The Bali bombings of two decades ago, remembered with anger and sadness, did much more than kill 202 partygoers, wound 209 and scar families for years. The blasts also ripped apart an Indonesia-Australia relationship that has now slumped into indifference.
The early 1990s marked a zenith in Indonesia-Australia’s burgeoning friendships. We saw possibilities, not problems. They remembered we helped their struggle for independence.
President Soeharto’s dictatorship was rupturing as millions learned to bypass censorship, finding that official accounts of their nation didn’t tally with facts.
The enthusiasm was electric. Sensing change, our schools and unis pushed Indonesian language and culture, boosted by trade and diplomatic contact hastened by PM Paul Keating’s famous 1994 statement: ‘No country is more important to Australia than Indonesia’. His successors have run similar though less portentous lines.
Few tourists who descended on the Hindu province of Bali realised they were in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Even if aware, concerns would have been cooled by politicians and traders bent on business-as-usual. They chorused the unexamined assurance that Indonesian Islam was moderate and the people benign. What about the 1965 genocide? Hush, hush, they were killing Reds, not Whites.
The Asian Monetary Crisis of 1998 fuelled student dissent and Soeharto quit after 32 years of authoritarianism and kleptocracy. Then came the former aerospace engineer Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie and all seemed well until the third president deliberately or accidentally misread a letter from John Howard.
The PM had cautiously suggested a slow resolution to the ‘pebble in the shoe’ problem, the irritating East Timor independence movement supported not just by Aussie lefties but also Diggers who’d fought the Japanese on the island. On 19 December 1998 Howard wrote to Habibie:
‘It has been a longstanding Australian position that the interests of Australia, Indonesia and East Timor are best served by East Timor remaining part of Indonesia’, before suggesting an eventual ‘autonomy package’.
Although Europe-educated Dr Habibie (he died in 2019) was smart and multilingual, his countryfolk thought him eccentric. He reacted impetuously to Howard’s note with a referendum believing reports that the Timorese loved their invaders.
Those who thought military intelligence an oxymoron feared a breakaway could inspire other provinces, the so-called ‘domino effect’, a popular metaphor at the time.
In the 1999 vote 80 per cent opted to break free. Indonesian soldiers reacted by scorching the earth. Australia headed a UN peacekeeping mission.
The friendship fractured and the split was seismic. We were no longer mates, but a perceived agency of disunity. The national motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, unity in diversity, has the force of holy writ.
On the evening of Saturday 12 October 2002, hundreds were drinking and dancing at Paddy’s Pub in Kuta when a suicide bomber triggered his backpack device. The crowds rushed outside seeking safety in the street. A parked Mitsubishi L 200 van was waiting for them laden with a tonne of high explosives.
Nationals from 23 countries were victims, the majority Australians and Indonesians (88 and 38). The outrage was condemned as terrorism by world leaders.
The faith identifier was added when the transnational extremist Jemaah Islamiyah (Islamic Congregation) claimed responsibility, apparently to avenge the West’s support for the East Timor referendum.
Then the Sunni Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda founded by the Arab businessman Osama bin Laden of 9-11 infamy said it was behind the blast because of ‘the American war on terror’. Seven US citizens died. A third bomb went off outside the US Consulate in Denpasar with no casualties.
The stated reasons were political, not religious. The perpetrators were Muslims but that was largely incidental. Their violence also felled fellow believers.
The fact that East Timor (now Timor Leste) was overwhelmingly Catholic rarely bothered Jakarta during its 25-year control. Soeharto even gave a ‘present’ – the 27-metre-high Cristo Rei (Christ the King) statue which dominates the capital Dili.
It’s cruel to write and no comfort to the victims, but some positives have come from the outrage. As Jakarta-based researcher Sidney Jones of the international NGO Human Rights Watch has written:
‘The bombing served to strengthen the power and capacity of the police at a critical time, underscore Indonesia’s then strong commitment to democratic norms, and add an important new dimension to the Australia–Indonesia relationship.’
That’s true at the highest levels where both countries appear united in tackling terrorism. However, tactics differ as Indonesia considers many offenders to be pious people who’ve gone astray and are worthy of rehabilitation. Forgiveness isn’t just a Christian virtue.
The feared anti-terror squad Densus 88 tends to point first and ponder later. Late one night on a toll road in December 2020, police killed six alleged supporters of the banned radical Islam Defenders Front and its oft-imprisoned leader Rizieq Shihab. No prisoners or independent witnesses. Since then reports of terrorism have been rare.
Boomers fantasise that as the US ‘deputy sheriff’ we plan to invade, plunder the natural resources and ‘Balkanise’ the nation. Later generations who’ve never heard of Yugoslavia have drifted into indifference. Zoomers reckon South Korea – which vigorously promotes its culture – is cool and Oz sclerotic.
Meanwhile, we harbour images of 273 million fanatics bent on converting a continent of 25 million godless hedonists. If not, why make access to visas tougher for Indonesians than Malaysians and Singaporeans?
It took a decade to get a free trade agreement because both nations did better stuff-ups than drunk Oz hoons pissing in temples. President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo ignored high-level pleas to save two of the Bali Nine drug smugglers from the firing squad, angering millions. Australian agencies refined arrogance by hacking the phone of sixth president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, till then a fan of the people next door.
Some are trying to repair the damage, though not the media which has largely abandoned Jakarta. A few unis and NGOs run seminars and exchange programmes. All good, though not penetrating pubs, clubs and shopping malls.
Perhaps guidance can come from the new monarch whose subjects -according to a UK uni survey – are almost three times more likely to hold prejudiced views of Islam than of other religions – a position probably duplicated here.
In 2010 HRH, who once tried to learn Arabic, offered this insight: ‘The Islamic world is the custodian of one of the greatest treasuries of accumulated wisdom and spiritual knowledge available to humanity’. We may not want Charlie on our $5 note, but on this issue his views carry currency.