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Australia and Indonesia are now officially good mates

Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono address to the Australian parliament yesterday marked a very real change in Australia-Indonesia bilateral relations. Much of the history of that relationship has been characterised by either problems or diplomatic distance, which President Yudhoyono frankly acknowledged. But his speech to the parliament illustrated how close the two countries have now become.

The main change in the relationship has been as a result of Indonesia’s increasingly deep democratisation. No matter how close Australian political leaders might have wanted to be in the past, the fundamental contradictions between Indonesia’s then closed political system and Australia’s more open system meant that underlying problems would always surface.

In particular, the brutal nature of Indonesia’s military was a constant source of trouble, from its role in widespread human rights abuses, as a primary source of corruption to political interference and public censorship. The TNI is a more tamed beast than it was under President Suharto, but it is still much less reformed than even President Yudhoyono has said he would wish.

And perhaps that is the point, that President Yudhoyono is not just the political leader of Australia’s sometimes fractious if increasingly democratic near neighbour, but that he is a reformer in the traditional liberal mould. The frankness of some of President Yudhoyono’s comments, and his expressed appreciation of Australian frankness, showed the parallels that have developed between the political systems of the two countries.

There was a clear desire by President Yudhoyono for Indonesia and Australia to have a closer, deeper and wider relationship. As he noted, there is much to be gained for both countries if it works well, and much to be lost if it does not.

President Yudhoyono’s commitment to having people smuggling criminalised was an important step for Australia, although the five year maximum penalty reflected a view in Jakarta that this is essentially an Australian, not an Indonesian, problem. But according with some of the wishes of a country one wishes to have closer relations with is part of the general give and take of that relationship.

Although not spelled out, it is likely that Australia will have to take a more active role, at least with the resettlement of asylum seekers. It will also have to help address the problems that lead people to flee their own countries for the perilous boat journey to Australia. As President Yudhoyono noted, in agreement with the Australian government, this is a regional problem, including the source, transit point and destination.

Perhaps the single biggest step was the announcement of an annual leaders’ retreat, including foreign and defence ministers. This is a sign of genuine diplomatic closeness.

While President Yudhoyono was at pains to stress the positives in the relationship, he did not shy away from marking Australia’s intervention in East Timor in 1999 as being the low point. That intervention still rankles with some in Indonesia, in part because there has been a lack of internal reconciliation about Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, the atrocities that were committed there, and its overwhelming rejection by the East Timorese people.

In this same vein, President Yudhoyono also noted that territorial integrity was paramount to Indonesia, citing the resolution of the Aceh war as a necessary step towards ensuring Indonesia’s unity. The outstanding problem of West Papua was also mentioned, if not with reference to how that might be addressed.
While President Yudhoyono was keen to identify the strengths in the relationship and sought more, especially around two-way trade and investment, two matters remained off the public agenda. Those were the fate of the ‘Bali Nine’, three of whom potentially face the death penalty for drug smuggling, and investigations into the murder of the ‘Balibo Five’ in 1975.

No doubt President Yudhoyono is keenly aware of Australia’s position on the use of the death penalty. However, appeals still have a final step to go through before he could consider clemency, and it would be – and be seen to be – judicial interference to comment on this before that final appeals process is completed. But the president does not have a history of granting clemency in such cases, and Australian citizens may be no exception.

Similarly, the Australian Federal Police investigation into the murders of the Balibo Five is a police, not political, matter and will have been identified by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, to President Yudhoyono. However, with Indonesia making an exception to its close cooperation in other areas by not cooperating over this matter, it is unlikely to result in charges being laid.

If charges are laid, Indonesian judicial authorities are most unlikely to grant extradition to Australia. Both political leaders know this, and will let this issue quietly fade.

As President Yudhoyono noted, again quite frankly, with more occurring in the relationship there will be more that could potentially go wrong. This, he said, would need to be addressed in a constructive manner. All, then, seems well.

The one problem a little further down the track, though, is that democratic process is not a linear progression, and President Yudhoyono is in his second and last term of office. Australia can expect a strong relationship while he remains in office. The question will be what of his successor, with no similarly liberal presidential candidates yet to be identified.

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