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Howard - "Indonesian military was behaving very badly"

ABC TV interview, 23/11/99

John Howard, PM, and Kerry O'Brien

KERRY O'BRIEN: OK, PM, these leaked defence intelligence documents, were you aware earlier this year of that intelligence, that the Indonesian military were, according to that intelligence, were deliberately arming pro-Indonesian militia, effectively subcontracting them -- to use the terminology -- to disrupt the independence vote?

JOHN HOWARD: I was aware and I made it very plain publicly that the Indonesian military was behaving very badly.

I just checked before I came on this program.

For example, at a news conference on 17 or 18 April this year, I said that there was unmistakable evidence that the Indonesian Army at the very least was not doing anything to stop the violence.

Hang on, can I answer your question?

That's what provoked my visit to see Dr Habibie in Bali.

But can I say one thing about all of this?

Can I just say to those people who are now being critical -- what did they expect us to have done other than what we did?

Are they seriously saying that even if we had believed every single word in every single document, that we were going to go and invade Indonesia?

KERRY O'BRIEN: No-one's suggesting invasion, PM.

But the implication is when Australia's chief priority around this time -- January, February, March -- when Australia's chief priority as expressed by your Foreign Minister was to promote reconciliation between warring Timorese, you had defence advice that the Indonesian military were using the militia as active tools to foment violence and disrupt any reconciliation process.

How could you have hoped to achieve reconciliation in that climate?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, we received a great range of advice and the take-out clearly was that at the very least -- and it was obviously potentially much worse -- the Indonesian armed forces were not doing their job.

That's at the very, very least.

But I take you back to the fundamental question -- that we had no capacity to bring about a change of attitude on the part of the Indonesian Army, or the Indonesian authorities, other than by intense diplomatic pressure.

We made 120 separate representations to the Indonesian authorities from the beginning of the year until about the time of the ballot.

Australia, ahead of any other nation on earth, put pressure on the Indonesian Government to accept a peacekeeping operation.

If it hadn't been for Australia's efforts, the peace enforcement operation assembled more rapidly than any peace enforcement operation in the last 24 years by the United Nations, would not have gone in as soon as it did into East Timor.

Of course, the Indonesian Army failed in its duty at the very, very least and potentially much worse.

But there's no way on earth that the Indonesian Government was going to allow peace enforcers to go into East Timor until after the ballot.

That was made plain to me when I saw Dr Habibie in Bali in April.

It was made plain to me again when I spoke to Dr Habibie around the time of the ballot.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That was what Dr Habibie told you, but the fact is --

Isn't it true that it was only by that concerted international effort -- not just Australia's effort and nobody's taking away from Australia's effort -- but isn't it true it was only by that concerted international pressure on Indonesia that Indonesia eventually folded and allowed the peacekeepers in?

I guess the question is -- will we ever know if that concerted international effort had been encouraged earlier in the process, when you were getting this advice from your own military, we will never know whether the Indonesians would have folded earlier and lives would have been saved?

JOHN HOWARD: You've let out one very important element in the chain of events.

That was the ballot.

It was the catalyst represented by the overwhelming vote for independence, followed by bloodshed and a clear desire by the militia to frustrate the b allot outcome that finally galvanised the world.

Now my critics, the Government's critics on this, Mr Brereton and others, are basically saying we shouldn't have had the ballot.

That's what they're basically saying.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Aren't they saying the efforts should have been made earlier to get peacekeepers in?

JOHN HOWARD: Every effort was made, but short of invasion, how else could you have got people there?

KERRY O'BRIEN: But isn't the point --

JOHN HOWARD: No, could I just finish?

I listened to a very long question, so please allow me to answer.

KERRY O'BRIEN: There have been reasonable answers too.

JOHN HOWARD: No, but I am actually being asked to respond.

The catalyst for action, the thing that really galvanised the world in the end, Kerry, was the combination of two things.

An 80 per cent vote for independence followed by unmitigated bloodshed and a clear desire by the militia to frustrate.

Now, it is my firm view that that was the thing that finally made it possible for the world to be fully galvanised to action.

There was no enthusiasm on the part of the Americans for a heavy military involvement before.

There was no enthusiasm on the part of anybody.

Nobody in their remotest senses could have suggested that we should have contemplated military action against the will of the government of the Republic of Indonesia.

It was a combination of events that finally tipped the scales in favour.

It was Australia ahead of everybody else that brought this about.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Isn't it also true that when you were still arguing and recommending to the Americans and others that reconciliation should be the primary focus, that in that same period you were putting peacekeeping initiatives as a second-rung issue, that reconciliation was your prime focus?

JOHN HOWARD: Well, Kerry, what I was recognising was the reality and that is that there was no way that the Indonesians were going to accept foreign troops on their soil before the ballot.

No way.

That was made plain.

That was the view of Kofi Annan.

It was the understanding of any person who really understood this situation.

We are seeing a massive and partisan attempt to rewrite history and it won't wash.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Just very briefly, in one of the later intelligence documents in September after the ballot, they stated that General Wiranto: " -- has destabilised Indonesia --

- General Wiranto, the head of the armed forces, still -- " -- has destabilised Indonesia by reintroducing violent confrontation and repression as a means of doing business."

"That the resurgence of Wiranto will engender the widespread opposition likely to be met with violence, destabilising consequences over the next five years."

Does that advice concern you -- the implications of it?

JOHN HOWARD: If it turned, obviously if it were true and it turned out to be true, it would.

I tend to take a more optimistic view, Kerry.

I think the presidency of Wahid and the Vice Presidency of Megawati offer real hope for Indonesia.

I think they are embarked on a new path.

I don't want to get carried away with that notion, but I think we are seeing a huge change.

They've gone a long way in 12 months -- 211 million people, third-largest democracy on earth, if it sticks.

I'd like to believe that that is possible.

Anything can occur in a nation that's gone through the sort of volatility and turmoil that country has gone through.

But there are some very optimistic signs and I see in President Wahid very much part of that.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Are you satisfied that Australia is giving enough support, urging strongly enough for a genuine energetic, international effort to prosecute war crimes, where justified?

JOHN HOWARD: I think we are getting the balance right in relation to that.

If you allow the proper processes to run -- and we'll do all we can to facilitate the proper processes -- I believe that that will lead where there is guilt, to the prosecution of that guilt and the punishment of those who are responsible for war crimes.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Even if it goes right to the top, General Wiranto.

JOHN HOWARD: I don't want to say 'yes' or 'no' to that because, I mean, others can fling names around.

I have to be rather more careful.

KERRY O'BRIEN: John Howard, thank you for talking to us.

JOHN HOWARD: Pleasure.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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