How to eliminate the military threat from Indonesia

Published as "How to eliminate the Indonesian 'threat'," Green Left, 15 April 1992, p. 11
pdf of published article

Brian Martin

A lot of people believe that Australian military forces are necessary to defend against an invasion from Indonesia. But there's a much better way to eliminate the alleged Indonesian military threat: support people's opposition to the Indonesian government. This should be obvious. But to many it is not obvious, because Australian government policy is so self-contradictory.

In regional terms, the Australian military is a powerful force. The Defence Department assesses that there are no "credible" threats to Australia's security in the next 15 years -- which is as far as they look ahead. Indonesia, for example, simply does not have the naval capacity to mount a major invasion, nor the firepower to back it up.

It is convenient, then, that many members of the public believe that Indonesia does pose a serious threat. One hundred eighty million people, most of them packed onto one small island. Surely they are desperate to occupy those vast lands of the Australian outback!

The Defence Department does not encourage this sort of thinking, but others do. It is certainly convenient for those who argue for higher military outlays.

The irony is that the Australian government's policies are precisely those which do most to increase the Indonesian military threat. Indonesia's government is dominated by the military. It stifles dissent and wages war on groups that continue to seek autonomy, most obviously in West Irian and East Timor.

The Australian government provides support for the Indonesian regime in many ways, of which three are most important. First is diplomatic recognition. Acceptance of the legitimacy of the Indonesian government and its policies provides immeasurable support for it internationally and internally. Second -- the obverse of the first -- is failure to support opposition groups within Indonesia. Third is support for business links.

The Timor Gap Treaty brings together these three types of support. It legitimises the Indonesian government, denies the significance of the opposition in East Timor and was concluded to promote the interests of industry.

There are a number of other ways in which the Australian government supports the Indonesian regime, such as providing military aid, but the three ways mentioned are crucial. Note that other groups are implicated in this support too, including Australian businesses, workers and tourists.

The result of these processes is a neat reinforcement of current policies. Support is given to Indonesian military rulers. Indonesia is thought to pose a military threat to Australia. Therefore, strong military forces are needed to defend against the threat. (An added bonus is that Australian military power can, if necessary, be used by Indonesian rulers to justify their own militarisation and repression.)

There have been many critics of this process, such as supporters of East Timorese independence and critics of Australian military spending. Most of the energy has gone towards criticising Australian government policy. Unfortunately, this is the area where progress is least likely. Why? Because trying to change government policy means becoming one lobby group among many, without any way of acting directly.

A more promising avenue for intervention is to support nonviolent, democratic opposition groups within Indonesia. The long-term aim should be a bloodless collapse of the regime, such as occurred throughout Eastern Europe in 1989.

The weakest link in any dictatorship is the people themselves. Few Indonesians want to come to Australia to live. Few would want to be in the army if there were decent alternatives. The Indonesian people want most of all a chance to live in peace and security in their own land.

There are plenty of actual and potential opposition groups: religious groups, workers' groups, student groups, professional groups, not to mention nationalist movements in East Timor and elsewhere. The challenge is to help these groups wage a struggle for nonviolent overthrow of the Indonesian regime and its replacement by a democratic, participatory system.

Why a nonviolent struggle? Nonviolent methods -- strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, sit-ins -- are ones in which all people can participate, and provide the best opportunity for forging a truly popular movement. Repression against nonviolent opponents undermines the legitimacy of the regime. Nonviolent opposition has a much better chance of winning over members of the army, whereas guerrilla struggle tends to unify the military. Given that the regime has the overwhelming military power, it makes most sense to undermine loyalty rather than fight violence with violence.

Of course, Australians are hardly in a position to criticise guerrilla struggles against Indonesian repression. The Indonesian people must make their own decisions about methods of struggle. But if Australians decide to intervene in another society, they are on much safer ground if they support only nonviolent methods of struggle -- namely the methods of struggle which should be considered acceptable in any free society. Let it be only the governments and corporations that supply training and technology for killing, maiming and repressing dissent.

What can be done to support democratic opposition within Indonesia? Quite a lot.

Some of these things have already been done, especially in relation to East Timor. The scope for further such actions is great.

If the Australian government were involved in a campaign to promote nonviolent transition to democracy in Indonesia, things would be much simpler. Radio broadcasts could be set up and statements made in international forums. It is even possible to imagine production of cheap and easy-to-use short-wave radios and their distribution throughout Indonesia by "tourists" or even drops by aeroplanes. An act of war? Not exactly. It would be an act of nonviolent offence.

Setting up communications systems is of crucial importance. There are two reasons why the November 1991 massacre in Dili generated such outrage internationally. First, those killed and injured were involved in nonviolent protest. Use of violence by the protesters would have provided a convenient justification for the action by Indonesian troops, which of course is why those justifying the massacre alleged that there was violence from the protesters.

The second reason why the Dili massacre created headlines is that there were credible witnesses present, including television footage. The greater the communications links with Indonesia, the greater the opportunity for internal dissent without repression.

Even without government support, a campaign to support nonviolent opposition in Indonesia could still be quite effective. It would also have important spinoffs in Australia. It would provide many people with skills and experience which could be used in struggles against repression and inequity in Australia. It would build powerful links with many Indonesians who, consequently, would be willing to support democratic struggles in Australia. Finally, it would provide a convincing alternative to that perennial justification for Australian military strength: the alleged threat from Indonesia.

At some stage, the present regime in Indonesia will be toppled and current opposition groups will provide the country's leaders. These very people are greatly alienated by present Australian government policies of appeasing repression. How much more sensible it is to build their trust by adopting the principled position of supporting democrats and opposing dictators. Since the Australian government refuses to do this, the Australian people must do it on their own.

BRIAN MARTIN teaches in science and technology studies at the University of Wollongong and is author of Uprooting War.

Go to

Brian Martin's publications on peace and war

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website