Following President Jokowi’s visit, it’s time to acknowledge secret parallels in Indonesian and Australian history, writes Terry Russell.

The recent visit of Indonesian President Joko Widowo (Jokowi) to Australia has been hailed for improving cooperation between Indonesia and Australia. Military cooperation is to be revived after a spat in January 2017 and new trade deals are to be signed.

Relationships between governments are on the mend but some sectors of the Australian public may remain sceptical. A September 2016 survey found that only 43 per cent of Australians felt favourably towards Indonesia. The comments sections of online news articles continue to be rife with references to human rights abuses. This scepticism towards Indonesia is partly because Australians have examined and judged Indonesia’s history without looking for parallels with Australian history. If Australians and Indonesians become more aware of these equivalents, we see that we are not so different.

Dark histories
Some ‘dark episodes’ in Indonesian history relate to mistreatment of civilians in East Timor and mistreatment of local Chinese. Yet in each of these episodes, Australia has a similar history.

Indonesia’s military is criticised for killing, directly or through induced starvation, more than 100,000 East Timorese. The first five years of its ‘integration’ of East Timor included dropping napalm and deliberately destroying Timorese gardens and livestock in order to force Timorese out of hiding places and into ‘strategic hamlets’. Even today, few Indonesians understand the magnitude of the subsequent civilian death toll. A UN-commissioned study of the death toll, the Chega Report, has minor internal inconsistencies – in some places calculating that the maximum civilian death toll from 1975-1999 was 183,000 ‘due to hunger and illness in excess of the peacetime baseline’. In other places the report claims that the maximum figure of 183,000 was for the period 1974-1999, and that ‘18,600 of these were direct killings or disappearances mainly committed by the Indonesian security forces’.

But either way, the Chega Report is clear that these figures refer just to civilians. The current Indonesian language version of Wikipedia seems to conceal the number of civilian deaths by providing a combined figure for military and civilian personnel and by saying part of this number simply suffered hunger: ‘sekitar 100-180,000 tentara dan warga sipil diperkirakan tewas atau menderita kelaparan’ (around 100-180,000 military and civilian personnel are estimated to have been killed or suffered hunger). As the Indonesian military departed East Timor in 1999, its trail of murder and arson was described in Australia’s media as vengeful. But part of the Indonesian military’s motivation lay not in vengeance but in fear of ‘Balkanisation’ – that if East Timor were allowed to separate without retribution, other provinces may follow.

The above story sounds dark indeed, but it has parallels in Australia’s experience in Vietnam. Australia and its allies dropped napalm and forced Vietnamese civilians into strategic hamlets. Today, few Australians would know the magnitude of the Vietnamese death toll – civilian or military.  There was no UN-commissioned study of the death toll in the Vietnam War. Australia and its allies used the term ‘domino theory’ to justify their intervention in Vietnam but this label has a similar meaning to the fear of ‘Balkanisation’ in 1999. Whereas Australia and its allies sought to prevent the spread of communism, the Indonesian military sought to prevent the spread of separatism.

Indonesian military officials and their militia proxies have been criticised for removing children in East Timor from their parents. Indonesians in response often claim to have had benign intentions. This story should sound familiar to Australians because, as researcher Helene van Klinken has noted, Australia has a similar episode in its recent past. Those in Australia who removed mixed blood indigenous children from their parents in the 20th century also claimed to have had benign intentions.

During the Suharto era, there were repeated attacks on Chinese. Two of the best known were in 1998, when Chinese Indonesians were scapegoated for the Asian Financial Crisis, and in 1965, when Chinese Indonesians were a chief target of those trying to wipe out communists and labour activists. The parallels in Australian history are milder, but there are parallels. Australia’s history is peppered with race riots, including riots against Chinese gold prospectors in Victoria in 1857 and in NSW in 1861, and against southern Europeans in Western Australia in 1934. Once again history suggests Australians are not so different to Indonesians.

