Jakarta and Canberra abort joint exercises

Dr Yudhoyono (centre) leading a meeting with his ministers and Ambassador to Australia Nadjib Riphat Kesoema (left) in Jakarta yesterday. With an election year just ahead of him, he has to be seen to be taking a firm stance against Mr Abbott's refusal to apologise for Australia's wiretapping.

INDONESIAN air force officers in Darwin and Australian special forces officers in Lembang, West Java, brought their joint exercises to an early end and prepared to head home after Jakarta halted military, information and intelligence exchange on Wednesday, as the fallout over revelations of Australian wiretapping continued.

For the third day running, newspaper headlines in South-east Asia's largest country had harsh words for their neighbour to the south.

The vitriol reflected public outrage, propelled by social media as well as by the fact that an election year is just ahead.

A common theme yesterday was that Australia continued to belittle Indonesia, as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott remained adamant that he did not have to explain why his country's intelligence conducted electronic surveillance on the cellphones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and eight top officials in 2009.

The Rakyat Merdeka daily proclaimed: "Australia's stance is very exasperating: Not feeling in the wrong, but fishing for anger."

Former Indonesian ambassador to Australia Sabam Siagian told The Straits Times: "This is election time. You are seeing neo-nationalistic sentiments coming to the surface."

Such sentiments, observers say, help explain Indonesia's strong response as Dr Yudhoyono has to be seen taking a firm stance amid the anger at home.

Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie said in a Twitter post: "I've asked the government to take a harder stance, because this concerns the dignity of the nation. If Australia does not give the explanation we expect, we must review our relations further and, if needed, cancel them."

University of Indonesia international law professor Hikmahanto Juwana repeated calls for Australian diplomats in Jakarta to be expelled.

Indonesia's media had a field day, with the divisions in public sentiment in Australia.

The Media Indonesia daily highlighted how "a segment of the Australian people wants Abbott to immediately resolve the matter", alongside a page one column titled: "Australia, that nasty step-sister".

A day earlier, the paper, which has been critical of Dr Yudhoyono's administration, ran an editorial titled "Not an inferior nation".

"It is time we reminded the international community that Indonesia is not a country that can be treated anyhow," it said.

The divisions over Mr Abbott's response to the growing crisis were evident in Australia's media yesterday.

The Australian, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, backed the Prime Minister's position, saying in an editorial: "Tony Abbott is right to stand firm but will need deft diplomacy. Cool heads have been sorely lacking outside government in Australia."

In contrast, the Sydney Morning Herald said an apology was necessary to prevent the already tense situation from escalating.

It said: "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."

Media on both sides highlighted what was at stake: Some 18,000 Indonesian students in Australia, close to one million Australians who visit Indonesia each year, growing trade ties, and cooperation in fighting terrorism and transnational crime.

Letting the rift fester would harm all these and chip away at trust that had been built, some argued.

Indonesian Armed Forces' chief, General Moeldoko, said yesterday: "Joint exercises are part of mutual trust. But if we don't trust (each other), what's the use of joint training?"

zakirh@sph.com.cg


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