Opinion

President Susilo's breakthrough
visit to Australia


Bela Kusumah Kasim, Melbourne

In October 2003, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono -- who at that time was coordinating minister for political and security affairs -- appeared in a public forum at the Sydney Myer Asia Centre. The forum was jointly organized by ABC Television and Asialink in Melbourne. The master of ceremonies introduced Susilo to the audiences as Mr. Clean, and as one of the best candidates for the 2004 Indonesian presidential election.

Australian businesspeople in the audience responded positively when Susilo described the need for Australian investors to help the Indonesian economy to grow and his determination to eradicate corruption, collusion and nepotism, or KKN as it is called in Indonesia. When he was told that more then 145 million eligible Indonesian voters would like to know just how clean he really was, Susilo smiled and answered diplomatically: ""I will try to do my best and for me it's better to answer by proving it in action.""

When answering a question on how he would tackle a fragile Australian-Indonesia relationship, his reply seemed to support Australian Prime Minister John Howard's political stance. He stated that if he became president of Indonesia he would bring bilateral relations closer.

When Susilo was declared winner of the first direct presidential election in Indonesia in September last year, millions of supporters hailed him as a new leader who would put the Indonesian economy back on track and crack down on government officials who were continuing to embezzle state funds during Megawati Soekarnoputri's tenure.

For Howard, improved bilateral relations with one of Australia's closest neighbors would be politically fruitful as his government had been consistently criticized by the opposition for not doing enough to engage Australia's neighbors.

From an Australian political standpoint, Susilo's visit to Australia last month was a high point in Howard's foreign policy achievements. Despite criticism from political opponents in both countries, Howard proved that he could rebuild the relationship with Indonesia.

The President's visit coincided with criticism from Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi that Australian foreign policy is overly disposed to U.S. interests. Howard did not need to respond; the criticism was buried by headlines in the Australian press about the importance of Susilo's visit.

The Age wrote PM hails pact with Indonesia, and the front page of The Australian read SBY Looks South To New Era.

Howard's political foe, the leader of the Australian Labor Party, Kim Beazley, had no option but to commend the visit.

The 2004 tsunami catastrophe, the recent earthquake on Nias Island and an Australian relief helicopter crash that killed nine people, have brought the two leaders closer than ever. Disaster and tragedy have prompted sympathy from the Australian media in response to Susilo's visit. Howard's much-criticized Asian policy and Susilo's military background are no longer considered the main issues, and the possible implications of the signing of a security pact have largely been ignored.

Susilo's visit to Australia was scheduled for March 30th. When the earthquake hit Nias on the 28th, the President postponed his visit. Canberra again offered generous assistance. It ordered the HMAS Kanimbla to turn back to Nias. The Kanimbla's crew had been in Banda Aceh for nearly three months. They were on their way home.

The response of the Indonesian Military to the deaths of the Australian men and women on Nias has been seen by the Australian public as a remarkable gesture. Australians from all walks of life have been touched to see pictures of Indonesian soldiers comforting their Australian counterparts. The tragic crash provided more common ground for cooperation between the two leaders.

The Australian media's positive reaction to Susilo's visit is testimony to Howard's skill in revamping the relationship. And the President's promise to bring the relationship closer has been realized. His visit in the last few days has been politically fruitful for both leaders, while a succession of tragedies has helped to shield negative perceptions about the signing of the security pact.

The writer is a journalist for Multicultural Radio based in Melbourne and can be contacted at belakusumah@optusnet.com.au.

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