View from Indonesia


It would be nice to imagine that the Indonesian media pays as much attention to us as we do to them. There are at least nine Australian journalists permanently based here, representing Fairfax, News Ltd, the ABC and AAP. All regularly run stories on Indonesia, some of which deeply involve Australia, but many of which simply detail the ongoing struggles of a country dealing with a young democracy, environmental and social problems, terrorism and corruption. The last Indonesian election was covered in fair detail by the Australian press, and even the recent direct gubernatorial election in Jakarta (a first for the capital) got some airtime.

But there’s been little discussion of the coming Australian election in the Indonesian press. Partly for budgetary reasons, few Indonesian media companies keep on full-time correspondents in Australia, aside from Antara, the national news agency. Major broadsheet Kompas (the Indonesian-language big brother of The Jakarta Post) has not had a correspondent for some time. Most papers, the Post included, rely on wire copy or the occasional freelance piece from Indonesians abroad (inevitably, it seems, post-graduate students desperate to show off their new knowledge), which usually come in the form of op-eds discussing problems in Indonesia, not reportage or opinion on events overseas.

Of course, Indonesia is a country with its own problems the average page seven story in the Post would be front-page, banner-headline news in Australia if it happened in Sydney rather than Jakarta. And while Australians may fear the sprawling country to their north, believing it to be filled with mad terrorists and corrupt dictators, Indonesians are generally rather more sanguine about the land to the south although they wish it would stop meddling in their affairs (invading East Timor did not win us any friends here, nor did letting in those 42 Papuan refugees last year) and are certainly not above getting involved in a good old diplomatic fight.

After witnessing the rising hysterics in both countries over the refugees and the two cartoons that followed, as well as the row earlier this year over then Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso’s enraged flight from Sydney following a botched attempt to serve him with a summons over the deaths of the Balibo Five, I am convinced that Australia and Indonesia have some of the most entertaining diplomatic arguments in the world.

Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

It is worth noting that most of the ‘protesters’ seen outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in the wake of the Sutiyoso row were widely believed to have been paid to attend, given they were all members of an association connected to Sutiyoso and magically appeared almost as soon as he had arrived back in town. Hardly a show of national rage. People were insulted, certainly, but the Post‘s editorial made it clear that while it was not pleased at the way Sutiyoso was treated, Indonesia should expect more of this sort of thing given the history of the Indonesian Military.

Indonesians are not on the whole particularly concerned that Australia is about to invade, break up, be taken over by a dictator, become a fundamentalist religious State (all anxieties about Indonesia that have been aired in Australia) or even demand that Papua become independent.

And Howard is reasonably well liked here. He’s regarded as having a good relationship with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) and as having helped Indonesia, so even while comments that Australia would consider ‘pre-emptive strikes’ should a threat arise and the intervention in East Timor soured relations, events have conspired to fix them.

Endy Bayuni, Chief Editor of The Jakarta Post, explained this ambivalence to me a few days ago:

Whoever is elected, we have to accept it. Both have pluses and minuses. With John Howard, he has already established a rapport with SBY They have a relationship that guarantees relations between Indonesia and Australia will not get out of control. There will always be problems it’s a love/hate relationship but it’s improved a lot over the last 10 years.

He suggests that disasters such as the tsunami, the Seahawk helicopter crash in Nias and the Bali bombings have brought the countries together. The large amount of aid given to Indonesia by Australia in the wake of the 2004 tsunami certainly resulted in a fair amount of goodwill, and the coordinated response to the Bali bombings both immediately in the form of emergency services, and later help on the terrorism front in general have seen better relations develop at a deeper level across Indonesia. Indonesian and Australian police now train alongside each other, and I’ve heard more than one Indonesian police officer express admiration for Mick Keelty.

Bayuni also takes a rather surprisingly relaxed view of Howard’s campaign methods:

We understand the dynamics of Australian politics and sometimes Howard uses foreign issues to win elections, like the boat people a few years ago. At the time, many people here were angry he was using this and the threat of Islamic radicalism, with it implicitly coming from Indonesia, to gain popularity. But now we know when he addresses a domestic audience he needs to win and uses these things, I think we forgive him. What counts is his foreign policy.

The Post’s editorial on 15 November was a little less supportive, however, noting that:

Indonesia traditionally has stronger relations with Australia when its Federal Labor Party is in power. In this context, it is understandable many Indonesians hope the Labor Party’s leader Kevin Rudd will take out Australia’s election last week. When Paul Keating was in power and Soeharto controlled this country, our bilateral relations with Australia were probably at their peak.

And it ends with a knife in the back:

Howard is an old friend of Indonesia, but perhaps we need Rudd as a new friend. Who knows “ maybe we can build a better future with a new friend?


Submit this article to the Independent News Aggregation Site -

What is kwoff?

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.