A Bridge Over Troubled Water Between Indonesia and Australia


JUNE 18, 2015

Sydney/Jakarta. The future of Indonesian-Australian relations have plunged in to a labyrinth of uncertainty as allegations of Australian misconduct in handling asylum seekers prompts international relations experts to call for new methods of engagement between the neighboring countries.

Last week, allegations surfaced that Australian authorities had paid people-smuggling boats carrying asylum seekers to turn their ships back to Indonesian waters, reviving tensions in the region.

“If these allegations are true, then these officials have taken part in unethical activities. We must ensure their prosecution according to law,” said Hikmahanto Juwana, professor of international law at the University of Indonesia.

On Wednesday, Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla spoke on the brewing crisis, threatening Australia with graft charges.

“Bribing is not in line with the ethics of an international relationship between countries,” Kalla said. “The Indonesian government is asking for clarification.”

Last month, Australian ambassador to Indonesia Paul Grigson was recalled from Jakarta amid a diplomatic fallout caused by the execution of two Australian nationals charged with drug-smuggling.

The execution of Andrew Chan, Myuran Sukumaran, and six others convicted for similar offenses sparked international controversy in late April, marking the latest conflict between Indonesian and Australian leaders.

Ambassador Grigson returned to Jakarta early last week, just as allegations on Australian impropriety in handling refugee boats leaked to the public.

The current crisis comes at a time of deep mistrust between the two nations, according to the Lowy Institute’s 2015 poll. In poll results released on Tuesday, the Lowy Institute found that Australian perceptions of Indonesia fell to “a cool 46 degrees on the thermometer,” its lowest in 8 years.

The Lowy Institute measures national perception along a 100 degree scale, placing Indonesia on par with Russia (45 degrees) and Egypt (48 degrees) in the eyes of Australians.

'We don’t know each other'

Are there any Indonesians know Richard Flanagan or Kate Grenville? If will be very few if any. In Australia, the two names are among the nation’s most celebrated novelists. Flanagan, for instance is the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, the literature’s Academy Award.

During a session in Sydney Writers’ Festival last month thousands of people flocked to see and hear what Flanagan have to say about his life, family and other personal matters. After the session, the author of sat to give his signature to a long queue of impatient fans. Meanwhile, Grenville, who is famous for her best-selling novel "Green River" spoke in a sold out session everybody seemed to enjoy. To see these authors, people did pay — and not cheap. In brief, they are celebrities in Australia.

Meanwhile, have any Australians ever heard about any Indonesian writers? Some Australians probably know about Pramoedya Ananta Toer only because his collection of novels were translated by an Australian. But what about other younger writers, such as Ayu Utami or Okky Madasari? The answer is even fewer, if any.

Books — fiction and non fiction — are the best medium to know other’s culture. The lack of knowledge of Australian literature by Indonesians and the other way round is a show of lack of understanding about each other, creating misunderstanding every time an issue escalates into a conflict.

“I think this is one of the main reasons why every issue turns into a misperception, confusion and suspicion because Australians and Indonesians don’t know each other,” said Mary Farrow, a Melbourne-based activist. “For instance, when I wanted to go to Jakarta last month, everybody asked: Are you crazy? Is it safe there? Many Australians still don’t know that Jakarta is big metropolitan city just like Melbourne or Sydney,” she added.

Farrow said that it is through films and novels many of them learn about Indonesia. Ambassador Grigson was surprised to find that it is unlikely any Australian novel had been translated into Indonesian language.

Communication is key

Experts agree that a root cause of the current crisis is a lack of understanding and communication between national leaders. “The Indonesian government does not like that Australia has been creating arbitrary policies on irregular migration, policies that will have international impact,” said Hikmahanto.

“What we want to see is Australia creating policies based on its discussions with Indonesia, not unilateral action,” Hikmahanto added on Tuesday.

Teuku Rezasyah, the executive director of the Indonesian Center for Democracy, Diplomacy and Defense (IC3D), also spoke on the important role of communication channels in addressing regional issues, saying: “I think Indonesia has been quite patient and polite. We are not making any accusations without first knowing the official position of the Australian government”

Rezasyah, also an international relations lecturer at Padjajaran University in Bandung, further highlighted past initiatives like the Lombok Treaty as possible frameworks for reestablishing regional cooperation and communication.

