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Bridging the gap with Indonesia

By Chris Devir - posted Thursday, 4 August 2005

If Australia is serious about securing its borders against terrorist attacks it must build bridges with Indonesia and not put up walls.

Australia’s relationship with its northern neighbour is ambivalent at best and approaching impertinent at worst. Australia has excellent relationships with nations halfway around the globe but fails to engage in a profound way with our most important neighbour.

Successive Australian governments have failed to build any lasting relationship with Indonesia and considering the untapped potential of stable relations with the fourth most populous country in the world, it’s a shame. After Australia’s involvement in East Timor’s independence, Indonesia’s attitude towards Australia has been resentful.


To understand the reason for the Indonesian mindset is to know their history.

The Indonesians endured 350 years of Dutch colonial rule whereby their indigenous culture was supplanted by European culture. The Dutch were eventually forced out of Indonesia by the Japanese who were instrumental in forming an Asian identity for Indonesia. Following the Japanese defeat in 1945 the Dutch tried to resume control of Indonesia but were met with fierce opposition from nationalist movements. Indonesia gained official independence in 1949.

The transition to independence has not been smooth for Indonesia. The resulting political upheaval has undermined the nation’s ability to prosper as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have done.

Through all of this turmoil the Indonesians have embraced the democratic process and managed a secular government. The newly elected president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, seems reticent to build a good working relationship with Australia, but good relations need improving from a grassroots level.

Australians have a poor knowledge of Indonesia and, besides the annual trip to Bali, have no desire to learn more about this fascinating country. Bali is a small piece of the jigsaw that makes up the 13,000 islands of the archipelago. While most Australians have heard of Jemaah Islamiah, not many of us know about the culture or the pageantry of everyday Indonesians.

Given the recent bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and the aftershocks of the Bali bombing it seems Australians hold a fear of Indonesia. Our fear, and therefore lack of engagement, can be interpreted as an ambivalence or haughtiness.


While the Indonesians have a resentment of Westerners, and therefore Australians, we are going to be a target of the terrorist element within the country. When an individual can walk into a crowded street and detonate a bomb strapped to their body, it doesn’t matter how big the walls are, what boats you have patrolling the coastline or how many missiles you have pointed at the enemy. It’s like boxing your shadow, you can never win.

Terrorism is impossible to defeat. US President George Bush said it before political minders muzzled him for reasons of election window dressing. It exists as a liminal crime of humanity that wears many labels and fails to remain static long enough to be defined.

The best defence to terrorism is to ask the question why the terrorist is attacking you in the first place. It is better to address these issues rather than playing the terrorist’s game and retaliating. Terrorism feeds on publicity. Terrorism feasts on aggression.

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About the Author

Chris Devir is a freelance writer from Bondi Junction. He has set up his blog The Political Monster and he is currently reseraching a book on politics and the media.

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