Canberra won’t cut defence ties with Jakarta

INDONESIA IN TRANSITION

Visiting minister Downer defends the Indonesian military’s actions during the May riots, noting that it showed ‘restraint’ at a difficult time.

AUSTRALIAN Foreign Minister Alexander Downer yesterday rejected calls to cut defence links with the Indonesian armed forces (Abri), stressing that such ties were useful in promoting human rights in Indonesia.

“The contacts we have had at all levels with the Indonesian military have been a very helpful vehicle for us to encourage the exercise of restraint,” he said.

He was responding to a question by an Australian journalist whether Canberra would react to human rights abuses by Abri personnel who were allegedly involved in, among other things, the kidnapping of student activists.

Defence ties between the two countries have been good despite occasional hiccups in bilateral relations.

Both sides drew up plans to defend the Natuna gas project in the South China Sea, part of a defence co-operation programme.

Mr Downer, the first Australian Cabinet minister to visit Indonesia since the fall of former president Suharto on May 21, said that the Australian government wanted Abri to “exercise restraint” in dealing with political problems in post-Suharto Indonesia.

He defended the military’s track record during the riots in May this year.

“They did exercise restraint in an extraordinarily difficult environment,” he said. “They have been criticised from time to time by some non-governmental organisations but it is sometimes difficult to keep everybody happy.”

He added: “There is a world of difference between some people in the military committing human rights abuses and the whole of the military having an institutionalised policy abusing human rights.”

Mr Downer, who had talks with President B. J. Habibie and Foreign Minister Ali Alatas during his two-day visit here, also said that Canberra was pleased with steps being taken by Jakarta to resolve the thorny East Timor problem.

He said that Dr Habibie was committed to carrying out pledges for more autonomy and a gradual troop withdrawal from the former Portuguese colony.

However, he maintained that “instant resolutions” were not a recipe for peace in East Timor.

“There won’t be any peace in East Timor if we move too quickly,” he said. “What we would like to see is the process of dialogue develop and we are encouraged by the signs of this so far.”

He brushed aside suggestions that Australia actively intervene in the East Timor problem given its geographical proximity. He said: “We are a foreign country and it is not up to us to micromanage issues of another country … That approach will never be successful.”

Mr Downer pointed out that Australia and other regional countries were concerned about Indonesia’s economic crisis, and said that Canberra would step up its humanitarian assistance to the country this year.

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