“Australians remain wary of Indonesia,” declared a headline on the eve of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the industrial island of Batam to bury the hatchet over a spying row.
Is there serious mistrust between the two neighbours? Definitely not between Australians and Indonesians with strong personal or professional links. But most people in the two countries don’t have such ties. Suspicions are often based on ignorance and fuelled by attention-seeking politicians or reporters looking for a sensational story.
The latest claims of unease stem from a telephone survey of 1,150 Australians in February. It found that 57% view Indonesia’s relationship with Australia as friendly, while a “feelings thermometer” measured Australian warmth to Indonesia at 52 degrees on a scale of 0° (very cold, unfavourable) to 100° (very warm, favourable).
Most Australians know little or nothing about Indonesia. The media occasionally tells them about terrorism, unpunished people smugglers, natural disasters and drug busts. About one-third of Australians think Bali is a separate country. The figure was even higher before Schapelle Corby’s arrest almost 10 years ago.
When I tell Indonesians that I’m Australian, the most common response I get is: Harry Kewell. He’s a recently retired Australian soccer player, who seems to enjoy greater fame abroad. Before Harry Kewell, the top response was Steve Irwin, the crocodile hunter, and before him, Mick Doohan, a motorcycle racing champion.
At the top political level, the Indonesia-Australia relationship is prone to occasional crises, which are necessary for the development of greater understanding. Disputes are usually resolved amicably without escalating to threats of war.
Indonesian ambassadors to Australia have been recalled a few times, but such action is more for public consumption to give the impression of tough leadership. When Yudhoyono completes his second and final term in October, Australia will lose one of its best friends. He has already forgiven Australia for attempting to tap his mobile phone, even though the two countries are yet to formulate a promised “code of conduct on spying”. The bilateral relationship could become more challenging if former general Prabowo Subianto is elected president, although he has rejected the views of several Indonesian politicians that Australia supports Papuan separatism and seeks to violate Indonesian sovereignty.
Some Australians are upset that Indonesia is the biggest recipient of Australian aid: over A$500 million annually. They feel that Indonesia is becoming the wealthier country. Indonesia has foreign exchange reserves of $105.56 billion, compared to Australia’s forex of just $57.36 billion. Also, Indonesia’s foreign debt amounted to $276.5 billion in March, whereas Australia’s debt was at $1.51 trillion.
Both countries’ economies depend heavily on the exploitation of natural resources. The big difference is in per capita income, which averaged $3,557 in Indonesia in 2012, and $67,442 in Australia. The flip-side is that the cost of living is much lower in Indonesia, unless you live on imported wines and cheeses.
There are only about 3,500 Australians legally working in Indonesia. Most of the foreign workers here are from China (14,371), then Japan (11,081), South Korea (9,075), India (6,047) and Malaysia (4,962). Yet geography makes the relationship with Australia of crucial importance.
Australia and Indonesia will continue to suffer future crises. Differences of opinion are inevitable, but they can always be discussed with the aim of furthering understanding and friendship.
Lowlights & Highlights
April 1942: In an early act of solidarity with Indonesian workers, the Australian Seamen’s Union goes on strike to protest the treatment of Indonesian sailors who were interned for refusing to work on Dutch ships for low wages.
September 1945: The Australian Waterside Workers’ Federation commences a policy of preventing Dutch ships laden with munitions and supplies from departing to Indonesia. Numerous Australian unions join the anti-Dutch blockade over the coming years.
July 1947: After some ambivalence, Australia recognizes the Republic of Indonesia, limited to Java, Madura and Sumatra. Australia represents Indonesia at the United Nations.
September 1950: Australia co-sponsors Indonesia’s admission to the United Nations.
1959: Prime Minister Robert Menzies becomes the first Australian leader to visit Indonesia, despite his concerns over the growing power of the Indonesian Communist Party.
January 1962: Australia, falling into line with America, reverses its support for continued Dutch administration of West New Guinea. Australia had previously hoped the territory would eventually unify with Papua New Guinea.
March 1965: After initially keeping out of the conflict, Australian troops join Commonwealth forces in Borneo to combat Indonesia’s undeclared war of Confrontation against Malaysia. Twenty-three Australians are killed in the conflict, which ends in 1966 after Suharto overthrows Sukarno.
1969: Australia detains two West Papuan independence activists for eight months to prevent them from protesting to the UN against Papua’s incorporation into Indonesia.
