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Indonesia: Beyond the News Filters (Part 1 of 2)

By Denis Bright

Mainstream news filters are not helping to improve relations between Indonesia and Australia. Improvements are needed in both directions.

The Turnbull Government is definitely striving to improve relations at a strategic level. This is evident in media reports of the strategic meetings in Bali in late October 2016 between defence and foreign ministers and close advisers within the AMM-Plus Experts’ Working Group.

This year’s high profile discussions included the Australian Head of Defence, Air Chief Marshal Binskin which shows the priority given strategic support for Indonesian by the Turnbull Government.

Future generations will have to face the consequences of the return to great power rivalries in South East Asia and the movement of Indonesia out of its traditional non-aligned role in international affairs.

Instead media coverage of Indonesia should generate more excitement about the physical proximity of our two countries. To Australia’s near north lies the world’s fourth largest country in population which is now reaching 260 million. Its tropical archipelago covers an area of almost 2 million square kilometres and extends across seas almost as vast as Australia itself.

Indonesia through Australian media filters

Contact between Australia and Indonesia is fostered by the visit of one million Australians to Bali each year. This makes Indonesia one of the most popular travel destinations for Australians after New Zealand.

After a magnanimous response to the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 and the Bali bombing of 12 October 2002, mainstream media coverage of Indonesian issues has settled back to a predictable sensationalism.

The latest sensation was the dramatic arrest of a Perth teenager Jamie Murphy for possession of what turned out to be a harmless white powder ( 23 November 2016).

The sensationalism also extends to more serious matters of state between Australia and Indonesia.

The Australian media gave considerable coverage to the demonstrations against Jakarta Governor Ahok in early November 2016. This is part of the ongoing Australian media filter that talks up anything remotely connected with the spectre of Islamic Jihadism.

Governor Ahok is standing for re-election in 2017. Antara news agency has at least offered the political context of the demonstrations by opponents of Governor Ahok who had stood down from active administrative service to contest the next election in 2017.

From Canberra, a conservative Australian LNP government is keen to exploit the national insecurity on issues from border protection to offshore detention.

The latest Australian diplomatic project is to encourage Indonesia to become more proactive with its border security including naval patrols in the South China and Sulu Seas. Only insiders at this year’s ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Group in Bali would be aware of the precise details of the strategic discussions.

The Australian government always places a complete embargo on strategic and operational detail of such negotiations. This gives the media more scope for speculation.

The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) gave the following spin on the strategic meetings in Bali:

Indonesian Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said he had proposed a “peace patrol” with Australia in the South China Sea to “bring peace” and combat illegal fishing when the two countries’ defence ministers met in Bali last week.

“It’s a joint patrol or coordinated patrol, it’s the same thing,” Mr Ryamizard told reporters. “There are no intentions to disrupt the relationship (with China). It is called a peace patrol, it brings peace. It is about protecting fish in each other’s areas.”

Defence Minister Marise Payne told Fairfax Media the ministers had agreed to explore options to increase maritime cooperation.

“This could include coordinated activities in the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea consistent with Australia’s policy of exercising rights of freedom of navigation in accordance with international law and our support for regional security,” she said.

Julie Bishop’s press release on 27 October 2016 was more precise. It was prepared in the context of  the anticipated state visit by President Widodo to Australia. This was cancelled at the last moment due to the mass demonstrations in Jakarta on 28 October 2016.

On the South China Sea, we underline the importance of maintaining peace, security and stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea. We underscore the importance for the states concerned to resolve disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). We also emphasise the importance of non-militarisation. We note the commitment of ASEAN Member States and China to ensure the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in its entirety, and welcome ASEAN Member States and China’s efforts to work towards the early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).

In an interview about the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Group on the ABC’s World Today Radio Programme on 1 November 2016, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop insisted that the initiative for the peace patrols in the South China Sea had come squarely from Indonesia and from Defence Minister Ryacudu in particular.

The minister’s comments on The World Today were an attempt to score domestic political points to put Labor’s Penny Wong on the spot. The strategy did not work as Labor sought to be perceived as bipartisan on this issue until more details were known.

Image from The World Today ,1 November 2016

Image from The World Today ,1 November 2016

Interviewee Professor Michael Wesley as Dean of the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific correctly suggested in this radio spot that divisions might exist in the Indonesian government on the pragmatic wisdom of strategic patrols with Australia in the South China and Sulu Seas.

Why did our foreign minister specifically mention the pristine waters of the Sulu Seas? This is on the Filipino side of Indonesia’s Palawan Island. It is outside the resources zone claimed by China.

Media filters operating in both Indonesia and Australia overlook the fact that maritime boundaries are the subject of disputes between several countries including the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Indonesia and the Philippines have differences over the extent of exclusive economic zones which were negotiated satisfactorily in 2013.

China, the Philippines, Indonesia and even Australia prefer bilateral negotiation of the extent of exclusive economic zones.

With the attainment of independence by Timor-Leste in 2002, adjustments were needed to the maritime boundaries which had been struck with Indonesia based on a commitment to the older continental shelf concept.

The Timor Gap Treaty between Timor Leste and Australia for the use of undersea oil and gas resources has much in common with Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

Unlike China however, Australia will not be willing to renegotiate the Timor Gap Treaty in the near future. Fair reporting from ABC News Online helps to explain this situation:

As part of the 2006 Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) treaty, East Timor agreed to a clause that put a 50-year hold on negotiating a permanent maritime border.

However, East Timor believes the 2006 treaty should be torn up due to an Australian bugging operation it considers to be illegal.

In 2012, then prime minister Xanana Gusmao discovered that Australian intelligence agents had bugged East Timor’s cabinet rooms during negotiations.

Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) agents had placed listening devices in the walls of the cabinet office, while pretending to be aid workers involved in a renovation project.

Australia’s currently close rapport with sections of the Indonesian Government has immense strategic significance. US surface naval vessels and missile carrying submarines can make use of the deep ocean trenches of the Eastern Indonesian Archipelago to move with greater stealth between the Pacific and Indonesian Oceans.

Deep water access for Chinese vessels to the East Indonesia Archipelago is far more circuitous. The Sulu Sea is more appropriate for surface naval vessels but here the new strategic flotillas can intrude into maritime territories usually assigned to the Philippines within the US Global Alliance.

Australia’s strategic interests have a loyal friend in General Ret. Ryamizard Ryacudu as Defence Minister. With the next Indonesian presidential elections not due until 2019, Minister Ryacudu has quite a while to interact positively with both the Australian Government and US President Elect Donald Trump.

Minister Ryacudu became chief of staff of the Indonesian army (2002-05) after being commander of the Strategic Army Command Command or Kostrad (2000-02). General Suharto once held this position.

Both Vice President Jusuf Kella and Defence Minister Ryacudu are steadfast defenders of the rise of General Suharto to power after the events of 1965 (Yahoo News Online quoting AFP 2 June 2016; Southeast Asia Globe Online 30 December 2015).

Writing in The Diplomat of 14 June 2016, Gatra Priyanita noted the increasing drift towards a higher profile for the military in Indonesian life and control measures against any negative commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of General Suharto’s ascendency in 1965.

May 2015 report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict worryingly points out how Indonesia’s military is expanding its influence deeper into the realms of domestic affairs and security. For instance, the military has already signed dozens of memoranda of understandings with various civilian agencies in the past two years. They are a key part of Jokowi’s plan to achieve food self-sufficiency by 2017, which empowers the military to set up structures for land cultivation and oversee crop yields. The military is also cooperating with local governments to launch community projects that empower locals, but also has the added objective of collecting information and bolstering nationalism. They have also joined Jokowi’s fight against drugs and terrorism, areas that were previously reserved for the police. Now, the military is also involved in the crackdowns on leftist symbolism.

Ryacudu, whose appointment was mired with controversy, also announced the military’s intention to establish 900 training centers by early 2018 for a civilian defense corps, which has the purpose of defending the country against “proxy wars” waged by communists, radical militants, homosexuals, and other “foreign influences.” Thetraining centers will teach millions of students, civil servants, and others about survival skills and civic education. What is perhaps most worrying about the military’s return to public life is that it is likely to limit the progress to shed light on a long list of past human rights abuses.

All members of the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Groups in Bali were thoroughly aware of Indonesia’ dark past and the tolerance on both sides of the Java Sea of the excesses of General Suharto’s Administration.

President Widodo is also more temperate about the resolution of maritime boundary issues which involve negotiations with several countries in South East Asia from Taiwan to China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.

So why is our proposed gunboat diplomacy directed at one country only?

. . . Continued in Part 2.

dbDenis Bright (pictured) is a registered teacher and a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis has recent postgraduate qualifications in journalism, public policy and international relations. He is interested in promoting discussion about progressive pragmatic public policies compatible with contemporary globalization.



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  1. 1petermcc

    Thank you for this timely article Denis.

    With the potential damage that Trump can inflict, folk need to be aware of the value this relationship can deliver.

  2. Bali

    It is to be hoped that Australia and our neighbors will not be steered further into troubled waters to please the new US administration.l

  3. Leila Smith

    Certainly an interesting article Denis, love the new cherry photo.
    Australia needs to give Timor Leste a fair go & the treaty of 2006 does need to be torn up & renegotiated on an equitable basis.

  4. Tessa

    Expect the LNP to play political games at home but not with Indonesia’s 260 million people.

  5. Steven Forsyth

    We will see an Australian up on, something like, blasphemy charges within the next 10 years. The person will have been targeted intentionally to create hatred of us, and things will deteriorate from there. Thinking that Islam will always be a quiet and peaceful neighbour is the silliest attitude we can take. History tells us irrefutably that it doesn’t remain peaceful and quiet.
    If we don’t start having honest conversations now, about preparing for these certainties. We will be killing future generations of Australians.

  6. Paul

    As Australia’s closet neighbour, we must nurture our relationship with Indonesia. The two countries should work collaboratively together and focus on strengths and common ground.

  7. Balanced Reporting Needed

    The meeting between strategic ministers in Bali on 27 October 2016 was not reported in detail by the mainstream media.

    This enabled the event to used by the foreign minister to talk up the value naval patrols to annoy China.

    Only a change of government in Australia can change this horrible situation so that Penny Wong can work for peace and development to our near north.

    As the article tells everyone, all the ASEAN countries have their own differences about maritime boundaries and economic resources’ zones. Do we send gunboats to take sides with Vietnam over the Philippines or vice versa?

    If Malaysia sent gunboats to support East Timor’s claims against John Howard’s boundaries in the petroleum rich Timor Sea, Julie Bishop would be the first to complain.

  8. James

    Appalling LNP games in the name of foreign policy have been raised in this article. Why aren’t these issues being taken up in the commercial media? Do Australians want to send another generation of young people off to wars in Asia?

  9. Pat

    These important issues need to be discussed in the community and media – as one of Australia’s closest neighbours it is essential that we keep abreast of the political situation in this area.

  10. Bris16

    Denis, I really enjoyed reading your article about Indonesia and it’s implications for Australia. As one of our closest neighbours, it’s interesting to get coverage on the issues you raised.

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