Asylum seekers and West Papuans were prime time talking points on Australian television last week, as ABC hosted a ground-breaking debate on Indonesia-Australia relations live from Jakarta.
Senior vice-presidential advisor Dewi Fortuna Anwar fronted questions about corruption and human violations in her own government – and unprecedented questions about conflict and censorship in West Papua.
Journalists, advocates and academics also talked frankly about corruption scandals, human rights violations, the live cattle trade and Australia’s so-called “refugee crisis” in the special edition of political panel show Q&A.
Interim Australian Prime Minster Kevin Rudd was in Jakarta for diplomatic talks, but it was the upcoming election on Australian soil that drove the sixty minute conversation.
The ‘Papua problem’
Anwar said the government was making significant progress on democratic rights – while accepting the ongoing corruption and human rights issues that face the country.
But she was defensive about the government’s sensitivity to separatism and self-determination in West Papua and other parts of Indonesia – and said the government had the support of its people, the international community and even the Australian government.
The country had always been “very vulnerable” to internal struggles against the state and was still in a “state of being”, she said.
“We’re trying to create one nation out of a multi-ethnic group. We’re trying to develop into one territory with 70,000 islands and very poor connectivity.”
Indonesian journalist Yuli Ismartono was also defensive of the crackdown on separatism, which has been criticised by Australians, New Zealanders and the international community.
She said the sympathy for the West Papuan cause was due to an inherent media bias, and claimed the independence struggle was an anti-government minority limited to the Papua province.
Human rights advocate Rafendi Djamin tried to contextualise the deadly conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, suggesting that the legacy of totalitarian rule was continuing to unfold in the Papuan provinces.
He said ending the ban on international journalists and the UN Special Raconteur would involve a slow and complex negotiation, but the government needed to respect basic freedom of expression rights in the region.
The panellists also discussed the game of asylum seeker hot potato both countries have been playing over several years.
With ongoing accusations that Indonesian authorities are involved in people-smuggling between the two countries, Anwar argued for a zero-tolerance approach to bribery and corruption in the government.
But she believed many Australians expected too much of the Indonesia. The country had extensive land and sea borders, its waters were dangerous, and monitoring and turn-back policies would not work, she said.
She urged both governments to look beyond bilateral negotiations between election terms, and come up with regional and international solutions aimed at the underlying causes of displacement.
Journalist Meidyatama Suryodiningrat said displacement was rooted in conflict in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, and it was here that smuggling networks began.
He said smuggling was the last resort for people that had spent months or years in Indonesian detention centres.
Human rights protection
Djamin said the collaborative policies and shared rhetoric of the Australian and Indonesian governments used the inherent dangers of smuggling people across dangerous waters to justify the detention and punishment of vulnerable people.
“Is this a question of border protection or human rights protection?,” he asked the panel.
“When there’s a crisis in Syria 1.7 million people cross the border, and what we are talking about between Indonesia and Australia is less than 10,000.”
He believed the rhetoric of protection was being used to convey a practice of law enforcement.
“Giving money to the Indonesian government for detention is not the human rights approach to the protection of people,” he said.
Muslim religious tolerance advocate activist Yenny Wahid said the asylum seeker smuggling was just “fodder for domestic political consumption in Australia”.
She believed it missed the wider goal of finding an effective, realistic and humane solution to the humanitarian crisis, and was standing in the way of progress.
Indonesia is a fast-growing ASEAN economy, focused on its relationship to its South East Asian neighbour states and largely shaped by its strong Muslim population.
Australia, by contrast, is a western-style country with strong political connections to the United States, and very strong cultural connections to New Zealand and the Pacific.
That obvious cultural divide was not lost on the panel. Indonesians, they said, knew Australians by the often intolerant bogans who partied on Bali beaches rather than by the country’s gradual focus on Asia.
And Australia knew Indonesians, they said, by the earthquakes, religious radicals and drug-smuggling cases reported in the media rather than by the country’s transition to democracy.
Asian law specialist Tim Lindsey believed this made the often tense, complex and asymmetrical relationship almost “bipolar” in nature.
Lindsey believed growing public ignorance and antagonism and falling migration between the countries was drawing the two nations apart.
At the same time, common goals and interests were drawing the two governments closer together.
The result, he said, was a fragile and volatile relationship that could be stressed further if the future Australian prime minister chooses to rock the water.
Source: Pacific Media Watch 8352
Michael Sergel is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies (Journalism) student, who recently completed the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.