Balibo reflects new challenges for Indonesia's foreign policy team

The announcement by the Australian police that they will open an investigation into the Balibo incident is the issue of the week now. We remember the 1975 Balibo incident, which began the East Timor horror. As Soeharto's troops conducted a military operation in Balibo, five Western reporters were killed on the battleground. The Indonesian Army said they were caught in the crossfire, but others saw it as murder. Twenty-five years of human suffering followed, with casualties on all sides, including Indonesians. Much later, in 1998, the Indonesian people gained enough momentum to reject Soeharto for state crimes, including human rights abuses. Successive governments in Indonesia made peace as we supported Timor Leste. Balibo has just been made into a feature movie. Asked for comment, President Jose Ramos-Horta of Timor Leste said the movie reminded him of events he thought he had forgotten about. Ramos-Horta said the film should not be seen "as an indictment of today's Indonesia", which to his mind has changed dramatically since 1998 into "one of the most inspiring democracies". He adds that it is up to the Indonesian people to address our past mistakes. The way most of us see it, the mistake was allowing the Soeharto government to run a foreign policy that was not anchored in human rights and development. The foreign policy of the New Order was designed to maintain Soeharto's grip on his vision of order, mobilizing people who agreed with his vision. Because Soeharto was the master of patronage, it will never be clear just how many Indonesians agreed with his vision and how many were driven by self-interest for the largesse that came to Soeharto loyalists. My feeling is that many Indonesians did not share the Soeharto government's penchant for excessive use of power. It is just that not many are aware there is any other way to run a country. Now we have found a better way. The Balibo affair is beyond doubt a tragedy. But Indonesia is trying to deal with these tragedies - not just five foreign journalists killed, but dozens of activists kidnapped who are still missing, students murdered and hundreds of citizens raped and killed in the riots of May 1998. President Ramos-Horta is spot on in saying that Balibo is our problem and we have to deal with it. We need to make sure our state never commits heinous crimes again. Our attitudes toward human rights are the opposite of those of the 1975 government responsible for Balibo. The call to investigate the Balibo case would parallel a call for the investigation into the deaths of Indonesian fishermen in Darwin in 2002. They are both wounds that could reopen through lack of sensitivity. Australia needs to be more sensitive and knowledgeable of changes that have been achieved in Indonesia. We are our own harshest critics, because we are the people who rose against state violence. Balibo is only one of many cases. Because the public is either ignorant or confused about both Balibo and Darwin, the government has a role to play. The foreign policy team of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's new Cabinet should turn defense into offense. We should enlighten the public on sensitive issues and show the world that Indonesia cares. We should remind the world that we are on the same side of the issues on human rights. Every country has crimes against humanity in their history. It is not how you failed but how you recover. If there is to be an investigation into Balibo, it should be done jointly. We have been very successful in Australian-Indonesian police cooperation. The prestigious international magazine The Economist praised Indonesia in a headline: "Despite the apocalyptic visions of a decade ago, Indonesia is a huge success. But it should aim higher." The most visible expression of government will in international eyes is foreign policy. Foreign policy should not always defend domestic policy. Foreign policy should certainly support domestic policy; ideally they should be mutually supportive. We should address misconceptions in our public dialogue. Witness the infantile outburst of emotion against Malaysia, which is not justified by the facts. Witness the culpability of the public for political exploitation of the Bank Century case. At a broader but more serious level, witness the embarrassing emotion during the recent campaign against foreign debt, "neoliberal" economics and a slew of issues that are not understood by the people who rail against them. There is rampant xenophobia among our fellow citizens, based on the notion that the world is against us. It is not. Often the world appreciates us more than we appreciate ourselves. We should rise higher and adopt a receptive audience to world reaction. We need to promote an open stance toward the world, not just by diplomacy but by generating public support of our foreign policy. It will result in a positive view of the world that will give us a better economy, better education, better health, and most importantly, the dignity Indonesia deserves.

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