To suggest that Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has been marked by periods of instability would be less accurate to say the otherwise unstable relationship has been marked by brief periods of stability. After a few years of good relations, it again appears that Australia is headed into difficulties with its near neighbour.
Always highly sensitive around issues of sovereignty, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has rejected the newly elected Abbott government’s policy of paying villagers for information about people smugglers. He has also rejected the Coalition's otherwise poorly conceived policy of buying potential people-smuggler boats.
Indonesia had already strongly signalled its opposition to the Coalition government’s policy of "turning back the boats" ("where safe to do so"). Its view is that, once boats are in international waters, they are not Indonesia’s responsibility, nor does it have the capacity to assist boats that might get into difficulties.
These new difficulties in the relationship result directly from a significant change in Australia’s foreign policy being announced as an election promise without first having been negotiated with the principle affected party. As the incoming Coalition government is quickly learning, there is a big difference between populist pre-election promises and post-election international realism.
Similarly, comments by senior Nationals member Barnaby Joyce that he will oppose the sale of Australian agricultural land to Indonesia to raise cattle for the Indonesian market will cause long-lasting offence in Indonesia. Indonesians will rightly point out that Australia has significant investment in mining and other industries in Indonesia, but hypocritically does not wish that investment right to be reciprocal.
Australia has enjoyed several years of generally untroubled relations with Indonesia. The relationship is officially described, on both sides, as the best it has ever been. That is probably correct.
However, a very large part of that positive relationship has been a result of the benign and pro-Western leadership of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. This has been assisted by the previous two governments’ more nuanced diplomacy towards Indonesia.
Under the surface, however, many of the longer-standing tensions and suspicions about Australia’s intentions and attitudes have remained among many senior Indonesians politicians. These suspicions, they believe, are now rapidly being confirmed.
The incoming government’s "bull in a china shop" approach to regional diplomacy was always going to test Indonesia’s patience. For senior Indonesians, and indeed many others, how one is seen to act is as important as the act itself.
But more importantly, any new tensions in the relationship will likely spill into Indonesia’s forthcoming electoral period. Yudhoyono steps down at the end of his second term next year, and his successor is much less likely to be as understanding or accommodating of Australia’s interests.
Indeed, there remains a good possibility that Indonesia’s next president will run a distinctly "nationalist" agenda, which will almost by definition be combative towards Australia. As Indonesia’s economy continues to grow strongly and its strategic value only develops in importance, how Australia engages will become increasingly critical.
Australia has long acknowledged that its future lies in closer engagement with Asia, confirmed yet again by the Asia century white paper. Good relations with Indonesia are central to that engagement. Australia’s new government would do well to remember that, and to act accordingly.
Violence has again broken out in Indonesia’s troubled province of West Papua, with the Australian-supported counter-terrorism police squad Densus 88 leading the attack. In the latest violence, there are unverified but fairly detailed reports of 10 West Papuans being killed during flag-raising ceremonies at three locations across West Papua. Dozens have also been arrested in these otherwise peaceful ceremonies.
Densus 88 has been the subject of a number of critical reports, notably for being used to suppress political dissent and not in its primary counter-terrorism role.
The West Papua National Freedom Army (TPN-PB) -- the armed wing of the Free Papua Organisation (OPM) -- organised flag-raising ceremonies on May 1 across the province to mark West Papua's incorporation into Indonesia. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has said in response to the violence:
"These latest incidents are unfortunate examples of the ongoing suppression of freedom of expression and excessive use of force in Papua. I urge the government of Indonesia to allow peaceful protest and hold accountable those involved in abuses."
West Papua Legislative Council deputy speaker Demianus Jimmy Idjie condemned the use of violence by the police as a group of West Papuans attempted to hoist the Morning Star flag. "Seeing these people’s wounds, the shooters were not trying to disperse the rally, they were actually aiming at the protesters," he said.
According to several reports, two protesters were shot dead in Sorong, on the tip of the Bird’s Head Peninsula, with another three wounded and many more arrested. It is understood that four people were also killed and a further 20 arrested in the mining town of Timika, south of the central Maoke Mountain Range, and a further four shot dead in Biak, on Suipori Island, just north of the mainland, again with many more arrests.
The attacks against the protests were said to be led by Densus 88 officers, supported by conventional soldiers. Densus 88 officers arrested a further 22 activists on Saturday.
In response to this latest round of violence, a TPB-PB spokesman has called on the Indonesian government to enter into talks aimed at a peaceful resolution to West Papua's outstanding claims.
A police spokesperson, Senior Commander I Gede Sumerta Jaya, denies allegations that Densus 88 officers shot two men during the Sorong protest. However, he says the police will investigate the allegations. "It’s a hasty conclusion to condemn the police or the military as responsible for the deaths," he said, as no bodies had been found by police. Unconfirmed photos of what appear to be the bodies have been made available.
