In 2015 then PM Tony Abbott sought to save the lives of two convicted heroin traffickers. He reminded Indonesians that Australians had given $1 billion in emergency aid and rehabilitation following the 2004 Aceh tsunami, so please show mercy.
He should have been better advised: Indonesians reacted angrily and made gestures of raising funds to repay. Instead of softening attitudes, Abbott’s clumsy comments hardened President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo’s stand against what he called ‘foreign interference’.
The firing squad squinted down their sights at the pinioned Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran to the cheers of Indonesians who saw the executions as asserting the nation’s sovereignty. The Republic would be no pushover by Western liberals going soft on drugs.
Three years on that tragic episode has been a factor in Jokowi’s early reluctance to admit that the devastation following the Central Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami is so vast that the government needs external aid.
That’s now changed, though the legal situation regarding a ‘national disaster’ remains ambiguous. For some any outside help will be too late.
The tsunami hit Palu city on Friday 28 September; within hours it was clear this was a far bigger tragedy than the early August quakes in North Lombok, which killed almost 600.
Indonesia’s services were still reeling from the first calamity so Australia and other nations promptly put up their hands. The offers were unwanted, according to Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Panjaitan.
He was quoted as saying: ‘I don’t think it’s necessary to declare it a national disaster. What we are doing now is already more than enough.’
That was on the morning of Monday 1 October; by nightfall, following harrowing accounts of the size of the emergency, conflicting reports surfaced about the government allowing strangers to land their Hercules.
Even then gratitude was eclipsed by caution and conditions. Officials reminded that 117 countries had pledged aid after the Aceh tsunami but their activities were uncoordinated and often overlapped. There had been tales of agencies trampling on local customs to build shelters and orphans being taken out of the country for adoption.
In 2007 a law was passed to control foreign aid during disasters. This requires workers to be accompanied by local ‘security personnel’.
It’s difficult for many Australians to understand the strength of Indonesian nationalism and its twin, inferiority complex. To ask for aid is seen as a slander on the state’s ability to care for its own.
In emergencies like big bushfires Kiwis, Canadians, Americans and others frequently rush to handle hoses Down Under, and few locals feel embarrassed.
It’s different next door. The 260 million citizens have all been raised on the story of the 17 August 1945 Declaration of Independence when the Japanese who’d occupied the Dutch East Indies surrendered.
The former colonialists ignored Soekarno’s proclamation and returned. A four-year guerilla war followed which killed an estimated 100,000 Indonesians before the Dutch gave up.
Meanwhile the adjacent British colonies of Singapore and Malaya waited almost two decades for their negotiated freedom.
Yet these countries have rocketed ahead while Indonesia still struggles. The contrast between orderly, modern and clean Singapore with polluted and chaotic Jakarta is stark.
Indonesia won self-rule through bloodshed, then suffered further through Soekarno’s economic mismanagement and cosying up to communism. Further pain came with his authoritarian successor Soeharto’s kleptocracy, and the 1998 financial and political crisis, which brought back democracy.
Indonesians know that many in nearby nations sneer privately, and it hurts. News that the tsunami early-warning technology using ocean buoys had failed through vandalism and poor maintenance has roused shame and anger.
Abrasion points with Australia include memories of our involvement in the 1999 East Timor Referendum, NGOs continuing support for West Papuan autonomy, and public hostility towards Muslims, particularly by politicians.
Tim Lindsey, Director of Melbourne University’s Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society, has written about Indonesia’s ‘brittle relationships’ with its neighbours and a rising ‘prickly defensive nationalism’.
In dealing with Indonesia, even on issues like providing humanitarian aid, it’s important to tread carefully.
According to Lindsey ‘rightly or wrongly (and often it is not our fault), it will be up to us to take the initiative to repair relations when things go wrong. Many Australians will, understandably, greatly resent this, but it is not a matter of fairness or reasonableness, just realpolitik.
‘The hard truth is that in the years ahead, keeping the bilateral relationship with Indonesia stable—for our own benefit—will, unfortunately, require Australia to work much harder to keep things nice, and perhaps more than it should.’
Duncan Graham is a freelance Australian journalist living in Indonesia.