I’ve been pondering on Indonesia and realpolitik. Professor Bunyip’s elegant pay-out on Alison Broinowski first set me off on that track. I even took the time to skim-read Broinowski’s doctoral thesis (of which her new book is a reworked version), which the Professor kindly linked. The Professor characterises Broinowski’s position in this delightful passage:
In her thesis, Broinowski begins with the anti-Orientalist contention that those who have embraced stereotypes and value judgements must abandon them. When she lays out her take on Occidentalism, however, the source of responsibility has gone walkabout (no Orientalist slur intended). Now, it is Australia’s responsibility to avoid giving offence, be it by advocating democracy, offering views on regional matters, or choosing its own alliances. Broinowski’s only consistent note is that, whether the West is viewing others or being viewed by them, its sin will always be the greater.
Or, for simplicity’s sake, let’s put Mrs. Broinowski’s side-step shuffle in a context that the feminist in her might appreciate: Called as an expert witness at two rape trials, she denounces the first attacker, a hirsute Australian, for acting on the vile and racist misconception that attractive Oriental girls exist to be sexually assaulted. Then, nipping next door, she testifies that a little Ozzie shiela raped in Bali must shoulder much of the blame, even lecturing her that slinky sarongs and brazen bikini tops “invited contempt” and made whatever brutalities her attackers inflicted “predictable.”
Only if the jury consisted of academics and ABC media watchdogs would the second accused be acquitted.
Although I tend to agree with the Professor, his rant (which Tim Blair admiringly echoes) seeks to create an impression that Broinowski’s stance on our near Asian neighbours is merely a typically leftist piece of anti-western self-loathing.
Certainly there are strong elements of that, as Broinowski’s summary of the attitudes of first generation Asian-Australian authors and film-makers suggests:
[T]he new fiction shows Australians as many might not see themselves. Large, lumpen, white, racist, hypocritical, ignorant, and unsubtle if not downright thick is how Australians (but not Americans) often appear to writers whose perspectives combine ‘prior knowledge’ and first-hand observation. Occasionally, individual Australians are observed to be kindly, even friendly; but their friendliness is often devalued as superficial, simple-minded, or selfishly motivated. The Asian observers don’t want to sink to their level.
Not being an aficionado of arthouse films, I can’t be sure whether that’s a fair summary of their content, though I strongly suspect that it says at least as much about Broinowski’s attitudes as those of the filmmakers.
However, leaving aside Broinowski’s cultural cringe, much of what she’s advocating is simply the stock standard Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade approach towards our near Asian neighbours. That’s hardly surprising, because Broinowski is a former DFAT bureaucrat and diplomat. I became familiar with the DFAT regional view when, as a politician, I went on a
junket fact-finding mission to Indonesia in 1993. I was given an intensive briefing by some relatively senior DFAT officers, presumably so I wouldn’t say or do anything really stupid and cause a diplomatic incident. I was told later it was the standard ‘realpolitik’ briefing they give all politicians. Essentially, their line was that, although Indonesia might well be a corrupt, brutal military dictatorship, it at least had a strong, stable government. That was in Australia’s national interest. Permitting destabilisation could lead to much worse situations, with Indonesia blowing apart and being replaced by much less friendly, unstable “failed state” regimes, some of which might well be of a fundamentalist Islamic nature. That would be a real threat to Australia’s security. Better to keep Suharto and his thugs, and hope for a gradual transition to democracy over time.
This approach to Indonesia (and Malaysia and Philippines, for that matter) really hasn’t changed substantially under the Howard government. Certainly, there’s been a renewed emphasis on the importance of the American alliance, and a period of frost in the relationship with Indonesia caused by our East Timor involvement starting in 1999. However, that wasn’t a deliberate move to abandon the traditional DFAT realpolitik accommodation with Indonesia; the peacekeeping role was rather forced on Howard by the appalling butchery of the Indonesian military and its militia thugs in the full glare of the world’s media and UN election monitors. Now everything’s returned to business as usual. The DFAT realpolitik understanding has been largely restored, although no doubt there are still residual tensions. The extent to which the DFAT view has been re-embraced in a bipartisan fashion is underlined by this post by Adam at in de-nial about the mostly ineffectual “show” trials of Indonesian military and militia accused of atrocities in East Timor. The fact that, despite Indonesia’s almost complete failure to bring anyone to account for the appalling atrocities in East Timor, the response from both government and opposition politicians in Australia has been deathly silence, speaks volumes for the extent to which DFAT has re-imposed its will on politicians from both sides. Mind you, with Kevin Rudd being a DFAT mole in the ALP it probably wasn’t all that difficult. Similarly with the current brutal military crackdown on rebel forces in Aceh. Again neither side of politics has said a thing.
Although there’s a strong cultural cringe element in Broinowski’s book/thesis, most of the hypocritical double standards identified by Professor Bunyip actually flow from Australia’s renewed bipartisan ‘realpolitik’ accommodation with Indonesia. We’ve again concluded that our national interests require us to cosy up to a Javanese military kleptocracy, because the alternative might be an Islamo-fascist nation of 200 million people within spitting distance of Darwin, with Abu Bakr Bashir as President and Osama Bin Laden as Defense Secretary. The only point on which Broinowski (and the ALP) differ from the Howard government is on the extent to which we can successfully get away with cosying up to the Americans and Indonesians at the same time.
PS – To avoid a debate I’m not interested in having, I concede that “Javanese military kleptocracy” is perhaps now an overly harsh description of Indonesia. There has been some progress in the direction of genuine democratic reform, although not as much as one might have hoped, and little obvious attempt to clean up corruption. Nevertheless, Megawati is a long way from being another Suharto.
Update – A Bunyip bites back!