Don't Mention The War


As Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono accepted an honorary award from the Governor-General yesterday for "strengthening Australia-Indonesia relations and promoting democracy and development in Indonesia", three suspected terrorists were shot dead outside Jakarta. One is believed to be Dulmatin, a suspected organiser of the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 88 Australians. Earlier today, Yudhoyono and Kevin Rudd gave a press conference in which many of the right notes were struck: cooperation was emphasised, track records were complimented and detailed questions were referred to relevant ministers.

These events exemplify the Australia-Indonesia relationship. The two nations can celebrate the progress they have made in relations since the crisis during the 1999 Australian-led military intervention into East Timor. Yet the memories of more recent bilateral strains are fresh in the minds of both Australians and Indonesians.

Later today, Yudhoyono will become the first Indonesian president to address the Australian Parliament. Behind the mawkish diplomatic statements of "friendship despite differences" that are sure to come from the President stand a slew of sensitive bilateral boo-boos that are unlikely to be discussed in full during the behind-the-scenes meetings here between himself and Rudd, and their respective ministerial entourages.

The two leaders are likely to break the ice with happier discussions around developments that will benefit both nations: carbon emissions trading, education initiatives and a free trade agreement.

But away from the Australian public’s view, the two men will sit down and discuss at least some of the more prickly questions the two countries face, most of which touch on human rights, and most of which involve Rudd asking Yudhoyono for massive favours.

In October last year, Rudd asked one such favour: he simply phoned the President and requested that Indonesia intercept a boat of more than 250 Tamil asylum seekers en route to Christmas Island. And like a good ally, Yudhoyono saw the request through. Little did he know they would become his country’s long-term problem.

Five months on, the Tamils are still there, living in squalid conditions. They say they will sit put until Australia processes them as refugees. The Indonesian Government is showing no urgency in coaxing or forcing the Tamils off the boat, nor is it showing any concern for their wellbeing. Meanwhile the Australian Government is paying an international body to take responsibility for them where they are.

Behind closed doors, it will be Rudd grovelling at his counterpart’s feet, because there is a lot at stake for his Government. Any drastic moves with the Tamil asylum seekers could cost Rudd the next election. On the other hand, if things get even uglier on the boat, he could lose popularity all the same.

And things could indeed get uglier. A 29-year-old asylum seeker died last year after receiving inadequate medical attention. Children have suffered bouts of diarrhoea and conjunctivitis, and recent media reports say a chickenpox outbreak is imminent, which would be almost certainly fatal for the undernourished children under five on board. Australians only need to look back to the catastrophic "Children Overboard" affair to be reminded of the political volatility of child asylum seekers.

However, while this situation is colouring these talks, a proper resolution to it doesn’t appear to be on the agenda for this visit. The two leaders plan to discuss ways to better deal with the issue of people smuggling through Indonesia, but both have said that the Tamils are not a priority this time around.

Another uncomfortable issue that’s bubbling away in the relationship is the plight of the fishing and seaweed-farming communities in East Nusa Tenggara who are suffering from an enormous oil slick that spread from Australia’s waters to Indonesia’s. The 500 million litres of oil spewed last year from a burst well owned by Thailand-based company PTTEP Australasia.

The West Timor Care Foundation accused PTTEP Australasia of secretly compensating Australian fishermen and not those in Indonesia. The organisation, as well as the Indonesian Environment Ministry, is now looking to the Australian Government to take responsibility and have pushed Yudhoyono to raise the question of compensation with Rudd today.

Indonesia is showing Australia a lot of patience on these issues. So far, Australia has been able to get away with being a bad neighbour because, as a wealthier, more developed country, it is seen to be on a higher playing field than Indonesia. As well, Australia welcomes Indonesian students and provides disaster aid in times of crisis.

But Australia should not take its pedestal for granted. Indonesia’s clout is only going to grow. Its economy is forecast to be the third-fastest-growing in the world this year and its prominence as a major player in climate change mitigation and as a bridge between the West and the Islamic world, is attracting international attention and respect. Its democracy may only be 12 years old but its achievements in that time should not be undervalued.

Rudd may be laying the tentative foundation of a more equal partnership with Indonesia.

In doing so, he must exercise caution in dealing with sensitive special cases, such as that of Australian drug trafficker Scott Rush. Rush is facing the death penalty, and human rights groups say Rudd should push Yudhoyono to intervene.

Rush, who already lost an appeal to the Supreme Court in 2007, will make one last appeal this month. Failing that, his last hope will be an appeal for clemency to Yudhoyono himself.

But this visit is unlikely to see Rush off the hook. Adrian Vickers, an Indonesianist at the University of Sydney, says it would be harmful for Australia to be seen as dictating to Indonesia on the issue of the death penalty.

Rudd knows he has already pushed his luck with Yudhoyono but he does have one trump card up his sleeve. Australia’s security warning against travelling to Indonesia has been one of the biggest bilateral thorns in Yudhoyono’s side for years. Each time the President meets with Rudd, he tries to persuade him to reconsider the severity of the warning.

It’s a far more reasonable request than Rudd’s. Indonesia is categorised as a level-four risk, which pegs the country as dangerous as Pakistan and more dangerous than India. "This is insulting to Indonesia," says Vickers, "since it means that the Rudd Government has no faith in Indonesia to deal with security issues."

But despite the insults and political friction, the two leaders have at least shown a genuine interest in strengthening their nations’ relationship. Yudhoyono’s visit comes amid a highly charged corruption probe within his administration, yet he has gone to the trouble to make this appearance. Also, perhaps surprisingly, his visit marks the 10th time he and Rudd have met. It’s a significant milestone in bilateral relations efforts and that in itself is cause for optimism.

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.