By Colin Brown
It has been suggested that SBY himself may have taken a strong position in order to try to shore up support for his Democrat Party in the elections. The party has suffered a major drop in support over the past few years, and currently looks dead in the water. However to imagine that beating up on Australia could rescue it in the eyes of the electorate would require a major leap of faith. Would outrage at Australian phone tapping outweigh the high-level corruption scandals in the party, involving leaders from Nazaruddin to Andi Mallarangeng to Anas Urbaningrum? I doubt it.
SBY himself will of course not be a candidate in the elections. Although parties will not be formally nominating their presidential candidates until after the general elections of April 2014, unofficial campaigning is well underway. What have the leading candidates said?
The presidential candidate most likely to be unsympathetic towards Australia, retired general Prabowo Subianto, has been remarkably quiet on the issue. In mid-November he simply said:
Phone tapping is common. If you have something secret to say, don’t discuss it on the phone.
The subtext, I suspect, is something like: “How dumb is SBY: doesn’t understand simple electronic security issues. Unlike me . . .”
Greg Sheridan, writing in The Australian, had a slightly different take on Prabowo, of course. Ten days ago he wrote:
Indonesian friends tell me that behind the scenes ... general Prabowo Subianto was stirring up a great deal of anti-Australian trouble, even though in public Prabowo was fairly quiet.
To which many Australian observers would say – so what is new?
The election front-runner, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (Jokowi), has said even less than Prabowo. Noting that his name was not on the list of those tapped, he simply said this was understandable – his job was managing day to day municipal affairs in Jakarta, not national politics. But of course in 2009 he was not even Governor of Jakarta: he was the Mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo, and well out of the national spotlight. Jokowi might be very popular in Indonesia, but he is popular primarily for domestic reasons: so far as I know he has said almost nothing on international affairs.
Other Australian commentators have suggested that the vigorousness of Marty Natalegawa’s response was because he was angling to ensure his own political future, after the end of SBY’s presidency next year.
To my knowledge, Marty has no political party affiliations. His only career has been in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, first as a diplomat and then as Minister. What might his post- SBY ambitions be? Realistically, the best he could hope for would be re-appointment as Minister (he would not get any other ministry, and an ambassadorial appointment would place him uncomfortably under the authority of his successor). What are his chances? This would depend a lot on who the next President is.
If it is Jokowi, then Marty might think he had a reasonable chance of keeping his job – he is the kind of skilled technocrat which I would have thought Jokowi would want to see as Foreign Minister, though Jokowi’s political debts (incurred in a presidential campaign) might interfere – as would his (presumed) wish to clearly separate himself from the SBY presidency. You don’t do that by re-appointing one of SBY’s key cabinet officials. In any event Marty would not, I suggest, strengthen his chances of appointment by Jokowi by getting his knickers in a nationalist knot over Australia. It would not be Marty’s nationalism which would sell him to Jokowi but his technical expertise.
If the next President is Prabowo, then the situation might be reversed. Marty would not be Prabowo’s “natural” choice for Foreign Minister, but could believe he would strengthen his claim if he beat up on Australia. But would Prabowo believe Marty was genuinely critical of Australia – given his long history of links with us? I have my doubts. Moreover, beating up on Australia is not a particularly brave thing to do. Indonesian politicians know it is a low-risk exercise, equivalent to beating up on Malaysia, the preferred target for nationalist zeal in recent years. Much more significant would be beating up on the US or China.
My general conclusion, then, is that the imminence of elections next year, while it cannot be ruled out as a factor in shaping Indonesian reactions to the spying allegations, it was probably not the prime determinant.
More important, perhaps, was a different election: ours, held on 7 September this year.
Indonesia figured prominently in that campaign, at least by default. You will recall that Tony Abbott campaigned very vigorously on a platform of “turning back the boats”. He also said, in office he would buy up old Indonesian fishing boats to prevent them falling into the hands of people-smugglers, and pay Indonesian village officials for information on people smugglers activities.
During the campaign, Indonesian officials said little -- at least in public. But just one week after Abbott’s election victory, Jakarta started raining on his parade. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told the Indonesian parliament clearly – and utterly predictably – that Jakarta did not accept the basic thrust of Abbott’s policies:
We will reject his policy on asylum seekers and any other policy that harms the spirit of partnership.
