Subject: Indonesia-Australia Relations: The Neighbors Soap Opera

Laksamana.Net February 7, 2002

The Neighbors Soap Opera

The insults hurled at John Howard by Jakarta's political opportunists were an embarrassing attempt to cover-up their own shortcomings.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has gone ahead with his three-day visit aimed at improving bilateral relations with Indonesia, even though Jakarta's rabid political opportunists had made it clear they would seek to capitalize from his presence by unleashing a barrage of jingoistic invective at him.

On the eve of the visit, leaders of the House of Representatives (DPR) and People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) canceled meetings with Howard amid claims that Australia had blamed Indonesia for people smuggling and was funding the Papuan independence movement.

Upon touching down Wednesday (6/2/02) at Jakarta's Halim Perdakusuma air base, the Australian leader was given a quick red-carpet welcome and whisked away to the state palace for talks with President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Although angered by the refusal of top legislators to meet with him, Howard put on a congenial face and proved he was somewhat more adept than his host nation at being basa-basi (courteous).

"I appreciate the gracious welcome at a time of considerable difficulty in Jakarta because of the floods," he said.

Megawati received Howard and members of his entourage with another red-carpet ceremonial welcome. The two countries' national anthems were dutifully played, there was a 19-gun salute and an inspection of a guard of honor.

Then the talks got underway. Fortunately the famously reticent Megawati was accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister Hasan Wirayuda, Coordinating Minister for Politics and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Education Minister Malik Fadjar, and Research and Technology Minister Hatta Rajasa.

Howard made some neighborly gestures, pledging to provide Indonesia with five police boats to patrol its borders, and $1 million to help the victims of recent floods.

It's not clear how soon the patrol boats will be delivered, while the aid money is likely to be channeled through the Indonesian Red Cross and World Food Program.

The two countries also agreed to a memorandum of understanding to combat terrorism. The pact was proposed by Indonesia and could be signed during the visit.

Howard made it abundantly clear that Australia supports the territorial unity of Indonesia and respects the autonomy packages given to Papua and Aceh.

"I told the president that Australia supports the unity and integrity of Indonesian territory," he said after the meeting.

Megawati said Indonesia was convinced that bilateral relations should be more realistic and rational in the future.

Howard acknowledged that there would be issues in which the two countries would not always agree.

Yudhoyono said Megawati had told Howard she wants to see Australia take some meaningful measures to reinforce its support for Indonesia's territorial integrity.

Howard had been due to meet with DPR speaker Akbar Tanjung and MPR speaker Amien Rais, but the two had snubbed the Australian leader just hours before his arrival.

Tanjung is enmeshed in a corruption scandal and fighting for his political survival, while the maverick Rais is still hoping to become president in 2004.

Analysts say both men had given Howard the cold shoulder in an attempt to curry favor with legislators who still hold a grudge against Australia's success in putting a stop to the carnage unleashed by the Indonesian military and its militia proxies in East Timor in 1999.

It's doubtful that much would have been achieved even if Howard had met with legislators who hold sway in a virulently corrupt nation splitting at the seams with a vast array of problems.

Howard's scheduled visit to the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery - the final resting place of the military's top brass - was dropped, as the roads leading to the graveyard had been damaged by last week's floods.

On Thursday, Howard met again with Wirayuda and Yudhoyono, before flying to the ancient temple city of Yogyakarta in central Java.

Howard was due to meet with Yogyakarta Governor Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono X and visit Borobudur temple and Gadjah Mada University.

Opportunists House speaker Tanjung said he would question Megawati at a future session on why she had allowed Howard to visit Indonesia.

Rais said he hoped Australia would learn a lesson from the boycotted meetings.

"Hopefully, on his return from this visit, Mr Howard will be able to reflect on the policies of his government [and] on how it should act with Indonesia," he said.

Adding to the insults and embarrassment was the decision of Vice President Hamzah Haz to also cancel his scheduled meeting with Howard.

Australia's efforts to bring peace to East Timor and curb people smuggling have been widely interpreted by Indonesian legislators as "arrogant and unfriendly" actions.

If only Howard could have traveled Jakarta's streets by taxi with an interpreter, he would have soon discovered that many Indonesians see Tanjung as a corrupt liar, Rais as a brazen opportunist who cannot be trusted, and Haz as a hypocrite of the worst order.

Many of Indonesia's taxi drivers, when not criticizing corrupt politicians, say they would love an opportunity to live and work in Australia.

Howard had told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio that his visit aims to improve bilateral relations. "If you get hung up about differences you'll never have a good relationship."

Rais actually backtracked on his criticism of Howard on Wednesday evening, saying there had been some miscommunication between the two countries.

"There is maybe some misunderstanding we have to rectify, so I have made up my mind that I will take a middle way," he said, and later joined Wednesday's state dinner held in Howard's honor.

Rais sat alongside Megawati, Howard, Howard's wife Janette, and Megawati's husband Taufik Kiemas.

Noticeably absent was Tanjung, who last month attended a state banquet for the visiting Thai prime minister.

Welcome to Yogya The rector of Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University, Ichlasul Amal, said Howard's visit to the oldest state university in Indonesia would not have any political connotations.

"Howard is making a cultural visit to Yogyakarta, not a political one. At UGM university, the visiting prime minister will have a chat with the rector, some lecturers, students and graduates from some Australian universities," he said.

Amal pointed out that despite the diplomatic rifts between Canberra and Jakarta, there is no animosity between most Australians and Indonesians.

"John Howard should know this fact that relations between the Australian and Indonesian community are never constrained by the [diplomatic] problem. So I think the DPR/MPR's rejection should not stop Howard from coming here."

US-Jakarta Military Ties Although Howard has tried to cast off the notion that he is the "deputy sheriff" of America, the Australian government is reportedly backing a Bush administration proposal for the resumption of US military cooperation with Indonesia.

US Congress halted military links in response to the 1999 killings in East Timor. Australia also severely reduced ties to the Indonesian Defense Forces (TNI).

The Bush administration this week called for a resumption of all forms of assistance to TNI in order to help Indonesia crack down on terrorists.

Reports say Australia had been "quietly encouraging the Bush administration to do this".

Any restoration of military ties with Indonesia would be objected to by human rights activists. Such a move would also be opposed by some nationalists if they feel that US or Australian forces want to enter Indonesia to conduct joint operations to flush out terrorists.

Some analysts feel that rather than wage war on terrorists, Indonesia is looking for a diplomatic confrontation with Australia in order to divert domestic attention from they myriad problems within the sprawling archipelago.

Howard has not fallen into this trap and has played down the abuse from Indonesian legislators who lack the ability to clean up their own backyard.

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