Top End Man
When Indonesia’s consulate in Darwin was set up in the 1970s it was little more than an isolated office serving a former president’s personal business interests in outback Australia.
Now it’s become one of Indonesia’s most important outposts, in the front line of the Republic’s often edgy relationships with its southern neighbor.
When the issues aren’t the mistreatment of Australian cattle, poachers plundering Australia’s territorial waters, people traffickers smuggling Afghan asylum seekers, Australia jailing Indonesian children and US marines being posted in Darwin they’re even more portentous.
While consul Ade Padmo Sarwono was talking to The Jakarta Post communist North Korea announced a planned ‘satellite launch’ using a long range rocket that’s expected to plunge into the narrow seas between Australia and Indonesia.
Handling such a volatile catalogue of issues needs either a grizzled diplomat of the gravest demeanor heading for a coronary, or a nimble-minded operator with a deft touch. Ade, 50, falls into the second category.
He’s been in the job for only a couple of months, but has the qualities Australians love – frankness, a robust sense of humor and a no fuss approach to crises.
A handy preparation has been developing patience as director of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Political Security Cooperation, a position he held for more than six years.
“I learned early on that to work with ASEAN you had to play golf, sing karaoke and eat durian,” he joked.
“That’s all changed now, though getting the ASEAN countries (there are ten) to agree on anything isn’t easy - but it’s always better to be talking than fighting.”
One ASEAN success has been acceptance of the need for an overall approach towards disaster management, according to Ade. So while others see the controversial decision to station up to 2,500 US marines in Darwin as a threat, the consul thinks it could be a boon for emergency responses.
He should know. He was involved with a 20 nation disaster preparedness exercise in North Sulawesi last year when the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.
“It’s difficult to get the military, which has the hardware, and civil organizations with the expertise, to work together,” he said.
“It’s often a matter of protocols, but there are also suspicions. Our region is prone to disasters and it’s important that we all work together. I consider the US presence will contribute to disaster management.”
Darwin, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory likes to call itself the Top End. It’s a tiny town by Indonesian standards with just 130,000 residents, and about half that number again in the 1.35 million square kilometer hinterland, most of it desert.
Indonesia maintains the only full-time professional consulate in Darwin so Ade’s diplomatic cocktail round is limited. The office opened when the late President Soeharto had NT cattle industry links to his Tri-S Tapos Ranch outside Jakarta.
Darwin promotes itself as the gateway to Asia. It’s only a one-hour flight from Kupang and 150 minutes from Denpasar. It’s unlikely to stay small. Construction of the AUD $34 billion (Rp 340 trillion) Ichthys Liquefied Natural Gas project is expected to attract thousands of workers.
Links with Indonesia go back centuries. Before Australia’s migration laws were tightened Makassan fishers were regular visitors, staying for months, sometimes taking their Aboriginal wives back to Sulawesi.
About 700 Indonesians live in the tropical multicultural city alongside many from Timor L’Este. Finding Indonesian food and conversation is easy. Thousands of Territorians see Bali as their rest and recreation center.
So while demonstrators around Monas might be screaming abuse at the US, in Darwin Ade and his seven staff could be bumping into American officers while pushing trolleys down supermarket aisles or sharing shade at the beach.
These first name contacts can come in handy should dangerous issues erupt. When your kids and theirs play together, and wives swap confidences at coffee chatathons, it’s difficult to spit hate whatever governments say.
Ade was born in Jakarta, the son of a lawyer and teacher with an enthusiasm for languages. He wanted to travel and thought flying planes was the ideal job. Instead he read politics at the University of Indonesia, then joined Foreign Affairs, studying international relations in Japan.
Before taking his present position he served with Indonesian missions in South Africa and Switzerland.
In his ASEAN job Ade had his childhood desire for travel so over-satisfied he was seldom home with his wife and eight-year old son. The lad now attends a government school and demands his Dad spend more time on the soccer field than in airport lounges.
Much of the consulate’s work is supporting Indonesians arrested for illegal fishing or people smuggling. There are 18 in juvenile detention and about 40 in prison, mainly waiting for their cases to be heard in court.
“We visit them regularly,” Ade said. “I’m satisfied with the care they’re getting. They get taken to the mosque on Fridays and can watch Indonesian TV. Last week there was a three-day old copy of Kompas in the jail – and I haven’t even read that edition!
“The problem is the delay between the men getting arrested and appearing in court. Sometimes this can take more than a year. We’re trying to help speed up the process through document verification in the provinces.”
(Most illegal fishers and crew on boats carrying asylum seekers don’t carry papers so their identity and age are hard to verify. Those proved to be under 18 are repatriated.)
“We are so close so I’m keen to promote more people-to-people relationships,” he said. “While many in distant Java speak English few do in nearby Nusa Tenggara which is sad.
“There should be more education contacts, but Australian government travel warnings are making that difficult.
“Darwin is far away but the world is changing fast. Everyone needs everyone else. We can’t live in isolation.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 April 2012)A