04 October 2008

Diplomatic Australian Prime Minister smiles through an awkward moment

The Canberra Times 04/10/2008 - One hazard of being prime minister is you never quite know who you'll meet next.

Kevin Rudd's office goes to considerable lengths to avoid surprises, but at conferences and public forums anyone may be next in line to shake his hand. So it was on September 9, when he was at the national congress of the Returned and Services League in Townsville.

Among the guests RSL national president Bill Crews introduced to Mr Rudd was retired Indonesian Lieutenant-General Herman Mantiri, who was representing the Indonesian veterans' organisation Legion Veteran Republik Indonesia.

As a former diplomat and foreign policy expert, Mr Rudd wouldn't have needed a briefing to recall the 1995 controversy over General Mantiri's appointment as Indonesia's ambassador to Australia.

Then recently retired from his post as Indonesian's chief of general staff, General Mantiri was nominated by president Suharto as Indonesia's representative in Canberra and the Keating government accepted the appointment. Almost immediately, however, a storm of protest erupted over remarks General Mantiri had made three years earlier as Indonesian military commander in East Timor, when he was interviewed about the 1991 massacre of 270 East Timorese independence demonstrators in Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery. ''We don't regret anything. What happened was quite proper ... we took firm action.''

Under intense media and public pressure, the Keating government revoked its agreement to General Mantiri's appointment and a diplomatic stand-off between Australia and Indonesia lasted for months.

Mr Crews told The Canberra Times yesterday that, during his recent visit, General Mantiri said how disappointed he was when his diplomatic posting was cancelled, and insisted his remarks had been reported out of context. No mention was apparently made of General Mantiri's listing in East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation report as one of the senior Indonesian military officers who commanded troops responsible for human rights abuses and atrocities during Indonesia's occupation of East Timor.

General Mantiri is identified as commander from 1976 to 1979 of Airborne Infantry Battalion 700, which was heavily engaged in operations against the East Timorese resistance and implicated in a range of human rights violations, including killings, rape and detention of civilians.

As military commander in East Timor in the aftermath of the Santa Cruz massacre, he later commanded forces engaged in intensified operations against the resistance, including detentions of civilians and the alleged torture and disappear-ance of independence supporters.

The commission's report recommends that all UN members ''refuse a visa to any military officer who is named in this report for either [human rights] violations or command responsibility for troops accused of violations and take other measures such as freezing bank accounts until that individual's innocence has been independently and credibly established''.

The Australian Government has not acted on this recommendation.

News of General Mantiri's recent visit to Australia came as the Australian Federal Police began to investigate Guy Campos, an East Timorese now in Australia, accused of collaborating with the military involving kidnapping and torture of East Timorese citizens during Indonesia's occupation.

An expert on Indonesia's military, Dr Clinton Fernandes, of the Australian Defence Force Academy, said justice required the investigation and prosecution of alleged war criminals, whether they were at the top or the bottom of the chain of command.

''As a first step, Australia shouldn't be giving visas to people like Mantiri,'' he said. ''Former and serving Indonesian military officers who exercised command responsib-ility in East Timor should be held accountable for their own actions and the actions of their troops during the Indonesian occupation.''

Mr Rudd's office was unable to say yesterday what the Prime Minister and General Mantiri discussed during their meeting.

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