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Defence fracas shows fault lines in Australia-Indonesia relations

We are so accustomed to hearing ministers spruik the close relationship between Indonesia and Australia, it can be easy to forget that tensions still simmer below the surface.

Indonesian Marine Forces seen during the 71st anniversary of Indonesia Military on 15 November, 2016 (Photo: Jefta Images via Getty)
Indonesian Marine Forces seen during the 71st anniversary of Indonesia Military on 15 November, 2016 (Photo: Jefta Images via Getty)
Published 12 Jan 2017   Follow @JewelTopsfield

The dust has settled on a tumultuous few days when it fleetingly appeared as if material Indonesia found offensive at a Perth army base had precipitated a bilateral crisis.

For two days the media in both countries ran wild with reports that Indonesia’s ultra-nationalist military chief, Gatot Nurmantyo, had suspended all defence ties between Australia and Indonesia.

Covering a breaking news story in Indonesia is always chaotic and confusing but this was surreal. Everyone appeared blindsided. No-one seemed to be denying the reports of a suspension in defence co-operation between the two countries. Yet we were told Indonesian president Joko Widodo did not know about it until the news broke, which seemed extraordinary given its apparent seriousness.

Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu played the whole thing down and after several hours, Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne issued a carefully worded statement that hedged its bets. Indonesia had informed Australia that defence cooperation would be suspended, her statement said, but only 'some interaction' between the two defence organisations had been postponed until the matter was resolved.

Indonesia’s chief security minister Wiranto finally moved to contain the crisis. He issued a statement late afternoon on 5 January specifying that the suspension only applied to a language training program and not broader military ties.

The 24-hour news cycle has now moved on.

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry has confirmed President Joko Widodo hopes to visit Australia in the first quarter of this year. Joint naval Exercise Cassowary will go ahead as planned in waters between Australia and Indonesia in the last weeks of March.

But while officials in both countries are exhaling, the flare-up has exposed both lingering sensitivities and mistrust in the relationship and, paradoxically, the importance both countries place on it.

In early January Indonesian media revealed that a Kopassus (special forces) language instructor had stumbled across material at Perth's Campbell Barracks that General Gatot would later describe as 'too painful to explain'. This included derogatory material about the late military leader Sarwo Edhie Wibowo - who oversaw the purge of an estimated 500,000 suspected communists in the 1960s - and a homework assignment that West Papua should be independent because it is part of Melanesia. West Papuan independence is one of the most sensitive topics in Indonesia.

What caused the most offence, however, was a poster with 'Pancagila' written on it. This ridiculed the state ideology of Pancasila, by suggesting its five principles of belief in only one God, just and civilised humanity, the unity of Indonesia, democracy and social justice for all were crazy. This was considered a 'red line'. There is resentment that some Australian commentators thought Indonesia’s umbrage was an overreaction. Pancasila has an almost sacred status: insulting state symbols is punishable by up to five years’ jail in Indonesia. 'Because of that I pulled back the teacher and I suspended it,' General Gatot said.

There is no doubt General Gatot was angry but the extent to which he intended to halt defence co-operation with Australia remains murky. However, there is strong evidence a full suspension was never intended. An internal military cable sent on behalf of General Gatot, dated 29 December, stated only activities under one of four sub-committees - joint operations and exercises - would be halted. Navy patrols and people smuggling cooperation, for example, were never affected.

Those present at internal meetings in November were not under the impression the offence caused was as grave as when Australia tapped the phone of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. They did not anticipate all military ties would be put on ice. General Gatot told reporters his 'good friend', the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Mark Binskin, had written a letter of apology and told him he would investigate and fix the curriculum. The issue was being handled internally by both country’s defence organisations.

So why the Indonesian military seemed to confirm that all defence ties between the countries had been cut, after the first news stories appeared in the Indonesian media, is a mystery.

For two fraught days, as both countries scrambled to ascertain the extent of the fall-out, YouTube videos were unearthed of bizarre lectures delivered by General Gatot at Indonesian universities over the past couple of months. In one, he spoke of stopping Australia trying to recruit Indonesian officers as spies or agents of influence. In another, which resulted in the NT News James Bond 007-inspired front page, 'From Jakarta with huff - Indo army chief’s Darwin spy mission', he spoke of chartering a boat while in Darwin to inspect military bases.

General Gatot raised concerns about the US Marines that rotate through Darwin, pointing out the close proximity to West Papua and Indonesia's giant Masela gas block. 'I, as TNI (Indonesian military) commander, have to wonder what it's all about,' General Gatot said in a lecture. 'Why not in the Philippines? They have a base there. No problems, but it's Darwin.'

We are so accustomed to hearing ministers spruik the close relationship between Indonesia and Australia, it's easy to forget tensions still simmer below the surface. But General Gatot’s suspicions over the US marines rotating through Darwin and soldiers training in Australia are shared by some in the Indonesian military.

There has been a deep-seated mistrust of Australia's position on Papuan independence ever since its intervention in East Timor in 1999.This is despite Australia repeatedly stating it recognizes Indonesia's sovereignty over the province as outlined in the 2006 Lombok treaty.

There is also a fear among conservative elements of the military that if Indonesians train in Australia they will be expected to support its policies and views.

However, the speed with which both countries moved to heal the rift underlines that both countries consider the defence relationship is vital. 'Don't let insignificant vermin disrupt the relationship between the two countries. That's not good,' Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told reporters.

Some analysts, especially those in Australia, believe the furore says more about domestic politics than Australian and Indonesian relations. They suggest the military spat may have been motivated by General Gatot's wish to raise his profile due to political ambitions and a desire for the military to play a greater role in civilian life. This interpretation has provoked outrage in Indonesia. 

The Australian media, including me, has been roundly attacked in the Indonesian media for 'publicly shaming' General Gatot when there was no evidence he was acting for political gain. Their counter narrative is that General Gatot addressed the contretemps behind closed doors and it only surfaced in the public arena after the local media reports. If he had wanted to earn political capital, the argument goes, he would have held a press conference to call for a full suspension of military ties or lobbied parliament.

The Australian media and academics have been accused of further inflaming tensions by assigning a motive to General Gatot. 

Within days of the spat being made public, a trespasser bearing the West Papuan separatist 'Morning Star' flag, which is banned in Indonesia, stood on the roof of Indonesia's consulate in Melbourne. The break-in, condemned as a 'criminal act that was completely intolerable' by Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, has sparked fears West Papuan activists could be further emboldened.

On 11 January, about 50 protesters from the Confederation of Indonesian Prosperous Trade Union gathered outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta to call on the Australian media not to meddle in Indonesia’s domestic affairs.

The long-term impact of the Campbell Barracks affair on the defence relationship is difficult to predict. Superficially, things are pretty much back to normal, with the exception of the suspension of the language training program pending the results of the investigation, but reverberations will continue. 

The blow-up is a reminder of the fault lines in the Indonesian and Australian defence relationship that mean issues can rapidly escalate.

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