Abbott Bungles The Asylum Operation


The Indonesian government has again undermined the Coalition's attempts to keep "on-water" asylum seeker operations quiet. A key official has contradicted Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Operation Sovereign Borders chief Lieutenant General Angus Campbell’s account of the weekend stand-off between the Australian Navy and the Indonesian search and rescue agency, Barsanas.

Speaking in Jakarta yesterday, Yopi Haryadi, head of evaluations for Barsanas, said that the Australian ship which went to the rescue of the contested asylum seeker boat had first escorted it 80 kilometres back towards the Java coast. It was from that point that Campbell originally claimed the stricken boat had called for help.

Last night on the ABC's 7.30, Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to comment on the discrepancy between the two accounts, saying:

"I don't want to engage in all kind of banter, which may or may not be good television, but which is not going to make it easier to have the kind of relationship with the Indonesian Government that we need if we are going to finally and fully stop the boats."

Haryadi also explained how the authority to allow Australian vessels into Indonesian territory to assist with rescue missions had last month moved from his office to that of coordinating minister for security and political affairs Djoko Suyanto. Suyanto confirmed this with the Jakarta Globe and said it had come as an order from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

“This is not an issue of [search and rescue], it is about asylum seekers trying to get to Australia,” he said.

Further complicating the relationship, Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an advisor to Indonesia's vice-president, has said that a deal to swap asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat with "genuine refugees" is being considered. "It was a proposal put to Indonesia by Australia and Indonesia hasn't deliberated on it … we still have to study this," she said. The Coalition have repeatedly denied that such a deal exists. 

The changing political climate in Indonesia will likely pose difficulties for the Coalition's "tow back the boats when safe to do so" policy. The current administration has been fairly open to negotiation — despite toughening its stance on the issue and being prepared to drive a hard political line, shown when Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, unhappy with the outcome of private discussions with Julie Bishop, leaked the minutes from their New York meeting.

But the next government may not be even as amenable as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's. Among the favourites for next year’s presidential election is Prabowo Subianto, a former general who was accused of leading lynchings and gang rapes of Chinese-Indonesians in 1998. When he was questioned on his human rights record at a press club talk last month he said the Indonesian people could make up their own minds, asking the journalist, “Do you come to us and tell us that 250 million people are all stupid?”

His image as a "strongman" drives his popularity in Indonesia — his father-in-law was former dictator Suharto — and public distrust of Australia will make working with Abbott a tricky proposition.

The 2012 Lowy Indonesia Poll stated 31 per cent of Indonesians think Australia “poses a threat to the security of Indonesia”. The poll was taken before the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australian embassies in Asia have been used to spy on their host countries. The figure may well now be higher.

In any case, the Australian Navy and Customs and Border Patrol looks set to play a bigger role in rescues off the Indonesian coast, as Indonesia is aiming to get the search and rescue zone reduced. Haryadi said the government is preparing to put its case to the International Maritime Organisation (the group behind the Search and Rescue Zone Convention).

As NM reported recently, even the bare capacity of the Indonesian rescue service to respond to asylum seeker boats is in doubt.

Indonesia has already shown it will not be bullied by the Abbott government. Abbott, during his interview with 7.30 last night, refused to accept that Australia had “buckled” to Indonesia last week by bringing the 63 asylum seekers involved in the latest dispute to Christmas Island. He clearly has a different definition of buckled from the rest of us, but that might be an operational matter.

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