Australia media split on Indonesia apology

Australia media split on Indonesia apology
This picture taken on March 10, 2010 shows Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (L) and then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (R) at a joint press conference at Parliament House in Canberra.

SYDNEY - The question of whether Prime Minister Tony Abbott should apologise to Indonesia over a spying row divided Australian media Wednesday, with some citing Jakarta's former intelligence chief's defiance over similar operations.

An outraged Indonesia on Tuesday said it would review cooperation with Canberra over claims the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and senior ministers were tapped in 2009, demanding an explanation in an escalating war of words.

In a series of tweets on Tuesday, Yudhoyono said ties had been damaged and "deplored" what he described as a lack of remorse on Abbott's part.

Abbott expressed regret for any embarrassment caused but has refused to apologise, a stance Rupert Murdoch's The Australian backed.

"Tony Abbott is right to stand firm but will need deft diplomacy," the daily said in an editorial.

"Dr Yudhoyono's angry tweets have heightened tensions, and cool heads have been sorely lacking outside government in Australia."

The Australian and its sister tabloid the Sydney Daily Telegraph both reported comments from a 2004 television interview with Indonesia's retiring intelligence chief Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, in which he said all governments tapped each other's communications.

He admitted that Jakarta had eavesdropped on the phone calls of Australian politicians, had tapped Australian civil and military communications and even bugged the Australian embassy in Jakarta during the East Timor crisis in 1999.

"We did the same thing, we want to know what is really discussed about us," Hendropriyono reportedly said.

"We can say this is a public secret. You know, secret, but the whole public knows. This is quite common intelligence activity."

Asked whether Australia did the same against Indonesia, he reportedly replied: "She is silly if she doesn't do that, you know."

In an editorial, the Telegraph said: "No apology was demanded of Indonesia in 2004. As in 2013, none is required."

In contrast, the Fairfax Media-run Sydney Morning Herald said an apology was necessary to avoid retaliation from a country considered a strategic ally and important trading partner.

"If Mr Abbott does not exhibit the 'remorse' the Indonesian president expects, the damage from this leak will cascade into retaliation from the country with which, to quote Abbott, we have our most important relationship," it said.

While Indonesia has not spelt out what retaliation, if any, it might take, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which broke the spying story, said Yudhoyono met Tuesday night with at least three government ministers who are key to Australia's interests.

They included the agriculture minister, who oversees beef imports, the coordinating minister in charge of cooperation on asylum-seekers, and the foreign minister.

The two countries have had a volatile relationship over the decades, but in recent years ties have generally been stable.

They work together in numerous areas, including trying to stop asylum-seekers boarding boats in Indonesia and heading to Australia, as well as counter-terrorism.

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