Indonesia-Australia: cycles of love and hate relationship?

The “ups and downs” relationship between Indonesia and Australia seems to be cyclical. In the early days of Republic of Indonesia, Australia played a very substantial support to Indonesian people’s struggle for independence exemplified by the boycott of Dutch vessels by Australian waterside workers. This episode may be not known by younger generations in Indonesia and Australia, but it will stay there as a history which shows that the relationship between these two countries started out warmly and friendly.

The relationship then hit the bottom in 1960s when President Sukarno regime opposed the establishment of Confederation of Malaysia leading to the well known confrontation era. Australia stood side by side with Britain against Indonesia which became aggressive in the political as well as military front. Left leaning tendency of Sukarno regime is perceived by Australia as a threat. Both government became suspicious each other and it pulled their people apart.

The relationship then normalized during Suharto regime interspersed with mild disruption on several issues such as East Timor and Irian Jaya. Issue on the death of five Australian journalists in Balibo allegedly murdered by the Indonesian military who did clandestine military operation prior to full invasion on East Timor is still dragging nowadays at least at the Australian people level. However the relationship during Suharto era though was not excellent but relatively quiet.

East Timor independence process again dragged down and soured the relationship to the brink of collapse as both countries” military establishment literally stood face to face in East Timor peppered by several serious incidences. Psyche of both people was also significantly affected by this East Timor issue. Indonesian people until nowadays are still questioning Australia intention in Papua as a backdrop of the East Timor episode. Australian people are also seemingly urging their government to proactively address the issue of Papua where they believe serious human right violation by Indonesian military constantly occurs.

Under President Yudhoyono Indonesia-Australia relationship flourishes and has been perceived best level ever achieved at least in government to government level. The exchange bilateral visit by countries’ elites, increasing two way trade and investment, increasing Australian aid to Indonesia, may showcase this closer relationship. However as in the past, this relationship is also strained currently by few serious issues such as uproar (restricted to Australian side) related to Australian exported cattle inhuman handling  in Indonesian abattoirs which led Australia stopping unilaterally cattle export to Indonesia which prompted the latter to slash the import quota later on which is  widely perceived as a tit for tat response to Australia, boat immigrants who use  Indonesia as a transit before going to Australia to name a few.

All this cycles of seemingly love and hate relationship is actually normal between countries which are situated very close each other. The main cause of these cycles is that both countries are just pursuing their national interest, nothing more. To say that this also has something to do with different culture between the two is somewhat misleading. Indonesia and Malaysia have strong cultural ties but they both often spat each other because of pursuing national interest albeit that strong grass root emotional dimension is involved in some cases.

Future flare ups between these two countries are quite expected. All we need is a risk management to avoid any straining issues become worse. Apart from this is a close communication between political elite, and free and responsible media as well as strong civil society especially in Indonesian side. It is well known that Indonesian media frequently blow up many small issues into serious ones which may stir up strong emotional repercussion for Indonesian people.

Close communication and consultation between the two governments are necessary to avoid misunderstandings and suspicions in any sensitive issues. The issue handling of US Marine stationing in Darwin may provide the best example why communication and consultation are necessary to smooth any potentially sensitive issues properly.


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