The Myth of the Jakarta Lobby

Gary Dean, April 2000

Brian Toohey's article, "Time to rout the Jakarta Lobby", was published in The West Australian on 27 September 1999, just four weeks after the East Timorese autonomy plebiscite.  During this period East Timor was in the process of being laid waste by vicious anti-independence militias backed by the Indonesian military.

In this article Toohey rampages against a perceived "Jakarta lobby" that allegedly directs Australian foreign policy towards Indonesia.  He accuses it, among many other things, of siding with anti-democratic forces in Indonesia and of being apologists for heinous crimes committed by the Indonesian military against East Timorese.

Toohey, in fact, has a long history of hostility towards Indonesia, and towards any policy approach that attempts to view the region through anything else but the eyes of the jaundiced and parochial Australia nationalist.  He is a "professional journalist" in the very worst sense, often writing for writings sake, and frequently drawing from a pot of well-proven stories.

It is valuable to understand a little of Brian Toohey's background.  He started his career as private secretary to the Defence Minister in the 1972-75 Whitlam Labor government.[1] The constitutional coup of the 11th of November 1975 against the Whitlam government was a seminal experience for the ALP and its members, leaving behind bitterness that was to last for years afterwards.  During the turmoil that took place in Australia following the dismissal, Indonesia's President Soeharto took his chance in East Timor, sending in an invasion force exactly a month later on the 12th of December.  Australia, torn and distracted with its own internal political problems, took relatively little notice.  It is more than likely that Brian Toohey himself was on the streets chanting "We Want Gough!" like every other "true believer" of that time.[2]

Soeharto picked his moment, and he picked it well.  It was only after the dust had settled over the constitutional crisis that Australian attention gradually refocused on the invasion of East Timor.  By then, the common view was that "it's already too late" to do anything about the situation, and that the time to act was in 1975/1976.  Many Australians -- Brian Toohey, it seems, amongst them -- have been seemingly wracked by guilt ever since, feeling that Australia as a nation had "let the East Timorese down" by not somehow forcing Indonesia to leave the territory immediately.  It would be reasonable to speculate that such feelings were particularly acute for Toohey as a former Defence Ministry private secretary.

Following the 1975 constitutional crisis, Toohey went on to become a correspondent for The Australian Financial Review.  He then became editor of a centrist liberal weekly The National Times, a periodical which developed a strong investigative emphasis.  It was here that Toohey earned his mantle as the 'tough reporter'.  After the demise of this periodical, he self-published a small vanity magazine called The Eye that focussed on sensational corruption stories that succeeded in keeping him in the public view.  After The Eye closed, Toohey moved into writing opinion columns for mainstream print media.

Ironically, for someone with so much to say about Indonesia, Toohey displays a breathtaking ignorance of Indonesian culture, history and politics.  A few examples from the above-mentioned article are sufficient to illustrate this.

Toohey idolises an apparent 'pro-democracy' movement in Indonesia, claiming that they "got a big boost when the dictator Suharto was forced to step down", and that "Australia's interests are best served by a move to democracy".

Any informed observer would know that the depth of understanding of 'democracy' in Indonesia is extremely shallow indeed, and shall probably remain that way for many decades to come. Certainly, the concept of parliamentary representation and elections is fairly well understood, but the associated and central underpinnings of democracy, pluralism and toleration of difference, most certainly are not.  Moreover, the cleavages within Indonesian society are not based upon 'class' as this is understood in Australia, but upon extremely complex polarities of nationalism, various brands of Islam, and a mystically-influenced secularism.  People like Toohey simply do not want to accept that Indonesia is fundamentally different in nearly every respect from Australia; Indonesia is not merely a nation a few rungs down on some evolutionary ladder towards becoming a country like Australia.

The so-called 'pro-democracy' movement in Indonesia was nothing more than a movement to remove a dictator who had overstayed his welcome, along with a social/political system that had irrevocably broken down.  The students who spearheaded the May 1998 revolt may have used the language of democracy, but it is extremely unlikely that most of them thought that this meant anything more than fair elections.[3]

Toohey's tunnel vision in focussing upon the figure of General Wiranto is also strangely misplaced.  Toohey seems to think that Wiranto was responsible for every crime committed in East Timor, oblivious to the fact that Wiranto was just one cog in an enormously complex military power system.  Australians like Toohey seemed to think that someone, somewhere was 'in-charge' in Indonesia, and therefore ultimately responsible for all that happened.  The fact is that Wiranto by himself could never have stopped the violence in East Timor, or anywhere else in Indonesia for that matter.  Furthermore, the concept of individual responsibility is not strong in Indonesia; the military and moves as a singular collective, despite the occasional internal squabbles that only very rarely surface in public.

Strangest of all is Toohey's apparent support and approval for Habibie.  Toohey claims that Habibie was "punished" by sections of Indonesia's military for his "support for East Timorese independence".  This goes against every known fact.  Habibie had never supported independence for East Timor.  Habibie merely supported the conduct of an autonomy plebiscite, utterly confident that the outcome would be in Indonesia's favour.  Years of propaganda has convinced even seemingly-intelligent Indonesians that the problems in East Timor were really only due to a small group of malcontents backed by Portugal.  The vast majority of Indonesians were -- and remain -- stunned in disbelief at the result of the plebiscite.  Had Habibie known what was going to happen, he would never have agreed to the conduct of this plebescite.  So much for Habibie the democrat.

But then, Toohey has rarely let facts get in the way of a good story, and his article in the West Australian is simply another illustration of this.  Unfortunately, there is a ready audience for Toohey's ignorant opinions and arrogance, and he very much reflects the uninformed opinions and views that are widespread and popular within the Australian community.

So, never mind this mythical 'Jakarta Lobby'; what needs to be routed is Australia's own ignorance and arrogance towards its region.

Notes

[1] Australian Diplomatic Digest (1997) at http://www.dfat.com.
[2] All these comments are based upon my own knowledge and experience of people and events of this time.
[3] I mention some of these matters in some notes I took around the time of Soeharto's demise, based upon my own personal observations and Indonesian media reports.  See https://okusiassociates.com/garydean/works/journal1998.html