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Humiliation on the high seas

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 15 November 2013


The Australia-Indonesia relationship has always been a 'testy' one. Back in 1986, Indonesia insulted by what it called slander by the Australian media, changed immigration rules without notice when a group of Australian tourists were mid-way on a Garuda flight to Bali, forcing their return. It was only when former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating placed great importance upon the Australian-Indonesian relationship in the 1990s, that the relationship improved, however this failed to evolve under the Howard Government, which re-emphasized the Australian-US relationship. Since then annual ministerial meetings between the two countries has focused on singular issues like people smuggling, asylum seekers, live cattle exports, and Australian prisoners in Bali, rather than important regional and geopolitical issues.

As a result, it could be strongly argued that the Australian-Indonesia relationship has not grown into a mature one, being very little above transactional, with few deep personal engagements between the leaders of both countries. This lack of personal rapport was partly to blame for the situation that nearly led to major clashes between TNI and Australian troops in East Timor back in 1999.

The vastly different ways both countries see the relationship was seen clearly when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's (SBY) and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave their respective addresses to a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament in 2010. Rudd spoke of the achievements of the relationship, while SBY talked about the challenges ahead. Specifically SBY warned of a mindset stuck to rigid old stereotypes, where a lot has to be done to improve 'people to people' contact to understand the facets of each other's life. Most importantly, SBY mentioned that the Australia-Indonesian relationship must be opportunity driven to move onto new issues and bring the relationship to its full potential. SBY went on to effectively suggested that Australia and Indonesia explore the prospects of playing a role in developing a new world order that would be beneficial to all.

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Last week, this relationship appeared to go 'back to the future'. In the wake of leaked documents from Edward Snowden that exposed Australia spying on Indonesia from its embassy in Jakarta, and a number of cyber attacks on Australian business and government websites by Anonymous Indonesia, a stand-off on the high seas between the two countries occurred.

A boat load of Asylum seekers called for assistance just 57 nautical miles south of the Sunda Straits, where the Australian naval ship HMAS Ballarat went to assist. When seeking permission to drop off the asylum seekers at the nearest port in Indonesia, permission was refused. A standoff occurred in the Java Sea for a couple of days until Australia backed down and ferried the asylum seekers to Christmas Island which is Australian territory.

What was most ugly about the stand-off were not the events on the sea, but the exchanges between both governments that took place during and after the incident.

In short, what came out of these exchanges was that Indonesia strongly believes that Australia should not act unilaterally, where a comprehensive solution to the problem should be sort bilaterally. In contrast, Premier Abbott in a radio broadcast said that he was not happy about the Australian vessel being refused permission to drop off the asylum seekers who were picked up within the Indonesian search and rescue zone at the nearest Indonesian port.

Accusations have gone back and forth, but the message Jakarta seems to be giving is that Australia can't take Indonesia for granted.

This blunt response to Australia attempting to return the asylum seekers to Indonesia is not the usual style of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The decision to refuse permission for the Australian vessel to drop off the asylum seekers to the nearest Indonesian port would not have been taken lightly, as SBY would be well aware that Premier Abbott would lose face domestically with his 'turn back the boats' policy in tatters. However Premier Abbott's policy put the Indonesian President in a predicament with the opposition forces, where an election is due next year.

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Although Indonesia has drastically changed over the last 15 years, Australia is still seen with suspicion by some of the older generation who remember Australia's role in East Timor (now Timor Leste) and blame Australia for its loss. Within this group the perception that Australia believes itself to be superior to Indonesia still exists, something that can be easily exploited by opposition forces within Indonesia. Should SBY choose to do nothing, the opposition could fan nationalists sentiments which could be destabilizing and exploited politically.

SBY cannot afford to let the people see him weak. If some government anger is not shown to Australia, there will be opportunities for others to vent anger at Australia for political ends. Those who have watched SBY's usual style know that showing anger is very counterintuitive for him. However for those who understand the layered meanings within a wayang kulit or shadow play performance, will see the deeper message that is being sent from Jakarta to Canberra.

One must remember that the young educated middle class of Indonesia generally have warm feelings towards Australia, and can distinguish the difference between Australians and their government which is perceived to have shown great insensitivity towards Indonesia with the spying and boat people incidents of late.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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