On his two-day trip to Indonesia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s successful meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had him beaming with confidence. The two leaders signed a comprehensive agreement on Friday in Jakarta on deforestation and Rudd was ready to face the press at the Presidential Palace.
However, his confidence was deflated when a question from a local journalist concerning Islamic sect Ahmadiyah led to an embarrassing gaffe.
When asked for his opinion on the Ahmadiyah issue, he responded, "I am not familiar with the circumstances of this … matter".
It seemed the Prime Minister had not been briefed on what is currently Indonesia’s most contentious domestic issue.
Ahmadiyah has been the centre of much controversy in recent months since the Indonesian Government imposed strong restrictions on the sect’s practices. Ahmadiyah, which the Indonesian Government has labeled "deviant", holds the belief that their founder, Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the last prophet, not Muhammad, as other Muslims believe.
The controversy spurred the burning down of Ahmadiyah mosques and attacks on Ahmadiyah followers by Islamic hardliner groups, who are calling for a total ban on the sect.
The Government has been accused of breaching the constitutional right to freedom of religious expression.
The issue has dominated the nation’s political sphere for months and has been widely publicised internationally. Ironically, interfaith dialogue was high on Rudd’s agenda for the trip.
In his address, his message was clear: Australia is ready to take its relationship with Indonesia to the next level. The message was backed by his announcement of the recently strengthened five-year development partnership plan with Indonesia worth $2.5 billion.
Being his first formal State visit to the nation, it was expected that the Prime Minister would play it safe — and he did.
His address was full of fluffy feel good statements and generalities.
"We are neighbours because of geographical circumstance. We are friends and partners because we have chosen to be that way, and that’s important," he told the room full of business leaders, government officials, diplomats and media.
He did not make any strong economic proposals, but made some general observations about the two countries’ economic relationship.
"As business people, you are at the forefront, the absolute forefront, of our economic relationship," he said.
He showed his support for the ASEAN free trade agreement currently being negotiated and called for the establishment of a new Asia Pacific bloc to oversee APEC and ASEAN.
Despite offering few specifics, Rudd came across as genuine in his aspiration to strengthen Australian-Indonesian ties. He said he wanted to make Australia "the most Asia-literate country in the Western world", which was received with enthusiastic applause.
He announced his plan to invest $62 million over three years to boost the study of Asian languages in Australia. Some of the funds, he said, would be spent on giving Indonesian language teachers the chance to visit the country.
"It’s about increasing the chances for people from Australia to get together with people from countries around the region, to sit down and talk to learn about each other", he said.
He mentioned the issues of terrorism and national security, but did not give them the attention that was anticipated. He had earlier refused to remove the Australian travel warning that advises Australians not to travel to Indonesia.
He said the Threat Assessment Centre worked independently and he would not override its warning. He did, however, encourage more Australians to visit, work and study in the country.
The bilateral initiative concerning deforestation in Indonesia was Rudd’s most concrete plan of action.
Deforestation accounts for 20 per cent of the world’s green house gas emissions. Indonesia emits more carbon dioxide through deforestation than any other country in the world. Illegal deforestation is common in the country and there is little enforcement of deforestation laws.
Rudd and Yudhoyono signed an agreement to work more closely on reducing deforestation levels.
On Saturday the PM visited Aceh province, which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, to assess Australia’s disaster relief aid efforts there. He announced the Australian Government would provide a further $50 million to help restore the province as part of the five-year partnership plan.
For a first State visit, Rudd achieved what was expected of him. He broke the ice of a new Australia-Indonesia relationship and got the ball rolling for the five-year development plan. He will be welcomed in Indonesia again … as long as he googles "Ahmadiyah" before his return.
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