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Jakarta Post

Commentary: Indonesia: A reluctant good neighbor to Australia

  • Kornelius Purba

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, July 4, 2013   /  08:40 am

Many Indonesians find it hard to control their temper each time they read or hear any kind of '€œprovocative'€ remark or statement from the Australian media, military, politicians or celebrities. The country is perceived as an arrogant neighbor that has a strong sense of superiority toward us, and which has no more important agenda than to destroy the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia (NKRI).

To us, Australia is a nation that has little respect for Indonesia, while we do not believe that we deserve such treatment as a great nation. We would like Australians to learn more about Indonesia because of its pivotal role in the global community. While at the same time we often ignore the principle '€œto know thy neighbor'€. We are apparently reluctant to learn more about our neighbors and instead focus on forcing them to deepen their knowledge about us.

A poll conducted this year by the Lowy Institute found that 84 percent of Australians believe that their country '€œacts as a good neighbor to Indonesia'€, while only 54 percent agree that Indonesia acts as a good neighbor to Australia and only 30 percent of them believe that '€œIndonesia helps Australia combat people smuggling'€.

Who among Indonesians would not feel angry at the perception that a majority (54 percent) agree that '€œAustralia is right to worry about Indonesia as a military threat'€ and that '€œIndonesia is a dangerous source of Islamic terrorism'€? One thing we need to remember is that perception does not always reflect reality.

Perhaps most of us will never forgive the continent state for '€œmasterminding'€ the independence of East Timor (now Timor Leste), although we often forget that it was then president BJ Habibie who initiated an independence referendum for the former Indonesian colony.

It is also no exaggeration to say that most of us are strongly suspicious that Australia will, again, be the main supporter of the Papuan people in establishing their own state despite repeated denials from Australian government officials, including Foreign Minister Bob Carr during a meeting with a group of visiting Indonesian journalists, because Australia was among the first countries that endorsed Indonesia'€™s annexation of East Timor in the 1970s. The presence of a strong US military presence in Darwin only strengthens the suspicion that Papua'€™s independence is high on the neighbor'€™s agenda.

 During the Soeharto era, the then president was outraged when an Australian newspaper reported the corrupt practices of his children, although we found later that the reports were not totally wrong (if not totally right).

Today (Thursday), Prime Minister Kevin Rudd arrives in Jakarta to meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Indonesia will opt to remain neutral regarding the September general election in Australia no matter who emerges as the winner (Labor or the Coalition), although Yudhoyono probably has a personal preference for Rudd. Rudd'€™s visit itself was not at his own initiative because it was his predecessor, Julia Gillard, who tabled the visit.

I remember visiting parliament in Canberra last month. Rudd was sitting in the back row when Gillard responded sternly to a statement by an opposition legislator who teased her about an economic issue. Rudd received little attention from the media or even his colleagues because most of the Australian media was confident that Rudd would not get enough of the vote to exact revenge against Gillard to secure the Labor Party'€™s helm.

Gillard had called for an early general election in September, while the opposition party was leading in several opinion polls. Opposition leader Tony Abbott, who promised to take a much tougher stance against boat people, including the possible deployment of naval ships to chase away the boats carrying them, was outraged at Gillard'€™s announcement that she would meet with Yudhoyono in Jakarta in August.

Gillard clearly wanted to get a major concession from the Indonesian government concerning boat people. I personally met with Gillard along with other Indonesian journalists as a part of an Australian Foreign Ministry program to organize a dialogue with their Australian counterparts. For Indonesia, Labor'€™s approach is more sensible because the burden is shared. Indonesia cannot control the flow of the boat people because of the vastness of the archipelago, and also because of the corrupt mentality of Indonesian officials who have direct contact with the migrants. The root of the problem lies not only with Indonesia but much more with the countries of origin.

Rudd'€™s visit would be much more meaningful were he to visit again after winning the September election, and if it were more of a courtesy visit.

In every way Indonesia is a major state and it is only right that it holds an honorable position among the international community. But we also need to behave as a great nation, one for which its people have high respect. There are 1,000 reasons to hate Australia, but we must also be ready when the same reasons are applied to us.

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