Anxious Australia watches northern neighbour unravel

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AUSTRALIA has been shaken by the crisis in Indonesia, its nearest northern neighbour. Once feared as a possible invader, Indonesia has more recently become Australia's closest defence partner in Asia. Now, the apparent death throes of the Suharto regime have reawakened old anxieties about turbulence on its doorstep.

Governments in Canberra have spent the best part of a decade forming close ties with President Suharto's regime, culminating in a security treaty that the two countries signed in late 1995. Indonesia is Australia's second biggest export market in South-East Asia. When Indonesia's economy started collapsing last year, Australia contributed A$1bn towards an International Monetary Fund rescue package.

The deaths of students and the rioting have sent shudders through Canberra, provoking deep concern, particularly about the role of the military if President Suharto is forced out.

General John Baker, chief of Australia's defence forces, said on Thursday that the outcome of the Indonesian crisis was more significant to Australia's strategic interests than the Vietnam war. John Howard, the Prime Minister, said he was "deeply disturbed" by the riots and called on the Indonesian security forces to show restraint.

Australia's anxiety reflects its attempt over the past 30 years to come to grips with its position as a democratic country of 18 million living next door to the world's fourth most populous country and biggest Islamic state. In their bid to dispel fears of "invasion from the north", Canberra's policy-makers have gone out of their way to turn a country once seen as an enemy into a favoured friend. In doing so, Australia has attracted scorn over its willingness to turn a blind eye to Indonesia's human rights abuses in East Timor.

If the riots spin further out of control, and more anti-Suharto demonstrators are shot dead, Australia's stand will be put to the gravest test. Critics have called on Mr Howard's government to accept that Indonesia is in the throes of political change and to encourage the emergence of democracy.

Marcus Einfeld, a judge and former president of Australia's human rights commission, said on Thursday: "When democracy does come... what will [Indonesians and East Timorese] think of Australia which ... stood by in silence for over 20 years as the poor grew poorer and thousands of East Timorese were murdered, raped and oppressed?"