Leading Article: 'Ethics' didn't help in Indonesia

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IT IS HARD to believe that, as he returns to find his capital city in chaos, President Suharto of Indonesia will be able to change the mood of a people who seem determined not only to overthrow him, but to unleash violence on the sizeable Chinese population of the country. Order has broken down in Indonesia and it is difficult to see what Suharto or the West can now do to rescue matters. It is, though, much simpler to identify the failures in policy that led us to this pass.

Suharto has been a despotic, brutal and nepotistic leader for most of his time in power. When he took power in 1965 in similarly bloody circumstances (400,000 Chinese died in the riots then) he became leader of what could still easily be described as an "under-developed nation", a mere "domino" in America's cold war against Communism. Today the Indonesian economy, even after the crash last autumn, is one of the most important in the region and indeed the world. But Suharto outlived his usefulness years ago and we should have encouraged him to follow his stated ambition to become a sage, before his people forced matters for us. We are now faced with the worst of all worlds.

The Americans are said to be embarrassed about their failure of intelligence about the Indian nuclear test explosions. At least these were underground. The build-up in tension in Indonesia has been distressingly visible and yet far less was done for this nation than was done, for example, to rescue South Korea. This is not to say that we should have had the IMF bail out Suharto. It is to say that he should have been provided with incentives and penalties to liberalise his country in return for stabilising her economy.

Britain is not a big player in this part of the world, but we do have some influence through our substantial arms trade. Our policy has been short-sighted and made all the more incomprehensible by the Government's impractical posturing about its "ethical" foreign policy. We know now that more than 50 batches of British arms have been sold to Indonesia since Labour came to power. It is not clear whether these weapons have been used to suppress internal dissent, to deny human rights and to defy international law in East Timor. But that is a secondary issue. The primary query is why we, a nation which allegedly runs an ethical policy, were doing this kind of business with a dictator like Suharto without securing some real progress on the ethical agenda. The West backed Suharto far too wholeheartedly for far too long and failed to dislodge him quickly and effectively. If we had we might have ensured an orderly transition to a more democratic regime.

So we have to face up to our share of the blame for the brutality and ethnic cleansing that is threatening Indonesia. Let us hope that our next steps in foreign policy are uncomplicated by the pretensions of the ethical doctrine.

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