May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

After fear, before justice

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Indonesia and Australia over the long haul, as if ethics mattered.

Richard Tanter

It's a bad time to talk about relations between Indonesia and Australia as if ethics were important. Over the bodies of East Timorese, Australian and Indonesian political leaders matched each other, measure for repulsive measure, each marked by racialised nationalism, self-interest and brazen hypocrisy.

Even as United Nations teams began their investigations of Indonesian atrocities in East Timor, the country's soon-to-be fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid declared that Australian pressure on Indonesia to fulfil its international obligations in East Timor amounted to 'pissing in our face'. This was no isolated remark by a politician with an eye to a domestic audience. With an astonishingly small number of honourable exceptions such as Onghokham and brave little groups like Kiper and Solidamor, Indonesian intellectuals were paralysed by the nationalism that saturates political thinking in that country. Nationalism in denial prevented them from seeing the truth of the quarter century-long Indonesian colonial project in East Timor.

Yet the Australian government was no less hypocritical than the Indonesian if anything, more egregiously so. John Howard, a man who proudly displays his 1950s white Australian fantasies, accepted a journalist's summary of his position on East Timor as one where Australia was the 'deputy sheriff' of the United States. More importantly, he used the catastrophic end of Indonesian colonialism in East Timor to recycle populist Anglo-Australian images of Australia as an outpost of civilisation perennially faced with always potentially barbaric peoples to our north. The constantly reiterated phrases of 'Australian values' and 'European civilisation' were carefully spoken, but in the codes of Australian politics after Pauline Hanson, the message was clear.

The Indonesian reaction was understandable. After all, the two governments had been partners in crime for more than two decades.

Moreover, Australian politicians and media commentators seem to have a talent for hypocrisy. The same people who less than a few months earlier were still denouncing any possibility of Timorese self-determination or substantial Australian pressure on the Suharto dictatorship, overnight discovered the cause of freedom and democracy.

So it may well be a bad time to talk about exploring a completely different kind of long-term relation between these two peoples. Yet that makes it all the more important to do exactly that. I want to imagine a relationship between these two societies in the lifetime of my now young children a relationship built on the assumption that ethics and justice mattered. We think ethically about all the rest of our lives. Why should international relations alone be severed from the mutual expectations of fairness and right that even children possess? The core ethical assumption must surely be that what applies to me applies to the other person. What do East Timor and Kosovo show us if not the fact that moral communities do not stop at borders?

'Indonesia' and 'Australia' are today part of the same global social and economic system. The hurricane of the Southeast Asian currency crisis arose from the same forces of globalising capital that induced the Hawke, Keating, and Howard governments to transform the industrial structure of Australia in the 1980s and 1990s in the name of 'deregulation'.

Indeed the two countries were formed by the same social forces that are still transforming the world today. A hundred years ago the now neighbouring states of Indonesia and Australia did not exist. Extraordinary violence, as well as periods of great hope and sacrifice, accompanied their formation into two nation states. A century ago the armies and capital of the Netherlands and Britain were still conquering the Malay archipelago. Ten years before Australian federation in 1901, Dutch imperial forces were in the last stages of invading Aceh. Until the coming of a new wave of imperialists in January 1942, Dutch imperialism broke the frame of indigenous Indonesian society and reworked it, at grotesque human cost, to Dutch advantage.

The new post-war Indonesian state followed exactly the outlines of the state the Dutch had carved out in blood. It was marked at its birth and for the next fifty years by the Cold War, and never quite recovered. Always it was a partial state and a dependent economy. Thirty years of Suharto's militarisation was built on oil, American and Japanese economic aid, and American strategic hegemony.

For the indigenous peoples of Australia meanwhile, the British invasion which began in 1788, and which was still in process of unfolding in the north and centre within living memory, brought almost every form of desolation imaginable. The invading settlers from two small islands in the North Sea built a new colonial society founded on extraordinary state violence towards the lower orders, and on a callous solidarity of a caste of all 'white men' over all others, indigenous and foreign.

By slim good fortune, the new Australian settler capitalism was characterised by a continuously expanding imperial need for agricultural commodities, and by a perennial labour shortage throughout the nineteenth century. As a result the scales of class conflict were weighted sufficiently to the left to generate at least an appearance of social democracy, at least for those whose skin was pale enough.

These shared imperial origins extend into the twentieth century. Australian soldiers died in Southeast Asia in their thousands to defend European empires against a newer imperialism, thinking they were defending themselves. The next generation fought in Korea and Vietnam for a cause no less imperial.


Today we stand at the beginning of the twenty-first century. If we look forward in time for comparable periods, what can we see for these entities we call 'Indonesia' and 'Australia'?

In 1933 the German literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote a terse set of Theses on the philosophy of history. In one, Benjamin meditated on a Paul Klee painting he owned and kept with him in his harried exile from Nazi Germany.

