Prime Minister John Howard has blamed the unrest in East Timor on bad governance and corruption. The ethical condemnation of Timor Liste, one of the poorest nations on earth, by Howard and Downer should be cause for reflection. The Howard government refused to accept the US assessments that peacekeepers would be required to protect the 1999 UN independence ballot, absurdly arguing that the Indonesian military could handle security. Howard and Downer then watched the post-referendum rampage by TNI militias, when tens of thousands of Timorese were forced at gunpoint to West Timor. Neither Howard nor Downer ever supported East Timorese independence, preferring Jakarta’s special autonomy package.

The current situation in Timor Liste, despite Alkatiri’s resignation, cannot erase the facts. After sacking disgruntled members of the army, who claim to be victims of regional discrimination, Alkatiri received overwhelming support from the Fretilin Party. The sacked soldiers turned rogue and used their stolen heavy weapons and ADF training to intimidate the elected government. This lawlessness spread violence and factional tensions across Dili. The leader of this group even looked forward to sharing a VB with the ADF. Alkatiri’s resignation was forced not by his party, who for a second time endorsed him, but by civil unrest and the political manoeuvrers of political rivals.

Canberra has bravely labelled PNG, the Solomon Islands and now Timor Liste as corrupt. But there is one nation-state rated as worse by international watchdogs where Australian comment is absent. One need not support the cause of West Papuan separatism to ask simple questions about basic ethics and human rights.

Does a well-governed nation allow its military to so consistently undermine its own rules of law? If all is well in West Papua why does Jakarta continue to block international media and medical access, and require the presence of an estimated 40,000 TNI troops?

Over the last decade there has been a flurry of Australian comment over the bad governance of the Pacific. In contrast, our major parties maintain a stoic silence over the governmental situation in Indonesia. Instead of a similarly strong Australian call for reform of the TNI and for Jakarta to fix its dubious financial ethics, it seeks closer military co-operation and a possible 2006 bi-lateral security treaty.

The UN enquiry into Indonesian rule (1975-99) of East Timor estimated that 183,000 Timorese died as a direct or indirect result of Indonesian/TNI actions. At least a comparable figure is estimated for West Papua.

Our leaders seem only most willing to highlight the corruption of smaller regional nations. In turn, ordinary Australians are expected to overlook that our leaders refuse to apply these very same universal ethical standards to the substantially more corrupt administration of Jakarta.

Any security treaty between the two nations that is secured by selective Australian silence is doomed to failure. History demonstrates that Jakarta’s ongoing involvement in any such arrangement will rest on the continuation of this sensitive Australian approach.Any perceived Australian breech of this unwritten quid pro quo diplomatic contract will quickly void any treaty arrangement and plunge relations into turmoil. A clear case in point has been the Indonesian reaction to the 42 temporary protection visas Australia granted to West Papuan refugees three months ago.

The lessons of 1999 underline the dangers of this style of Australian diplomacy to our regional security. Given the many valid questions over Indonesian administration and the large presence of an unreformed and unrepentant TNI in West Papua, these lessons should be urgently re-examined.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey