Anger spawned by lack of trust from 'close friend'

Islamic Defenders Front members shout slogans as they burn a plastic sheet with pictures of Australian and US flags during a protest in from of the Australian embassy in Jakarta on November 22.

INDONESIA - RISING tensions between Indonesia and Australia over revelations of electronic surveillance have some observers wondering what is all the fuss.

After all, countries around the world have spied on one another throughout history.

What angers Indonesia in this case, though, is that the recent disclosures reveal that a neighbour it views as a close friend and strategic partner still sees it as a potential threat.

Comments from some Australian officials and others made matters worse, and trust is dwindling rapidly.

In a piece widely picked up by Indonesian media outlets, Canberra Times columnist Philip Dorling wrote this week: "Behind all the declarations of friendship and good neighbourliness by successive Australian governments, Canberra just doesn't trust Jakarta… We never have, and probably never will."

The crisis has seen military, information and intelligence exchanges put on hold - the fear is trade talks may be next - and there is growing pressure on Australia to not just make amends, but make clear how it really views its largest neighbour.

It has been suggested in Canberra and elsewhere that it was naive of Indonesia to think there was no need for friends to listen in on one another.

But that misses the point. Disclosures that Australian intelligence had tapped the cellphone of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and top officials were a personal affront and a loss of face to many.

"There have been gross breaches of the privacy of the Indonesian leadership," former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans told a Jakarta Post forum yesterday. "I perfectly understand the anger."

There is now pressure on Dr Yudhoyono's government to stand up and show its citizens and Canberra that Indonesia cannot be taken for granted.

Mr Sabam Siagian, Indonesia's ambassador to Australia from 1991 to 1995, believes that part of the problem is that while Australia's broad relationship with Indonesia has expanded vastly over the past decades, its intelligence infrastructure remains a relic of the Cold War, and of the days of Konfrontasi.

"Here we have a short circuit," he told The Straits Times. "You can't spy on a strategic partner."

During Konfrontasi which lasted from 1963 to 1966, President Sukarno embarked on a campaign of hostilities, including armed infiltration, in opposition to the formation of Malaysia which he saw as an extension of British colonial rule over the region.

It has been nearly 50 years since that ended under President Suharto, who established a sound footing for friendly ties with Indonesia's neighbours. But many feel that Australia's continued surveillance of the personal conversations of Indonesia's top leaders could set strong ties back years if not mended fast.

Dr Yudhoyono has written to Prime Minister Tony Abbott demanding an explanation. Indonesia has also sought a commitment from Australia not to repeat the practice.

There is also domestic pressure for Mr Abbott to give some form of such an undertaking.

Observers have called on Canberra to follow the playbook of United States President Barack Obama, who apologised to German Chancellor Angela Merkel over similar revelations that American intelligence had tapped her phone calls.

"The truth is, Indonesia, like Germany, is an unthreatening, open, democratic society," said Mr Evans. "Information flows freely, unlike in some other places, and it is available for the asking to a friendly neighbour.

"The most valued currency in international diplomacy is personal trust - and we breach that trust at our peril."

And it is not just those who trusted Australia who feel hurt. It will now be harder to win over senior Indonesian figures who have never entirely trusted Canberra.

As Professor Damien Kingsbury of Deakin University said in a blog post: "Even if this affair can be settled down, there will remain a lingering sense of mistrust from Indonesia."

zakirh@sph.com.sg


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