'A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the debris before him grows skywards. This storm is what we call progress.'

This storm shaped our countries, and has not abated; there are more dead, and yet more to make whole. After the linked catastrophic pasts of Australia and Indonesia and East Timor, there is a possibility of a shared future, if we can find it and face it.

Let me start with an extreme proposition. Unless there is some radical change in political dynamics, there will be war between Indonesia and Australia in the lifetime of my young children. This is not a matter of extrapolation of domestic trends visible at the moment, but of normal politics between neighbours with deep differences in a highly militarised world system in which war is normal over the long term.

Unless something surprisingly new happens, the two societies will continue to misrecognise each other. Each will still see the other through unacknowledged racist stereotypes. Australia will still suffer from a deeply deforming misperception of Islam that has deep roots in unexamined but ancient European ideas.

John Marsden is undoubtedly Australia's most popular fiction writer of recent years. A remarkable talent, Marsden has just published the last in a seven-book series of novels for young people known as the Tomorrow series, beginning with Tomorrow, when the war began. This is the story of a group of teenagers in a rural area of south-eastern Australia who return from a remote bush camping trip to find their country successfully invaded, and all adults, including their parents, brutally imprisoned.

A writer of subtly delineated character and strong narrative, Marsden's series is the story of the group's fight to survive, resist, and help turn back the invasion. For our purposes what is important is the setting of invasion, the sense of violation of a relationship with land and space, that Marsden handles equally well, but with a curious and probably deliberate lack of precision.

The invaders are unnamed. Their language is not English. Many of their soldiers have darker skins than most of the Australians, though they are in fact a varied lot. Their army is brutal. Though the invader is not named, the friends of Australia are firstly New Zealand and Papua New Guinea; somewhat more hesitantly, the United States. Who then is the unnamed enemy? It is unlikely that many in his huge audience would have considered too many alternatives to Suharto's Indonesia.

For all Marsden's considerable achievement and his attempt to avoid the worst aspects of the genre, the Tomorrow series is the latest and most successful example of the long-running Australian genre of invasion novels, of which there have been hundreds over the past century or longer. To be a little unfair to Marsden, who is so much better than this suggests, the basic confrontation remains pacific white Australia versus the invading brutal non-whites from the north.

Marsden is at pains to acknowledge and hence neutralise the worst of this. His wonderful protagonist Ellie is well aware that she is the beneficiary of an earlier invasion, and wonders about the ghosts of the losers as she moves through the bush she knows and loves. Most importantly, she thinks about one of the basic moral issues: by what right do we monopolise this continent?

If I sit in the bush, and try to catch an imaginative glimpse of what it may have been like for people of another culture to have lived there, I cannot fail to wonder what it will be like for yet another culture to make the same attempt. For we must surely accept that there will be another shift at some point. For me, the important question is whether the next great historical transformation visited on the Australian landscape will be as violent and bloody, as ecologically ruthless, as the last.

Quite likely, the Southeast Asians will indeed come. But perhaps, too, that coming will be, not the stuff of a 'yellow peril' nightmare, but in some sense a return to the pre-imperial Southeast Asia in which borders mattered less.

Asian Community?

Imagine, just for a moment, that ethics did matter, and that there was a decision to treat the peoples within the two societies we now call 'Indonesia' and 'Australia' as members of a single system, with shared moral responsibilities. Almost immediately infantile fantasies arise: in the 'Australian' case, the fear of loss, the fear of being swamped. Not racist in themselves, but the constitutive racism of Australia certainly gives such elemental fantasies added power. I cannot really imagine the 'Indonesian' side of the well of fantasy, but it would be deep.

Now let those night fears return to sleep, and try to imagine a path we might tread towards this single system involving an 'Indonesia' and an 'Australia'. A path in which ethics mattered.

Let me put another extreme proposition. Within 50 years let us say 100 years to be conservative - the states we now call 'Indonesia' and 'Australia' will not exist, and the shape and location of the underlying societies will be quite different.

The end of the Cold War apart, the most startling change in international relations in the past 50 years has been the establishment of the European Community. Beginning from the construction of a 'common market', the European Community is now halfway to living up to its name. There are EC-wide legislative, executive and judicial institutions, each of which has a complex but precisely defined constitutional relationship to national counterparts. National sovereignty has not disappeared, but it is greatly circumscribed.

Is it absurd, starting from our two instances of 'Australia' and 'Indonesia', to think about an Asian Community, or a Southeast Asian Community? Already both countries are part of the stuttering Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Forum, which is attempting under US leadership to eliminate barriers to trade within a much larger region in the name of economic deregulation. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir, understandably concerned about the ideology of blanket deregulation and excessive US influence on Apec, has proposed a Japan-centred East Asian Economic Caucus, though Japan's public disinterest has stalled further discussions.

