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Australian spying in Jakarta: Indonesian reactions Part One

Our Indonesia Today - December 8, 2013

Colin Brown When I started planning this paper, I intended to focus on the period of the second SBY Cabinet (since 2009), and to look in the broad at the ways in which Australia featured in Indonesian politics during that time. SBY, after all, is commonly said to be the best Indonesian President Australia has ever had. And a Lowy Institute public opinion poll carried out in Indonesia between 20 November and 13 December 2011 showed an Indonesian public apparently very favourably inclined towards Australia. Indeed, the poll suggested that:
Indonesian attitudes towards Australia have markedly improved and are increasingly positive. Australia is the fourth most warmly regarded country, moving from a lukewarm 51 degrees in 2006 to a warm 62 degrees.[1]
I was going to look at the ban on live cattle exports, at the on-going asylum-seekers controversy, the involvement of Indonesia in Australia's recent federal election campaign and say something too about the then-breaking spying issue.

Events have clearly overtaken me. The spying issue has come to dominate discussion of the relationship, both at the political level and the community level as well. Clearly it demands attention. By the same token, I want to retain my focus on the Indonesian side of the relationship, rather than the Australian side.

So I am going to use this most recent set of events to try to focus on that topic. I want to try to understand why the reactions from Indonesia were so strong, and why in my view they signal not the breaking down of the diplomatic relationship, but possibly a re-directing of it.

In approaching the spying allegations and reactions, I want to take three perspectives on the same basic question: what explains the very strong Indonesian reactions to the spying allegations, and what do these reactions say about Australia's place in Indonesian politics.

First, I want to look at the recent spying allegations themselves and the Indonesian reactions to them: looking internally, into these events. I will be asking whether we can understand the Indonesian reactions in terms of the events themselves.

Second, I will be looking at the immediate context of the events, again asking to what extent reactions to them need to be understood not (or not just) in terms of the events themselves, but rather of events immediately preceding or succeeding them.

Third, I want to look at the background environment against which these events have played out. To what extent do we need to place these events in their longer historical context in order to understand them, and specifically to understand Indonesian reactions to them.

But before I start, I want to enter two linked caveats.

The first caveat is that there is of course no single "Indonesian" reaction to these events. There are probably as many reactions as there are Indonesians who know about the events.

Here I will limit myself to looking primarily at reactions from the Indonesian government, and other members of the Indonesian political elite, including members of parliament. But even here there will be differences of opinion, some of them matters of nuance, others more deeply felt.

I will be saying something about community reactions, but this is not the main focus of my talk primarily, because I find that sitting here in Brisbane it is particularly hard to judge how ordinary Indonesians are reacting.

Second, just as there is no single "Indonesian" reaction to these events, so there is no single interpretation of these various Indonesian reactions. Different people will interpret them differently. This is very much a work in progress: I thus welcome differing interpretations from my own.

So to the first perspective on the problem: looking at the spying allegations themselves and Indonesian reactions to them.

It is I think important to note that the allegations emerged in two distinct phases. Phase one was the revelation if that is the right word about a broad range of what we might call generic spying: the kind of things which happens routinely.

Phase two was the revelation on 18 November of just whose phones were tapped. As we all know, these included SBY himself, his wife Ani, Vice President Boediono and then-Finance Minister Sri Mulyani.

The Indonesian reaction to the first phase was vigorous, but on reflection, not excessive. It was led by Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, with no visible role being played by the President, SBY. Natalegawa warned that if Australia did not acknowledge what it had done, and promise not to do it again, intelligence cooperation in areas such as people smuggling would be at risk. Reflecting perhaps the time he spent studying in Australia, he said that spying was "not cricket".

This was clearly, from the Indonesian end, a serious matter. But it should be noted that Australia was rarely singled out for criticism at this stage of the drama: it was almost always bracketed with the United States. Indeed, an impression I get is that the US was seen as the main player, Australia simply its loyal ally. And the spying was placed in the broader international context of US spying on other countries. Thus for instance Natelegawa noted that neither the US nor Australia was prepared to confirm of deny to Indonesia that the alleged spying actually took place. This, said Natelegawa, was the response received not just by Indonesia but also by other countries which are reported to have been spied upon.

At the time, I suggested that some parties in Indonesia were actually quietly proud of the fact that their country had been spied upon by the likes of Australia and the US. Nobody spies on countries which are of no significance internationally, or who have no secrets worth knowing. Thus the fact that Australia, and more significantly the US, has been spying on Indonesia is proof of the country's importance. One commentator wrote, in an article carried by the state-run Antara news agency, that:

Given its geopolitical and geostrategic significance, it is no wonder that Indonesia is the target of bugging by foreign agencies with a variety of interests in Indonesia.
Foreign interests always want to know more about what is happening in Indonesia, and what might happen here.

