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Country could revert to an authoritarian government

Radio Australia - July 19, 2002

[An Australian defence think tank says there's a growing risk of Indonesia reverting violently to an authoritarian government backed by the military. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute says that unlike the Suharto regime, such an Indonesian Government might be xenophobic and anti-Australian. In a report on Australia's defence after September 11, the Institute says there's evidence that Al Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan have moved to Indonesia and built links with Islamic groups.]

Presenter/Interviewer: Graeme Dobell

Speakers: Hugh White, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

White: The key question for Australia in respect to the future of Indonesia, is not what most people think – whether Indonesia will hold together – it's whether democracy in Indonesia will survive. The biggest risk we face is that because Megawati, and Abdurrahman Wahid before her, couldn't deliver effective government out of the constitutional structure they inherited, that democracy is going to become discredited in Indonesia and will be replaced by reversion to something more authoritarian – perhaps military backed and perhaps even more Islamist. That would be very hard for Australia to handle.

Dobell: You say that the danger of authoritarian backlash in Indonesia has increased – what sort of factor should that be in Australian planning?

White: When we look at Indonesia we should recognise our highest priority needs to be to support the democratisation experiment – and it is still an experiment in Indonesia. If that experiment succeeds, there is no reason why we shouldn't in the long term look forward to relationships with Indonesia that are better than they've ever been before. But at the moment because it's not delivering effective government because the critical reforms in their economy, in the legal system, in the administration of justice and in the administration of that very complex and wide archipeligo – because those haven't succeeded – I think there is a risk that Megawati's government, or the government of her successors will come under real pressure from people who would prefer to return to a more authoritarian style of government simply to get things done in Indonesia. It's not unlike what happened in the 1960's.

Dobell: What sort of time scale are you talking about? We are looking at presidential elections in Indonesia in 2004 – are you looking beyond that?

White: I don't think this is a problem which is going to flare sometime this month or next month – but I think it's a long steady series of pressures mounting on the democratic regime in Indonesia; and that within the next few years, unless things improve very significantly, I fear that the pressure on the democratic system and the pressures for a reversion to authoritarianism will become irresistable.

Dobell: How strong do you see the evidence that there are Al Qaeda operatives in Indonesia and that there is some sympathy for the Al Qaeda view of the world amongst some in the Indonesian leadership?

White: Look, that's a very complicated issue. It's often said and I think it's true that Indonesian Islam is different and it has a different kind of history and culture to a certain extent from the sort of Islam you find in Middle East. But I think you can exaggerate that – there are clearly connections and there is some evidence of Al Qaeda network linkages into Indonesia from before September 11 and also some evidence that those linkages have increased after September 11. It's very hard to be definitive as to how important they are and how fast the growth has been, but Australia should not ignore that factor in Indonesia's developing political system.