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Why Australia deserves it

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In Brief

Canberra needs to realise that it fully deserves the brunt of Jakarta’s latest diplomatic hostility over revelations that Australian spies tapped the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his close associates.


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Australian commentary continues to downplay and ‘normalise’ the issue, essentially accusing Jakarta of being a drama queen over nothing. This is certainly not the case this time. Six things should be noted, responding to observations made here on The Interpreter, in understanding Indonesia’s growing assertiveness in dealing with Canberra’s trespasses.

First, it has more to do with Indonesia’s ‘toughening-up’ rather than Indonesian attempts to ‘soften-up’ Australia. Claims that Indonesia is ‘softening-up’ Canberra, testing its diplomatic waters, sizing up the new leadership, and pushing it into a disadvantageous state of mind misses the fact that Jakarta does not care about Australia’s leadership transition — or any other internal politics ‘down below’ for that matter. As Indonesia’s economic power and international standing rises, it will ‘toughen up’ and increase its diplomatic rhetoric both in tone and volume.

Second, the fact that Yudhoyono is clearly angry, having even raised his voice, shows how serious Canberra’s transgressions are perceived to be. Yudhoyono holds no grudge against Australia, as some theories may suggest, and is a very pro-West character, overly cautious, timid and non-confrontational to the point of being seen as fainthearted and spineless. Despite being a domestic liability, these characteristic traits are his greatest political assets that have made him a darling of the international community. Domestically, he is seen as a reformist desk-general that is neither aggressive nor threatening towards national politicians and within the military establishment itself. He might write up several melancholic songs, release an album, or endlessly whine in an official speech. But Yudhoyono is certainly not one to hold a grudge, let alone exhibit it publicly to the international community merely for personal reasons.

Third, Marty Natalegawa is not kowtowing to his boss, as has been suggested — he is simply doing his job. There is really not much benefit to be had in sucking up to a boss that will be out of office in seven months’ time.

Natalegawa’s decision to reveal information on his meeting with the Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, which discussed Australian plans to ‘turn back the boats’ was actually commendable and stayed true to Jakarta’s democratic and transparent notions of diplomacy in comparison to Australia’s coarse spying practices. Just like Jakarta governor Joko Widodo and his deputy Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who regularly upload their meetings to Youtube to avoid slander, defamation, and intimidation against them from local urban thugs, Natalegawa’s actions were a good way to maintain integrity and avoid similar unwanted acts from Canberra in the future. The fact that Germany and Brazil pursued the United States over spying scandals also helped Jakarta hop on the bandwagon.

Fourth, the run up to the 2014 elections should not be used as a justification to ignore deteriorating bilateral relations. If anything, threats from Jakarta to Australia should be taken more seriously since there is a very high chance of them being transferred to the next leadership — most likely to be running on a more nationalist political platform. With neighbours behaving like Australia, it’s not too hard to imagine former general Prabowo Subianto as a genuine contender for Indonesia’s next presidency.

Fifth, escalating tensions have less to do with a colonial legacy of Indonesia’s sense of victimhood and more to do with Australia’s own cultural insensitivities. The Javanese conception of power is that power comes from within. This explains Jakarta’s security orientation that is directed inwards as well as its understanding of wawasan nusantara — an Indonesian conception of mare nostrum, an internal sea that connects instead of divides the archipelago.

The most refined protagonist wayang characters in Indonesian shadow puppetry have their head bowed down, with eyes small and downcast, inward looking and introspective, and movements that are slow and subtle effortless glides, with the most polite expressions of complex thoughts. Using Australian understandings, such as a ‘State of Origin’ roughing-up analogy, to explain Indonesia’s foreign policy misses the mark completely. Although an ‘odd diplomatic jab might explain much more than years of cocktail discussions’, as Michael Wesley suggests, Jakarta really has no interest in test-poking the kangaroo: looking into Jakarta’s regional role in ASEAN, it becomes obvious that Indonesia’s diplomatic tradition is one that values ‘tens of years of coffee talks’ instead.

In contrast, Canberra’s crass spying is the symbolic epitome of the antagonist wayang characters: the brute with protruding outward-looking eyes bulging out of their sockets, unrefined, unreflective, emotionally unstable, and malevolent. Indonesia’s conception of mandala (theatre) denotes power emanating from the centre; skirmishes at the border are tolerated, but not at the capital — and certainly not at the inner core. The fact that Australia’s espionage had targeted Yudhoyono’s inner circle, the kedaton core of the Indonesia keraton (palace) where all the king’s family members live in, makes it all the more unacceptable. This kind of strategic insider information on political concession-making, coalition building, and ‘dirty laundry’ gives Canberra an opportunity for political blackmailing, bullying and intimidation, as it had allegedly done towards Dili.

Six, Canberra really needs to realise that it has trampled over one of the most sacred and cherished of all Indonesian diplomatic principles: non-intervention. Jakarta has been extremely forbearing on Australia’s interference in a wide range of issues, such as human rights, asylum seekers, terrorism and Papua. The reality is that Australia is not as powerful, as strategic, and as indispensable as the United States — and thus less likely to actually get away with such trespasses. Simply put, only those who can behave respectfully and accordingly are welcome within the keraton walls.

