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Australia-Indonesia pact paves the way for closer ties

5 April 2005

Reporter: Tanya Nolan

TANYA NOLAN: The Australia-Indonesia relationship has been tense at best since East Timor's transition to independence.

Things have improved slightly since the Boxing Day tsunami and the Nias earthquake, which has seen Australia commit money, aid and resources to help the country rebuild.

But this week's visit by the Indonesian President has seen a very different tone emerge, one of a deepening commitment and respect on both sides.

The signing of the Joint Declaration has laid the groundwork for future bilateral agreements, on security and trade, and heralds a new era of cooperation between Australia and Indonesia.

So is this the beginning of something special or just a normalising of previously tense relations?

To talk about this I'm joined by two long-time Indonesia-watchers, Professor Harold Crouch from the school of Pacific and Asian studies at the ANU (Australian National University), and Max Lane, a researcher at the Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation studies at Wollongong University.

What's emerged from President Yudhoyono's visit so far has been described as a significant reinvigoration of Australia/Indonesia relations.

Harold Crouch, before his visit, you warned not to expect any special from our relationship with SBY. Have you changed your opinion?

HAROLD CROUCH: Well, I think what I was meaning is that we shouldn't think of ourselves as having a sort of special relationship with Indonesia compared with other countries, that Indonesia would somehow feel that Australia was its main partner.

I think Yudhoyono will probably be next going to other countries saying very similar things, and so he should in my opinion.

TANYA NOLAN: Max Lane, should we be careful in how we view this? Is this just a normalisation process for a relationship that's been strained since the period of East Timor's independence?

MAX LANE: Well, probably from the Australian Government's point of view they see it as moving towards normalisation, but of course we have to remember that especially with the security pact this means increasing cooperation with an armed forces which is still actively engaged in a war in Aceh, and is still being accused regularly of pretty gross human rights violations.

And in some ways it's only normalisation ­ if you want to put that aside ­ it's the sort of normalisation that existed in the period leading up to the 1999 in East Timor.

TANYA NOLAN: That security arrangement and the Joint Declaration, I want to touch on those issues in a little while, but Howard Crouch, you've also said "don't get elated about the highs in our relationship, they will not eliminate the lows," that we should just be striving to prevent permanent damage being done to this relationship.

But the tone of this visit seems to be very different. SBY (Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono) awarding medals of honour to the nine Australian defence personnel who died in Nias, that would have been unthinkable post-East Timor, wouldn't it?

HAROLD CROUCH: Yeah, indeed. I mean, I think it's on a high now, but I think if you look at the past unexpectedly issues arise all the time. Just consider one possible case and that is in Bali.

If this young lady is found guilty and happens to get a death sentence I would think there'll ... there won't be much elation about that, and you know, I'd hope that the two leaders and the rest of the Government can do something about that so that it doesn't upset the relationship entirely, and I think that should be the key goal of all these agreements is to establish some sort of network of cooperation that will allow us ... we enjoy the highs, but we'll also avoid the worst of the lows.

TANYA NOLAN: Well this isn't just about two leaders making friends, is it? As you both mentioned they have to ensure that public opinion is on their side. And that could be put at risk, Max Lane, couldn't it, if Australia's faced with the choice of who to support if the Indonesian military goes in to actively suppress any independence movement in Aceh or West Papua?

The performance of TNI in these regions often enflames anti-Jakarta sentiments through human rights abuses and the such. Do you think Australia has backed itself into a corner in this Joint Declaration?

MAX LANE: Well, I think the Australian Government is backing itself into that kind of corner.

I think people need to realise that even though the Indonesian Armed Forces has been forced to retreat from the kind of involvement and participation that it had in political life under Suharto, in some areas such as Aceh and Papua, it still basically runs those regions as a quite brutal dictatorship, and I think both within Indonesia and eventually amongst the Australian public, the Australian Government's support for cooperation with that kind of army will become an issue.

And I think it will be an issue, as I said, not just in Australian public opinion, but also with Indonesian public opinion as well.

TANYA NOLAN: And do you agree with Harold Crouch about the Schapelle Corby trial? If she does in fact get convicted, could that further damage the public relations image that Australians have of Indonesia?

MAX LANE: I'm sure it will, I'm sure it will. It's ... especially ... you know, we all share the same sort of uh ...

a) there's a lot of suspicion or people not really convinced about the nature of the evidence presented and so on, so that's already planting doubts, and then secondly, no doubt there'll be a media (inaudible) around it as well, so I'm sure it will be a negative thing in terms of public relations.

Although it's clearly not something that's as fundamental to the nature of the relationship between ordinary Australian people and ordinary Indonesian people.

TANYA NOLAN: Harold Crouch, how great are the risks to this relationship?

HAROLD CROUCH: It depends on when you think ahead, what could happen. The point that Max made a moment ago about the Indonesian Army is not just possibly engaged in war in Aceh and Papua, it actually is.

I think, now what is the significance of ... there's no security pact yet, and I suspect there won't be an actual pact or treaty, it'll be some sort of understanding or agreement, and it really depends a lot on the actual nature of that agreement.

Before East Timor in 1999, Australia was giving training in… jungle warfare training for example was being held in Australia for Indonesian trainers, actually. Now that's the sort of thing that would add to the Indonesian military's capacity to repress rebellion and so on.

On the other hand, you can also have, as we have right now, Indonesian officers attending staff colleges and that sort of thing in Australia. So it depends a lot on the nature of the military cooperation.

If it's in staff colleges I have no objection to that at all, but I think we should not be engaged in providing training and so on for the Indonesian military of a sort that aids it in its repressive activities.

TANYA NOLAN: And Max Lane, just one final comment from yourself?

MAX LANE: Yes, I think it's not really a question of the nature of the training, it's that… the issue for most Indonesians relates to the whole legitimacy of the Indonesian armed forces, while it retains its current leadership, its current character and its current mentality.

There are many people in Indonesia who've actually been earning… people who are still in the leadership of the armed forces were put on trial for human rights abuses, and I think that the problem is that in their eyes, any cooperation with the Indonesian military actually is saying to the world that the Indonesian armed forces has changed its character and now has some kind of legitimacy as an untainted institution in Indonesian society.

I don't think that's the common view in Indonesia, and certainly Australian Government policy will be alienating itself from this prevalent view in Indonesian society.

TANYA NOLAN: Gentlemen, I had so many more questions to ask you, but we've run out of time. Thank you very much for your time.

Max Lane there, a researcher at the Centre for Asia Pacific Social Transformation Studies at Wollongong University, and apologies for that dodgy line. And Professor Harold Crouch from the School of Pacific and Asian studies at the ANU, thank you both.

ABC Online

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