Old attitudes still rule Indonesia-Australia ties

Endy M. Bayuni, The Jakarta Post - A conference hailing a new chapter in the partnership between Indonesia and Australia may have given warmth and comfort to the 100 or so participants from both countries, who met in a five-star hotel here in Sydney this weekend, but there was strong sentiment that they have their work cut out for them in turning their vision into reality.

Here is the simple truth: While the two governments may be professing that the relationship between Indonesia and Australia is at its highest historical level, attitudes among people in the two countries have hardly changed.

If one takes a pessimistic view, attitudes and sentiments only change slowly. If one takes the optimistic view, as many at the weekend conference did, then the two giant neighbors are in for a long and sustainable period of friendship.Whichever view they took, they agreed on one thing: the need to promote greater people-to-people ties, which are longer lasting, as opposed to government-to-government contacts, which, as the history of the relationship between two countries' over the last 60 years has shown, can be erratic — warm today, cold tomorrow.

There is, at least, a greater comfort level today in the way the governments pursue the ties, something that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recognized when he said in his keynote address to the conference: "After more than half a century of dealing with one another, I think we know each other."

Another truth, and one that has not been properly appreciated by people in either country, is that Indonesia and Australia, while remaining divided by history, culture and economic disparity, now share similar values and principles when it comes to questions of freedom, democracy, respect for human rights, and multiculturalism.

Indonesia's move from a dictatorship to democracy since the departure of Soeharto in 1998 has meant that Australia no longer needs to pay too much attention to Indonesia's "cultural sensitivity". Whatever criticisms or insults Australians from all walks of life - the government, business, media and the public at large - have made and however crudely they are conveyed, most Indonesians can take it.

As a democracy where freedom of speech is guaranteed and respected, Indonesia has heard worse criticisms and insults from its own people. Criticism from a well-meaning friend should, in fact, be highly appreciated.As Indonesia democratizes, Australia has become a more multicultural society, again a fact that is not well known in Indonesia.

If today we still see knee-jerk reactions on the part of Indonesia to criticisms from Australia, that is because old attitudes still rule in the minds of some Indonesians in dealing with their southern neighbors.Many Australians still perceive Indonesia as being governed by a ruthless and corrupt military regime, where crazy Muslim suicide bombers roam free, and as a nation that is intolerant to criticisms and one that behaves erratically.

Many Indonesians perceive Australia as still a largely white-only country that discriminates against and even persecutes its Asian and Muslim population, and as a nation that is abrasive, uncultured and downright rude. Some, if not most, of these attitudes still prevail, which may obstruct the efforts to promote people-to-people contact. One speaker at the conference said that public attitudes in Australia and Indonesia towards one 
another are governed by narratives and not by policies or how their respective government deals with each other. When relations between the two governments turn sour, as they have done on so many occasions in the past, the people-to-people-contacts aren't affected as much.

The reverse is also true, when their governments are in honeymoon mood as they are today, the public at large does not necessarily share the sentiment. The narratives that underpin attitudes have been mostly shaped by the bad news that the public in Australia and Indonesia see of the other country in their respective media.I n Australia, this stream of negative news has included Indonesia's even-handed handling of East Timor when it occupied the territory, the terrorist bombing of Bali by radical Muslims that claimed so many Australian lives, the trial of Schapelle Corby, the nine Australians convicted to death for drug smuggling and Indonesia's handling of Papua.

The negative narratives that inform Indonesian's opinion of Australia include the perceived interventionism in East Timor and Papua, Australia's participation in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Australia's treatment of its Muslim citizens.

There have been positive narratives too, but they tend to be short-lived. They include the Bali bombing that brought the two nations together and the tsunami in Aceh that touched the heart of Australians. The assistance Indonesia has extended to Australia in dealing with the bushfire in Victoria this month was also widely appreciated by the Australian public, according to Prime Minister Rudd. The narrative of how Australia helped Indonesia in its campaign for international recognition as an independent sovereign state in the late 1940s is largely forgotten, in spite of continual reminders from officials of the two countries whenever they address bilateral issues.While more interactions are imperative to promote greater people-to-people contacts, the most effective way to change public attitudes and sentiments in both countries is obvious, at least according to one participant at the conference: "We need a new narrative." Hopefully a good one is forthcoming.

The writer is the chief editor of The Jakarta Post and participated in the Australia-Indonesia conference in Sydney, February 19-21.