Signed in 2006 under the watch of then-Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda and his Australian counterpart Alexander Downer, the Lombok Treaty asserted the “shared goal of peace, security and prosperity in the region, and [recognized] the importance of continuing close cooperation on issues affecting their common security as well as their respective national security.”

The treaty also set forth a strong legal framework designed to encourage bilateral dialogue. Speaking on the condition of the treaty today, Rezasyah said “the provisions of the Lombok Treaty have not been fully utilized. These are the rules we need to reinforce to avoid further conflicts.”

Rezasyah also highlighted the “2+2” meetings of 2012, where Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Defence Minister Stephen Smith met with Indonesian counterparts Marty Natalegawa and Purnomo Yusgiantoro to issue a joint communiqué on bilateral issues.

“I sincerely hope that President Joko Widodo will nurture a closer relationship with the Australian Prime Minister. I’ve yet to see this from the new administration,” said Rezasyah.

Hikmahanto too stresses the importance of clear and open communication between state leaders.

“The current refugee controversy is a government to government issue, and must be solved through government,” said Hikmahanto.

“Dialogue between the two countries is very important, and we need to have open communication. When it comes to international matters that affect the region, action has to be taken by both parties, not unilaterally.”

Data from the Lowy Institute’s 2015 poll indicated that 76 percent of Australians believed that “Australian prime ministers should work harder to develop personal relationships with their Indonesian counterparts.”

People to people approach As stakeholders on either side of the conflict clamor for clearer channels of communication between government leaders, people-to-people initiatives could hold the key towards normalizing relations between Indonesia and Australia.

“Giving young people from both countries the opportunity to understand one another at a personal level is the first step to breaking down barriers,” said Emma Roberts, an alumna of Australia’s New Colombo plan, an initiative that offers Australian undergraduates opportunities for scholarships and grants for study and internships in the Indo-Pacific region.

Roberts, who currently resides in Indonesia as a Yudhoyono Fellow under the New Colombo Plan, believes that experiences like hers could help foster deeper and more productive communication across nations in times of crisis.

“By increasing people-to-people engagement between the two nations, both nations can gain a deeper understanding of one another’s cultures and human values, thus avoiding the misunderstandings that could continue to cause conflict in the future,” Roberts said on Tuesday.

Nicholas Mark, president of the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association (AIYA), too advocates for renewed efforts in creating person-to-person bonds to forge more productive channels of communication between Indonesia and Australia.

“We believe that one of the most important aspects of the bilateral relationship is the strength of the people-to-people links between youth,” Mark said on Thursday

AIYA, which has active chapters in every Australian state and territory, as well as in the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Yogyakarta, has dedicated itself to the development of a network of students and young professionals across the neighboring countries.

Mark noted the role of people-to-people initiatives in shifting government policy, saying “research on people to people links tells us that young people are more open to changing attitudes. So if the governments want to change attitudes they should invest in making sure there are strong people to people links at the youth level.”

AIYA is currently in the midst of organizing its third annual Conference of Australian and Indonesian Youth (CAUSINDY), to be held in Darwin, Australia this September. The conference is expected to bring together 30 young leaders from Australia and Indonesia, giving them the opportunity to work together in building a stronger relationship between Australia and Indonesia.

“Our cultures and history are very different, but there is a lot that we can learn from each other,” Mark said. “I am very confident that interactions between Australia and Indonesia will continue to strengthen.”

Although the current political climate is one of strife and conflict, Australia must still remain a key priority in Indonesia’s foreign policy platform, analysts say.

IC3D’s Teuku Rezasyah said “neighbors are meant to be together. Both of us must continue to see the other as being important.”

“Regardless of what is happening, these countries must think about the strategic importance of the future of the region,” said Rezasyah, noting that strong collaborative relations between the two powers would help stabilize the region as a whole. “There is so much more work to be done together in the region, and I sincerely hope recent events will not affect the long-term relationship between our two countries.”

“Australia has been and will always be an important partner of Indonesia,” international law professor Hikmahanto concluded.