Frenemies: The Indonesian-Australian Relationship Nears Its Nadir

It's long been a love-hate thing, but now the hate, at least in Indonesia, is being ramped up

  • Share
  • Read Later
Bay Ismoyo / AFP / Getty Images

Anti-Australia protesters throw bottles of urine, eggs and tomatoes during a rally in front of the Australian embassy in Jakarta on Nov. 22, 2013

On Sunday morning, while waiting for his flight to the Sumatran town of Bengkulu, Indonesian democracy activist Rumadi Ahmad tweeted: “I keep praying that Indonesian-Australian relations won’t reach the lowest point.”

Rumadi, a senior researcher at the Wahid Institute in Jakarta, has reason to be worried. A week after reports that Australia spied in 2009 on Indonesia’s political elite, from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife Kristiani Herawati to his inner circle, there are little signs that anger in the archipelago is abating.

In addition to the recalling of its top diplomat Nadjib Riphat Kesoema in Canberra, Indonesia canceled strategically insignificant but symbolically valuable joint military exercises that had been taking place in Australia’s remote Northern Territory. Indonesian Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan asked his parliament to allow live-cattle imports from countries other than Australia, while Indonesian MP Taslim Chaniago has called for a stop to the parole process of long-suffering convicted Australian drug smuggler Schapelle Corby.

State-owned enterprise PT Rajawali Nusantara Indonesia is reportedly freezing plans to buy vast swaths of Australian farmland, while Australian flags have been set alight in front of the Australian embassy in Jakarta by angry mobs — including nationalists in paramilitary fatigues and white-clad Islamists. Indonesian police chief Sutarman also said that cooperation with the Australian Federal Police to tackle people smuggling has been suspended – a development that effectively derails Canberra’s policy of stopping asylum seekers from reaching Australian shores.

The row has also taken a tawdry personal turn. After a senior adviser to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot tweeted that the Indonesian Foreign Minister resembled a 1970s Filipino porn star, populist Indonesian daily Rakyat Merdeka (Free People) published a cartoon of Abbott as a peeping tom on its front page on Saturday. The recently elected Australian leader is depicted masturbating in front of an open door marked “Indonesia,” while whispering: “Ssst! Oh my God Indo … so sexy.”

(MORE: So Awk — Abbott Adviser Calls Indonesian Foreign Minister a ‘1970s Filipino Porn Star’)

Seeking to repair some damage, Abbott sent a letter to Yudhoyono on Saturday. While the presidential palace indicates the content won’t be made public, Hikmahanto Juwana, a law professor at the University of Indonesia, said in an op-ed piece that Jakarta should not hesitate taking tough action should the letter be deemed inadequate by the government and public. “One of the suggestions for the government is to expel Australian diplomats within 24 hours,” he wrote.

Indonesians, who are among the world’s most prolific users of Twitter, have also continued to vent their anti-Australia sentiment on the social-media platform. “Irritated by Australia’s action. If this happened in Sukarno’s era, Australia would be crushed by Sukarno,” one Twitter user wrote, referring to Indonesia’s first President who coined the battle cry “Crush Malaysia” during his “confrontation politics” against the Southeast Asian neighbor in the early 1960s.

The anti-Australia sentiment is uniting competing groups in Indonesia, including rival political parties, secular nationalists and both moderate and hard-line Muslims. The popular Bandung mayor, Ridwan Kamil, said Thursday that he decided to cancel a language-cooperation program with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. because of the spying scandal — a move that is being widely lauded. “For the sake of the nation’s dignity! Respect to @ridwankamil. This is what’s called being sensitive,” wrote one Twitter user.

A Muslim youth organization in East Java that is part of Nahdlatul Ulama — Indonesia’s moderate and biggest Islamic mass organization with an estimated membership of 30 million — issued a “Crush Australia” petition on Saturday, calling for Yudhoyono to cut diplomatic ties with Canberra.

Australian National University professor of Asian history Robert Cribb tells TIME the backlash is primarily a reflection of Indonesia’s sensitivity to foreign interference.

“After a long history of colonial rule by the Netherlands, a brief Japanese occupation, a four-year war of independence, an immediate postindependence period in which the U.S. and the Netherlands were perceived to be encouraging secession, and perceived Western engineering of the independence of East Timor, Indonesians have learned to feel affronted when foreign powers engage in illegal activity on their soil,” he says.

“The issue is compounded by the fact that President Yudhoyono is widely seen as a friend of Australia. There is a significant element of personal betrayal.”

(MORE: Indonesians Vent Fury With Anti-Aussie Hashtag: #GanyangAustralia)

However, despite the widespread anger, there are voices of moderation. Prominent among them is the essayist and poet Goenawan Mohamad, who tweeted: “Can patriotism only be uttered with jingoism?

Such sentiments reflect the fact that the Australia-Indonesia relationship is multifaceted and highly productive (this article, being jointly written by an Indonesian and an Australian, is one example). The countries share a strong commitment to fighting terrorism and worked together closely to investigate, arrest and prosecute those responsible for the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005, as well as the 2004 Australian embassy bombing, the 2003 and 2009 hotel bombings in Jakarta that collectively claimed hundreds of innocent lives, including Indonesians’ and Australians’.

As of December last year, there were 17,514 Indonesian students enrolled in Australian educational institutions, while Indonesia is the fifth most popular destination in Asia for international study by Australian university students. The jointly managed Australia-Indonesia Institute has funded numerous programs in the arts, media, youth, women’s issues, science and technology since its inception in 1989.

Zareh Ghazarian from the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Australia’s Monash University says Abbott understands the importance of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia and the need to mend it. But if an apology is forthcoming, it’s unlikely to be made in public.

“Abbott he is seeking to portray himself as a somewhat ‘tougher’ Prime Minister compared to his immediate predecessors in that he is trying to avoid being seen as a leader that can be intimidated by outside forces,” Ghazarian tells TIME.

“But this episode has the potential to derail the focus on the government’s legislative agenda if it drags on further, so I would expect that he would make contact with Yudhoyono privately. It will give both leaders a chance to clear the air and hopefully mend the relationship.”

Whether or not that that will allow Yudhoyono to save face in the hyperpopulist maelstrom that is Indonesian politics is a totally different matter — one that may yet see the two long-standing friends become their own worst enemies.

MORE: Aussie PM Adviser’s Best Twitter Rants