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Australia cool on Soeharto critics

Sydney Morning Herald - March 20, 1997

Louise Williams, Jakarta – Australia is unlikely to follow the United States in expanding links with opposition groups in Indonesia and believes in the underlying stability of our northern neighbour despite increasing nervousness over recent civil unrest.

Speaking after presenting his credentials in Jakarta yesterday, Australia's new Ambassador to Indonesia, Mr John McCarthy, said Australia needed to recognise and deal with a "heightened questioning of stability" in Indonesia.

However, he said, he did not see Australia seeking to expand links with "alternative" groups in line with a recent shift in US foreign policy.

Yesterday, the US Assistant Secretary of State, Mr John Shattuck, was in East Timor for the inauguration of the contested province's second bishop, Monsignor Basilo do Nascimiento, after meeting on Tuesday the labour leader Mochtar Pakpahan, who is facing sedition charges carrying a maximum penalty of death.

The Clinton Administration has been pursuing an increasingly critical position on Indonesia, focusing on labour conditions and human rights, including face-to-face meetings with prominent critics of the Soeharto regime.

Visiting Australian Government officials have not held public meetings with opposition figures, but Mr McCarthy said the embassy would keep in touch with all points of view as a "legitimate role of the embassy".

Mr McCarthy said the US and European nations were not facing the same foreign policy challenges in dealing with Indonesia and Australia would continue to use discretion on human rights questions which may involve raising issues privately rather than publicly. He said Australia was in a particularly difficult position given the cultural differences between it and its Asian neighbours.

"If we look at events in Indonesia, particularly given the context of the [upcoming] elections, there has been a heightened questioning of stability and that is something Australia has to recognise and deal with," he said.

"The signs that I see are that one may have periods of political discomfort in the coming months - you may well have things happen you would prefer not to see happen - but the underlying stability of this country will remain constant for the foreseeable future."

Following a meeting with the Indonesian President yesterday, Mr McCarthy said Mr Soeharto had referred to the cultural differences but stressed they should not become a barrier to the bilateral relationship.

The ambassador said he believed there had been no drop in business confidence from the Australian corporate sector despite a series of riots here over the past year and warnings of further civil unrest in the lead-up to the May national elections.

"You would have to say there was a certain nervousness," he said of recent disturbances.

"But, that was a long way short of a genuine fall off in business confidence."

He said his message to Australians was that business opportunities were so great they should not be put off by "difficulties in the present political environment".

Mr McCarthy said two-way trade was continuing to expand and he predicted a further 30 per cent increase this year over last. Current two-way trade stands at about $6 billion, with a 2:1 ratio in Australia's favour.

He emphasised Australia's relationship with Indonesia was now very "broad-based" and that no single aspect, such as human rights, could hold Australia's substantial business or security interests hostage.