Could we do more to offend the Indonesians? John Menadue

Jan 19, 2014

Could we do more to offend the Indonesians? Yes, I think we could by appointing, as has been suggested, Peter Cosgrove as our next Governor General. He was the military Commander who led the INTERFET forces against the Indonesian military in East Timor in 1999.  This was much more than just a military defeat for the Indonesians. It resulted in Indonesia’s political humiliation in the eyes of the world. Indonesia had to withdraw from East Timor with loss of face.  I don’t think that Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, in their reading of the Lonely Planet Guide to international relations would be aware of this. Stopping the boats is everything regardless of the human beings involved or our relations with Indonesia.

I believe the Australian-led intervention in East Timor was justified and in normal times the appointment of a former military opponent of the Indonesians would largely go unnoticed. But because of the Abbott Government we are not in normal times in our present dealings with Indonesia; the country that is more important to us strategically than any other.

The Abbott Government has trod clumsily and provocatively in our relations with Indonesia. It should not add to the problem.

The phone-tapping of the Indonesian President, his wife and senior colleagues by an Australian security agency occurred before the Abbott Government came to power. But the insensitivity and amateurish response by the Abbott Government really caused annoyance in Indonesia.

More unfortunately there has been our provocative policy of turn back of asylum boats to Indonesia. There is no doubt that the Indonesian Government feels quite strongly that this action has breached and continues to breach its sovereignty. In the ‘war’ on boat arrivals, the Abbott Government has ignored the collateral damage it has done to our relations with Indonesia.

The Abbott Government has portrayed the humanitarian issue of asylum seekers and refugees almost entirely in the vocabulary of war. It has established Operation Sovereign Borders, a military operation led by the military.  To justify secrecy Tony Abbott says “if we were at war we wouldn’t be giving out information that is of use to the enemy” Scott Morrison says “this battle (against boat arrivals) is being fought using the full arsenal of messages..” With this sort of terminology it is not surprising that the Indonesians are alert to crossings of their borders by Australian warships. This unfortunate militarisation and vocabulary of war would also be exacerbated by appointing a former senior Australian General as our next Governor General.

Discretion is important particularly when diplomatic relations become fragile. Discretion suggests that the Abbott Government should not worsen the situation by appointing a former military opponent of Indonesia as our next Governor General. In the Javanese way, the Indonesian Government may be polite on the subject. But it would be wise to avoid more potential damage particularly as the anti-Australian drum is likely to beat louder in this Indonesian Presidential election year.

It should be recalled that in his military career, Peter Cosgrove in 2001 was the Chief of the Army when the Howard Government put SAS troops on board the Tampa to stop asylum seekers coming to Australia. I thought at the time that this was a highly political and partisan act to use the military in this way and that when matters had cooled General Cosgrove would stand down. But not so.

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