Many Australians seem oblivious to the potential for political and diplomatic problems between ourselves and Indonesia, warns Raymond Watson.
The day before Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono arrived in Australia for talks on bilateral diplomatic and trade relations, The Australian reported, in a tiny one-paragraph news brief buried in the back pages, that the Indonesian leader had recently announced that his government’s "war against corruption" had failed, and that "it seemed that corruption was seen as a way of life in Indonesia".
I wonder if our Prime Minister alluded to Yudhoyono’s apparent "retreat" in the "war against corruption" before discussing increased trade links with the Indonesian delegation?
Many Australians seem oblivious to the potential for political and diplomatic problems between ourselves and Indonesia, a point I managed to make in my leading "Letter to the Editor", published in The Australian (January 12, 2005), just after the Asian tsunami disaster:
"Having congratulated ourselves for the speedy and compassionate response to the victims of the Asian tsunami," I wrote, "it is not too early to dwell upon the political ramifications and take steps to ensure the newly-developed and deepened goodwill between ourselves and our neighbours be sustained.
"This could quickly dissipate if our compassionate response is not tempered by an ability to tread lightly around the cultural, religious and geopolitical concerns of these countries …
"We are already reading letters by correspondents attempting to politicise our involvement in Indonesia’s Aceh province, suggesting that our assistance should be somehow used as a bargaining chip to force Jakarta’s hand in its struggle against militant Muslim separatists in that region, citing Australia’s previous successful intervention in East Timor.
"Aceh separatism is a different matter altogether. Aceh is an integral part of the Indonesian nation-state, and any political intervention – or activities construed as such – will be seen by Jakarta as an attack on Indonesia’s territorial integrity, and will rapidly undermine our new but delicate relationship with Indonesia.
"By all means, Australians can pride themselves on their generous response to the disaster, but a sense of excessive self-satisfaction could make them blind to the sensitivities involved and the potential for a political ‘disaster’."
Now we read in The Australian (March 29, 2005) that, on the eve of President Yudhoyono’s visit to Australia, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla recently held talks in Jakarta with Australian academic Damien Kingsbury "in his capacity as a negotiator for the rebel Free Aceh Movement".
As Peter Westmore pointed out (News Weekly, March 26, 2005), the headquarters of the East Timorese resistance was, prior to 1999, based in Australia, and currently the West Papuan resistance, which also seeks independence from Indonesia, is also based in Australia.
The revelation that Indonesia’s Vice-President must deal with the Free Aceh movement through an Australian non-governmental interlocutor seems to clinch the argument, at least in the minds of many Indonesians, that Australia is not the "honest broker" it purports to be, and has more in store for Indonesia than just tsunami relief and expanded trade links. They may come to view Australia as the home-base of those forces fighting to dismember the Indonesian Republic.
A sordid "blame game" ensued after the October 2002 Bali bombings, in which Indonesian Islamist terrorists killed scores of Australians. But what is certain is that the perpetrators, Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiah – widely believed to be affiliated with Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda global terrorist "jihad" – deliberately chose Australians as targets.
On November 3, 2001, one year before the Bali bombings, Jemaah Islamiah released a taped statement, denouncing Australia as a "Crusader state, intent on seizing East Timor, which is part of the Islamic world. Australia’s action is a war of annihilation against Islamic nations".
As I wrote in Quadrant (July-August 2004), "As if to remove any doubts about the rationale of the Bali bombings, three days after the event, the Arab satellite news channel al-Jazeera broadcast a taped interview with bin Laden, in which he said, "Australia had been warned about its participation in Afghanistan and its ignoble contribution to the separation of East Timor, but it ignored this warning until it was awakened by the echoes of explosions in Bali."
We cannot genuinely seek to enhance our diplomatic and trade relationships with Indonesia while we allow our country to be used as a support base for organisations dedicated to the dismemberment of the Indonesian nation-state.
After all the discreet diplomacy and political tact involved in President Yudhoyono’s visit has dissipated, and we "come back down to earth" after the self-congratulation of our compassionate response to Indonesia’s tsunami tribulations, we’ll have to make some very pragmatic decisions, especially about self-appointed "freelance ambassadors" undermining the new relationship at the very time we seek to enhance it.
We cannot "have it both ways". Indeed, if we attempt to do so, we’ll engender more of the same antipathy that took so long to mollify after the East Timor intervention.
- Raymond Watson