Subject: SMH: Basking In A Bilateral Bubble As The Reality Of Indonesia
The Sydney Morning Herald
Friday, April 10, 2009
Basking In A Bilateral Bubble As The Reality Of Indonesia Gets Airbrushed
By Hamish McDonald
During the 34 or so years of Soeharto's reign in Indonesia, outside analysts watched with diminishing expectations for signs of his grip weakening and rival power centres emerging. The consensus was that succession would happen inside the regime and we would end up with someone pretty much like him - a Javanese, moderately Muslim, army general - and not much would change.
In the end Soeharto was forced out by his own excesses of cronyism and nepotism in the currency collapse caused by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. His successor did come from within the regime, but it was not the suave Javanese, Muslim military chief, General Wiranto, but the vice-president, B.J. Habibie.
He was Muslim, but a civilian aeronautical engineer from Makassar, who took bold steps to break up the centralised, manipulated pseudo-democracy of Soeharto's New Order. He was followed by a half-blind Muslim cleric from East Java, Gus Dur, and a part-Balinese housewife, Megawati Sukarnoputri.
In 2004, by free elections rather than a coup, the country finally got a Javanese, Muslim, army general as president: Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Ironically, a lot of Indonesians and foreign governments see him as Indonesia's best hope of deepening its secular democracy, and steering it away from creeping Islamism or resurgent militarism. If his Democratic Party comes out strongest from yesterday's parliamentary elections, Yudhoyono is well positioned for the presidential poll in July.
Canberra will be hoping for this outcome. Its officials have been basking in one of the sunniest periods in the history of bilateral relations, notwithstanding Australia's continuing adverse travel advisories, the arrival of Papuan asylum seekers, the tabloid circus around the Schapelle Corby case, and the Bali Nine death sentences.
Yet the Rudd Government's recent effort at generating more ideas and interest in this critical foreign relationship has turned out a flat performance. The two-day conference in February, under Chatham House rules (no identification of speakers in reports) has resulted in a lacklustre "outcomes report" [http://www.lowyinstitute.org/Publication.asp?pid=1001] that shows what a bubble our policy-makers live in.
This largely flowed from the decision to make it a bilateral exercise from the start, instead of an Australian brainstorm first. Foreign ministries were put in charge, resulting in a diplomatic choice of subjects and tone, and delegates selected to keep everything polite (including, somewhat embarrassingly for his dissident credentials, your columnist).
The outcomes report, filtered by the foreign ministries and written up by the Lowy Institute's Malcolm Cook, laments that on the Australian side, the media, business and students have not "kept pace with the new era of government-to-government relations". The media looks in the "rearview mirror" at old grievances, business is reluctant to trade and invest, and students are turning away from Indonesian language. The remedy is largely to spread the word about "positive" changes in Indonesia.
"Apart from a few minor tweaks to suit the times, it is same old same old," says Deakin University's Damien Kingsbury, among the many younger Indonesia specialists not included in the conference. "Nothing new but, looking at those who contributed to the gab-fest, that is as expected, which is no doubt why they were so selectively invited."
The Australian Defence Force Academy's Clinton Fernandes was also excluded. "It's not a rearview mirror but a blindfold," he says. "The report makes no mention of General Prabowo Subianto, who is banned from the US because of his criminal actions and is running for president in 2009. Nor of General Wiranto, who bears command responsibility for crimes against humanity and is also running for president. Their Indonesian critics were not invited. Attendees were handpicked so that anyone who disagreed with the holy orthodoxy was excluded."
Sydney University's Adrian Vickers, another non-invitee, sees a lack of concrete investment proposals in areas such as the arts and education. "There is a big hole here," Vickers says. "I'm just back from the UK where gamelan is part of the national school music curriculum, and the London Symphony Orchestra supports a gamelan!
"And the travel advisory is a cop-out, since it begs the question of why Indonesia has such a high level when other countries that have similar terrorism issues [India, Britain, Israel] do not," he says. "A simple mechanism for getting more traffic between countries would be to make it easier to get study and research visas to Indonesia. As one colleague put it, the system at the moment is geared towards ensuring income for a number of Indonesians, but is not helpful for things like student exchanges."
Deakin's Scott Burchill says: "An anodyne summary which expresses frustration with the media and the general population who don't understand the importance of the relationship in the same way the elites who attended the meeting do.
"If only the population could rise to their lofty ethical and intellectual standards, all the problems would disappear. Meanwhile, no mention of crimes in East Timor and West Papua please - that would have been bad manners. The meeting of minds proved one thing - how unnecessary the meeting actually was."
Is government the roadblock? If all the interesting things are airbrushed - unrest in Papua, fragile autonomy in Aceh, military resistance to Yudhoyono reforms, unresolved human rights cases, the predatory maritime boundary pushed by Canberra on Indonesia and East Timor in the 1970s, uncertain laws and corruption, aviation safety - no wonder students are turning away from Indonesian studies, and the "relationship" gets periodically disrupted when reality pops the elite bubble.