Saturday, May 30, 2015

Getting Indonesia-Australia back on track

There is still a lot of anger in the hearts of many Australians and Indonesians.

The anger on the part of the Australians is easy to understand.

Two Australian citizens were executed by firing squad after having been found guilty of a capital crime by a duly constituted court and after all the legal attempts to save their lives had been exhausted. In the 10 years between their sentencing and their executions, they had reformed, become good people ready to serve their fellow human beings, notably through the drug rehabilitation program that they designed and carried out while in prison.

The anger on the part of many Indonesians is different: it is born of a deep-seated grievance against Western nations with which Indonesia interacted in the past. This grievance just happened to be focused on Australia because of the clumsy way the Australian government tried to save the lives of the two condemned men. The people of Indonesia felt that they were being dictated to and were not getting the respect they deserved. The anger reached boiling point when the Australian PM Tony Abbott very imprudently brought up the matter of Australian aid to Indonesia. This was regarded as an attempt to humiliate Indonesia into sparing the lives of the two death convicts. This is now all that comes to mind when Australia is mentioned.

Nobody remembers Australia’s role in the country’s struggle to keep its independence in the late 1940s.It might seem to be the dictate of common sense to let the storm blow over before saying anything about Australia-Indonesia relations, to be silent about it for a sufficient period of time to allow the negative emotions to dissipate. And yet there might be wisdom in addressing the problem right away.

In this regard it is always a good thing to be able to see things from the other person’s point of view. When I was undergoing training to become a diplomat, we were told to cultivate the habit of two-handedness. To be able to say: on the one hand, this is how I see the issue, and on the other hand, you may have a point that I must consider.

On one hand, Australia needs Indonesia as an economic partner; on the other hand, Indonesia equally needs Australia as an economic partner and as a collaborator in its regional architecture building.

That’s why I am optimistic that on both sides the wounds of recent controversy will heal. And my optimism is strengthened when I think of what PM Abbott recently said: “This is a dark moment in the relationship, but I am sure the relationship will be restored.”

Likewise, a few days ago, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi said she hoped the relationship would normalize because, she said, “Indonesia needs Australia and Australia, I think, also needs Indonesia.”

It would help, of course, if the dialog between the two countries became more constructive. During the years that I served in the foreign ministry and dealing with Australia, I learned that indeed, in this age of information, countries scrutinized each other. This is a fact of international life.

But the developed countries of the West are the ones that are doing most of the scrutinizing, as the developing countries are more often distracted by their own domestic problems. Observation breeds criticism, and when officials express their views on issues through the mass media, they tend to grandstand and play to the gallery. This generates a lot of heat without shedding light on the issues to be addressed.

And sometimes the media are part of the problem. By providing information and commentary on issues, the media help shape public perceptions. Politicians and public officials have to deal with these perceptions that are eventually stripped of their nuances and reduced to their most simplistic forms. The traditional media have always tended to be sensational, but the most sensational of them all are social media. These days, so much misperception, so much prejudice and so much hatred are being perpetrated by social media.

The negative impacts of irresponsible media reportage and commentary are further complicated by the cultural traits of peoples. It is my impression that we Indonesians are a more emotional people than Australians and other Westerners who are more cerebral in their approach to issues. We tend to deal with others on a heart-to-heart basis, while Australians do it head-to-head. So in the case of a controversy such as that surrounding the Australian duo sentenced to death, many statements coming from Australia, which were meant to be simply sensible and practical, were received in Indonesia as hard-hearted and cold-blooded.

It would greatly help the relationship if we spent more time learning about each other instead of debating who is right and who is wrong. And there should also be a more robust manifestation of mutual respect. While we are unlike each other in terms of culture and traditions, the fact remains that we are geographically next-door neighbors. We are stuck with each other.

One of the most prudent things we can do is to invest in cross-cultural communication — in a way that shows respect for one another’s views. We can disagree while still showing respect for the person we disagree with. We must avoid the blame-game and refrain from speculation. Above all, we must avoid inflammatory language. We must shun megaphone diplomacy.

We must do more to promote social-cultural relations. Our cooperation in the field of education must continue.

At the same time we must make our economic partnership work for our peoples. They must feel and enjoy the benefits of that partnership.

We must work together to form a robust regional architecture through ASEAN-led processes, especially the East Asia Summit.

These are the ballasts of our bilateral relations. If we keep on enlarging and strengthening them, if we keep on learning about each other and showing respect for each other, our bilateral relations will grow from strength to strength in all the years ahead. It is the two countries’ shared responsibility.

Indonesians are a more emotional people than Australians and other Westerners who are more cerebral

The writer Wiryono Sastrohandoyo, served as ambassador to Australia in the late 1990s. The article first appeared in John Menadue — Pearls and Irritations blog.

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