should not dismiss the 
possibility that the new government will reflect the anti-military 
sentiment that is so widespread in Indonesian society.  This, of course, 
provides no immediate relief for the people of East Timor, but it surely 
needs to be taken into account by those who seem to be writing off 
Indonesia for the next generation.

Anti-Australian sentiment has been growing in Indonesia partly because 
too many Australians are expressing anti-Indonesian attitudes, when the 
target should be the military that inspired and supported the atrocities 
in East Timor.

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