Pierre Marthinus and Isidora Happy Apsari are the executive director and vice executive director respectively of the Marthinus Academy, Jakarta. 

5 responses to “Why Australia deserves it”

  1. Fifth, escalating tensions have less to do with a colonial legacy of Indonesia’s sense of victimhood and more to do with Australia’s own cultural insensitivities. The Javanese conception of power is that power comes from within. This explains Jakarta’s security orientation that is directed inwards as well as its understanding of wawasan nusantara — an Indonesian conception of mare nostrum, an internal sea that connects instead of divides the archipelago.”

    And nothing to do with political and Islamic hubris?

    • Actually, yes it does, but perhaps not in the way that you expect it to be.

      In terms of politics, it was obvious that Abbott played domestic politics to the detriment of bilateral relations with a neighboring country. In Jakarta, politicians have not been rowdy at all but rallied quietly behind Yudhoyono’s banner on this. If you have read through all of Indonesia’s leading newspapers, (Kompas, Jakarta Post, etc) leading experts from all places (UI, LIPI, Airlangga, Marthinus Academy, etc) are doing the exact same thing, urging stronger actions against Canberra.

      In terms of Islam, no Islamic groups have capitalized on the issue. Most of the time, FPI demonstrations should be seen as either “demonstrators-for-hire” or an internal “group-bonding” activity. Canberra needs to be more introspective on what “Islam” actually means for Australia -whether it means “a potential market and gateway” to Asia, or simply still just a keyword substitute for “security threat”.

  2. Sukarno has been the Indonesian president most versed in wayang lore. Yet how much his personality deviated from that of the refined wayang characters our authors have described for us: “with their head bowed down, with their eyes small and downcast, inward looking and introspective”! If Indonesia’s founding president fell so far short of the wayang ideal, what hope have we Australians, now apparently joined in our crassness by the Singaporeans and South Koreans, of behaving correctly and of thus being accepted within the walls of the keratin. Let’s grant nonetheless that SBY’s private residence at Cikeas is the new keraton, what is one to make of Indonesia’s most vehement critics of our trespasses? The Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and Pemuda Pancasila have spearheaded demonstrations against the Australian embassy, some of the participantss reportedly pelting the building on Jalan Rasuna Said with rotten eggs. This is happily a far cry from the bombing of the same edifice in September 2004. I have had no direct contact with Pemuda Pancasila but, in my interviews with FPI and HTI spokesmen, they generally made no references to the wayang. FPI chairman Habib Rizieq’s house used to be adorned, and may still be, with giant photos of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, with nary a shadow puppet in sight. This is not surprising, since the wayang stories are based on the magnificent myths of ancient Hindu India. And the parliamentarian most active on this issue has been the Democrat Party’s notorious loud-mouth, Ruhut Sitompul, a Tapanuli Batak who is not necessarily a keen devotee of wayang. In fact, he probably knows as little about the Ramayana and Mahabharata as Marty Natalegawa knows about State of Origin.

    • First, there are several categories of wayang characters, stretching from “refined nobles”, “lay nobles”, “strong”, “Java jesters”, and down to the “buta” (the demon brute). Sukarno’s equivalent wayang character, Bima, is far from being a “refined noble” character. He is a “strong” character depicted as courageous, muscular, less refined, warlike and fear-inspiring. His depiction in shadow- and rod-puppetry reflects a taller and larger body, rugged manners, rarely speaks in polite “inggil” language, endowed with a more menacing face and larger eyes. Your description of Sukarno’s character actually fits perfectly to this.

      Second, our mention of “crass spying” refers to both the act of spying and the act of taking responsibility for it. Response from Australia (officials, media, think-tanks, etc) tend to reflect this through “everyone else is doing it”, “the US is doing it”, “the South Koreans and Singaporeans are doing it”, or “the Indonesians had done it as well”.

      Third, yes, reproduction of this image is stronger in some circles (eg. the military, nationalist) than others. These cultural references are traced back to Indonesia’s Hindu Majapahit (13th-15th century) which also incorporated Javanese culture, not Ancient Hindu India. Indonesia’s national “Garuda” symbol is a Javanese eagle, different from Thailand’s Hindu version of “Garuda”. Suharto’s 1965 takeover mandate was called “supersemar” as a passing reference to Suharto’s wayang equivalent, Semar. Prabowo Subianto’s party acronym “Gerindra” implicitly refers to Girindrawardhana rebellion that sacked the capital at a time when the Hindu empire was declining in the face of greater Islamic influence (there had been a rift within the Indonesian military between “green” Islamic generals with the “red-whites” nationalist generals). Australian perceptions tend to put Indonesia and Islam interchangeably. Australian tourists that frequent Indonesia will know that the most popular, beautiful, and awe-inspiring Indonesian culture, architecture, and arts are far from Islamic. Our argument: so is Indonesian politics.

      The fact that FPI and HTI is unable to get into the keraton, and that Ruhut Sitompul is doing so poorly within it amplifies our argument. Perhaps, military access to politics has less to do with general’s wealth or (threat of) violence but has more to do with the “cultural capital” they wield. Causation aside, your have made some very interesting observations.

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