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February 2007

Just back from a short trip to Indonesia, where amongst other things I was able to continue my Australian Research Council-funded project on Indonesian historiography after Suharto. One of the most recent and important contributions to the debate is Bambang Purwanto's Gagalnya Historiografi Indonesiasentris? (Yogyakarta: Ombak, 2006). This is a collection of some of Bambang's earlier articles, in which he challenges the dominant line of Indonesian historiography in two ways. He challenges the 'social banditry' line of argument that is at the heart of Sartono's work (by amongst other things, pointing out that many of the bandits were in fact rich, an argument developed by Radin Fernando), and more importantly challenges the 'egocentric' and 'one-sided' nature of nationalist historiography in Indonesia.

Bambang's points are very important in terms of the recent impasse in Indonesian historiography. As part of my own research on this topic I have built up a data base of some 1,600+ books on history published since the fall of Suharto. Rough counts of topics show that 'nationalism' is still by far the largest topic, with over 700 books in that category. As might be expected from recent religious and social developments, 'Islam' comes in second with over 300 books (and many of these on 'dissenting' or indigenous forms of Islam), but almost equal to Islam is the number of books that can be categorised a social history. What is remarkable is that given this large amount of works on social history, no one study that gives an overall social history of Indonesia has yet been produced (and indeed this is also true of the works of Western historians of Indonesia). How strange that we are still writing old-fashioned political histories of 'great men' to explain the country.

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The Australian Federal Parliament Joint Houses Committee on Treaties is currently holding an inquiry into the new Australia-Indonesia security treaty. What follows is the main part of my submission to that inquiry:

My comments are made in a personal capacity, and are not representative of the views of the University of Sydney. I comment as someone who has travelled to and researched on Indonesia for thirty-five years. Indonesia is probably the most important country in the region for Australia, both in terms of its size, strategic position and its vast, largely unrealised potential as the fourth-largest country and third-largest democracy in the world. In the last four decades I have seen many fluctuations in the relationship between our country and Indonesia, but consider that the current period is a low point in the relationship. The Australian public views Indonesia in a very negative light, and Indonesians view Australia in a more negative light than has been the case previously.

There are a number of key reasons for the poor state of the relationship. Some of these can be ascribed to the fact that Indonesia is viewed by Australians chiefly in the context of the “Global War on Terror”. This lens has been applied by the Australian media, which since the fall of Suharto presents Indonesia as a place of “danger”. While there is no denying the activities of a small circle of terrorists in Indonesia, this is a group who would make up no more than .000001% of the population. Levels of public safety and the danger of violent crime in Indonesia are much better than in countries such as South Africa, or even in many parts of Australia.

Broadly speaking, sections of the media focus on negative portrayals of Islam and presents Indonesia as a source of jihad directly threatening Australia. Positive aspects of Indonesia are down-played or ignored, and the country is not treated in the comprehensive manner that the UK or the USA (both also sites of major terrorist acts), or even China and India, for example, are portrayed. While Australian politicians have shown a nuanced understanding of the relationship, rather than attempting to counter this negative focus on terror, they have not done a lot to counter the negative images in the media images. The Australian government’s level of travel warning on Indonesia also unfairly exaggerates the danger, and should be at no greater level than the warnings for India or South Africa.

In this context, I consider that the Agreement continues the focus on terror, and thus makes no positive contribution to changing the framework of the relationship.

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