Friday, April 07, 2006


First published in The Jakarta Post, April 7, 2006


Alpha Amirrachman, Serang, Banten

The love-hate relationship between Indonesia and neighboring Australia has again come to the fore following Australia's decision to grant temporary visas to Papuan asylum seekers. Indonesia was dazed and perplexed -- gasping in surprise at how swiftly Australia maneuvered its policy form halting Middle Easterners from entering the country illegally, to welcoming the Papuans who also entered the country illegally.

Bizarrely for many Indonesians, the Australian government reiterated its support for Indonesia's territorial integrity and said it did not support any Papuan independence movement. As if granting the visas to the asylum seekers was an isolated incident.

Such perceived "double standards" are certainly hard to digest for many Indonesians, particularly for the nationalists who are increasingly sure that relations with the "double-faced" Australia will only disturb Indonesia's international standing, and therefore strongly urge the government to cut diplomatic ties with the country.

Bear in mind that Australia has shrewdly built up its massive "social capital" in Indonesia by flooding considerable social and economic assistance into the country, particularly after the 2002 Bali bombings and the tsunami in Aceh. Considering this, it is unlikely that Indonesia -- a country whose mismanagement by corrupt leaders has transformed it into a "beggar" nation -- would severe diplomatic ties with its rich southern neighbor.

Thus, the recalling of Indonesia's ambassador to Australia might have been a blunder, with the impulsive Vice President Jusuf Kalla trying to play hardball with Australia by demanding that the country provide an "adequate" explanation before Indonesia could send back its ambassador.

What seems certain is that after building up so much social capital, Australia might have been tempted to use this case to test the waters of its influence over its northern neighbor. Indonesia, as the fourth most populous country and the country with the largest Muslim population, is too important for Australia to ignore.

During the authoritarian New Order regime, for Australia under Paul Keating's administration relations with Indonesia were relatively easier to handle, as long as the strongman Soeharto did not feel disturbed. After becoming a democracy, Indonesia's political leadership became fragmented and unpredictable, and exerting significant influence over the country poses a fresh challenge for Australia under John Howard.

The way Australia handled the Papuan asylum seekers issue might not be pleasant for Indonesia, but this is a prism through which Australia can measure public reaction in the newly democratic Indonesia. At the same time, Australia might have also used the case to show its displeasure over the plight of Papuans who are still suffering unfair treatment and human rights abuses, scoring additional points for Australia in the area of human rights.

Indonesia's reaction might have been excessive and reactionary, but with the country now embracing democracy, Australia should realize that Indonesia is on the right path toward maturing as a nation.

Indonesia, on the other hand, should also realize that with all the limitations and shortcomings of the learning period it is going through as a new democracy -- including its still miserable failure to treat Papuans in a fair and humane manner -- it has few choices but to be more levelheaded toward the political attitude of its southern neighbor.

And with members of both governments showing displeasure over disdainful cartoons printed by the free media in both countries, the two neighbors likewise need to be aware of the pressing need for relations to be mutually inclusive, not mutually exclusive. For jingoists in the two countries, the proximity of the two might be a bitter fact -- but it is morally inescapable.

Thus, building relations based on the spirit of heartfelt neighborliness is the dignified choice, if we are to have productive and lasting relations. It is not always easy; indeed, nationalistic sentiments and feelings of superiority might always lure the politicians to put the relationship to the test, sparking undue political fire.

Even in day-to-day life, relations between neighbors are not always genuine, unless there is a specifically emotional interest that truly binds us. We might feel that we need to be kind to our closest neighbors on the mere grounds that they will at least phone us if they see trespassers in our yard.

But if we have strained relations with our immediate neighbors, though putting on a straight face, we will still feel uncomfortable when walking out of our house. An unpleasant way to start the day, isn't it? The comical thing is that we might not need a third party to help mend our strained relations, as at the end of the day we will all realize that no one benefits from this furor.

The writer is an alumnus of Sydney University and a lecturer in the Department of Education at Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa State University in Banten. He can be contacted at

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