Paying people smugglers: Business as usual in Australia-Indonesian relations?

    The allegations that Australia paid people smuglers to return their cargo to Indonesia is just the latest unprincipled act of rank opportunism by an Australian Government towards Indonesia, writes Dr Adam Hughes Henry.

     Adam Henry 29 June 2015, 12:00pm

    The controversy over potential payments, or bribes, by Australian customs officers or Australian Secret Service Agents (ASIS), for a boat crew to take refugees back to Indonesia reveals much about accepted attitudes towards our near neighbours. Since 1965, successive Australian governments have played a two-faced and contemptuous game in regards to its diplomatic behaviour toward Indonesia. The Australian government has taken the pretense of the moral high ground at home while engaging in some truly grubby diplomatic activities to our near North.

    For instance, from 1 October 1965, following an alleged communist coup attempt by the September 30th Movement, Australian Ambassador Sir Keith ‘Mick’ Shann worked tirelessly alongside his British and American counterparts to create and disseminate anti-Sukarno and anti-communist propaganda. Shann had close personal relations with Sukarno, even admiring him, but neither this, nor the slaughter of at least 500,000 human beings by the Indonesian army under Suharto’s authority during the period where he conducted his propaganda campaign, prevented Shann from using all available means, including Radio Australia, to assist the army. Shann even used propaganda guidance passed to him directly by the Indonesian army.

    Far from being publicly perceived as one of the great mass murderers, Suharto and the army quickly became the economic “anti-communist saviours” of Indonesia. He was, after all, a good anti-communist, who opened Indonesia up to multinational investment and neo-liberal economics, even as he stole billions upon billions of dollars loaned by the World Bank. His alleged ability to “bring order and progress” was parroted by all the usual apologists of the well connected Australian Suharto Lobby.

    In West New Guinea, to Australian horror, after a decade of opposition to Indonesian claims of sovereignty against the Dutch, the early 1960s brought a change of American policy under John F. Kennedy. Under the New York Agreement in 1962, the territory was handed to the Indonesians pending later United Nations “procedures”. None of these “procedures” were ever anything more than cruel farce.

    Following the blood-soaked rise of Suharto, there was renewed enthusiasm in Australian diplomacy toward Jakarta. Nothing would be allowed to endanger a new era of Australia-Indonesian relations, particularly not Papuans. Therefore human rights abuses in WNG against Papuans and the emergence of the Papuan resistance movement, could not prevent closer relations with Jakarta. Suharto incorporated the territory through the 1969 Act of Free Choice. This fraudulent ballot, conducted at virtual gun point, saw handpicked Papuans, not surprisingly, “vote” to become Indonesians.

    Atrocities continue in West Papua and it remains closed to the outside world.

    Papuans are subject to a police state, but the U.S. owned Freeport mine – the largest gold and third largest copper mine in the world – continues to operate beyond legitimate oversight.

    By the time of the illegal Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975, Indonesian soldiers had been recipients of Australian military training. What occurred in Timor was reminiscent of Papua, but East Timor’s purgatory, at least, ended after one last bloodbath in 1999.

    The destruction of East Timor, where as many as 204,000 Timorese died as a direct and indirect consequence of Indonesian military and security policies, is one of the great crimes of the 20th century. The potential human toll in West Papua is also horrifying.

    The Australians, Americans and British contributed crucially to the denial of East Timorese self-determination for over two decades. In Australia and Britain, not even the deliberate murder of their own citizens by Indonesian Special Forces and military in Balibo or Dili in 1975 was allowed to change the pragmatic special relationship with Jakarta.

    Ironically former Australian Ambassador to Indonesia, Richard Woolcott – one of the chief advocates for advancing Australian self interest in the relationship with Jakarta over human rights – argued in 1975 that the Javanese

        “… place a lesser value on human life than we [Australians] do.”

    In 1978 – one of the peak years of Indonesian military violence – the Malcolm Fraser Liberal-National Government gave de jure recognition to Indonesia over East Timor. This reversed a previous position of opposition. Negotiations over the Timor Gap – how the Australians and Indonesians could help themselves to the natural resources of the Timorese – could then begin in 1979.

    On the other side of Australian politics, Gareth Evans, advocated for even closer Australian ties with Suharto at the expense of the East Timorese and gave official recognition to Indonesian rule over East Timor. He signed the Timor Gap Treaty in 1989, toasting the occasion with Ali Alatas (his Indonesian counterpart) as they flew in a jet high above Timorese waters.

    As an architect of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Evans is now preoccupied with advancing “humanitarian intervention” in the so called modern day “liberal” crusade to protect human rights. The main pillars of R2P are all in stark contrast to the attitude he expressed toward East Timor and the Indonesian military in the 1990s. As Australian foreign minister, he not only officially recognised and accepted the acquisition of territory gained by illegal force and held by a brutal occupation, he routinely excused the Suharto regime and the Indonesian military from responsibility for their atrocities by public silence or downplaying their significance, and signed a treaty to explore the resource wealth of East Timor in partnership with the illegal occupying power. Despite all of this being very well known, Evans does not take kindly to questions linking R2P and his own past role.

    There are many other examples one could highlight, but none elicits apologies or even shame in Australia. After all, did we not eventually help “liberate” the East Timorese in 1999?

    In official circles, it seems easier to ignore basic principles of international law and ethics to secure short term strategic and political gains for the government of the day, or even ongoing professional rewards. Is this not the attitude of crass opportunism that successive Australian governments have expressed toward Indonesia since the 1960s massacres — one of undermining democratic accountability, contempt for international law, and legitimating tyranny and corruption at the expense of basic human rights?

    If these types of payments being currently scrutinised in regards to “people smuggling” turn out to be true and practiced in one form or another under both Liberal-National and Labor governments, will anyone familiar with Australia-Indonesia relations be surprised by the depths plumbed by Australia in its asylum seeker polices in service of so called national security?

    Certainly not the Indonesians, East Timorese, West Papuans, or the asylum seekers, that is for certain.