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Sunday, Aug. 12, 2001

Indonesian failure not an option

LOS ANGELES --If Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer had but one wish, it might be for the far-off West, especially the United States, to put itself in Australia's shoes for a second. Imagine, if you will, that north of the U.S. hovers not stolid and sensible Canada, which has a population barely a shadow of ours, but instead a sprawling colossus with more than 10 times as many people. Imagine, too, the horror if this northern giant, which had sometimes evidenced hostility toward you, were to come apart, struggling through its early days as a fledgling democracy, and expunge countless waves of refugees toward your borders, plunging the region into geopolitical overload. Now that would be a national-security nightmare.

In fact, this is arguably the predicament of Australia, underpopulated at little more than 19 million, as opposed to its northern neighbor Indonesia, teeming with 210 million people. Downer, who has been Australia's outspoken foreign minister since the inception of the conservative John Howard government in 1996, could only wish that Indonesia were more like a relatively calm (and harmless) Canada. But in the last few years, the region's equanimity has been shaken by the epochal fall of Indonesian strongman Suharto, and then that of his replacement, B.J. Habibie, and then that of the country's first democratically elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid.

As the region turns: Now Indonesia offers Megawati Sukarnoputri, a woman president in a largely Muslim country whom many outsiders do not take seriously. But, whether out of personal knowledge or quiet desperation, Downer does, predicting that this famed daughter of the country's dictatorial and legendary founder Sukarno will confound all critics who tag her weak and vacillating.

"No, no," he insisted, telephoning from Australia. "She's an effective politician with strong support among the Indonesian people and in Parliament. Of course, she does need to maintain a clear sense of direction."

That, Downer acknowledges, will not be easy, especially if the region's big boys just watch from the sidelines and offer no help. America, for example, could responsibly revive aspects of its severed relationship with the Indonesian military, which needs U.S. coaxing to tame its tendencies toward authoritarian excess. The army must serve Indonesia and Megawati patriotically, as a legitimate arm of government and not as a cruel oppressor of its own people.

Recalling all the bloodshed two years ago, Downer says, "You saw what happened when East Timor broke off from Indonesia," even though autonomy for the former Portuguese colony had been authorized by Habibie.

The widespread violence, perpetrated by belligerent militias and vengeful elements of the Indonesian armed forces, was quelled only by the heroics of a U.N. peacekeeping force of largely Australian troops. But the effort, while ultimately acclaimed internationally, was resented as much as applauded in Indonesia, a former Dutch colony, sensitive to real or imagined white colonialism.

Once was probably enough for many Australians. Downer believes others, especially from Asia proper, must help. The key to regional problems, geopolitical or economic, is regional problem solving.

Japan, for example, could start pitching in, even with troops as part of a regional force, not just underwriting others' efforts with money:

"In the past, all that Japan could do in a crisis would be to send checks. They're very sensitive about not wanting to telegraph any sense of militarism, but an incremental change in their regional role would be welcome," says Downer.

The problem for Downer and others with that commendable vision is that a lot of people in Asia are unable to forget past atrocities and fear the worst if Japan sheds its pacifist protective shell.

Downer, whose father was a Japanese prisoner of war, finds that frustrating: "Hey, the war was over in 1945. To what extent do you want to keep this issue alive? How many times do we have to ask the Japanese to apologize? I was 5 when they first apologized."

Downer believes the countries of Asia will soar together -- if they bury the past and face the future as a community -- or sink. Indonesia may prove a test case. If support for secessionist movements were to increase in other Indonesian provinces, notably Aceh, in the sprawling archipelago's northwest, and Irian Jaya, in the extreme east, Downer predicts: "What happened in East Timor would look like a Sunday-afternoon picnic."

The regional -- indeed worldwide -- hangover the morning after would be exceedingly painful. Megawati must succeed, and the world must help her.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser. His column is distributed internationally by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.

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