We Can't Afford To Be Ignorant On Indonesia


Just before Christmas 1981, Indonesia’s foreign minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja asked to meet Australia’s ambassador to Jakarta, Rawdon Dalrymple. In the course of their meeting, Mochtar asked why some people in Australia “had such a hostile attitude towards Indonesia”.

He thought the hostility derived from fear, and recalled that when he had spoken on behalf of Indonesia at a major seminar in Canberra, he had received the strong impression that many of the Australians present were afraid of “waves of brown people coming down”.

Dalrymple explained that “that sort of Australian anxiety had probably died out in about 1910”. Rather, he said, “there were people in Australia who had reflected on the fact that Indonesia had used armed force on three occasions to change, or seek to change, international borders”.

As it happens, those people were correct. Indonesia seized West Papua by a combination of military pressure and diplomatic threats in the 1960s. The same decade, Indonesian troops launched a series of cross-border raids into Malaysian territory in order to destabilise the newly formed Malaysian federation.

Australian forces were deployed against Indonesian troops in order to protect Malaysia. Twenty-three Australians died during this episode, known as “Confrontation”. In 1975, Indonesia illegally invaded East Timor, a non-self-governing territory as defined by the United Nations Charter.

According to Article 73 of the UN Charter, there was "a sacred trust" to uphold "the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories". However, Indonesia’s invasion and 24-year occupation of East Timor caused the largest loss of life relative to total population since the Holocaust.

Little wonder, then, that Australians who have to think professionally about national security don’t pay too much attention to press releases professing friendship between Australia and Indonesia. They don’t have that luxury.

What counts for them is capability. Intentions matter, and are part of intelligence assessments, but capabilities are much more important. Unlike intentions, which can change rapidly, capabilities take a long time to build up. This is why the role of the Defence Signals Directorate is:

“To obtain intelligence about the capabilities, intentions or activities of people or organisations outside Australia in the form of electromagnetic energy, whether guided or unguided or both, or in the form of electrical, magnetic or acoustic energy, for the purposes of meeting the requirements of the Government, and in particular the requirements of the Defence Force.”

The DSD and other agencies have long been interested in obtaining intelligence on Indonesia, and other countries in the region. That’s their role under the Intelligence Services Act. Far from them being out of control, they are doing exactly what they are required to do under Australian legislation. They are as much a part of the Australian Defence Force’s capability as aircraft, tanks and submarines.

The revelations about Australian intelligence collection against Indonesian targets should be seen in context. For one, it’s natural that DSD would focus on the senior Indonesian leadership and their trusted interlocutors. Who else would they focus on, given their role under the Intelligence Services Act? A rickshaw driver in Jakarta?

For another, there is a well-designed asymmetry between Australia and Indonesia. The Australian Defence Force is small compared to Indonesia’s military, and the Australian Army in particular is much, much smaller. The advanced technological gap that Australia enjoys in terms of intelligence, fighter aircraft and naval vessels compensates for this disadvantage in size.

Also, Australian foreign policy has protected the Indonesian government on many occasions; although Indonesian troops murdered Australian journalists in Balibo and Dili, East Timor, no Australian government has taken meaningful steps to bring those responsible to justice.

During the 24-year occupation of East Timor, when Indonesian forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, Australia supported Indonesia diplomatically and in many other ways. Even today, despite numerous allegations of serious human rights abuses in West Papua, successive Australian governments continue to do all they can to protect Indonesia from international criticism. We continue to train Indonesia’s military and police, and give them weapons.

Seen in that context, Indonesia’s protestations about spying not being cricket seem a little overblown.

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