February 12, 2002
Shaking hands with clenched fists
By Purnendra Jain and John Bruni
ADELAIDE - Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s three-day visit to Indonesia last week began amid voices of protest and threats of boycotts in Jakarta.
The increasing inflow of asylum seekers to Australia from Indonesian shores, and Canberra’s insistence last year that Jakarta take back the shipload of Middle Eastern and South Asian refugees aboard the Norwegian vessel Tampa, infuriated Indonesian leadership. Jakarta felt so insulted at the “megaphone diplomacy” of Australia that when John Howard late last year called Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri to help find a solution for the Tampa crisis, the president did not even bother to return his call.
Now the relationship appears to be on the mend.
During Howard’s visit last week, the two countries signed a counter-terrorism agreement that provides a framework for an intelligence-sharing cooperation between the law enforcing agencies of the two nations and possible joint operations between their military, intelligence, police, customs, and immigration officials. Howard also announced a forum for Muslim leaders in Australia and Indonesia to exchange views, and introduced a new process of ministerial dialogue between the two countries along the same lines as the Australia-US ministerial dialogue. Finally, the visiting prime minister announced a generous donation of A$1 million (about US$513,000) for flood relief.
However, there are difficulties. For one, the central government in Indonesia is weak and divided. Megawati is the “gloss” over a political elite deeply riven by contending religious and secular factions. Her often remarked-upon “silence” serves elite interests well, since the real authority remains in the hands of the influential individuals and interest groups that form shifting and often uneasy alliances to keep Indonesia from spiraling into civil chaos. Consequently, with Jakarta’s political elite in a perpetual state of puppet shadow dramas, dealing with elements of it is extremely difficult. For Australia this is doubly so, given the propensity of various Indonesian politicians such as Amien Rais, Speaker of the Indonesian People’s Consultative Assembly, to express publicly their contempt for Canberra’s “interference” in their internal affairs - none-too-subtle references to Australia’s role in the country’s loss of East Timor in 1999.
Signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on counterterrorism with a country so internally inconsistent and fragile, while at the same time expecting solid and sustainable outcomes, will hardly keep Australia-Indonesia relations at a “realistic” level.
But there are other problems. For instance, when asked whether the Australia-Indonesia MoU on counterterrorism would compromise the independence movements in Aceh and West Papua - both of which are viewed by Jakarta as terrorist organisations - Howard quickly countered by saying that bilateral cooperation would only extend to combating international terrorism. If this is so, then a very fine line has to be drawn here. The line between domestic and international terrorism is certainly not a clear one. Indeed, the distinction between one form and the other is often blurred since local terrorist groups sometimes seek out assistance from better funded, transnational organizations to secure access to weapons, money, training, and intelligence.
A relevant example here is Laskar Jihad, a local Indonesian Islamist group that is currently operating in the Maluku islands. Laskar Jihad is involved in heavy sectarian fighting with the local Christian community. It has been said the organization has received some training at al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. Does this make Laskar Jihad an internal domestic terrorist group, or, because of its tenuous links to al-Qaeda, an international terrorist group? If the latter, then what role does Australia see for itself in sharing intelligence with Indonesian authorities on an organization that is caught up only in a domestic sectarian conflict and not planning a major strike against Western interests in Southeast Asia? Would not Australian government moves against Laskar Jihad, even if only at the intelligence sharing level, still be considered interference in Indonesia’s internal affairs, especially by sympathetic Muslim clerics in Jakarta?
Moreover, the bilateral MoU includes the provision for the training and education of Indonesian officials. Could not that training and education also be used against Acehnese and West Papuan secessionists? Australia once before crossed over this line of aiding the Indonesian internal security apparatus when it allowed its Special Air Service (SAS) to train and exercise with Indonesia’s special forces, Kopussus. Kopussus used the knowledge gained by their joint training with the SAS against many local anti-Javanese insurgents, including the East Timorese, much to the embarrassment of the Australian government and the outrage of Australian and international human-rights groups.
The courtesy extended by both sides during the Howard visit is still only skin-deep and it will take years before the two countries can claim a relationship based on friendship and trust. Many politicians, media, and ordinary people in Indonesia still regard Australia as being supportive of Indonesian secessionist movements. Howard has tried to dispel this fear by clearly stating Australia’s commitment to Indonesia’s territorial integrity. However, Australia must realize the political and economic fragility of Indonesia and act in a way that shows Australia’s interest in a politically and economically stable Indonesia. Australia will also need to display better diplomatic skills than its “megaphone diplomacy”, or playing the “deputy sheriff” role in the region. But it takes two to tango and it is in both countries’ national interest to keep the current dialogue going and resolve issues both bilaterally and through regional forums.
Purnendra Jain is a professor
with the Center for Asian Studies at Adelaide University in Australia.
John Bruni is an adjunct lecturer in the Politics Department at Adelaide University.
West Papua Information Kit:
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