COVER STORY: EDITORIAL: Indonesian President in Australia
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, March 26, 2005
The visit to Australia next month by Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono affords Australia an opportunity to forge closer ties with the leader of a great regional power, and an important partner in South-East Asia with which Australia has had troubled relations in the past.
Indonesia is crucial to Australia's security. It is the gateway to Australia from Asia. During the 60 years of Indonesia's existence as an independent nation, it has been subject to attempted takeovers by both communists and Islamic militants. The international shipping lanes between Australia and Japan, China and other nations of north Asia pass directly through Indonesian waters, and Indonesia is an important trading partner of Australia's, so that any interruption to these links would have a serious adverse impact on Australian trade.
Additionally, Indonesia is the largest Islamic nation in the world. Of its 240 million people, around 220 million describe themselves as Muslim.
Although literacy rates are high, Indonesia is plagued by unemployment for millions of its youth, endemic corruption, and insurgencies at both the east and west ends of the Indonesian archipelago.
On-going guerrilla war
The guerrilla war in Aceh has been particularly bitterly fought on both sides. Recent reports in the Jakarta Post suggest that 1,000 people have been killed, and a further 500 have surrendered or been captured in Aceh since November last year, in a military crackdown on the insurgency. All this is creating a reservoir of alienated young people who are at risk of falling prey to extremists.
Unlike his predecessor Megawati Sukarnoputri, President Yudhoyono, elected last year, is strongly pro-Western, and has welcomed close relations with Australia. His visit will be the first by an Indonesian leader since the al-Qaeda bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001 inaugurated the War on Terror.
Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, took up an invitation to attend President Yudhoyono's inauguration in Jakarta last October. After the tsunami devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh last December, Mr Howard offered an astonishing $1 billion in aid and loans to help the recovery of the devastated region, on top of the millions donated by Australians to aid organisations.
One of the reasons for the Indonesian President's visit to Australia, according to Indonesian sources, is to thank Australia for its contribution to tsunami relief; but its significance goes far deeper than this.
As John Howard said in announcing the visit, "I see in President Yudhoyono the opportunity to develop a very strong and very close relationship, not only at the personal level but also ... at an institutional level."
The difficulties in Australia-Indonesian relations go back many years, at least to the time when the headquarters of the East Timorese resistance was based in Australia after Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975. Currently, the headquarters of the West Papuan resistance - which also seeks independence from Indonesia - is also located in Australia.
Indonesian resentment was also fuelled by Australia's role in assisting the referendum which resulted in East Timor's independence, and its role in the UN-sponsored military intervention to restore order after Indonesian-backed militias indulged in an orgy of arson and violence in East Timor in 1999.
Australia was also in the forefront of Western nations' demands that Indonesia crack down on the extremist Jemaah Islamiah (JI) movement, which Indonesian government officials initially insisted did not exist in Indonesia, despite clear evidence from Singapore and Malaysia that it was recruiting people through Islamic schools to perpetrate acts of terror.
It was only after the Bali bombing, organised by JI in 2002, that the Indonesian government seriously set about hunting down members of the organisation.
JI was also responsible for the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003, and the bombing outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in September 2004, although it should be said that many Muslims are completely opposed to the activities of JI.
Dr Farish A Noor, a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist who holds no brief for the West, commented that "the attack on the Australian embassy was a sordid, despicable incident which will be twisted and misrepresented to suit the interests of the powers that be. If ... the leaders of the JI were indeed involved in the attack, then they are short-sighted pawns who have been used for the interests of others. The killing of any innocent civilian is a sin and haram (forbidden) in Islam. But when such killings end up being used by others, exploited and twisted out of context to further weaken one's own country, then all that can be said is that the JI's actions have served only to weaken Islam and Muslim interests even further."
Despite the cultural and historical differences between us, it is essential that Australia develop close relations with Indonesia, based on mutual respect for each other, and the need to work together to address common concerns.
- Peter Westmore is president of the National Civic Council