Monday, February 24, 2014

Indonesia’s open season on Australia

Protesters burn a mock Australian flaglast year. The Indonesian sense of irony
coexists uneasily with a determination togive Australia a slap over perceived
slights to Indonesian dignity.

“WE didn’t much enjoy being part of your election campaign and you won’t much enjoy being part of our election campaign.”

So says a very senior Indonesian, looking forward to parliamentary elections, as well as possibly two rounds of presidential elections, in Indonesia over the next eight months.

Last week in Indonesia there was a kind of open season on Australia. Every single day the media, often enough on the front page, seemed to be running stories disobliging to Australia, and a range of Indonesian politicians and media commentators lined up to give us a whack.

It’s easy to overstate these things. It’s in the nature of a free and competitive media that it tends to get into a bit of a frenzy over the issue of the day, with each outlet trying to outdo the other.

But three separate issues were running against Australia simultaneously: the latest revelations about past Australian spying on Indonesia, the controversy over the Abbott government’s boats turnaround policy and the Schapelle Corby case.

On the spying front, there was the revelation that the Australian Signals Directorate had the ability to intercept huge numbers of Indonesian phone calls, and had offered to give Washington confidential information about US-Indonesian trade negotiations.

On the boats front, the big issue was the fallout from the revelation that Australian ships had accidentally breached Indonesian sovereign waters during the boats turnaround policy. But the disturbances at Manus Island also got a lot of attention.

And on Corby, the question was whether she would engage in media interviews, paid or unpaid, and whether this could endanger her parole status.

Indonesian opinion on these issues is varied.

Senior Indonesian editors and politicians told me repeatedly that people-smuggling did not rank even in the top 20 issues in Indonesian life or media attention. The Snowden revelations, on the other hand, are extremely hot news. In the Indonesian media last week, the Snowden revelations tended to drive responses to people-smuggling, the idea perhaps being that Jakarta can punish Canberra for spying by giving it grief over people-smuggling.

Even the generally liberal English-language press contained some rabid anti-Australian material. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was abused for being too soft on Australia.

Pierre Martinhus, a respected Indonesian commentator, wrote a savage op-ed in the Jakarta Post, in which he said: “Australian warships will now be frequenting Indonesian waters. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s diplomatic legacy is now vividly clear: a tradition of diplomatic spinelessness and an Australian bully to the south well intent on trampling over Indonesian sovereignty. Although Sukarno was the one who coined the pejorative phrase ‘a nation of coolies and a coolie among nations’, it was obviously Yudhoyono who managed to craft that catchphrase into a diplomatic reality for Indonesians today. Yudhoyono’s tuck-tail diplomacy and Tony Abbott’s bull-headed arrogance is the ultimate recipe for a diplomatic disaster.”

This is an extreme and not particularly representative view. It is notable not only for its savagery but for its lack of any factual basis. Canberra notified Jakarta of the inadvertent breaches of Indonesian sovereignty, apologised profusely, publicly and repeatedly, and promised never to make a similar mistake again.

The op-ed demonstrates the over-riding role that emotions, as opposed to facts, are playing in the Indonesian debate.

But there were plenty of other Indonesian views as well. Australians often miss the spectacular Indonesian sense of humour.

The same newspaper carried a front-page satire of the Indonesian response to Australia, and Indonesian attitudes generally, allegedly recounting a meeting of the Respond to Australia’s Incursion Demeanour, or RAID, committee.

Two excerpts give you a sense of its wickedly satirical tone: “As you know, our southern neighbour has been behaving like the arrogant colonial godless sons of convicts posturing as deputy sheriffs that we all know they are. We’ve shown our measured displeasure by withdrawing our ambassador. Even if we want to send him back we can’t because the road to the airport is flooded.”

Or: “Order! Order! I’ve got a message here from the Indonesian military - it’s going to send the fleet into the Arafura Sea, provided it can get fuel. AusAID can pay. Do they have GPS sets?”

This Indonesian sense of irony coexists uneasily with a determination to give Australia a slap over perceived slights to Indonesian dignity.

The Snowden revelations, for example, reveal as much about US spying capacity and intent against Indonesia as they do about Australia. Yet when US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Indonesia last week he was treated with sublime courtesy, although, rather bizarrely, he did not meet the Indonesian President. Australia on the other hand got a series of public floggings.

The Jakarta Globe noted the contrast, if not the irony, in a headline: “Unshaken, allegations of Australian spying fail to strain Jakarta-Washington ties.” The Jakarta Post similarly noted the contrast, with the front-page headline: “RI (Republic of Indonesia) slams Oz, silent over US”.

Another weird US dimension of the Australia-bashing in Jakarta last week was the public announcement by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa that he would raise with Kerry Indonesia’s concerns with Australia’s boats turnaround policy. This was odd on many levels, not least that the US itself routinely turns boats around in the Caribbean, from Haiti, Cuba and other nations.

