Indonesia and Australia: what makes neighbours good friends?

Author: Jacqui Baker, UOW

If the bilateral relationship between Indonesia and Australia is going to mature, it’s also likely to get tougher.

Defence strategist Hugh White insists that as the fourth biggest nation in the world takes its rightful place in the global economic and political community, the Australia–Indonesia relationship must mature beyond issues such as cows and Schapelle Corby. White argues that Indonesia’s 6–7 per cent annual economic growth, its 239 million-strong consumer base and its wealth of natural resources will mean that by 2020, the country will wield considerable political clout on the global stage. Australia will have to get used to negotiating with a much stronger neighbour no longer content to punch below its political weight.

But how might Australia position itself vis-à-vis a more powerful Indonesia that is less democratic than it is today? This is not an improbable scenario: if Indonesia is going to reach its full economic potential in the next decade, and presidential terms are five years, then the quality of some of the candidates for the 2014 presidential elections should be cause for concern.

Two candidates in the running are General Wiranto and General Prabowo Subianto — both former military generals whose careers peaked under Suharto’s New Order. General Wiranto was the Commander of the Armed Forces in the violent lead-up to Suharto’s resignation, and General Prabowo led the Army Strategic Reserve Command. Despite deep rivalry between them, their political careers have parallels, including tarnished human rights records. In 2003 Wiranto was indicted for crimes against humanity by the East Timor Special Crimes Unit. Soon after the 1998 fall of Suharto, Prabowo retired from the military due to criticism for his role in abducting and torturing student dissidents.

Though both generals have worked hard to distance themselves from the previous regime, neither has a convincing reformist agenda. In preparation for the 2009 elections, Wiranto’s party, Haruna, stocked its rank and file with a menagerie of retired security sector personnel, reformed gangsters, bureaucrats and political brokers whose primary uniting feature was their desire to wreak vengeance on Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government, which had recruited them for his 2004 win but promptly shut them out of the spoils of power upon victory.

Indonesia’s own ‘princeling’, Prabowo, has spent his years in political exile building a substantial business empire in oil, coal, gas and palm oil to fuel his presidential aspirations. So far, he’s the pundits’ favourite but even conservative Indonesians have reservations about a Prabowo government. On a recent trip to Jakarta, a retired military general observed quietly to me that should Prabowo be elected ‘Indonesian democracy will be finished’.

And civilian candidates seem only marginally better, though all have so far eschewed confirming their intent to run. The problem is that political parties are so rife with corruption and bribery that a candidate needs to become deeply indebted just to get on the ballot. For this reason, charismatic political figures like Wiranto, Prabowo and current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have established their own party vehicles.

The character of the 2014 election candidates would not be so important if Indonesia’s democracy was anywhere near as consolidated as Western political leaders like to think. Western governments have heaped praise upon Indonesia and specifically on President Yudhoyono for leading a country with a Muslim majority to democracy. But within Indonesia, where battles for democratisation must be fought tooth and nail, Indonesians are frustrated by stagnating reform and are baffled by the president disinclination to defend it. The view of ‘democratising Indonesia’ from inside and out could not be more different.

Is it because Indonesia is a Muslim country that we hesitate to criticise democratic consolidation? Certainly, the apparent paradox of the world’s largest Muslim-majority democracy seems to confuse politicians. Scholarship has categorically proven that there’s no reason why a Muslim country can’t be a democracy. Treating Indonesia like the grown up strategic partner that it is means subjecting it to higher standards. Australia is so behind the ball in Indonesia, that we’ve spent most of Yudhoyono’s precious final term congratulating him on a job well done rather than pushing for the further implementation of critical legal, police and financing reforms before the stability and goodwill of his tenure ends.

It’s not just party financing that needs an overhaul. The authority the legal system has been greatly tarnished by allegations of corruption and attempts at reform have not dispelled impressions that the entire judicial system is at the mercy of what Indonesians call the ‘juctice-sector mafia’.  Moreover, under President Yudhoyono, security sector reform has stalled. This is remarkable given the legitimacy and traction that the President’s background gives him has in this sector. Opportunities to curtail the military’s extra-budgetary financing system, the domestic focus of their territorial command and their immunity before law have been missed.  More importantly, the President has not levered his unique control of the Indonesian police to press for reform. After splitting from the military in 1999, the police were moved beneath the presidential office, a position that leaves them dangerously open to accusations of politicisation. Repeated calls to make them responsible to ministerial control and to establish a public complaints commission have gone unheeded. Meanwhile accusations of police corruption and human rights abuses far eclipse those against the military.

At the same time, important institutions and commissions established to protect liberties and advance reform either lack the teeth to implement them or, like the beleaguered Anti-Corruption Commission, find themselves under the constant threat of having those powers removed.

The fact is that the democratic direction of Indonesian governance is still set by the president’s political tone and manner. Yudhoyono’s failure to implement key reforms has left in place a framework for authoritarianism, should future presidents choose to exercise it. So as Indonesia hurtles toward the 2014 election, changes to the bilateral relationship may be more imminent than Australia may realise.

Continuing to praise Indonesia’s political elites for establishing the procedural minimum of a democracy is not just doing a disservice to ordinary Indonesians who want a real democracy. With Indonesia on the rise, the question is not just how Australia will relate to its increasingly powerful neighbour, but what Australia is going to do with a powerful Indonesia if the country’s political class stops being so neighbourly.

Jacqui Baker is a John Monash scholar and Research Fellow at the Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, University of Wollongong.