Still Living Dangerously


Our relations with Indonesia will always be one of our four most important relationships along with those with Japan, China and the United States. They are far too important to be allowed to drift.

We should not expect too much too quickly from President Yudhoyono’s Government. When the former American Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, visited Sydney last month he described Indonesia as ‘a fantastic success’ because it had become a democracy, because President Yudhoyono has close connections with America, and because of his Government’s opposition to Islamic extremism. The reality is, however, that SBY is a cautious consensus builder. He calculates what he can do politically and what he thinks would be too disruptive to attempt.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at <i>The Australian</i>”  ></p>
<p><span><small>Thanks to <a href=Peter Nicholson at The Australian

Indonesia is a fragile democracy. SBY’s party holds only 55 seats in the Indonesian Parliament. His strength is derived from the size of his popular mandate rather than his parliamentary support. He received 60.62 per cent of the popular vote at the Presidential election but Golkar, led by Vice President Jusuf Kalla, and the PDI, still led by former President Megawati Soekarnoputri, can, if they combine defeat legislation introduced by the President. This is why SBY has chosen to act against issues such as acts of terrorism, gambling, drugs and corruption, which can command wide parliamentary support. As Prime Minister Howard said in New York last week countries like Australia sometimes overlook how long it can take to fashion a stable democracy.

The direction Islam takes in Indonesia is of enormous importance to Australia. September 11, 2001 drew Australia much closer to the Bush Administration but we should remember that the US is situated in a monotheistic hemisphere, which is nominally Christian from Northern Canada to Tierra del Fuego. Australia’s religious environment is totally different. In East Asia Christianity is a minority religion in a region of great diversity, which includes very large Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu communities. By population, neighbouring Indonesia is the largest Islamic country in the world. Malaysia and Brunei also have Islamic majorities, while Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand all have substantial Muslim minorities.

What we are witnessing in much of the Islamic world, including Indonesia, is a struggle for the hearts and minds of Muslims between the moderates and the modernisers on the one hand and, on the other, the conservatives and fundamentalists, including extremists who are prepared to use terror.

SBY, despite his strong opposition to terrorism and to extremism has been reluctant to respond to calls from Australia to ban Jemaah Islamiyah because of the danger of radicalising many of the moderates. As one prominent Indonesian said to me recently, ‘if you mishandle the extremist minority, you could radicalise a number of the moderates because they, like the extremists, share opposition to the American occupation of Iraq’. Moreover, since Jemaah Islamiyah has the inclusive meaning in Bahasa Indonesia of ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ a blanket ban is difficult.

We need also to draw a distinction between combating terrorist extremism – an objective which Indonesia shares – and the war in Iraq, which the Australian Government supports and the Indonesian Government opposed on the grounds that it would stimulate anti-Americanism throughout Indonesia, facilitating the recruitment of Islamic terrorists. Because the original invasion was led by the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia – all Western democracies – many Indonesians consider this has eroded the moral standing of democracy and challenged the United Nations’ founding principal of collective security.

Australians should not think of Indonesia as a threat. I suspect this is a manifestation of the uneasy feeling of many Australians that, historically, we have felt under threat and needed the protection of a major power. First it was Japan. Then it was communist China. More recently some of these fears have unjustifiably been transferred to Indonesia.

According to a Lowy Institute survey early this year only 52 per cent of Australians had a positive attitude towards Indonesia. Other polls suggest that 30 per cent of Australians still see Indonesia as a threat to our security. This is presumably based on a mixture of fear, because of Indonesia’s size, its proximity and the complexity of its society, as well as widespread ignorance and latent racism.

Indonesia itself is a huge country in which the maintenance of law and order is a major preoccupation. As a senior Indonesian general once said to me when discussing this question ‘Indonesia has more than enough domestic problems with which to cope. The cure for indigestion is not to eat more’. I believe Australians should regard Indonesia as an opportunity, not as a threat; rather as the Howard Government currently regards China.

Unfortunately, such concerns exist on both sides. Nationalism is a strong force in Indonesian politics. A number of members of the Indonesian armed forces and members of parliament, including members of the influential Committee I, believe Australia is a threat to Indonesia’s territorial integrity. They see our support for the separation of East Timor as likely to be followed by support for the independence of West Papua and even Aceh, despite Government and Opposition denials. Our military expenditure is more than ten times that of Indonesia and the clear superiority of our defence equipment and systems understandably troubles some Indonesian strategists.

It is also necessary to acknowledge that important policy differences remain, notwithstanding improved personal relations at the head of government level. The stationery printed for the last Australia Indonesia Ministerial Forum carries under the two crests the words ‘Close Neighbours; Strong Partners’. The first is a fact. But the partnership, while growing stronger, is a work in progress.

The election of SBY, followed by Australia’s very generous and prompt response to the tsunami tragedy, the subsequent earthquake in Nias and Sumatra, and growing cooperation in measures to combat terrorism have created the opportunity to improve further bilateral relations. Indonesia strongly supported Australia’s recent admission to the East Asian Summit, after we had belatedly agreed to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

I am not suggesting that a policy that might cause concern to our regional neighbours should be avoided, especially one clearly based on Australia’s interests. We need to realise, however, that we are seen by many Indonesians as more closely aligned with the United States – or with the Bush Administration – than ever before. This has nourished the perception of the ‘Deputy Sheriff role’.

Indonesia is concerned by Australian plans to acquire and deploy missiles, which will put Indonesia within range. The Prime Minister’s support for a right to launch pre-emptive strikes, although since qualified, and the original decision to create a 1000 nautical mile surveillance zone, which would encroach on Indonesian territorial sovereignty, have also caused anxiety in Indonesia.

More importantly we need to recognise that Indonesians, including the President, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister were all opposed to the invasion of Iraq.

Australia also needs to guard continuously against perceptions that racism and religious intolerance, especially in regard to Islam, are still prevalent in sections of the Australian community and that our political leaders do not always show the leadership expected to oppose such sinister attitudes.

Unfavourable perceptions of our method of conducting our diplomacy still linger. Our style is often seen as assertive, moralising and intrusive. What Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Wirajuda has called ‘megaphone diplomacy’, is unhelpful. There has also been distaste for what is perceived by Indonesians to be jingoism, an excessive emphasis on military heroics and triumphalism in relation, for example, to our intervention in East Timor in 1999.

The Indonesian economy remains fragile, the value of the Rupiah has fallen in recent months and foreign investment is still sluggish. We should expect that in the longer term and with stable government Indonesia, with its some 220 million people, offers Australia considerable commercial and selective investment opportunities.

We need always to keep in mind, on both sides of the Arafura Sea, that the relationship between Australia and Indonesia is a complex and fragile one between two very different societies. It requires a continuing and special effort to sustain the relationship. With such an investment in it the Government should avoid creating unnecessary misunderstandings and concerns, as it has sometimes done in the past, usually for domestic political reasons.

This is an edited version of the keynote address given at the 2005 ‘Indonesia Update’ at the Australian National University on 23 September 2005.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.