You know there's something wrong with Australia's image in Indonesia when you find yourself the target of a heated tirade against your PM on the back of a motorcycle taxi first thing on a Monday morning. At the first mention of Australia my driver became livid: 'That Tony Abbott is such a bad guy! How dare he give money to Aceh and then ask for it back?'
This Jakarta driver may not have had all the facts straight, but the fact that he had heard of the efforts to return Australia's tsunami aid money showed that the movement has moved well beyond a series of tongue-in-cheek social media hashtags among students. Street protests to collect 'Coins for Australia' or 'Coins for Abbott' have spread from Aceh to the capital and beyond, with even the vice president offering to repay the $1 billion in aid contributed by Australia for recovery efforts after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.
The backlash stemmed from comments made by Abbott last week which implied that Indonesia could 'reciprocate' the generosity shown by Australia in 2004 by granting clemency for the two members of the Bali Nine drug syndicate now on death row. Indonesians on social media responded by offering to repay the aid in small change, using hashtags such as #KoinUntukAustralia or #CoinsForAustralia and #Coins4Abbott. Now protesters have moved offline to collect coins on the streets. Local media reported that at least one primary school in Central Java had joined the effort, with a teacher leading students to collect money outside school (a comment from one 10-year-old student: 'Even though this cuts into my pocket money, I'm proud to participate and I hope these coins can be useful for Australia').
The concept of the protest seems to have gotten lost along the way for some, but the original idea echoes the online legend of Samsung repaying a $1 billion fine to Apple over a patent infringement case in more than 30 truckloads of 5-cent pieces. As in the Samsung-Apple case, the symbolism of Indonesia returning Australia's aid in coins is intended to diminish the magnitude of the 'debt', as well as embarrass Australia for holding it over its increasingly wealthy neighbour.
But while Indonesia is wealthy, it is also deeply unequal. If Indonesians were to repay the $1 billion to Australia in coins, all 250 million of the population would have to donate about $4 each, or about 40 one-thousand Rupiah coins. For roughly 50% of the population, that would be the equivalent of missing out on a morning coffee. For the other 50%, it would mean giving up two days of living costs. This is not to say Indonesia could not afford to repay the money — it easily could (especially with the vice president involved). My point is that while the country overall is no charity case, for the recipients of aid Australia's assistance is no small change.
It is realistic to acknowledge that states do not operate as individuals, and that Australia's aid program to Indonesia does come with some strings attached. Presumably this is what Abbott was referring to when he brought up the tsunami aid in relation to the plea for clemency for the Bali Nine members on death row. The trouble is, the main pulling point for those strings is the soft power that aid can bring for Australia. It's not difficult to imagine the offense caused by Abbott requesting the lives of two Australian drug smugglers as payback for the country's contribution to recovery efforts for a natural disaster that killed 170,000 Indonesians. It's a clumsy attempt at diplomacy that has only played into the nationalist rhetoric on sovereignty already surrounding the case in Indonesia.
It's important to remember that the aid program benefits Australia as well as Indonesia. It is in Australia's interests to maintain friendly relations with Indonesia, and to assist the country in developing an equitable and stable economy. Soft power means Indonesian students wanting to come and study in Australia. It means a good relationship for trade, and safe travel for Australians. It means that as Indonesia's economy continues to grow, Australia is seen as a partner in the region. The cultivation of this soft power is what constitutes the strings attached to Australia's aid program. And by trying to use soft power as a point of force, Australia has found how quickly those strings can unravel.