Australia tries to look the other way

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The Independent Online
Indonesia's crackdown on political dissidents has exposed flaws in Australia's attempt to appease its closest neighbour. Australia's response to the crisis in Jakarta, where soldiers have been ordered to shoot rioters on sight, has been one of the weakest of any Western country.

While the United States has called on Indonesia to protect democratic rights, Alexander Downer, Australia's Foreign Minister, said only that he was "concerned" about the unrest and hoped it would "settle down very quickly".

He refused to criticise the military regime's use of force to attack the Jakarta headquarters of the Indonesian Democratic Party. "Well, we don't conduct our affairs in Australia in the same way," he said.

Policy-makers in Canberra are anxiously watching events unfold in Jakarta, knowing that Australia risks being embarrassed over its failure to condemn the Suharto government's violation of human rights, while being quick to speak up over abuses in countries that are further away, such as Burma.

Australia's contorted policy reflects its problems in trying to balancing its strategic interests as a democratic country of 18 million people, most of European descent, living next door to the world's fifth-most populous country and the most populous Islamic state. In an attempt to dispel traditional Australian fears of an "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 friend. Indonesia is now Australia's twelfth-largest trading partner and its second-biggest market in South-East Asia.

The previous Labour government of Paul Keating made Indonesia of primary importance, as it focussed Australia's foreign relations towards Asia. Protests in Australia over human rights abuses in East Timor, the former Portuguese colony that Indonesia has occupied since 1975, were brushed aside. In its last months in office Mr Keating's government concluded a controversial security treaty with Indonesia amid some secrecy.

Since it succeeded Labour five months ago, the Liberal- National government of John Howard has fallen into line with its predecessor over Indonesia. Mr Howard plans to make Jakarta the destination of his first overseas visit as Prime Minister.

Yet the longer that instability lingers in Jakarta, the more the Australian government risks angering public opinion. Australian newspapers have strongly criticised President Suharto's handling of the crisis and have called for a rethink of policy towards Indonesia.

James Dunn, a former Australian intelligence officer and consul in Portuguese Timor at the time of Indonesia's invasion, said the crackdown showed that Canberra had been unwise to sign a security treaty with Jakarta. "A treaty always assumes common political standards or commitments," he said.

Even before this week's riots, relations had become strained over Canberra's appointment last month of Miles Kupa as new ambassador to Indonesia. Jakarta refused to accept Mr Kupa after it was revealed he had criticised the alleged corruption of the Suharto family.