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Relations in the fog

By Roger Smith - posted Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Average Australians and Indonesians are often bewildered about the relationship between our two countries, and for good reason, given the hyperbole and distortions offered by the foreign policy elites of each country.

While in Indonesia the tendency is to grandstand on nationalist issues and to use hostility to Australia and other western countries to political advantage, in Canberra it is exactly the opposite. Much has been said of the Jakarta lobby’s influence over most aspects of the government-to-government relationship and its insistence on the need to overlook abuses and show extreme sensitivity to the interests of whoever happens to be in power in Jakarta.

Yet for those of us who have lived in Indonesia and know its people, the official views offered by Deplu (Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and DFAT seem somehow distorted and unreal. We can love and admire the Indonesian people and yet at the same time wholeheartedly, just like the Jakarta-haters, denounce the brutality of TNI’s activities in West Papua, the corruption and venality of the country’s office-holders, the unfairness of its justice system and the depravity of religious extremists.


To accept the good is to also hold out hope of reform of the bad. To love the country is not the same as to deny the existence of corruption and human rights violations.

Arguably no incident more cogently illustrates the fog and distortions in relations between our two countries than the case of Schapelle Corby. To the shock jocks and ratings-chasers of certain radio and television stations in Australia, this young woman’s story was evidence of the insidious treatment of an innocent Australian by a brutal and uncivilised Third World judicial system. On the other hand, for many in the so-called “respectable” media and to some on the left, reaction to the case was proof of the ignorance and racism of ordinary Australians.

If her supporters reached the zenith of their vitriol in calls for a boycott of Balinese tourism, Corby detractors could hardly be said to have cleared the fog. Within days of the verdict, Corby supporters were falsely accused of having launched a biological terror attack on the Indonesian embassy in Canberra. When this accusation was found to be false, the detractors (a good many of them with the apparent intent of assuaging Jakarta’s feelings), set about attacking the young woman’s family.

The ABC’s 7:30 Report even hinted at her guilt by running a story about her dying father having once lived next door to an alleged cannabis grower. Corby’s Indonesian lawyer, expecting gratitude from Australians who had earlier shown so much sympathy for his client, was justifiably shocked at the lack of co-operation he received from the Australian Government and public.

Many at the higher echelons of the Australian side of the relationship like to give the impression that ordinary Australians are ignorant of Indonesia and that people-to-people ties are the single biggest factor that will strengthen relations. Yet it was precisely the cultivation of ties between the Corbys of Loganlea and a certain Balinese family that generated this saga.

The truth is that it is not the ordinary people who are to blame. The creation of Australian mass tourism to Bali has had by far the greatest positive impact on Australians’ understanding of Indonesia, but this achievement had nothing to do with the efforts of any “political class” in Canberra or any in academia calling for increased study of Asian languages.


The Corby case is just one small example of the distortions that occur in relations between our countries. Even in the relatively short period that has passed since her trial, we have had other Australians paraded through the Indonesian justice system. Consistent to form, two young Australians were sentenced to death by the same court in Denpasar with our federal authorities arming the men’s accusers.

Another young Australian woman charged with drug possession, Michelle Leslie, was told by prominent human rights advocate Marcus Einfeld not to disclose information about her experience with the Indonesian judicial system on the grounds that it might “humiliate” Indonesian officials. For a prominent retired human rights judge to oppose the public's right to know on the grounds that corruptors and or hypocrites need to be protected from “humiliation” seems strange at first, but not if we remember that we are dealing with the fog of Indonesian-Australian relations.

One still wonders though, if an Indonesian citizen were to suffer through some irregularities in the Australian court system, would the same human rights advocates also be arguing that such violations be covered up? If not, is it not racist then to suggest that we censor Indonesian violations?

East Timor was once the cause célèbre of Indonesian-Australian relations. Indonesians are quite justified in being suspicious of our intentions over West Papua by virtue of our past two-faced stance on East Timor. This is not because it was wrong of ordinary Australians to criticise human rights abuses by Indonesian armed forces. The problem was that our official stance on East Timor was so completely at odds with the reality of domestic and international public opinion. It was not a case of Australian racism or ignorance, but rather the failure of the foreign policy elite to unequivocally express our views and interests.

The latest backbencher revolt to changes in our immigration laws over the Papuan asylum issue is a rare and welcome victory for all those who care about achieving long-term sustainable relations based on reality, not appeasement. But whether the moderates can maintain their stance or whether the Jakarta lobby strikes back, “Bruces” and “Budis” will still be here as neighbours and as friends plodding away as best we can in the fog. And if we succeed, it will be in spite of - not because of - those who insist that it is us who are to blame.

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About the Author

Originally trained as a lawyer, Roger Smith lived in Indonesia and East Timor from 1995 to 2004 where he worked in the justice, human rights and trade union arenas.

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