According to the UN's Pilay:
"Since May 2012, we have received 26 reports concerning alleged human rights violations, including 45 killings and cases of torture involving 27 people. While many incidents relate to communal violence, serious allegations of human rights abuses by law enforcement officials persist."
"There has not been sufficient transparency in addressing human rights violations in Papua. I urge Indonesia to allow international journalists into Papua and to facilitate visits by the Special Rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council."
Australia enters 2013 reconsidering its place in a strategically shifting world. Issues close to home have stabilised and, increasingly, considerations further from Australia are being written off as a lost cause.
Australia’s peace-keeping commitment to East Timor has ended, with that country now charting an independent and, for the medium future at least, stable course. East Timor’s relations with its giant and once problematic neighbour, Indonesia, are now so positive that it has been mooted that East Timor’s defence forces might start training with Indonesia’s army.
Australia’s peace-keeping commitment to the Solomon Islands will also end this year, bringing to a close engagement in what was once referred to as the ‘arc of instability’.
There are a number of ways to interpret Opposition leader Tony Abbott’s failure to raise his asylum seeker ‘tow back’ proposal in his meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but none of them are positive. In short, the ‘town back’ proposal was – and in so far as it continues to be defended by Opposition speakers – remains a policy disaster.
In a political contest increasingly characterised by who has the metaphorically hairiest chest, ‘Tow Back Tony’ has been a tough-guy par excellence. Not only had Mr Abbott taken the hardest line on asylum seekers, he went that one step further by not just saying that a government under his leadership would implement asylum seeker deterrent policies but it would physically take asylum seeker boats back to the territorial waters they came from.
Not since Malcolm Fraser was prime minister has the federal Coalition understood, much less had an engaged relationship with, South-East Asia. This lack of understanding and engagement was reflected again yesterday when the Opposition foreign affairs spokesperson, Julie Bishop, made a ‘courtesy call’ on the chair and deputy chair of Indonesia’s legislature (DPR).
What should have been a brief exchange of pleasantries turned into a diplomatic disaster when Ms Bishop outlined the Opposition’s policy on ‘sending back’ asylum seeker boats to Indonesia. Indonesia’s DPR Deputy Chairman, Hajriyanto Thohari, described the policy as unfair on Indonesia and said that Ms Bishop was arrogant in her expression of the policy.
At a time of unprecedented good bilateral relations with Indonesia, Australia is now looking to its future. Indonesia’s shift towards a more open democratic framework has allowed the previously troubled relationship to stabilise, but its future remains uncertain, especially over the medium to longer term.
The renewed focus on relations with Indonesia reflects its continuing critical value to Australian foreign policy. It is Australia’s largest near neighbour, the world’s largest Muslim country, a major regional diplomatic actor, the key transit point for Australian trade, travel and irregular migration and, again, a growing economic partner.
Australia policy thinkers are therefore looking at options for the longer term relationship. Among those considerations is increasing bilateral strategic engagement. More than any other aspect of the relationship, this is likely to generate controversy both within Australia and in Indonesia.
Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is continuing at its all-time high following the conclusion of the East Asia Summit in Bali. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has come away from the summit confirming a major reduction in tariffs in trade with Indonesia, providing further "ballast" to the once-troubled relationship.
Even Australia’s agreement to host US Marines in the Northern Territory has caused fewer problems than sometimes insecure strategic commentators in Jakarta might have indicated in the days immediately after the plan was announced. Having said that, it is unlikely that Australia will take up President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s suggestion that Australia also play host to China’s military, by way of balancing assertions of regional power.
The announcement by East Timor’s prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, that his country will begin military to military links with Indonesia has caused widespread surprise, given the deeply troubled history between the small, recently independent state and its large and previously belligerent neighbour. There are a number of benefits to this new arrangement, which will also see police to police links established. But there are also many unresolved issues.
Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975 led to the deaths of more than a quarter of its population, almost 200,000 people, with its final farewell being the destruction of most of the country and the murder of around 1,500 more civilians. According to Prime Minister Gusmao, it is now time to forgive and forget.
Desperate times, they say, call for desperate measures. Proposing to cut $400 million from Australia's aid budget to Indonesia’s schools program looks pretty desperate. So one can only assume that having alienated damp Queensland voters and not just a few Victorians, Tony Abbott is trying to find a way out of opposing the one-off tax hole he has dug himself into.
Someone should tell him that the first rule of holes is, when you are in one, stop digging.
Abbott’s chopping of the Indonesian education program would be an abysmal policy decision, but for one saving grace: being in opposition means it won’t be enacted.
American journalist Allan Nairn’s game of cat and mouse with the Indonesian military is a brave attempt to show that it continues to represent the greatest challenge to Indonesia’s process of reform and democratisation. It is also one that could well see him spending time – potentially up to six years - in an Indonesian prison.
Nairn recently detailed how the Indonesian military’s special forces, Kopassus, continued to be involved in illegal activities, including murdering civilians. His report comes at a time when the US is considering renewing direct support for Kopassus, after having banned working with it for a decade and a half.