Julia Gillard and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met in Jakarta yesterday. Their agenda — to discuss future bilateral ties — was stifled by Australia’s proposed East Timor regional processing centre and regional architecture that is still under construction.
On the surface, Australian-Indonesian relations look bright, enhanced by Gillard’s announcement yesterday of a $500 million Australian government program to support Indonesia’s schooling education system.
The two countries also declared they would commence negotiations on an Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement as part of their efforts to strengthen bilateral trade and investment.
Beyond the big announcements, however, the relationship is on less stable ground, with Australian drug-traffickers in Indonesia and Gillard’s proposed East Timor regional processing centre both points of contention.
Gillard’s statement of her government’s support for pleas for clemency on behalf of Schapelle Corby, convicted for possessing more than four kilograms of marijuana, and for the Bali Nine heroin smuggling ring, received no clear reponse from Yudhoyono.
The President said that while sentence reductions were a part of Indonesia’s legal system, ultimately, "justice must be upheld". But then again, Yudhoyono was not the only one who was unable to provide assurances.
Many locals fear the proposed East Timor regional processing centre will, if it goes ahead, have a significant impact on Indonesia. When Yudhoyono was asked to comment on the issue at the joint press conference with Gillard yesterday, he suggested a planned forum between Australia and Indonesia to discuss the issue in depth, and to "ensure that the regional processing centre [was]a proper way in improving effectiveness [to stop]people smuggling."
"Indonesia is open to that but we have to discuss that this [would be an effective]solution to our regional problems," he added.
Experts in the country view the proposal of the centre as an irresponsible move by Gillard.
With a great emphasis placed over the past week on the East Asia Summit’s potential ability to strengthen a regional framework, Indonesian Institute of Sciences researcher Dr Tri Nuke believes such a processing centre would represent a step backward for the south-east Asia Pacific region.
Tri argues that an Asian regional architectural frame has not been clearly identified, saying that while East Timor might be a stepping stone to Australia, it was not yet a firm part of the Asian framework. It will not become an ASEAN member until 2011. "To the contrary, Thailand and Singapore are strong players in the region," she told New Matilda.
On a smaller regional scale, Indonesia is concerned about the impact the proposed processing centre will have on its fragile relations with East Timor in the aftermath of Indonesia’s brutal occupation of its tiny neighbour in 1975. The borders between the two countries are porous and Tri says it is easy for people to travel between them. If asylum seekers were based at a centre in East Timor before they were granted access to Australia, they may have easy access to Indonesia.
And Indonesia may not be a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, but it is still expected to uphold international human rights laws. Tri fears that asylum seekers intercepted and held in East Timor may escape to Indonesia and claim refugee status there. This may in turn create tension with East Timorese refugees in Indonesia, notably in East Nusa Tenggara, who may resent the focus on refugees from the processing centre.
"Indonesia must be careful that it does not breach international human rights laws," Tri told New Matilda. "But because Indonesia is not well-equipped to deal with an influx of refugees and attention possibly having to focus on those from the centre, hostility will grow between our two countries."
Tri argues that Indonesia is unable to attend to more asylum seekers because not only does it already host asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, it also has its own internal problems — like natural disasters.
Last month, a tsunami in West Sumatra on Mentawai islands killed upwards of 430 people, and in the same week, the series of eruptions of Indonesia’s most active volcano, Mount Merapi, displaced more than 69,000 people.
These issues, however, didn’t seem to be priorities for Gillard at her press conference after meeting Yudhoyono. When the PM was questioned on the consequences for Indonesia of siting an asylum seeker processing centre in East Timor, she did not provide any clear answers. "We do need to be working with countries of origin, countries of transit and countries of destination, and our dialogue aims to comprehend all of those matters," she told yesterday’s press conference.
Gillard was short on the details but she did raise valid points in matters of transnational crimes on the complex and closely related matter of people smuggling: "Australia will be working with Indonesia and other countries in our region through the Bali Process and through bilateral discussion to work through a protection framework and processing arrangements, which would undercut the business model of people smugglers and would take out of the hands of people smugglers the very product they sell," she said.
But as both leaders noted, the two countries must continue robust discussions on such matters through the Bali Process, a ministerial system on people smuggling, and the Lombok Treaty, the agreement between Australia and Indonesia on a security framework.
The meeting between Australia and Indonesia’s leaders may not have produced any weighty outcomes, although the intentions for a prosperous future were there. There remain, however, significant conflicts of interest to resolve.
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