October 1975: Five Australia-based television journalists are killed by Indonesian troops in Balibo, East Timor, to prevent them from reporting on Indonesia’s invasion of the former Portuguese territory. Indonesia claims the five were inadvertently killed in cross-fire. Successive Australian governments support the cover-up, unwilling to risk damaging ties with Indonesia.
September 1981: Afraid of upsetting Indonesia, the Australian Embassy dismisses aid officer Max Lane after he translates one of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s banned books, Bumi Manusia, into English.
April 1986: The Sydney Morning Herald publishes a front-page article by its Indonesia correspondent David Jenkins, headlined ‘After Marcos, now for the Suharto billions’, exposing corruption linked to Suharto’s wife. Indonesia responds by expelling Jenkins, suspending visas for Australian journalists, and freezing diplomatic, military and cultural relations. A planeload of Australian tourists is denied entry to Indonesia. The Indonesian military accuses Australia of seeking to damage Indonesia’s international image.
February 1988: Australian journalists are allowed to reopen bureaus in Indonesia.
November 1991: Indonesian troops massacre at least 250 unarmed East Timorese at a cemetery in Dili. The carnage galvanizes solidarity for the East Timorese independence struggle, though the Australian government continues to support Indonesian sovereignty over the territory.
October 1997: The Australian newspaper upsets Indonesia by publishing a cartoon depicting Suharto as an orangutan trying to escape forest fires and labelling him an ‘endangered species’.
September 1999: Australia leads a UN-mandated peacekeeping force into East Timor in response to killing sprees by Indonesian troops and their militia proxies, following the territory’s independence referendum. Relations hit an all-time low.
October 2002: The Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network bombs two nightclubs in Bali, killing 202 people, including 88 Australians. The incident leads to anti-terrorism cooperation.
March 2003: Australia joins the US-led invasion of Iraq, resulting in protests outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. Radical groups threaten to sweep Americans and Australians out of Indonesia.
September 2004: The Australian Embassy in Jakarta is bombed by Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists, killing nine Indonesians, including the suicide bomber.
October 2004: Australian Schapelle Corby is arrested in Bali for attempting to smuggle in 4.2 kilograms of hydroponically grown marijuana. She is sentenced to 20 years in jail and paroled in 2014.
January 2005: Australia announces a A$1 billion aid package for reconstruction and development in Indonesia following the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami that killed about 170,000 people in Aceh province.
April 2005: An Australian Navy helicopter crashes while delivering humanitarian aid to quake-ravaged Nias Island, killing nine personnel. The tragedy brings Indonesia and Australia closer.
April 2005: Nine Australians are arrested in Bali for attempting to smuggle 8.3 kilograms of heroin out of Indonesia. They receive sentences ranging from 20 years to death.
October 2005: Jemaah Islamiyah bombs three locations in Jimbaran and Kuta, Bali, killing 20 people, including four Australians.
March 2006: Australia grants protection visas to 42 Papuan asylum seekers who had accused the Indonesian military of genocide. Indonesia demands they be sent back and denies there is any repression in Papua. The Rakyat Merdeka daily runs a cartoon depicting Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer as copulating dingoes with designs on Papua. The Australian newspaper responds with a cartoon showing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as a dog copulating with a Papuan. Indonesia recalls its ambassador.
November 2006: Australia and Indonesia sign the Lombok Treaty, covering cooperation on security issues and “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another”.
March 2007: Garuda Indonesia Flight 200 crashes at Yogyakarta’s airport, killing 22 people, including five Australians.
July 2009: Jemaah Islamiyah bombs the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Hotels in Jakarta, killing seven people, including three Australians.
June 2011: Australia suspends live cattle exports to Indonesia after TV footage shows cattle being whipped, slashed and clumsily slaughtered at Indonesian abattoirs.
October 2013: Australian media release a document leaked by former US National Security Agency contactor Edward Snowden, indicating that Australia in August 2009 attempted to monitor phone calls made by President Yudhoyono and his inner circle. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott refuses to apologize, prompting Indonesia to withdraw its ambassador to Australia. One of Abbott’s chief strategists likens Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa to a Filipino porn star. Indonesia freezes military and intelligence cooperation.
January 2014: Indonesia demands suspension of Australia’s maritime border protection policy after Australia admits some of its naval vessels made “inadvertent” incursions into Indonesian waters.