Killing the messenger
One afternoon in Surabaya during the tension leading to the 1999 referendum on the future of East Timor, our landlord took me to a meeting with the Rukun Tetangga.
Although the term means neighborhood harmony, officially the RT is the local community leader.
“It’s just a courtesy call to let him know new people have moved in,” our lessor explained as we walked to the appointment.
“I’ve already told him you’re a New Zealander. I don’t think it would be good if people know there’s an Australian in the kampong.”
The years roll on but tensions persist. Today Australians registered with the Jakarta Embassy got an automated e-mail urging a ‘high degree of caution’ because of possible civil unrest.
This follows revelations that our government has long spied on its northern neighbor and supposed friend, impertinently tapping the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife, Ibu Ani.
Seasoned diplomats claim such behavior is commonplace. So do the Australians eavesdrop US President Barack Obama’s cellphone and intercept intimate messages from his wife Michelle? Or those of UK Prime Minister David Cameron and his spouse Samantha?
Should Edward Snowden, the US whistleblower (or traitor, depending on your viewpoint) reveal such snooping, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s response might be more humble than his reactions so far to President SBY’s anger.
In Parliament Mr Abbott said he wanted to express “my deep and sincere regret about the embarrassment to the President and to Indonesia that's been caused by recent media reporting.”
An apology for spying? Not at all. It’s all the media’s fault reporting the espionage, so shoot the messenger. In this case it was The Guardian newspaper and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster.Managing director Mark Scott was forced to defend the decision to publish papers marked TOP SECRET. He told a Senate committee that although he knew the news was embarrassing to the government, the relevant test was whether releasing the material was in the public interest.
According to news reports Mr Scott ‘drew a distinction between the national interest and the public interest’ – the fine line walked by all journalists.
While others were handling the controversy with tweezers, journalist and academic Dr Philip Dorling (a visiting fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy) grasped the issue firmly:
‘Why do we do it?’ he wrote. ‘Behind all the declarations of friendship and good neighborliness by successive Australian governments, Canberra just doesn't trust Jakarta. We work closely with Indonesia, including in the fields of security and intelligence, but we don't trust them. We never have, and probably never will.’
His comments are well grounded. A 2012 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade survey of Australians’ attitudes showed knowledge of Indonesia to be poor and perceptions mixed. Almost half the respondents rated Indonesia ‘a threat to Australian national security’.
Scrutiny of the results show the distrust was rooted last century when Indonesian paramilitaries, allegedly sponsored by the army, laid East Timor waste after the referendum rejected Indonesian rule.
Since then the Bali and Jakarta bombs have fertilized the distrust. Hundreds of thousands fly into Kuta every year, but few venture into Java, a land of mystery and Islam, regretfully still considered a synonym for terrorism.
More recently the Indonesian government’s inability (or reluctance) to stop its own citizens using Indonesian-flagged boats to ferry asylum seekers to Australia is a toxin that poisons attitudes.
Few Indonesians understand how the bombings continue to resonate in Australia, just as Australians don’t appreciate the sensitivity of Indonesians towards real or imagined colonial attitudes. It takes more than 68 years of hard-won independence to wash away three centuries of rule by smug white-skinned foreigners.
Mr Abbott and his ministerial colleagues may profess undying love for Indonesia (the President is “a very good friend… one of the very best friends”), but they’re occasional suitors living far away in Canberra, making only fleeting visits and not recipients of today’s travel warnings.
If this is how Australia treats best friends, thank goodness we’re not enemies.
The thousands of low-profile Australians who work and live in Indonesia, quietly trying to eradicate misunderstandings and put substance into the leaders’ rhetoric, now have to cope with the fallout.
Military cooperation has already been ditched. Other agreements, treaties and projects like the splendid BRIDGE student exchange programs may survive, but they’ll be considered suspect.
The AUD $542 million (Rp 5.8 billion) aid program has benefited thousands, particularly schoolchildren in remote areas, but all that goodwill is rapidly evaporating.
Political scientists yawningly note that all nations spy on each other and this is widely known. International relations are always a roller-coaster ride – so what’s new?
Known by insiders, maybe, but not the general population. We may have wondered, but we didn’t know for certain.
What’s new is that doubts have hardened into fact. The suspicious can no longer be dismissed as crazed conspiracy theorists.
Inevitably some superficial relationship will return as time heals. We can betray and threaten and fear, but nothing is going to change one unshakeable fact. Our countries are – and will always be – close neighbors.
We have to learn to live in harmony – we’re in the same kampong. It’s time for some Rukun Tetangga.
(First published in The Jakarta Post, 23 November 2013)