The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


WHO NEEDS A TREATY? © Duncan Graham 2006

The treaty now being negotiated between Australia and Indonesia raises some interesting questions: The foremost is – who benefits?

According to Australian media reports the long discussed document will cover counter-terrorism, fish poaching, people smuggling, disaster response and humanitarian assistance.

Few would disagree with the last three issues. Tsunami and landslip aid is in place and people smuggling has collapsed since the wave of refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq receded. The other issues are more debateable.

The problem of fish poaching needs a more sophisticated response than the present Australian policy of arrest, boat burning and jailing. Although the Australian fishing industry and some xenophobes are demanding tougher measures, it’s costly and unfair to jail poor fishermen pushed by syndicate bosses to risk their boats and freedom.

The few who are caught stay briefly in jail (see The Jakarta Post 29 December 2005) and are then flown home. They’re transported, fed, clothed, given legal aid and medical care all at Australian taxpayers’ expense – and this is supposed to be a deterrent.

Ross Taylor, chairman of the Western Australian branch of the Australian-Indonesia Business Council, has been trying to explain to an indifferent public that illegal fishing is not one of the Indonesia’s most pressing problems.

“Australia needs to work with Indonesia in a firm but cooperative way to firstly cut the market networks for the fish,” he said.

“We need to use our now excellent relations between the Australian Federal Police and Indonesia’s Police to infiltrate these syndicates, just as we have done with considerable success in the area of terrorism.”

On the surface boosting Indonesian security resources and training seems to be a Good Thing. Apart from the fanatics everyone’s against terrorism.

But if dissident and separatist movements in Indonesia get labelled as terrorists and Australian aid is used in brutal suppression, then the Australian electorate is likely to get jittery.

Using Australian communications technology to track fundamentalist bombers is one thing; applying this to assist the destruction of Papuan secessionists armed with bows and arrows is quite another matter.

It’s reported that at the heart of the proposed treaty is a pledge by Australia to never intervene in Indonesia’s internal affairs or undermine this nation’s territorial integrity.

Although this harks back to the liberation of East Timor, many forget that Australian involvement was hardened not by the government but the people, outraged at the savagery in the former province.

The Australian government can ink all the treaties it likes promising to respect the Unitary State of Indonesia. But in a democracy it can’t stop the Australian public, religious groups, human rights activists and non-government organisations backing separatist movements.

More than ten years ago former Prime Minister Paul Keating signed a secret security treaty with then President Suharto. When finally revealed after Keating lost office the agreement was roundly condemned, and torn up during the East Timor crisis of 1999.

Keating didn’t have the public behind him for his covert pact with the Orde Baru government. Does his successor John Howard have widespread support for the planned new collaboration?

Mainstream media reports in Australia have been positive so far though the fine print has yet to be seen. There has been some eyebrow raising over the already announced decision to lift a seven-year ban and train Kopassus soldiers in Australia.

The government says no troops with past records of human rights abuses will be involved. The intention, according to Defence Minister Robert Hill, is that Kopassus forces “might one day save Australian lives in Indonesia.”

The announcement was made in the December silly season when the priority was cricket and Christmas. Disquiet could come once activists and academics get back to the office and start probing the deal.

Although terrorists, poachers, corruptors and other Indonesian evildoers have got up the nose of the Australian public, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is still an Indonesian Idol Down Under.

He made a top impression during his official visit last year and as the public face of Australia’s big neighbor has so far enjoyed a positive press as a Good Bloke.

The fact that he’s a former military man leading a minority political party and has a local reputation for being indecisive has yet to sink into the Australian psyche.

So if the proposed treaty has President Susilo’s endorsement then the paper will probably get signed without too many questions raised.

But will it make any difference to the average person? Australia’s unlikely to cancel its travel warnings and the ordinary Okker will remain mightily distrustful of Islam.

Just as kampong dwellers fear the motives of the hedonistic, godless Westerners they hear about but seldom meet.

It’s all well and good for diplomats, soldiers, police and senior shiny bums to be patting each other’s shoulders in lavish signing ceremonies, but what about Ms and Mr Goodwill in Suburbia?

Most of us get on with neighbours, partners, in-laws and workmates without the need for a treaty.

But if it makes for a better world let’s have a treaty by all means: One which breaks down the misunderstandings, removes the investment barriers imposed by bureaucrats, and dissolves the differences between us.

Starting with cancellation of the obnoxious visa restrictions. By both sides.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 18 January 2006)


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