But this was explained to me in Jakarta as seeking to convey a kind of measured insult to Australia. The implication is that because Jakarta could get no satisfaction from Canberra on the issue it would raise it with Canberra’s real masters in Washington. Although everyone regarded Natalegawa raising Australian policy with Kerry as odd, the subtlety of this particular insult seems to have passed most Australians by.

The debate on the boats issue in Indonesia is very short on facts, but very high on charged rhetoric and emotion.

An exception to this was a detailed seminar on people-smuggling hosted by Jakarta’s Centre for Policy Studies and Strategic Advocacy. A number of former Indonesian cabinet ministers, and a substantial number of Indonesian newspaper editors, attended, which was itself an encouraging sign of a continuing willingness to engage in dialogue.

The highest-profile Indonesian attendee was Hassan Wirajuda, a former foreign minister who was immensely effective, widely respected internationally and a good friend of Australia’s.

Nonetheless, his presentation to the conference showed how far apart the two governments, indeed the two nations, are on this issue. Wirajuda commented: “Looking back to 2002 we, Australia and Indonesia, suffered a great setback. The illegal migrants issue was triggered by an election (the 2001 Australian election). Some Australians blamed Indonesia for not doing enough. The debate tended to bilateralise the issue. This is not a bilateral issue. Australians shouldn’t blame Indonesia. Indonesia is a victim of people coming to Indonesia in order to go to Australia. So we proposed a process whereby countries of origin, transit and destination sit together to find a solution.”

Wirajuda is a fine man and was an adornment to Indonesian public life. Yet his position seems to be based on a series of misconceptions, which bedevil the Indonesian debate. First, illegal immigrants are not an issue primarily because of Australian elections. Both sides of Australian politics, and the overwhelming majority of the Australian people, support a high immigration program with a generous refugee component, but are absolutely committed to preventing people-smugglers choosing who comes in this program, that is, allowing large numbers of people to arrive illegally by boat.

Similarly, Wirajuda, like most Indonesians who address this issue, constantly refers to the Bali process and says it should be handled multilaterally. In fact, the Bali process specifically provides for bilateral and unilateral national actions. But more generally, the Bali process has been running since 2002 and has produced some useful co-operation but absolutely nothing concrete that would stop the boats, which under Labor at one stage were bringing people illegally to Australia at the rate of 50,000 a year. The Bali process cannot solve the problem.

There is also surely a contradiction in Wirajuda saying Indonesia is a victim of people coming to the country in order to continue to Australia, and then opposing Australian policies, which stop the people from getting to Australia. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees figures are incontestable on this point. Since the Abbott government has stopped the boats getting to Australia, the number of people coming to Indonesia for that purpose has dropped dramatically. The number of people registering for asylum status in Indonesia this month is 71 per cent less than at the same time a year ago. Last month it was 44 per cent less than a year ago.

Very few people, fewer than 10 per cent, now register for asylum in Indonesia but fail to show up for subsequent interviews, which is what was happening when they were getting on boats. A rapidly increasing number are taking assisted voluntary return to their homelands. The price of a place on a boat is falling and some people-smugglers are leaving the business.

In answer to a question, Wirajuda acknowledged the declining numbers but thought it would be temporary, because the underlying factors pushing people out were still there. If that’s true, then no solution is possible. But in reality both Australian and Indonesian authorities know many of the people coming, especially from Iran, Lebanon, North Africa and other source countries, are not by any normal meaning refugees.

Wirajuda also repeated a common Indonesian charge that by turning boats back Australia was illegally “refouling” refugees. In fact, the refugee convention is clear. Refoulement occurs only when an asylum-seeker is returned to the country where they allege they were being persecuted. Returning an Iranian to Indonesia cannot be refoulement.

Similarly, until it stopped co-operation on people-smuggling in response to the first set of Snowden revelations, Indonesia was, through its police, disrupting many people-smuggling operations on land in Indonesia. What is the moral difference between stopping such a venture just before it sets out to sea, and returning a boat just after it has put to sea?

Indeed the last time Jakarta withdrew its ambassador from Canberra in 2006 it was because Australia would not turn back a boat of asylum-seekers from Papua.

The Indonesians seem to have badly underestimated Abbott at two levels. One, they certainly underestimated his resolve. They still cannot quite believe that an Australian government takes illegal-immigrant/people-smuggling issues as seriously as the Abbott government does.

Two, they have underestimated Abbott’s genuine desire for a good relationship with Indonesia. But there are three things Abbott cannot do: he cannot change the past, so Snowden may still have much to reveal that is embarrassing; he cannot change the nature of our intelligence agencies; and he cannot change the Australian determination to stop the boats.

The best chance for the relationship to recover is that Abbott’s boat policy succeeds, the boats stop and the issue, in bilateral terms, goes quiet. In the meantime, there will be a lot of sport at Australia’s expense in the Indonesian elections.

by Greg Sheridan The Australian

No comments:

Post a Comment