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

Thursday, June 29, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

You really have to wonder about the things some Australian politicians say.

It can’t be for want of information. They have hot and cold running researchers, expert advisors on tap and assistants with attitude. If they’re ministers whole departments are ready to stack up the stats, prepare papers and forecast responses.

So why would Australian prime minister John Howard want to rough up his host Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono prior to Monday’s meeting on Batam Island? No wonder the results were as exciting as England’s performance against Ecuador.

There was nothing subtle about Howard’s demands for more controls on radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. He’s the white-beard who was released from jail on 14 June after serving just over two years for conspiracy in the 2002 Bali bomb attack.

Howard wrote to Yudhoyono expressing his government’s concern and Australian anger at the release – though Ba’asyir’s sentence has been completed according to law.

Even the most mealy-mouthed apologist would have to concede this was gross interference in another country’s internal affairs – and that’s something Australians won’t stand at any price.

So why is it right for Aussies to poke their nose into their neighbour’s business? The only rational answer is domestic politics and that Howard has to show he’s outraged to keep voters happy.

He must know that many Australian legal experts claim the case against Ba’asyir was weak. If he’d been tried in Australia Ba’asyir might well have been acquitted.

Why not say so? Australians are supposed to be well educated, want to know the facts and like to be direct. Even the most thick-skulled would understand courts need evidence, not emotion.

Labor opposition spokesman on foreign affairs Kevin Rudd labelled Ba’asyir “a mass murderer.” If the old codger had been in Australia Rudd wouldn’t have had the guts – or he’d now be snowed under with writs.

Ba’asyir is suspected of being the spiritual leader of the radical terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiyah. It seems likely – but that hasn’t been proved in court.

There’s no way political comments can be quarantined in a global media. Howard and Rudd’s statements might get a ‘good on ‘ya mate – bore it up the bastards’ response around the backyard barbecue. But in Indonesia these poli syllables are proof positive of their neighbor’s colonial arrogance.

The beneficiary is Ba’asyir – that’s why he’s always shown displaying his gleaming dentures. He may be no Rhodes Scholar but he’s kampong clever. It was “God’s will” that the Bali bombs killed more than 200. Try to refute that one-size-fits-all slice of sophistry.

Ba’asyir also skilfully ensures that every time an Australian politician exercises his tonsils it’s interpreted as yet another example of Big Brother controlling the Indonesian government. Why? Because debauched Westerners hate Islam, are jealous of its insights and know they’re destined for hell.

It sounds screwball, but it certainly resonates. In the crowded alleys where conspiracy theories thrive Ba’asyir’s a hero – and every gratuitous condemnation by an Australian loudmouth boosts the ratings of his ravings.

Better to let the preacher of hate slip down the news list till he eventually falls off the page. Why dignify a silly old man’s evil comments and give him the oxygen of publicity, as Margaret Thatcher famously said?

In a democracy Ba’asyir’s entitled to rant. Indonesians can make up their own minds about his credibility without having their rude neighbours pointing out the bleeding obvious.

According to the Australian media the Howard-SBY talks on Batam were almost scuttled by Howard’s letter. There were no great leaps forward – no signing of a security treaty.

The Papuan refugees won’t be sent back and Ba’asyir won’t be muzzled. The Australian government supports the Unitary State – but it can’t do anything about the NGOs, churches and other politicians who back separatism. A goalless draw, said one commentator.

Sending an offensive letter to someone you’re just about to meet for a supposedly cooperative chat is not the Javanese way; it’s not acceptable in Australia either. If Howard and Rudd couldn’t care less about cultural niceties maybe they should consider this: It’s counterproductive.

Unless such tactics are part of some Machiavellian gameplan we’ve yet to grasp.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 29 June 2006)


No comments: