Indonesia’s response to the spying imbroglio last week — when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recalled his ambassador and suspended security cooperation with Australia — reflects a political history of constant foreign intervention in Indonesian affairs that few Australians are aware of.
Indonesia emerged as a modern nation
in the wake of World War II, when Japanese troops ousted the Dutch, who had
subjugated and exploited the country for centuries. After the Japanese
surrender in August 1945, Indonesia’s founding President Sukarno declared
The new republic lay within the
American-dominated South West Pacific Area and was soon handed to the
British-dominated South East Asian Command. Allied
soldiers arrived in Jakarta in September 1945 and began to occupy major
Indonesian cities with the aim of returning Indonesia to its pre-war status as
a Dutch colony.
Thousands died in the bombing of
Surabaya. Dutch soldiers and administrators returned, led by Hubertus Johannes
van Mook, who had run the Dutch East Indies government-in-exile from Brisbane
during the war. Dutch POWs, released by Indonesia, were armed and sent back on
rampages against Indonesian civilians and police. Australian
troops participated in the occupation of the outer islands, including Bali, and
were involved in massacres.
The British have since apologized for
this cruel attempt to stifle the young nation’s struggle for freedom and
sovereignty. Australia has not.
The Sukarno government also clashed
with the British when the latter shaped its own former colonies in the region
into another modern state. The north of the vast island of Kalimantan was
annexed into the new state of Malaysia despite its cultural and historical ties
to Indonesia and contested political status, and amid protests by the local
war (the “Confrontation”) began, and Australian troops participated. Covert
operations into Indonesian Kalimantan began in 1964 under the code name
Operation Claret. Attempts to assassinate Sukarno failed.
Indonesia witnessed one of the greatest genocides of the 20th century, as army
general Suharto led a military coup against the left-leaning but essentially
nationalist and non-aligned Sukarno government. Up to one million innocent
Indonesian civilians were butchered over the following year at a rate of 1,500
people per day, to the applause of Western powers including Australia.
The pretext was a fake coup attempt,
falsely attributed to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The deep
involvement of British and American intelligence in staging this bloody
military coup, similar to the Pinochet takeover of Chile, is beyond reasonable
The victors were soon able to convene
in Switzerland to divide the spoils — Indonesia’s enormous wealth in natural
resources — thanks to foreign investment legislation introduced by the military
dictatorship. Countless blogs in Indonesia ensure this history is more widely
known there than it is in Australia.
The lack of an apology for such
consistent unneighborly behavior may seem astonishing in the context of the
“Asian Century” and needs to be understood as a direct consequence of the
ongoing nature of these operations.
In West Papua, for example, the
Indonesian military continues to provide the means of violent coercion required
to facilitate vast foreign-owned mining and other ventures not set up primarily
to benefit Indonesia, but for which Indonesia’s military will one day be asked
to take the political blame.
Continuity, as well as profound
ambivalence, is evident in the personal histories of members of today’s
Indonesian elite. Looking back to the military coup, for example, we discover
that on Nov. 19, 1965:
“…the Australian Embassy in Jakarta
proudly reported on an “action”; a massacre, led by an Australian-trained
officer. Colonel Sarwo Edhie was a 1964 graduate from an 18-month course at the
Australian Army Staff College at Queenscliff, near Melbourne.”
President Yudhoyono is married to his
What then is the meaning of the
current spying scandal?
Why would Australian agencies spy on
Sarwo Edhie’s daughter?
Why, for that matter, should
Australia spy on Yudhoyono, who has earned himself a bad name in Indonesia
precisely for selling out to the interests of Western investors andgovernments?
Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party and coalition partner the Prosperous Justice Party
(PKS) have been devastated recently by the discovery of corruption involving
Australian cattle imports.
Yudhoyono may be hoping that the
political theatrics might help to restore his nationalist credentials
sufficiently to enable him to serve as kingmaker in the next year’s
presidential election. But given that Edward Snowden was the source of the
leak, it seems more likely to have been an afterthought.
Rather, the ambiguities in the
relationships are such that Australian distrust is easy enough to understand.
It is not that Indonesia is actually a threat to Australia. In more than 20
years of research, I have never seen the slightest indication of hostile
Indonesian ambitions toward Australia. Instead, the potential threat is that
this local elite might turn around, become genuinely nationalistic, and bring
the feeding frenzy to an end.
Feelings among the Indonesian elite —
even those who have collaborated with Australia in the past — are deeply
ambivalent. On his deathbed, Yudhoyono’s father-in-law is said to have repented
of his role as a key engineer of the killings. Some of Yudhoyono’s own
relatives in the East Javanese city of Blitar suffered in the violence Sarwo
Edhie had helped to orchestrate.
Similar patterns emerge when we look
at other dynasties, such as the very prominent family of current presidential
candidate Prabowo Subianto. Again, we see
repeated reversals in Indonesian powerbrokers’ relationships with the Dutch and
subsequent foreign powers, oscillating between collaboration and strong
These ambiguities are now becoming
explosive for two reasons. First, Indonesia is a rising power and this is
slowly dawning on the national psyche. A new assertiveness can be seen
occasionally in political posturing, and there is a new sense in Indonesia of
Australia as a small and recalcitrant neighbor that does not want to see the
writing on the wall.
Some members of the Indonesian elite also
realize Australia is itself a victim of colonial history, and is disadvantaged
in the Asian Century by a set of traditional alliances that are difficult to
Second, after the fall of the Suharto
dictatorship in 1998, Indonesians are increasingly becoming aware of their
nation’s sad post-colonial history. Even the truth about 1965 — long buried by
the Suharto regime — is now being openly discussed and acknowledged.
Considering Australia’s position as a
white settler nation in Southeast Asia and being newcomers to the neighborhood,
Australians need to consider urgently whether they should loudly and formally
distance themselves from this imperial legacy.
Thomas Reuter is ARC Future
Fellow at the University of Melbourne.