INDONESIA IS “A GOOD NEIGHBOUR & VERY BAD NEIGHBOUR” 16 August, in Sydney, I attended a public lecture organised by UNIYA, a Jesuit think tank. The topic was: Good Neighbour, Bad Neighbour – What’s the difference? Australia’s relations with Indonesia.
The speakers were:
A. Sidney Jones, Director of the South East Asia Project at the International Crisis Group, Jakarta,
B. Prof Peter King, Founding President, later Director, of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Sydney University and
C. Prof Frank Brennan, Professor of Law in the Institute of Legal Studies at the Australian Catholic University; former Director, Jesuit Refugee Service in East Timor.

The venue was the Eugene Goossens Hall, at the ABC Centre. Between 80-100 people attended in the quite large hall. I only recognised a few of those present. I think the bulk of those there come from the active Catholic constituency, with a sprinkling of university people and activists.

The speeches and discussion were disappointingly narrow, with the subject of the relations between the two countries (peoples, societies, governments??) being viewed very myopically.

The issues which loomed large for the speakers were those that had also won some profile in the Australian media – namely the political situation in Papua and the recent suicide bomb attacks in Bali and Jakarta. Of course, any public discussion on Australia-Indonesia relations cannot avoid dealing with issues that have already won significant attention within the Australian public. Any discussion of Australian Indonesian relations, which ignored the politics of self-determination in Papua or the issue of Islamic radicalism, would be fundamentally deficient. However, a discussion of Australian Indonesian relations which allows itself to be defined by these issues is also fundamentally flawed.

First World Third World relations – imperialism

During the discussion, one of the members of the audience asked a question – I forget what exactly – drawing the speakers attention to the fact that, unlike the United States, Australia has a Moslem neighbour and that Australian government policies towards the Moslem world therefore may have more immediate responses for Australia than for the US.

There is, however, a more fundamental feature to the nature of the geographical neighbour relationship. Australia is a rich industrialised country, a member of the imperial section of the world, that section of the world whose wealth and prosperity was built upon the 300-500 years of colonial domination of the other part of the world since the 16th and 17th centuries. This is not just reflected in Australia’s general prosperity (although this is very unevenly distributed) and its levels of industrialisation, education, scientific and technological development, but also its active role as a political ally of the major powers in this industrialised block, such as the United States and Great Britain. Australian governments, whether Liberal-National or ALP, have supported the general line of US foreign policy and also supported the of international economic policy pushed by the United States, through such institutions as the International Monetary Fund.

Indonesia, on the other hand, is part of that section of the world that suffered the fate of colonial exploitation. Since the 16th century the economic and political life of the Malay archipelago was increasingly dominated by European colonialism, whose main aim was the extraction and export back to Europe of the maximum wealth for the smallest expense. This was done through the power of the cannon, eventually through direct political administration, and at the expense of any meaningful industrial or educational development of the societies of the archipelago. It was the rise of an anti-colonial movement that brought ideas of enlightenment and liberation, in spite of the best efforts of the colonial administration and armies. At the time of independence in 1945, Indonesia had almost no industry, not a single proper university and with only 10% of its youth with any access to state schooling, in some parts of the archipelago, such as Java, it was less than 10%. What modern economic enterprises it did have (plantations, mines, transportation) were owned by former Dutch or British colonialists. It started life also with a huge foreign debt to Holland.

Like some other former colonies, there arose a political movement to try and complete the process of national liberation in the economic sphere, to achieve sovereignty in this area also. This movement was defeated in 1965 when a section of the Army, led by Suharto, seized power. It smashed the movement for national liberation, including systematically murdering probably around one million people, banned all political organizations associated with that movement (including the largest political party, the Indonesian Communist Party). 33 years of dictatorship followed, during which the Indonesian economy was integrated into the world economy under conditions set by the governments of the advanced industrial countries, through the mechanism of the Intergovernmental Group on Indonesia (IGGI), which later changed its name to the Consultative Group on Indonesia (CGI). The IGGI/CGI met annually, with the World Bank present, to assess the performance of the Indonesian government in the economic field and to determine to what extent these governments and the World Bank would continue to grant loans (i.e. extend Indonesia’s debt).

Sixty years after independence, most of the 240 million Indonesians, still live on a dollar a day or much less. Health and educational levels remain abysmally low and far behind that available in the rich world. Foreign debt, a product of the semicolonial economic system, is huge and is used by the industrialised world as a means to maintain control over the Indonesian government. There is still no significant industrialisation with only one steel plant for a country of 240 million. The influence of the international financial institutions in determining economic strategy is now greater than ever.

While under the current political and economic system, and with current economic strategies, the Indonesian people will NEVER get out of this post-colonial poverty hole, debt trap and neo-colonial domination. During the last decade within Indonesia, at one or other level of consciousness, there is a spreading awareness that the country, society, people and nation are locked into ETERNAL poverty and humiliation. This situation has been exacerbated in recent times with the tighter policy domination of the international financial institutions. (see Everlasting Woes, The IMF Burden INSIDE INDONESIA)

It is these facts which set the most fundamental and determinant parameters for all relationships between Australia and Indonesia – whether government to government, people to people, group to group, whatever. Indonesia and the Indonesian people are part of the neo-colonised part of the world. Indonesia’s rich neighbour, Australia, is part of the colonising, the imperial bloc. No aspect of the relationship can escape this more general, global relationship.

Even at the level of the more mundane aspect of the relationship such as the existence of a big Australian tourist presence in Bali, a province of Indonesia, this First World-Third World imperial-colonial relationship is the basis of everything else that follows. Bali can only attract large numbers of Australian tourists because hotel based holidays can be sold to Australian workers at prices that they can afford. This is only possible because wages in the hospitality industry in Indonesia are also miserable.

