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Kevin Rudd and Indonesia's Obama

  • 04 July 2013

PM Rudd's visit to Jakarta this week will almost certainly be marked up or down depending on the outcome of his talks with President SBY on the trafficking of asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia. The issue is the latest high profile measure of the health of the Australia-Indonesia relationship.

A potentially much bigger test, however, is just around the corner. Next year, Indonesians will elect a new president. Their choice will not only say a lot about the state of democracy in the world's fourth most populous country; it will also impact on the Australia-Indonesia relationship for better or for worse.

The choice confronting the electorate is between what might be called Old Established Forces and New Emerging Forces, to borrow terms coined by Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, in a former anti-colonial context.

The final list of candidates is still to be settled, but the two individuals who most starkly represent Indonesia's past and its future are Prabowo Subianto, a former military commander, and Joko Widodo (pictured), a civilian being described in Jakarta as Indonesia's Obama.

Suharto is dead, but he continues to make his presence felt. Posters in Central Java show a smiling Suharto teasing lebih enak jaman saya kan? (My time was nicer wasn't it?) and asking Indonesians how they are going. Many are said to pine for the days when, so the joke goes, 'You only needed to pay off one person to get things done'. His family recently opened a huge museum in his honour. It makes no mention of his crimes.

Though he tries to re-brand himself as a champion of Java's populous rural poor, a massive reservoir of votes, Prabowo is unavoidably associated with the Suharto years. He is the former dictator's son-in-law, prosecuted the disastrous war in Timor-Leste on Suharto's behalf, has a questionable record in Papua, and is widely considered to be tarnished with the Suharto regime's bad human rights record.

Prabowo has not been tried and found formally guilty of human rights violations. However, he is banned from the US for alleged involvement in torture and the organising of rapes during the upheaval in Jakarta at the end of the Suharto regime in 1998. And Timor-Leste's CAVR truth commission argued that he and fellow officers who had command responsibility in Timor-Leste during Indonesia's illegal occupation must be held accountable for the atrocities perpetrated against thousands of civilian victims there.

Australia is not generally considered to be active in the