Subject: A gentle test of Rudd's foreign credentials
Sydney Morning Herald
Thursday, June 12, 2008
A gentle test of Rudd's foreign credentials
By Mark Forbes
THE Indonesia that will greet Kevin Rudd when he arrives in Jakarta tonight is marked by chaos and conflict, alongside progress and democratic maturity. These contradictions could easily be applied to Australia's relationship with its most significant neighbour.
Just over two years ago the President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, took the unprecedented step of recalling his ambassador from Canberra, because he was appalled by the granting of asylum to Papuan activists and a newspaper cartoon of him fornicating with a dog.
The Howard government's actions were inappropriate, unrealistic and biased, Yudhoyono said, vowing not to "tolerate any elements in any country, including Australia, which clearly gives support to separatist movements in Papua".
Australia and Indonesia have since forged a security treaty to replace the pact torn up during the bloody aftermath of East Timor's independence vote, and an agenda for "comprehensive partnership".
Mutual interests drove the patch-up, with John Howard endorsing the concept of potentially suppressing Papuan independence activities in Australia to enable the signing of the Lombok Treaty.
Such concessions warmed Jakarta towards Howard and Indonesia quickly sought assurances from the Rudd Government that all commitments would be adhered to.
This visit will be another test of Rudd's foreign policy credentials, but a gentle one. Suggestions he snubbed Indonesia by delaying his first official visit are off the mark. The welcome will be warm.
In Jakarta, Labor's support for Indonesia's independence and the efforts of Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating to forge a strategic partnership are well remembered. As a former ambassador to Canberra, Wiroyono Sastrohandoyo, said: "Basically we are more comfortable with Australia under the Labor Party".
Yudhoyono's international adviser, Dino Patti Djalal, believes relations have moved past individuals and parties. "Indonesia and Australia now are tied by a realignment of interests, shaping relations no matter who the personalities are," he said.
And, Djalal said, Rudd and Yudhoyono "hit it off" when they met at the climate change talks in Bali in December. "The chemistry is there," he said. "This is a good opportunity for the Prime Minister to introduce himself to the Indonesian public."
That public has been preoccupied by religious riots and corruption scandals implicating top businessmen and officials. But these shockwaves obscure the extent of Indonesia's progress in the decade since the strongman Soeharto was unseated.
Former ministers have been arrested and Soeharto's son jailed. A powerful Anti-Corruption Commission has been established, with the side effect of exposing abuses within Yudhoyono's administration. A bloody, three-decade struggle for independence in Aceh has been resolved and the military gently moved back from politics.
Yudhoyono has hesitantly driven contentious initiatives such as cutting fuel subsidies by more than a third in the face of skyrocketing world prices.
As Indonesia's first directly elected leader, Yudhoyono has cautiously built consensus and is acutely conscious of next year's election.
This week's decision to restrict, not ban, the "deviant" Ahmadiyah Islamic sect illustrates Yudhoyono's dilemmas. He cannot afford to offend the Muslim majority, while seeking to protect Indonesia's pluralistic democracy.
It is a battle with implications for Australia and the region. Many Jemaah Islamiah members who supported the Bali bombings have abandoned blatant attacks in favour of public campaigns to introduce Islamic law.
Demonstrations against Ahmadiyah and fury over petrol prices had one benefit for Australia - obscuring the imprisonment of 50 Indonesian fishermen by Australian patrols, which later burnt their boats after they were wrongfully accused of illegal fishing.
Australian authorities' bullying and victimisation of traditional Indonesians struggling to earn a living would usually provoke nationalistic outrage.
But behind the scenes, diplomats in Canberra and Jakarta worked to sweep the incident under the carpet and return the men with as little fuss (and as much compensation) as possible.
Other ghosts haunt the relationship, including the slaughter of five journalists in Balibo, East Timor, in 1975. The federal Attorney-General's Department is considering a new coronial recommendation to extradite and prosecute a former Indonesian officer and cabinet member.
More recent victims of Indonesia's drugs crackdown have also soured the relationship, with conspiracy theories surrounding Schapelle Corby's conviction and the young Australians caught trafficking heroin in Bali who potentially face firing squads. But these seem to be little more than flickers on the landscape.
When Rudd floated the idea of a new Asia-Pacific community, he spoke of Labor's support for Indonesia's independence. The Lombok Treaty provided a basis for co-operation but security and counter-terrorism measures should go further, he said.
Djalal agrees relations have strengthened: "There is a tendency to take the long-term view of our relations. And bonds had been built through tragedy, he said, pointing to the 2004 tsunami and the Bali bombings.
The reprieve of three Australian heroin couriers on death row offers hope of avoiding a damaging dispute over executions and the Corby family's drug controversies have eroded her once substantial public support.
Even East Timor has become an area of collaboration. Although the Indonesian and Australian armies came close to open conflict after the 1999 independence vote, there is a common interest in avoiding a failed state.
# The leaders' talks are likely to endorse greater security cooperation, counter-terrorism initiatives and more joint action on the environment, food security and climate change.
Both leaders will emerge from the talks calling for closer ties and stronger people-to-people links. As Yudhoyono has said, both countries have to overcome stereotypical perceptions.
Djalal said: "We want as many Australians to travel to Indonesia as possible, and we want as many Indonesians as possible to travel to Australia."
That means Indonesia wants Australia to lift or lessen its travel warning against Indonesia.
"The Australian Government knows how we feel about the travel warning," Djalal said. "Most Australians can see for themselves that Indonesia is a very peaceful place, a great place to visit."
Rudd could bring no more welcome gift than a reassessment of the outdated warning.