Australia and Indonesia seek closer ties

JAKARTA, Indonesia, AP

Seeking to end years of troubled relations, visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard called for better ties with Indonesia and urged new President Megawati Sukarnoputri to implement economic and human rights reforms in the troubled Southeast Asian nation.

However, Howard responded cautiously to calls for the resumption of full cooperation with Indonesia’s military.

Speaking to reporters after one hour of talks with Howard, Megawati also said she wanted relations with Australia “to be strong again for the future.”

Howard said the two neighbors would build a “strong, realistic and positive relationship.”

“It must be grounded in realism and common sense, mutual respect and mutual benefit,” he said.

Howard’s two-day visit to Jakarta, although short on specific initiatives, has been big on symbolism as it was the first by a foreign leader since Megawati was elected president three weeks ago.

The bilateral relationship, which had been rocky for years, almost collapsed in 1999 when Australia led a peacekeeping force into East Timor to end violence instigated by the Indonesian military after the province voted for independence.

Wanting to put the past behind them, the two leaders said in a joint communique that both would forge ties with East Timor, which is now under U.N. administration as it prepares for full independence next year.

The communique said Australia was ready to help resettle East Timor refugees who fled to Indonesian West Timor after the 1999 independence ballot.

It noted that Indonesia’s cooperation with international agencies, including East Timor’s U.N. administration as well as the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, was key to the success of East Timor’s future.

International aid bodies have stayed away from West Timor since last year, when a militia gang killed three UNHCR workers, including a U.S. citizen, in an attack on their office in West Timor.

The 15-point statement also called on Indonesia to solve bloody separatist conflicts in Aceh and Irian Jaya through dialogue, more autonomy for both regions and “greater respect for human rights.”

“The Australians want the separatist movements in Irian Jaya and Aceh to end,” Indonesia’s top security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters after meeting Howard.

He said the two nations’ security forces would resume full ties, which were downgraded after the violence in East Timor in 1999. However, Howard later denied any plan had been made to rebuild the relationship.

“We haven’t made any arrangement for those discussions to take place,” he said. “I just think that the issue will be addressed inevitably but gradually.”

In a sign of goodwill, the Australian prime minister said he would push the international financial community, including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, to help Indonesia recover from its deep economic crisis.

It said Howard “welcomed the importance placed by the government of Indonesia on reaching agreement with those institutions on programs of economic reforms and management of Indonesian debt.”

His commitment comes as the IMF mulls whether to end a nine-month moratorium on lending to the struggling country, which began over a dispute on the pace of economic reform.