We should not forgive the above violations but we should acknowledge that people from both countries have committed similar abuses.

Land rights histories
Another parallel lies in indigenous land rights. Right across Indonesia, the expansion of palm oil in recent decades has led to marginalisation of indigenous groups. Indigenous people’s loss of land should be another familiar theme to Australians. Even the belated recognition of indigenous land rights has parallels.

In December 2016, Indonesia’s President Jokowi awarded land rights to nine indigenous groups, with many more indigenous groups expected to push for land rights in 2017. This recognition came 70 years after Indonesia’s declaration of independence.

Similarly in 1992, following a ten-year legal case initiated by Torres Strait Islander Edie Mabo, Australia’s High Court finally recognised indigenous land rights. In 1993, Australia’s Federal Parliament passed the Native Title Act, which established a legal framework for native title claims right across Australia. This recognition came nine decades after Australia became a nation.

Multicultural histories
In many countries in the world, it’s possible to get on a train and hear only one language spoken. Not so in Indonesia and Australia. In fact, so diverse are these countries’ ethnic groups that it’s common to hear several different languages in the space of a five-minute train ride.

Indonesia’s history shows its rulers have always embraced diversity. At its birth in 1945, Indonesia was already one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse nations in the world. Its independence leaders promoted respect for diversity through their national motto, ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’, which translates as ‘unity in diversity’. They promoted it in their ideology of ‘Pancasila’, designed to bind Indonesia’s potpourri of ethnic and religious groups into one nation by listing five principles on which all Indonesians could agree.

Since those early years, Indonesia’s rulers have never stopped promoting respect for ethnic and religious diversity. To learn to embrace diversity, all school children study Pancasila and the many foods, clothing styles, dance styles and building designs across the archipelago. Soldiers and civil servants swear an oath of loyalty to Pancasila. On occasions a small number of Indonesian citizens have incited ethnic and religious hatred but as a nation Indonesia has a strong tradition of respecting ethnic and religious diversity.

This is another characteristic that Indonesia shares with Australia. Since the end of World War II, Australia has become a nation of great ethnic and religious diversity. Like Indonesia’s rulers, Australia’s rulers promoted ethnic and religious diversity. They did this firstly by funding assisted migration from the Baltic States, southern Europe and Britain from 1945 – 1965.

Later, as the nation welcomed migrants from around the globe, Australia’s rulers promoted respect for diversity through an ideology of ‘multiculturalism’. Economic opportunities were made available and within a generation these migrant families were well educated and prosperous. On occasions, particularly prior to World War II, small groups of Australian citizens have incited ethnic and religious hatred but in recent decades Australia has developed a strong respect for ethnic and religious diversity.

As multicultural society sprang up in Australia, giving it characteristics more in common with Indonesia, so too did democratic governance spring up in Indonesia, giving it political elements more in common with Australia. Today both countries face the challenges that have beset all democratic systems: the rise of cyber media causing shortened attention spans and wildly varying versions of the truth; the rise of corporate lobbyists; and an erosion of public trust in mainstream politicians. While Indonesian democracy today battles to contain the politically motivated spread of ethnic and religious hatred, Australian democracy battles a widespread perception that politicians ‘are stuck in political trenches hurling insults rather than tending to the nation’.

Forever histories
Australia and Indonesia are often described as neighbours. This is an imperfect metaphor because if two neighbours have a disagreement, one of them can simply move house. Australia and Indonesia do not have this luxury. Geography has given us many shared experiences in the past and will continue to bring us shared experiences in the future.

President Jokowi and Prime Minister Turnbull are already planning some of these shared experiences, including cooperation on trade and security. If the Australian public is to love thy neighbour, there must be greater awareness of the parallels in our darker history, our land rights history, and our multicultural history.

Dr Terry Russell worked as a teacher and aid practitioner in Indonesia for 15 years. He is currently based in Australia, working in the international aid sector.