The same article quoted retired Major General Glenny Kairupan, a former senior official of the Strategic Intelligence Agency (BAIS), as saying that of course Indonesia was the target of bugging by various foreign interests because Indonesia was of such strategic significance.

But the second phase of the affair when it was revealed that the phones of SBY and the others had been tapped was read in Indonesia much more seriously.

The first thing to note about Indonesian reactions to these allegations is that they were now primarily focussed explicitly on Australia not so much on Australia in cahoots with the US. This is perhaps understandable, given that the allegations were set out in an Australian Signals Directorate PowerPoint presentation.

Second, although Marty Natelegawa was still active, in many respects his frontrunner position was taken over by Djoko Suyanto, the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, and SBY himself. SBY, as you will remember, went on national television in Indonesia deploring the phone taps, wtote a letter to Tony Abbott seeking an assurance such tapping would not occur again, and made his views known too via his Twitter account. He subsequently halted temporarily, he said cooperation with Australia on people smuggling, and threatened to halt cooperation on other intelligence matters. He also recalled the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia, for consultations. It seems to have taken a personalisation to goad SBY into action.

Some in Australia interpreted SBY's actions as being excessive, and prompted by motives ranging from embarrassment to a desire to influence the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections.

But in Indonesia, there were many voices arguing that SBY was in fact not strong enough, that he was being too weak in the face of what Australia had done. One commentator one very unsympathetic to SBY, I have to say noted that during what I have called phase 1 of the drama:

President SBY... said nothing. Even though many people, including former Vice President Jusuf Kalla, were urging SBY to show how strong was the Indonesian government's reaction to the US and Australia, he remained silent.
It was only after the affair became personal, this commentator said, and it was revealed his phone and the phone of his wife had been tapped, that SBY finally acted. The key in this commentator's mind was that SBY still felt some closeness towards Australia.

Professor Hikmahanto Juwana, from the Law Faculty of the University of Indonesia someone not noted for his sympathy for Australia was also critical of SBY's delay in responding, and lack of firmness. Recalling the Indonesian Ambassador to Australia was a correct move, he said, but it was not strong enough:

Not strong enough because this step has only just now been taken [i.e. phase 2 of the drama], whereas we've known about the phone tapping for weeks.
He called on the government to expel "two or three" Australian diplomats from Indonesia to show how seriously Indonesians took the affair.

Parliamentarian and Deputy Chair of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee of the Indonesian Parliament (Komisi 1), TB Hasanudin, went further. He said that the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta ought to be expelled: I reckon, in order avoid any embarrassment later, he ought to be packing his bags right now.

These responses illustrate, I think, the difficult position SBY was in. I suspect many in Indonesia thought he really was being too soft on Australia, perhaps not just because he was close to Australia, but also simply because as a political leader he had long since run out of steam.

But in addition, in Australia SBY is often referred to as the best Indonesian president we have ever had. Yet of course for many Indonesians, this is not something laudable, but rather something to be concerned about. They want SBY to be the best president Indonesians have ever had. And for many, clearly he is not: for many, his second term in office has been a deep disappointment.

The point here, I think, is not that SBY was courting domestic political favour by vigorously criticising Australia; rather, he was doing what he had to do to avoid even stronger criticism at home.

Not all Indonesian observers saw Australia as their prime target after the phase 2 allegations, though. Soeripto, former Head of the State Intelligence Coordination Agency BAKIN, was very clear that even though it was Australian agents who tapped SBY's phone, the ideas was not theirs: it came from further afield. He argued:

Australia was acting under orders from the US so in my view we've got it wrong (salah alamat) if we protest to the Australians, or ask them for their account of the affair or for an apology. It ought to be the Americans we investigate, and if necessary who we reprimand, we should send a sharp warning to the American embassy.
A similar point was made by Professor Ikrar Nusa Bhakti, albeit in rather more measured tones:
From the point of view of diplomatic balance, if the Garuda can express its outrage (murka) to the Kangaroo... we should also be prepared to protest strongly to the United States because the Australia intelligence operation was part of the five power intelligence cooperation involving the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Is Indonesia brave enough to do that?
I think it is reasonable to conclude, then, that Indonesian reactions to the spying allegations can at least in part be understood in terms of the allegations themselves. Even if nothing else was going on, the reactions would have been brought forth. Indonesian sovereignty was being violated by these acts of spying: both national sovereignty and personal sovereignty. Of course Indonesians reacted vigorously. Just as we would have done, had the situation been reversed.

But of course other things were going on. Indonesia is scheduled to hold national, regional and presidential elections in 2014. Many observers in Australia saw these elections as the key to the whole affair; that the statements of SBY and other political leaders were conditioned by the imminence of those elections, and designed to place themselves or their parties in the best possible light to the electorate. But what is the evidence for this conclusion?

[Colin Brown is a Professor at Griffith University. His article was originally presented at the SE Asia Group Seminar 6th December 2013. Part Two will continue next week.]

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