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Abbott's mixed messages for Indonesia

  • 03 October 2013

President SBY, now in his ninth year as the democratically elected president of the Indonesian republic, must have had a quiet smile to himself on Monday when he met with Tony Abbott, Australia's latest prime minister, the fifth since he took office. The scene had a touch about it of the Queen in Helen Mirren's movie of that name telling the young Tony Blair 'you are my tenth prime minister'.

Though Abbott wants us to think he is pioneering something novel, the visit also had a touch about it of the ingratiating Soeharto days when Paul Keating made Jakarta his first overseas port of call.

The President, who has gone out of his way to befriend Australia and has no intention of spoiling that legacy in his last year in office, accommodated Abbott. He did not repeat his Foreign Minister's rejection of Abbott's tow back the boats policy. And the two leaders agreed that the trafficking of asylum seekers by boat to Australia was a problem for both Australia and Indonesia and that beating the practice will require more work both bilaterally and through the multi-lateral Bali process.

Abbott, for his part, reaffirmed Canberra's 'total respect for Indonesia's sovereignty and territorial integrity'. This is code for saying that Australia rejects any talk of secession in West Papua, an issue that was also discussed. The pledge also implies that Australia will not unilaterally tow boats back to Indonesia without Indonesia's cooperation. But judging by the hostile reception the idea has so far received from Indonesian MPs and others, that cooperation is not likely.

Observing the Indonesian coverage of the visit, I was bothered by three things.

First, thanks to the way the issue has been presented by Australia, Indonesian public reaction has been defensive. Indonesians feel that Australia is blaming them for the flow of boats. They feel that proposals to pay for intelligence, to buy boats so they cannot be used by people smugglers and so on are 'unilateral' (i.e. pushy) and pongah (conceited) and suggest that Australia has to step in because Indonesia is not doing its job. They also think it's unfair for affluent Australia to force boat people back to Indonesia which already has plenty of problems. One letter writer even suggested Indonesia will have to set an island aside to accommodate the influx of returnees.

The issue is not high on Indonesia's agenda and a good outcome of the Abbott visit has