Other Indonesian observers were even more outspoken. Tantowi Yahya, a national parliamentarian, member of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee and a favourite of Australian journalists because of his fluent English, said:
Our bilateral relations with Australia were good during Kevin Rudd’s leadership, but they may not be during Abbott’s leadership.
Hikmahanto Juwana, the University of Indonesia law professor whom I quoted earlier, was more abrupt still, one Jakarta newspaper reporting he:
... despised the [Abbott] plan, calling it “humiliating” as it made Indonesian fishermen “look like mercenaries who do dirty jobs.”
Both Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop must have known that such responses would be forthcoming, once the election campaign was over.
This makes Julie Bishop’s reaction all the more puzzling. She asserted of the Coalition’s policies that they:
... will not breach Indonesia’s sovereignty We’re not asking for Indonesia's permission, we're asking for their understanding.
It’s hard to see which part of the Coalition’s plan Bishop believed would not be seen in Jakarta as threatening Indonesian sovereignty. Turning the boats back might not – provided the boats were not directed into Indonesian waters, which would seem to defeat the whole purpose of the exercise. But it’s difficult to argue that setting up an intelligence-gathering network in Indonesia, and operating a boat-buying business in that country, could be done without Indonesian permission. Certainly no Indonesian politician was going to make that argument.
The Coalition’s position was made the more complicated by Barnaby Joyce’s spirited rejection of the idea of Indonesian purchases of Australian pastoral land to produce cattle for export back to Indonesia. From the Indonesian end, the public face of the idea was the State Enterprises Minister, Dahlan Iskan. Iskan is one of 11 candidates vying for the presidential nomination of SBY’s Partai Demokrat. His cause will not be harmed at all by taking on the Australian government on this issue.
Indeed, one wonders if Iskan might have been tempted to take a leaf out of Bishop’s book, and declare: We are not asking for Australia’s permission, we’re asking for their understanding. If he did, no prizes for guessing how we would react.
The Australian elections then, I think, had an impact on Indonesian reactions to the spying allegations greater than the imminence of Indonesian elections. And especially in the case of Marty Natalegawa, who seems to have felt very much personally aggrieved by the way the Coalition had treated him on the issue. The release of the notes of his meeting with Julie Bishop in New York -- in which he stressed Indonesia’s rejection of Abbott’s “stop the boats” policy to the extent that it infringed on Indonesian sovereignty -- was, it might safely be supposed, not accidental. In the case of both the Coalition’s asylum-seeker policy and the Coalition’s response to the spying allegations, it appeared – to many in Jakarta at least -- that Australia was riding roughshod over Indonesian national sovereignty.
Which brings me to the third perspective on the issue: looking at the recent history, the political environment, of Indonesia’s relations with Australia.
At one level, the reaction was shaped by the continuing undercurrent of nationalist sentiment in Indonesia fuelled by past violations of national sovereignty. Most notably, of course, Indonesia was subject to Dutch colonialism. But even since independence, Indonesia has suffered a range of foreign interferences in its affairs: over the regional rebellions in the late 1950s, the East Timor occupation and separatism in the Papuan provinces. The phone tapping is seen by many as simply an extension of that colonial influence.
There is also the continuing sense of technological colonialism – the recognition that Australia (and the US) could only undertake this electronic spying because they had superior technical capacity. Thus the leader of the Hanura party and apparently perpetual presidential candidate, retired General Wiranto, said that the events showed Indonesians needed to become more “technologically literate”.
Where does Australia fit into this history? I don’t go so far as some in tracing it back to alleged war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in east Indonesia in 1945-1946; nor do I think Indonesians today believe the people of Sabah and Sarawak wanted to unite with Indonesia rather than Malaysia in 1963, and were only prevented from doing so by the presence of Australian – and other colonialist – military forces. There is, though, some memory in Indonesia of Australian support for the Dutch position on Papua in the 1950s, and a belief in some quarters that Papuan separatism has been supported, covertly at the least, by successive Australian governments to the present day.
sheriff in Asia” – had apparently reversed the Australian position. I think Hugh White was spot on when he wrote recently:
Many Indonesians now deplore the violence in East Timor and welcome its independence, but nevertheless they resent Australia’s role in the crisis, and regard us still with unease and suspicion. Australia claims the credit for having “liberated” East Timor, when it was Indonesia’s President BJ Habibie who took both the decisions and the risks.
And here is where I think the past has an important role to play in determining Indonesian perceptions of the spying allegations.
