AUSTRALIA'S part in the attempted restoration of Dutch rule in Indonesia is an unlikely candidate for a more critical re-examination of our wars abroad. He was commenting on a contentious article, Australian espionage and the history of foreign intervention in Indonesia, written by Melbourne University's Thomas Reuter and published recently by The Conversation website and The Jakarta Post
The article presents the spying
scandal as simply the latest instance of "constant foreign intervention in
Indonesian affairs that few Australians are aware of".
Professor Reuter, an anthropologist
and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, suggests that Australia owes
Indonesia an apology for its part in the post-war attempt by the Allies to help
the Dutch return as imperial masters after the defeat of the Japanese.
"The British have since
apologized for this cruel attempt to stifle the young nation's struggle for
freedom and sovereignty. Australia has not," he writes.
Professor Reid, an expert on the
history of Southeast Asia, said "a more balanced and self-critical
remembrance of past wars in which Australia has participated would certainly be
"But Australia's role in the
restoration of colonial rule in eastern Indonesia in 1945-6 seems an unlikely
place to start.
"The whole Pacific War was
fought to defend a creaky colonial system, and in its latter stages
racially-tinged atrocities were frequently committed against Japanese who were
wounded or attempted to surrender.
"The destruction of Borneo
cities in 1945, particularly Balikpapan, was on a massive scale.
"As against this pattern, the
Australian repression of the modest stirrings of the independence movement in
eastern Indonesia in 1945-6 was not notably bloody - though there were indeed
"More remarkable in the context
of the time was how many diggers, especially those connected with the Communist
Party, were prepared to support independence actively.
"One of the reasons the
Indonesian quasi-Parliament gave for thanking Australia in November 1945 for
its support was that Australian soldiers in Borneo were reported to have
supported independence demonstrations."
In his article, Professor Reuter does
not mention Australia's early shift to diplomatic support for Indonesian
He also charges Australia with having
applauded as the Suharto military regime presided over "one of the
greatest genocides of the 20th century" in 1965-66.
"Up to one million innocent
Indonesian civilians were butchered over the following year at a rate of 1,500
people per day, to the applause of western powers including Australia," he
"The pretext (for Suharto's
seizure of power) was a fake coup attempt, falsely attributed to the Indonesian
Communist Party (PKI).
"The deep involvement of British
and American intelligence in staging this bloody military coup, similar to the
Pinochet takeover of Chile, is beyond reasonable doubt."
An expert on the period, Robert Cribb
of the Australian National University, said this account of the 1965 events was
"It is now certain that the PKI
leader, DN Aidit, was involved in the coup that triggered the army crackdown
and the massacres," Professor Cribb said.
"To call the army's action a
pre-emptive coup is simply wrong. It is also wrong to call the 30th of
September Movement a 'fake coup'.
"It may have had limited aims,
but the limited aims still involved a decisive shift to the Left - the plotters
seized power in the name of a Revolutionary Council."
As for the mass killings, Professor
Cribb said the "safest estimate" of the number killed was half a
The Reuter article was first
criticised by Adrian Vickers, professor of Southeast Asian studies at the
University of Sydney.
He seized upon Professor Reuter's
claim that during the independence struggle "Australian troops
participated in the occupation of the outer islands, including Bali, and were
involved in massacres".
Professor Vickers said it was simply
not true that Australian troops had occupied Bali during the early period in
which Allied forces were seeking to hold positions for the returning Dutch.
And he said he had never heard of any
evidence of Australian troops being implicated in atrocities against Indonesian
There were Australian troops, his
father included, stationed in what became eastern Indonesia.
"Some volunteered to go to Ambon
for the post-war occupation. Dad said it was dead boring, the only action was
fishing with dynamite in Ambon Harbour," he said.
After Professor Vickers complained,
The Conversation edited the Reuter article, withdrawing the claim that
Australian troops had occupied Bali and taken part in massacres. These claims
remain unchanged on the Jakarta Post website.
In the debate that ensued, Professor
Reuter acknowledged the passage was "poorly worded," and said he had
relied on "a senior Indonesian official" as his source.
He suggested Australia could be held
responsible in a more general way for the unequal fight between poorly equipped
Indonesian militants and the Allied forces of which Australia was part.
"Everyone supporting the
reoccupation was at least indirectly 'involved' because the stated aim thereof
was to create military security for the return of the Dutch East Indies
Government," he said.