Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Organising Australia - Indonesia solidarity

Pip Hinman

The Indonesian government’s military operation in Aceh, like the 1975 assault on East Timor, began with a terrifying display of military might — air, land and sea assaults, rocket and bomb attacks and even parachute commandos. Just as happened in East Timor, the indiscriminate killing of innocent people and the displacement of tens of thousands are being kept away as much as possible from the prying eyes of journalists and human rights workers who have been ordered out of Aceh, or imprisoned and shot at.

The Australian government’s response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding to our north is to say that it’s in our ‘national interest’ to support Indonesia’s ‘territorial integrity’. Aceh is an internal problem for Indonesia, Canberra says. At the same time, it is already increasing collaboration with the feared Kopassus Special Forces units.

But Canberra is not an innocent bystander: successive Australian governments covered Indonesia’s back while it invaded East Timor and for the next two decades upheld the occupation as ‘irreversible’. They said nothing about President Suharto’s terror campaign in Aceh in the 1980s and ’90s; the regime’s 1996 crackdown on the Indonesian democracy movement; and atrocities carried out in West Papua against pro-independence supporters.

Economic interests

Since Suharto’s drive to fully integrate Indonesia into the global capitalist economy, Canberra’s policy gamble has been that extra political and economic clout would flow from being a close ally of the regime. Since 1965, this thinking has driven the ‘special relationship’ status, a policy that was given added weight by former ALP Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, who cultivated personal connections with Suharto and the ruling clique.

Canberra’s support for Indonesia’s generals waging war in East Timor, Aceh and West Papua flows from its interest in ensuring ‘stability’ for capital. This is also why it supports Western-backed creditor institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which have forced Indonesia to undertake huge tariff and subsidy cuts despite their catastrophic impact on the economy.

Australia supported the US position of forcibly disarming the left in 1948; it provided military support for ultra-rightist military rebellions from 1956–58; it participated in the British attacks against Indonesian and Sabah/Sarawak guerillas in Kalimantan from 1959–1965; and it gave immediate financial, political and military support to the Suharto dictatorship during and after the massacre of some 1–2 million leftists.

Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser’s de jure recognition in 1978 of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, reaffirmed by Hawke in 1985, was largely about getting access to the oil and gas spoils in the Timor Sea. A ‘special relationship’ with Suharto was cultivated to ensure that Australian capital wasn’t totally cut out by US, European, Japanese and Korean rivals.

Since the 1970s economic downturn, and since then the continuing global economic stagnation, Australian companies have remained on the hunt for new profitable mega-projects and new markets to exploit. Some, like BHP and Rio Tinto, managed to establish major investments in Indonesia and West Papua.

The renewed push by Keating to promote Australian business interests in Indonesia was twinned with a policy aimed at strengthening security and military ties with the TNI. More recently, under the guise of ‘fighting terrorism’, this policy has been strengthened by the Howard government.

Today, the Howard government is taking steps to repair the ‘special relationship’ after its souring in 1999 over East Timor. Since the declaration of martial law in Aceh on 19 May, it has been vocal in reaffirming Jakarta’s ‘territorial integrity’. It also remains com-mitted to establishing closer ties with Kopassus — the ‘best anti-terrorism’ force in Indonesia according to defence minister Robert Hill.


Just before the Dili massacre, a campaign to build support for the fledgling democracy movement in Indonesia was begun by Indonesia Solidarity Action(Aksi). In the late 1980s, despite Suharto’s draconian laws, new worker, student and peasant organisations sprung up across Indonesia.

Aksi, which formed in 1990, began highlighting these important political developments. Aksi toured Indonesian student activists who inspired us with their campaigns against state censorship and harassment, the massive fee hikes on universities, assisting rural workers to reclaim lands seized by the military and protecting the environment.

The first activists to tour were from environmental groups, like the Indonesian Forest Protection Network (SKEHPI). They were followed by student leaders and worker activists. Later former political prisoners such as Dita Sari and Budiman Sujatmiko, now leaders of the National Front for Indonesian Workers’ Struggle (FNPBI) and the radical People’s Democratic Party (PRD), toured Australia to talk up the re-emergence of the new movement.

Aksi sought to link the East Timorese independence and Indonesian democracy struggles, arguing that as both were struggles against the Suharto dictatorship a victory for one would assist victory for the other. Australia-wide activist tours of Indonesian and East Timorese leaders helped cement closer ties between the two struggles.

The formation of the PRD in 1994 marked a turning point in the struggle for democracy in Indonesia. This was the first radical party to emerge since the Suharto regime crushed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965, and the first to champion the rights of the East Timorese, the Acehnese and the West Papuan peoples.

In 1996, Aksi became Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (ASIET) to highlight the close connection of the struggles, and to more accurately reflect the work being done. That same year, ASIET helped establish broader coalitions to pressure the Australian government to end its de jure recognition of Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor.

International campaign

Following the Suharto regime’s crackdown in July 1996 on Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party and the democracy movement, ASIET initiated an international campaign to demand an end to military rule and release scores of political prisoners who had been hunted down by the dictatorship. This resulted in protests and hunger strikes in Australia, the US, Germany, France, Holland, UK, South Africa, India, Nepal and the Philippines.

In 1997, we could not have predicted what we were soon to witness — and to play some part in: the demise of the 32-year-long dictatorship of President Suharto, brought down by a popular uprising led by students in May 1998, and, a year later, the independence ballot in East Timor.

There’s no doubt that the solidarity movement here and overseas played a key role in forcing a referendum in East Timor and ousting the TNI. The mobilisation of mass sentiment on the streets in support of the Timorese people’s right to independence was critically important to their victory in 1999. While the Australian government has conveniently rewritten history on this score, it’s important that this point not be forgotten.

Even while the militias and TNI were on their post-ballot rampage, the Howard government was arguing that Indonesia had ‘responsibility’ for security in East Timor. But after the Sydney and Melbourne protests of 30,000 and 40,000 respectively in September 1999, and the prospect of tens of thousands more remobilising the following weekend, the government was forced into an about-face. Its ‘special relationship’ policy was no longer tenable.


The 9/11 terror attacks in the US and the implications of the US-declared ‘war on terrorism’ in Asia sparked another shift in campaign focus. The increase in US militarism in the region and associated calls for assistance from democracy forces including from Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea and Burma prompted ASIET to relaunch itself in 2002 as Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific (ASAP).

But we will continue to insist that the recidivist generals who presided over the war on East Timor — some of whom are commanding operations in Aceh — face an international tribunal, like the criminals responsible for atrocities in Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

There must be no repeat of the bipartisan wrong policy on East Timor. Canberra must pressure Jakarta to end its war on the Acehnese people, starting with the diversion of the Indonesia/Australia Defence Cooperation Program, worth some $5 million annually, to a special humanitarian fund for the victims of the war in Aceh. The only way this will happen is if we do what we managed to do for East Timor — develop a mass force for change. That’s the power of solidarity.

Pip Hinman (asap@asia-pacific-action.org) is the national convenor of Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific. For more information about ASAP and its solidarity work go to http://www.asia-pacific-action.org

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