Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 00:19 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 00:19 | SYDNEY

SBY speech to parliament


Hugh White

This post is part of the Australian journalism in Southeast Asia debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

15 March 2010 12:20

This post is part of the Australian journalism in Southeast Asia debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

President Yudhoyono's speech to Parliament (p.29) last week is a remarkable document that makes uneasy reading. 

Rudd welcomed SBY with a routine speech of mutual self-congratulation for having such a splendid relationship (p.27 of the above document). SBY responded with a sophisticated, frank and at times stern analysis of a relationship which is still very vulnerable to mutual mistrust, and still falls far short of its potential. The contrast was stark. 'We should not be complacent', SBY said. 'The worst step we can take is to take this partnership for granted.' It almost sounded as if he was reprimanding the Prime Minister.

The heart of SBY's speech was a warning about the dangers posed by the perceptions that Indonesians and Australians have of one another. He could not have been more blunt:

I was taken aback when I learned that in a recent Lowy Institute survey 54 per cent of Australian respondents doubted that Indonesia would act responsibly in its international relations...there are Australians who still see Indonesia as an authoritarian country, as a military dictatorship, as a hotbed of Islamic extremism or even as an expansionist power.

He acknowledged that Indonesians had distorted views of Australia too: Indonesia there are people who remain afflicted with Australiaphobia—those who believe that the notion of White Australia still persists, that Australia harbours ill intention toward Indonesia and is either sympathetic to or supports separatist elements in our country.

But tellingly, the way his speech developed suggested he was not sure Indonesian suspicions of Australia's attitudes towards separatism were entirely unfounded. Why else would he have thought it necessary to say this?:

Indonesians are proud people who cherish our national unity and territorial integrity above all else. Our nationalism is all about forging harmony and unity among our many ethnic and religious groups. That is why the success of peace and reconciliation in Aceh and Papua is not trivial but a matter of national survival for us Indonesians. We would like Australians to understand and appreciate that.

And why else would he think it necessary to remind his audience about the undertakings Australia made in the Lombok Treaty? 

...both sides commit themselves to respecting each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. That means each side will in no way support any separatist movement against the other.

Separatism is hardly a problem in Australia, so it must be our support for separatism in Indonesia he is talking about. And he clearly believes this promise is important – he called the treaty 'a paradigm shift' in the relationship. By signing onto this agreement we were changing course and reinvented Indonesian-Australian relations for the better. 

It sounds as if SBY does not think Indonesian fears of Australian support for separatism are merely the misperceptions of the ignorant masses. And just to be sure, he reminded us why Indonesians suspect Australia of fostering separatism: 

There were periods when we were burdened by mistrust and suspicions at both ends. There were times when it felt like we were just reacting to events and were in a state of drift. There were moments when we felt as if our worlds were just too far apart.  During the East Timor crisis in the late 1990s our relations hit an all-time low.

This is remarkable stuff from the head of state of a close neighbour speaking as an honoured guest of our parliament. The grace and charm of much else he said makes it clear he is no Australiaphobe himself, which only makes these stern messages all the starker.

So how should Australia respond? First, we need to take SBY’s message seriously and accept that Indonesians do not trust us because they think we support separatism that threatens their immensely complex and diverse country. That is a pretty sobering realisation.

Second, we need to recognise that the Indonesians have high, and I would say unrealistic, expectations of the Lombok Treaty as a way to manage this issue. Tellingly, considering the way SBY spoke about the treaty, Rudd did not mention it at all. As I have said before, Indonesia believes the treaty commits Australia to preventing the support of separatism from our soil, not just by the Government but by private citizens. That is totally unrealistic, but Canberra has apparently done nothing to correct this impression. That needs to be fixed. 

Third, and most important, Australians need to understand more about Indonesia – what it is, what it has become, where it is going, how it sees us, and what it means to us. There has been some excellent debate about this, sparked by Fergus' excellent paper last week, and taken up in different ways on The Interpreter by Stephen Grenville and Greg Earl

My take on the debate between Stephen and Greg is that helping Australians understand Indonesia is not ultimately the media's job, but the Government's, and in particular that of our political leaders. They are the ones who need to step in and explain how Australia's international environment is changing and what we should do about it, and they need to do that even when the messages conflict with comfortable assumptions and easy prejudices. That is why last week I called our ignorance of Indonesia a failure of political leadership.