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This week in Jakarta: Turnbull, haze and marriage equality

This week in Jakarta: Turnbull, haze and marriage equality
Published 18 Sep 2015 

Australia's new prime minister received a generally warm welcome in Jakarta this week, while Indonesia's president was busy dealing with northern neighbours' complaints over haze from forest fires.

Malcolm Turnbull wasn't stepping on any toes in Jakarta when he challenged Tony Abbott for Australia's prime ministership on Monday. A spokesman for Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday welcomed Turnbull, saying that Indonesia was prepared to work together with Australia's new leader from a foundation of mutual benefit and respect. Notably, there was no farewell for Abbott in the short statement from the Ministry, perhaps hinting that this foundation was seen to be lacking in his handling of the relationship.

In the local English-language press, the Jakarta Post's editor-in-chief on Wednesday gave more pointed criticism with a commentary piece titled 'Forgetting Abbott, understanding Turnbull', in which he bade our former prime minister 'good riddance'.

Abbott's handling of Australia-Indonesia relations was characterised in the piece as cold, uncooperative and 'uncouth'. The assessment of Turnbull in the piece was considerably kinder, crediting him with a better awareness of how to engage with Indonesia and other Asian nations in a 'more sensible' way – an opinion apparently informed by hearing Turnbull speak at the Lowy Institute on various occasions and reading analysis here on The Interpreter.

Indonesian-language media took a similar stance to the Jakarta Post on differentiating Abbott and Turnbull. One online news portal anticipated a 'turning point' for the Australia-Indonesia relationship under the new prime minister. An international relations expert from the University of Indonesia commented that the relationship hit its lowest point under Abbott, and expressed hope that Turnbull could improve relations with his 'calm rather than extreme or controversial' personality.

Abbott has a generally negative reputation among the Indonesian public, especially following his comments earlier this year that implied a debt for Australia's tsunami aid contribution to Indonesia. [fold]

However, one element of Turnbull's platform which has increased his popularity in Australia but is unlikely to have the same effect in Indonesia is his stance on same-sex marriage. Turnbull is a known supporter of marriage equality and has promised to uphold the Coalitions commitment to hold a 'people's vote' on the issue in Australia, following the momentum of the US Supreme Court's historic ruling in June. Online comments in Indonesia have been less welcoming of the US ruling and Turnbull's take on it. While advocates are vocal in calling for equal rights in Indonesia, mainstream opinion still sees same-sex marriage as taboo.

This week, photos of a same-sex wedding in Bali attracted strong public criticism. The governor of Bali said the wedding was against Balinese and Hindu values, and  local police are now investigating the legality of the ceremony. Meanwhile, in Muslim-majority Java, a web series discussing issues faced by the gay community was taken offline last week after receiving criticism by the Government. Despite these setbacks for advocates, the Q! Film Festival, featuring films on LGBTIQ, HIV/AIDS and human rights issues, has been running smoothly in Jakarta this week. In previous years, screenings have been cancelled and disrupted due to protests by hardline groups. 

President Jokowi has yet to personally weigh in on Australia's new leader, having been occupied with the problem of haze caused by forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, which is now affecting neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore. The fires are an annual problem during the dry season, when small-scale farmers and large corporations use a slash-and-burn method to quickly and cheaply clear land for plantations. The practice is illegal under Indonesian law and international treaties, but enforcement is weak. After weeks of worsening air quality that has prompted school closures, grounded flights and even caused deaths from respiratory illness, Jokowi on Wednesday finally spoke out, calling for the companies responsible for the fires to be harshly punished.

So far, executives from seven companies have been arrested, and another 20 are under investigation, totalling around 140 individual suspects. This shows a break from previous years when it was rare for large companies to be held to account over the fires. With pressure mounting from Malaysia and Singapore, it's hoped that Jokowi will follow through on his words to take a stand against the dangerous practice.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Storm Crypt.

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