But, of course, it is not this more mundane aspect which constitutes the substantial political substance of the relationship. The Australian government, backed by Australian business and business groups, actively supports the current economic strategy being imposed through the CGI, and more recently through a series of agreements between the Indonesian government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Totally absent

Any discussion of this fundamental aspect of the relationship between the two countries was totally absent from the presentations of all three speakers. There was no discussion of the Australian government’s role in imposing a particular, and destructive, economic strategy on the Indonesian people. No discussion of the Australian government’s role in the IMF or World Bank. No discussion of AUSAID’s role in implementing projects to help ensure the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies within the Indonesian government. No discussion of the Australian government’s special funding of the “Indonesia Project” at the Australian National University, a project, masquerading as an academic initiative, that educates young Indonesian economists in the most extreme form of neo-liberal economic ideology. … etc etc

The absence of any discussion of the neo-colonial issue also makes it impossible to make sense of many of the political developments across the archipelago. Among others, this also applies to any analysis of the emergence of the new socio-political phenomenon of suicide bombs. In the past, i.e. before 1965, the struggle to end the humiliation of neo-colonial status was formulated in national terms. Soekarno, the most popular spokesperson for the opposition to neo-colonialism, formulated the fight against this humiliation in terms of refusing to remain “a nation of coolies, and a coolie among nations”.

The suppression of national liberation ideology, the main form of which was Soekarnoism, by the Soeharto dictatorship, supported by Australia and other western governments, has, for the time being, sidelined this way of seeing the issue of neo-colonialism. In the ideological vacuum that was created, there has been increased space for the humiliation of being a neo-colony to be perceived not in terms of a “nation of coolies or coolie among nations” but of being part of a humiliated and dominated religious community. “Bangsa kuli” (nation of coolies) is replaced by “ummat yang dihinakan” (a humiliated religious community). US, British and Australian foreign policy towards Palestine especially but also towards Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Afgahnistan, which is based upon, among things, the assumption that these Western governments can intervene as if it is their right to do so and that the peoples of the middle east have no sovereign rights, is one factor that naturally strengthens any sense of humiliation for people who identify with the peoples of the middle east on religious grounds. In those sectors of Indonesian society which already look to religious leaders, it is not surprising at all that one of the responses – one of many different responses – has been the emergence of a stream of political Islam that identifies with Islamic radicalism in the middle east or Afghanistan.

At that same time, an absence of focus on the neo-colonial issue also means that there is no search for what other critiques of neo-colonialism, of the Western relationship with Indonesia, that are emerging in Indonesia. The work of progressive political groups, critical academics, new nationalist groupings of economists, radical cultural activists, anti-globalisation think tanks was missed in all of the talks. Yet all these groups, insofar as their work is focussed on the Indonesia-“West” relationship, is of crucial and fundamental relevance to the Indonesia-Australia relationship. For people in Australia with a concern that the relationship develops on the basis of equality between peoples, it is precisely with these groups and around these critiques that we need closer relationships and communications.

Equality and democracy

The Western governments (and Japan), including Australian governments, have a long record of not seeing countries such as Indonesia as having equality with other states. A manifestation of this has been the constant intervention by the US, Britain and Australia in internal political struggle in Indonesia on the side of the most conservative of the political forces. When in the late 1950s ultra-rightist colonels in different parts of the country broke away from the national government and combined to form the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Indonesia (PRRI), they were supported by money and arms by the United States and Australia. The USA, Australia and Great Britain actively supported the takeover of power by General Suharto in 1965-66. Australia led the international campaign to defend the image of the Suharto dictatorship for 30 years, including the consistent, almost rabid, defence of the Suharto dictatorship’s brutal military occupation of East Timor, 1975-1999.

In more recent times, the Australian government has agitated for the Indonesian government to introduce retrospectivity in its anti-terror laws, complained that Abu Bakir Bashir was given a short sentence when, as it knows, the case against him would never have even come to court in Australia (as Sydney Jones pointed out), urged censorship of curriculum in private schools, and refused to speak out against the death penalty. It has revived the idea of cooperation with military special forces. It has sent signals that the Indonesian government should continue with what amounts to a major curtailment of free speech in the form of repression of any expression of support for independence in Papua. Australian government spokespersons have argued that “boat people” from West Papua attempting to come to Australia to make political statements will not be allowed to land (although this policy appears to have been thwarted by a parliamentary majority opposing this policy).

This virtually cavalier approach to the democratic rights of the people of the archipelago and of the Indonesian nation over several decades is another reflection of the neo-colonial relationship.

The only effective response to this by people in Australia who wish to see the countries develop on a basis of equality and mutual respect is to develop deeper and more extensive relationships with all those individuals and groups to our north who are also developing critiques of neo-colonialism, as a part of their general perspective of achieving a genuine democracy and social justice in their own country. Within this framework, people in Australia will indeed to develop an analysis and make conclusions about what can be done, in relation to issues such as radical or fundamentalist critiques of the Australian or US policy or in relation to the Papuan peoples aspirations to determine their future. But these will be two of many other issues standing upon a kind of foundation question: what is way for all of the 240 million people of Indonesia to escape the neo-colonial fate of eternal social and economic underdevelopment, of social and economic misery, and of the humiliation of the loss of sovereignty?

Any kind of neighbourliness which is not based upon active solidarity in the struggle against this neo-colonialism will indeed make a bad neighbour of Australia and Australians.


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