These trade-centred models of 'community' present only one limited aspect of the possibilities. Why not begin with some simple re-thinking about borders between 'Indonesia' and 'Australia'? The oldest tradition of foreign trade in Australia long antedates western colonialism. For at least 300 years before 1907, Makassan fishing praus brought Indonesian fishermen to the northern coastline of Australia searching for trepang. Aboriginal people, in places hostile, in places friendly to the visitors, received new technologies, new diseases and vocabulary for their languages. Some accompanied their visitors back home. At the end of the nineteenth century, the South Australian government imposed a tax on 'foreign' trepang harvesting, killing the Makassan trade in a decade. Yet while the colonial legal borders were inviolate, the memories of the trade remain in both Sulawesi and Arnhem Land even today.

Building on the Mabo case which led to recognition of prior ownership of the Australian continent by its indigenous inhabitants, Campbell Watson has proposed that Australia recognise the traditional fishing rights of Indonesian fishermen from the island of Roti. For more than 400 years these people have fished for shark, trepang, trochus, sponges and molluscs in the shallow waters around Ashmore Reef off north-western Australia. The Mabo decision of Australia's High Court in 1992 rendered notions of land title and land usage less singular and absolutist. In the same way of thinking, our borders would become just slightly more permeable. As we know from exemplary models such as the joint management of Uluru-Katatjuta National Park in Central Australia, our ability to understand and protect the environment is strengthened rather than weakened by fusing indigenous and industrial approaches to land management.

How should such issues be settled? The present approach is that 'the line is the line'. International law puts the 200-mile exclusive economic zone at a certain point on the seabed. But the truth of the matter is that the rulings of international law represent frozen power, the embodiment of past victories and defeats. It represents a moral advance on violence, but its moral limits lie in its inability to question its origins. Even here in our outermost sea-boundaries, the core questions confront us.

And what of two other fundamental questions: immigration and labour? Let us never forget that the first act passed by the first Australian parliament was an immigration control act to secure 'Australia for the white man'. Much has changed since then, but immigration control is a universal preoccupation of Australian politics. Anglo-conservatives worry about the changing character of 'our part of the country', to use Geoffrey Blainey's telling phrase. Serious environmentalists rightly fret about the impact of even the present dispersed population level on a largely arid environment. Moreover, the achievements of Australian labour were built on the exclusion of non-white labour.

Yet the mobility of capital in this age of globalisation mocks and exploits the caste solidarities of national labour. Nothing is easier than to close a factory in Wangaratta and move it Tangerang. If we were to take ethics seriously in this single system, we would be looking for ways to equalise labour conditions in the two places. That is in fact already happening, but on the worst possible terms for both sides. What is needed is some framework that will begin to allow a flow of labour between the two parts of this single, imaginary system of 'Indonesia' and 'Australia'. At the same time there should develop a 'levelling-up' (instead of the current 'levelling-down') of the political and environmental playing field in which labour is bought and sold.

Democracy is a remarkably universal value. Indeed all the contemporary arguments for the reform of both Indonesian and Australian politics use the idiom of 'democracy'. Yet our existing democratic institutions are derived from eighteenth century European political thinking about regulating power within nation-states. The global capitalist economy flows over and through this system of nation-states. Today the globalisation of international finance and the dominant ideology of government deregulation has rendered national governments, democratic or otherwise, almost powerless.

Democracy, in Australia as much as Indonesia, needs rethinking on the basis of shared trans-national interests to regulate highly mobile capital. What is needed is a new stage of democratic innovation that operates above and beyond borders, that identifies areas of shared responsibilities and risks, and where moral notions of 'citizenship' and 'obligation' rise above the seas that divide the two geographies. An Asian version of the European Community would involve a great deal more than Apec's deregulation of trade barriers. After centuries of nationalist war, Europe has invented a new category of citizenship the European, that co-exists in carefully defined ways with national citizenship. Is a new category of shared 'Indonesian-Australian' citizenship inconceivable?

It's a bad time for these thoughts after thirty years of Suharto plus Timor. But for those long years Indonesia was not the expression of the shared aspirations of Indonesians. On the contrary, Australia, together with the United States and Japan, made possible the violation of Indonesia. In time, there is a good chance of decent government in Indonesia. And there is always the historical chance of regression in Australia.

But what if ethics were to matter? We might then expect that the needs of 210 million or more 'Indonesians' have some claim in addition to those of 20 million 'Australians'. A new framework of decision-making, a new concept of trans-national democracy, a recognition that ecology, economics and morality mock borders. This is the new agenda that might show the way to unfreezing the arbitrary results of colonial history, and bring a measure of justice.

Richard Tanter ( recently co-edited a special issue of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars on 'East Timor and the Indonesian crisis' (

Inside Indonesia 61: Jan - Mar 2000

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