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

Monday, November 13, 2006



Jaw-jaw is better than war-war. Former British prime minister Harold Macmillan.

The planned signing of a proposed new treaty between Indonesia and Australia this Monday (13 Nov) by the two foreign ministers, is being boosted in the nation next door as a significant advance in relations between the neighbors.

What impact will it have on the average person on either side of the Indian Ocean? Probably not a ripple – though that doesn’t mean the exercise is worthless.

Whatever the backslapping top-level bureaucrats in Western suits (Indonesians) and batik (Australians) say, things aren’t looking good down below.

Poll results released last month (Oct) by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy show almost two thirds of those surveyed think Indonesia is a threat to Australia.

So any initiative, however bland and unformed, has to be positive. Then maybe the hearts and minds of the populace will follow. Maybe …

The only public badmouth so far has been Senator Bob Brown, leader of the minority Greens party. He claims the treaty – properly named the Framework for Security Cooperation – will encourage the development of nuclear power in Indonesia and suppress the Papuan independence movement.

Though the agreement hasn’t been publicly released some details have been leaked.

The seven-page document will have 10 formal articles. One apparently commits the signatories to ‘not in any manner support or participate in activities by any person or entity which constitutes a threat to the stability, sovereignty or territorial integrity of the other party.’

This is a masked reference to the activities of the Papuan independence lobby in Australia that Senator Brown supports.

But then so do the majority of Australians according to a survey earlier this year. Canberra can give Jakarta bucketsful of assurances, but in a robust democracy a government can’t shut down non-terrorist organisations it doesn’t like.

Nor can it easily change the public’s mindset with a few ads, which are apparently also being planned. They’d have to be better than the failed American attempts to portray the US as a peace-loving nation that treats Muslims as equals. That campaign bombed.

The Papua lobby in Australia includes academics notably around the University of Sydney’s West Papua Project, Protestant and Catholic churches, NGOs linked to the Australia West Papua Association, and supporters of human rights. They’re not going to shut up anytime soon, though a campaign is underway to discredit their claims.

This has been led by academic Rodd McGibbon who spent six years in Indonesia working for the UN and US Aid. In a paper titled Pitfalls of Papua released last month (Oct) for the Lowy Institute and neatly laying a welcome mat for the treaty, he argues that activists’ ‘utopian thinking’ have misled the Australian public.

He claims the more backing Australians give Papuan separatists, the more the TNI and hard-line nationalists will suppress the province, thereby setting back reform. He also says the average Aussie doesn’t understand the politics – particularly the strength of Indonesian nationalism.

On this last issue he’s undoubtedly right. International relationships tend to float or founder on perceptions, not facts.

It was the ‘uninformed’ voters who forced the Australian government to be more active in the 1999 East Timor referendum when the official line was to take things slowly.

The new treaty replaces the document organised in secret by prime minister Paul Keating and Indonesian president Suharto in 1995. This was ripped up in 1999 by president Habibie when Australia led peacekeepers during the East Timor referendum - an action seen by Indonesia as a betrayal.

Critics of the original treaty (including the present PM John Howard) were angry there’d been no public debate leading to the pact.

Yet the same thing seems to be happening again. It’s true the Australian government has been talking about the new document for almost two years, but we only know the headings.

These are defence, counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, sea and air security, weapons of mass destruction, emergency relief, fish poaching, people-smuggling, drug running and other crimes.

All well and good. But how are these going to be implemented? Will there be penalties for non-compliance – and if so what? When Jakarta is next outraged by some Australian exercising her or his freedom of speech, what can Canberra do but say the press is free?

What concessions has the Australian government made? The document isn’t a defence pact, so what are the ‘security threats’?

How will the Howard government react if Indonesia kicks out academics and journalists who allege human rights abuses in Papua? Is there a chapter on that possible scenario?

The Australian Federal Police have been active in Indonesia, so will Indonesian police go to Australia and help interrogate Indonesians suspected of terrorism? And how is ‘terrorism’ to be defined? Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir would come under that heading in Australia, but not Indonesia.

Will drug law enforcement lead to more Australians on death row in Indonesia? Indonesians in Australia committing the same offences confront prison bars, not rifle muzzles. This is a major issue among voters Down Under.

In the past environmentalists have condemned nuclear power in the geologically unstable archipelago, fearing an earthquake could release radiation from a fractured plant. The treaty could allow Australian sales of uranium, implicitly encouraging the building of reactors. The Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine was 20 years ago – and people still suffer.

There are many more similar questions and concerns. The devil is in the detail and the punters in both democracies remain ignorant – just as they did with the discredited Suharto-Keating deal.

It’s been reported that the new treaty will have to be ratified by parliaments in both countries before taking effect. Maybe then the voters will get to have their say.

(First published in The Jakarta Post 13 November '06)