Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Challenges in Yudhoyono`s Visit to Australia

The Garuda Indonesia aircraft carrying President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his entourage to Australia touched down at the RAAF`s Fairbairn Air Base in Canberra on Tuesday. Along with First Lady Ani Yudhoyono and a number of cabinet members and governors, President Yudhoyono on Tuesday kicked off his three-day visit to Indonesia`s southern neighbor.

This was his second state visit during his two terms as president after 2005. During the 2005 visit, the two governments signed a Joint Declaration on Comprehensive Partnership. In the agreement signed by Yudhoyono and former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, the two countries expressed their strong commitment to taking their relations into what they called "a new era".

Indonesia and Australia even saw themselves as not "just close neighbors but fellow democracies with shared interests and a common future". However, a year after the signing of the comprehensive partnership, bilateral relations were disrupted by a diplomatic incident after the Howard government granted protection visas to 42 West Papuans. The diplomatic tensions triggered by Australia`s welcoming of the West Papuan boatpeople led by Herman Wainggai in early 2006, eventually forced the two countries to make another agreement.

The new accord was named "Agreement on the Framework for Security Cooperation" also popularly called "the Lombok Treaty". It reaffirmed Australia and Indonesia`s commitment to respecting each other`s sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity. Through the Lombok Treaty, Jakarta and Canberra focussed on strengthening nine areas and forms of cooperation: defense, law enforcement, counter-terrorism, inteligence, and maritime security. Also cooperation in aviation safety and security, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, emergency cooperation, as well as community understanding and people-to-people cooperation.

Australia`s leading Indonesianist, Jamie Mackie, argued that the treaty had "bound Australia to uphold Indonesia`s national unity and deny the use of its territory by separatist elements in Indonesia." Both the comprehensive partnership and Lombok agreements are part of the Yudhoyono government`s main achievements in an effort to strengthen Indonesia`s bilateral relationship with Australia.

Apart from the ups and downs in the two neighbors` relationship over the past decade, the two agreements have become Jakarta and Canberra`s guidelines to move their relations forward. If this argument is put in context, what is then the meaning of President Yudhoyono`s second state visit to Australia for Indonesia`s national interest and bilateral relationship in future?

According to Australia`s mainstream media such as the Australian Associated Press (AAP) and Sydney Morning Herald, almost all issues President Yudhoyono and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd would discuss mainly affected Australia`s interest. The AAP, for instance, expected border security, counter-terrorism and illegal fishing issues to be on the agenda of the two leaders` talks on Wednesday. The Sydney Morning Herald raised the Bali Nine issue, especially related to the death penalty for three of nine Australian drug smugglers, to be also discussed in the Rudd-Yudhoyono meeting.

All these issues do not only reflect Australia`s domestic interest but also confirm that security matters remain part of its significant considerations for building bilateral relationship with Indonesia. In dealing with the people-smuggling issue, for instance, the two countries have been closely working based on bilateral and multilateral cooperation accords. Australia has asked Indonesia`s help to foil asylum seekers attempts to reach its waters as can be seen in last year`s interception of a boat carrying Sri Lankan refugees in the Sunda Strait. The Indonesian police (Polri)`s contribution to the disruption of asylum seeker boats` sailing to the Australian waters has been recognised by Australian Interior Minister Brendan O`Connor.

Over the past year, O`Connor recently said , Polri had stopped at least 2,160 illegal immigrants from successfully sailing to Australia. Furthermore, in helping Australia crush the people-smuggling rings, Indonesia had also met Canberra`s request for the extradition of Hadi Ahmadi, an Iranian whom Polri had arrested for allegedly being involved in the crime.

Australia Punishes Indonesians

But, in response to the flows of asylum seeker boats, the Perth magistrate court punishes tens of Indonesian boat captains with severe imprisonment despite the fact that many of them are just poor fishermen. Indonesian Ambassador to Australia and Vanuatu Primo Alue Joelianto had commented on the ill fate of Indonesian boat skippers being jailed in Western Australia for people smuggling charges. Speaking to ANTARA in Darwin last year, Ambassador Primo said he did agree with severe sentence for those masterminding the people smuggling operations, but not the poor Indonesians.

"I do agree that the masterminds are severely sentenced but those who actually know nothing, don`t punish them severely," he said. The Perth magistrate court punishes the asylum seeker boat skippers from Indonesia from five to six years in jail. In this context, protecting the rights of Indonesians being caught, detained, and tried by Australia has been a crucial problem within the two countries` war on people smuggling.

About the implications of the war on terror, Indonesia`s success in killing and capturing terrorists, including Malaysian terrorist Noordin M.Top, fails to change Canberra`s travel advisory policy. Despite the two countries` commitment to promoting a community understanding and people-to-people cooperation as stipulated in the Lombok Treaty, the travel advisory hampers the efforts. Instead of lowering its level, Australia`s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) maintains its travel advisory for Indonesia to remain at level four.

With the level four status, the federal government has warned its people to reconsider their plan to travel to Indonesia due to "the very high threat of terrorist attack".

For Canberra, Indonesia`s security condition is just better than Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea, Iraq, Niger, Somalia, and Sudan. The Australian government has ignored what Indonesianists, Andrew MacIntyre and Douglas E Ramage, have suggested in their book "Seeing Indonesia as a Normal Country, Implications for Australia" (2008). Instead of helping improve Indonesia`s image in the minds of its people, the Australian government and media still look at their northern neighbour as an abnormal country.

As a result, there is no doubt that majority of Australian people have low trust in Indonesia as convincingly shown by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute`s 2006 and 2009 surveys. When President Yudhoyono and his joining ministers and governors visit Australia, the outcomes of the Lowy Institute`s surveys do reflect the real challenges for the two neighbours` relationship. by Rahmad Nasution (Antara News)

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