Overcoming the Australia–Indonesia cultural divide

Author: John McCarthy, AIIA

The probable executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, and Australia’s responses thereto, risk pushing the Australia–Indonesia relationship into another downturn.

Fifteen years ago, Australians assumed that the end of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, and the advent of post-Suharto democracy, would presage an era of tranquillity in bilateral relations. Despite some positive years under the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), this has not happened.

A painting by Bali Nine ringleader Myuran Sukumaran of Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo with words on the back of the painting 'people can change'. (Photo: AAP).

But Australia’s interests in Indonesia dictate that it must continue working to that end, even if Indonesia does not always appear to share that objective.

Australia’s neighbourhood is predominantly made up of countries whose political and cultural backgrounds differ from its own. Thus, cultural issues impinge disproportionately on its foreign relationships, perhaps none more so than with Indonesia.

During the Sukarno period, Australia’s main concerns with Indonesia were seen through the prism of the Cold War. Security issues dominated the relationship. Since then, Australia’s diplomacy has been consumed by managing the cultural divide.

East Timor was not a security issue. From a security perspective, Australia saw merit in incorporation into Indonesia. The friction was cultural not strategic. Australia’s reaction to the killing of five Australian journalists in Balibo in 1975, the subsequent Indonesian military occupation and the massacre of mourners at Santa Cruz Cemetery in 1991 amplified the cultural division.

In 1999, some Indonesians saw the loss of East Timor in security terms because of its potential to stimulate separatism in Indonesia. But the main reaction was that it was a humiliation inflicted on Indonesia by the West, of which Australia was the most prominent member.

Other problems have arisen because Australians have been perceived as impugning the dignity of Indonesian leaders. This includes the ban on Australian journalists in 1988 after the Australian media reported on the Suharto family’s corruption and, more recently, the alleged bugging of the telephones of SBY and his wife.

In Indonesian eyes, Australians have also been guilty of condescension or disrespect. National dignity, as much as economic cost, was at stake in 2011 when Australia imposed a ban on the export of live cattle.

The cultural divide again comes to the fore on the executions issue. Indonesia’s actions have revived Australian impressions that Indonesia is a brutal and militaristic country. For their part, many Indonesians see Australia’s response as out of line given the prevalence of capital punishment elsewhere. They perceive foreigners as seeking to impose their values on Indonesia to the derogation of its sovereignty, despite their own efforts on behalf of Indonesians on death row in other jurisdictions.

If the executions happen, Australia will not be able to continue simply as if nothing had occurred. But it should react with sorrow not anger. Australia’s response should address the underlying problems of drugs and capital punishment. It would be a mistake to react with retributive actions and, then, after an interval, suggest things are back to normal — until the next time.

In recent years Australia has shown how foolishly partisan it can be. The former government’s Asian century white paper had merit. But when the Liberal-National Coalition came to power it wiped the document from the website of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The government and opposition did better in formulating a common approach on behalf of Chan and Sukumaran. If Australia is to build a durable and stable set of relationships with Indonesia and Asia more widely, that objective has to be a priority.

So what should be done?

First, lower expectations. This is a crucial and difficult relationship, which has to be managed not glorified. No more ‘Jakarta not Geneva’, rather lots of low key grunt work.

Australia should work on the basis that most bilateral problems are cultural. It matters little that on most issues that divide Australia and Indonesia, the Indonesians are — in Australian judgments — the party at fault. Australia’s interests still lie in working to overcome the cultural divide.

Australia has to do more in promoting cross-community contacts and visits. As suggested in the white paper, Australia must revive the study not only of Indonesia but of Asia more generally.

All this will cost money. But Australia’s dealings with Indonesia are a more important national interest than its preoccupations with the Middle East.

The manner in which Australian leaders speak publicly to countries where national sensitivities have been shaped by colonisation and a lack of economic development must take account of those sensitivities. The appearance of condescension and superiority must be avoided.

The Australian leadership will have to do more than simply work with Indonesia in its national interest. If the executions eventuate, a serious bipartisan effort will be required to persuade Australians that it is indeed in Australia’s interest to engage Indonesia.

Australia has to recognise the high risk that Indonesia is entering a complex and distracted period in its domestic politics and might prove difficult to engage productively. This will require patience.

Over the past decade Australia has dealt with an Indonesian president who took foreign policy and Australia seriously, even when it offended him through its mishandling of the bugging affair.

Thus far President Joko Widodo has demonstrated little interest in foreign affairs. Where he has, he has been driven by domestic, even populist, political considerations. This element is not of course absent in Australian politics. The first problem may therefore lie in attempting to enter into serious high-level engagement.

The second problem lies in the fact that history shows that when Indonesian domestic politics become turbulent, the nationalist card is more likely to come to the top of the political deck. It is a card that is always hard to trump.

John McCarthy is President of the Australia Institute for International Affairs and former Australian ambassador to Indonesia.

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