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Jakarta Post

Indonesian-Australian ties, a view from the Top-End

  • Andre Omer Siregar

    The Jakarta Post

Darwin   /   Thu, January 7, 2016   /  04:52 pm

Indonesian-Australian relations have always been close, especially for those living in Darwin, Northern Territory (NT), or the Top-End as they call it. Not only is Darwin close in geographic proximity to Indonesia '€” being 370 kilometers to Saumlaki, Maluku, or 2.5 hours to Bali, as compared to four hours to Sydney '€” but it bears close historic ties since Makassar sailors traded with the Yirrkala aboriginal tribe in East Arnhem Land in the 17th century.  

To retrace the close ties, the staff of the Indonesian Consulate in Darwin and I visited the Yirrkala community near Nhulunbuy, about an hour'€™s flight north of Darwin, to attend the Suara Indonesia Dance Group performance by Murtala and Alfina O'€™Sullivan from Sydney, Dedy Amijaya from Ponorogo, East Java and Rosealee Pearson from East Arnhem Land.  

After receiving a traditional Yirrkala welcoming dance and witnessing indigenous children perform Indonesian dances, I was approached by a 71-year-old Yirrkala elder named Dhuwarrwarr Marlika who was also partly from Makassar in South Sulawesi. She reached out for my hand and whispered gently, '€œWelcome home!'€ This was a great surprise not only to me, but also to all guests, as she recited a message from her father about the lovely tales of friendship, dance and family between the Yirrkala and the Macassans. Her father died two decades ago. Now Dhuwarrwarr spends much time painting on bark wood, depicting several themes about the Bugis Phinisi boats and fishermen that had been part of the rich history that Australia and Indonesia possessed because of the close proximity of the two countries. Since then, much more cooperation has been established, particularly from Darwin, including in the fields of boats, beef and Bali.

With beef or the live cattle trade, most bilateral trade goes through the NT. In 2014, it provided 386,000 of the 750,000 cattle exported to Indonesia. For the past four years the Northern Australia Cattlemen'€™s Association, along with the Indonesian-Australian Partnership on Food Security in the Red Meat and Cattle Sector, provided a nine-week cattle management training program for 54 Indonesian undergraduate pastoral students.

Through the NT government, East Kalimantan province is working on the Sapi Sawit project, a scheme to raise cattle on oil palm plantations. Just recently, four riverine buffalo were gifted for continued research. As beef demand in Asia grows, Indonesia and Australia will need to investigate how they can be stronger mutual partners in cattle cooperation.

Regarding boats, the issue of people smuggling, the trafficking in persons from the Middle East and Asia into Australia, will continue to be a challenge for both governments, as significant numbers continue to make the journey to Darwin. Criminal syndicates are too eager to target poor fishermen, especially in East Nusa Tenggara, by offering vast amounts of money for a quick trip across the seas, despite the dangers.

For tourism, many Northern Territorians choose to fly to Bali as opposed to flying down south.  These strong people-to-people relations have allowed for many exchange students from eastern Indonesia and the NT and also to better engage business communities and for the promotion of human resource development.

The re-emerging Asian region also emphasizes the important position Darwin holds, especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned the importance of three cities for shipping, namely Hong Kong, Singapore and Darwin. The US '€œpivot'€ to Asia and Japan'€™s interest in liquid natural gas in this region also make it important for Indonesia and Australia to play a leading role in regional stability.

The NT government is playing an active role in several subregional forums including the trilateral Australia-Indonesia-Timor Leste cooperation and the recent Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines-East ASEAN Growth Area-Northern Territory network.

The recent meeting between President Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Jakarta brought about a promising atmosphere for new bilateral relations. A diplomacy of proximity between Indonesia and Australia could forge new ideas and cooperation for the coming years.

As Jakarta develops Indonesia'€™s eastern region and Canberra develops the northern part of Australia (through its new White Paper and the appointment of Federal Minister on Northern Australia Josh Frydenberg) and the keen interest of PM Turnbull then there is a real opportunity for businesses, development stakeholders and the people in this region to embrace their roles as actors in regional stability and development.

Albeit for proximity, Indonesians and Australians are very different in culture, history and perhaps outlook. But both peoples do have a strong desire to be together. As Indonesian Ambassador Nadjib Riphat stated, '€œGod did not make Indonesia and Australia as neighbors only to argue, but as a blessing.'€

The meeting of foreign ministers Retno LP Marsudi and Julie Bishop in Sydney on Dec. 21 provided an opportunity to chart a new path in bilateral relations, especially one that attends to the aspirations and hopes of both peoples.  

This meeting could explore how Indonesia and Australia prepare themselves for the new Asian century. It might even chart a new course so Indonesia and Australia are not seen by the media merely as odd neighbors, but as truly genuine partners. I think this time the latter will prevail.

The writer is Indonesia'€™s Consul in Darwin, Northern Territory. The views expressed are his own.

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