My impression is that the Indonesian political elite for decades has been uncomfortable with Liberal National Party coalition leaders in Australia. It was under Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies that Australia supported the Dutch in Papua; and Howard himself was of course from the Liberal Party. I don’t argue that this discomfort was necessarily well-founded – after all, it was Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser who extended de jure recognition to Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor. But I think it is a powerful undercurrent in elite politics in Jakarta.
On the other hand, the ALP is generally more favourably received. For those with long memories, it was under the ALP government of Ben Chifley that Australia represented Indonesia’s interests on the Good Offices Committee established by the UN Security Council in 1947, and ALP Prime Minister Gough Whitlam who seemed to support the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975.
In modern Indonesian political mythology, I suspect the favourite Australian Prime Minister was Paul Keating. He’s the Australian SBY: the best Australian Prime Minister Indonesia has ever had. He was seen as the first Australian Prime Minister who really “got” Indonesia. When Rudd became Prime Minister in 2007, his election was welcomed by many commentators in Jakarta as hearkening back to the golden era of Keating.
But for Indonesia, Rudd’s Prime Ministership was a profound disappointment. True, expectations were set unreasonably high. And there is the embarrassing matter of Rudd’s replacement by Gillard, though of course Rudd became Foreign Minister and thus, in Indonesian eyes, still in touch with Indonesia. But there was no Keating-like warmth towards Indonesia displayed by either Rudd or Gillard. Moreover, it was on Gillard’s watch that Australia stopped – temporarily – the export of live cattle to Indonesia. And did so without any prior discussions with Indonesia.
And – and this I think is the crucial point – it was under the Rudd government that the spying took place; and presumably with Rudd’s consent.
Australian politics is combative: red in tooth and claw, perhaps. It has always been like that, but the last few years have seen the stakes upped considerably – to the point where at least some Australians are beginning to suggest that enough is enough. That our political leaders all need to have a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down.
The problem here is not that Indonesian politics is not combative, or that Indonesians do not play politics as craftily as us. Of course it is and of course they do. It is that we have always claimed the high moral ground in ways that Indonesian political leaders, by and large, have not.
Indonesian governments since the fall of Suharto have argued that theirs is a democratising society – a society in the process of becoming democratic. They have generally acknowledged shortcomings in their policies – and often sought to justify them on grounds of national security. The blatant violations of human rights in the two Papuan provinces obviously fall into this category. Or else they have said that there are political difficulties which are hard to overcome in bringing about change. The apparent impunity with which some soldiers still act is a case in point.
In part this reflects Indonesia’s general position on international affairs. Indonesia – like many of its neighbours – adopts a hard-line interpretation of national sovereignty. What goes on in our country is our business alone. Personally I think this interpretation of the Westphalian principles is outdated. But Indonesia follows it.
However, in the past we have tended to present our politics as not only being different (on some issues) from Indonesians’ politics, but morally superior to them. We abide by international law, we respect international human rights norms, and so forth.
But now we seem to be shifting to a harder line. Everything, apparently, is justified in the name of national security. Even the involvement of the military in national politics, Operation Sovereign Borders being the prime example. And this eliminates – or at least substantially reduces -- the moral difference between the two sides
This is the first time, at least in recent memory, when the high moral ground is unequivocally held by Indonesia. This is not Indonesia trying to defend itself against criticisms of its actions in East Timor; this is not Indonesia objecting to our granting asylum to refugees from Papua; this is not Indonesia responding to allegations about the mistreatment of cattle exported from Australia. In those cases Australians could – and often did – see themselves as standing on the side of right, or morality, or human rights. Not in this case. It is Indonesia standing up against clear violations of its national sovereignty by Australia – and of course the US. The phrase “sovereign borders” comes to mind.
In the future, I suspect Indonesia is hoping for a relationship with Australia which morally more evenly balanced than it has been; evenly balanced in the sense that the Australian side does not always feel it speaks from the high moral ground. And achieving this outcome will take time.
In his speech to the Australian Parliament in March 2010, SBY said:
... in Indonesia there are people who remain afflicted with Australiaphobia—those who believe that the notion of White Australia still persists, that Australia harbours ill intention toward Indonesia and is either sympathetic to or supports separatist elements in our country.
We must expunge this preposterous mental caricature if we are to achieve a more resilient partnership.
Colin Brown is a Professor at Griffith University. This essay was presented at a South East Asia Group Seminar 6th December 2013.