The last week has seen one of the more farcical blips on the radar of Australian-Indonesian relations, the Sutiyoso Affair. The Affair shows why government-to-government relations will keep going wrong between our countries, and I want to contrast it with a rather amusing, and interestingly more successful, attempt at everyday relations, the show Lost Tribes.
For those not up on the details of the Sutiyoso event, I'll refer you to the excellent coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian, the first of which includes a thorough profile on Sutiyoso, the Governor of Jakarta, by Hamish MacDonald. Hamish points out that Sutiyoso was a Special Forces officer in East Timor (the issue over which he was asked to appear before the Coroner's Inquest into the deaths of Australian journalists in 1975), an organiser of the death squads that killed off criminals during the Petrus Affair, and a manager of the violent criminals who raided the office of Megawati's followers during the 1996 PDI split. His history is reasonably typical of those who have risen to power under the New Order, and kept it in the Post-Suharto period. As Governor of Jakarta he has presided over the worst floods in the city's long history, and instituted a bus system by which some buses stop in the right-hand lane of the cities major streets.
It seems that on the Australian side there were three blunders. First the NSW Premier's Office, who invited Sutiyoso to Sydney, did not do their homework, and so did not realise that he would be eligible to be called before the Hearing (either that or it was all a fiendish plot, which is unlikely). Secondly NSW police seem to have entered Sutiyoso's hotel room without permission, which as far as I can see is a major procedural error, and any watcher of Law and Order would know that this is the kind of thing that allows people to claim persecution, which Sutiyoso did, leaving the country in great haste and with expressions of outrage, backed up by the usual rent-a-crowd demonstrations held by some of the pet thugs outside the Australian Embassy. The third Australian mistake was to fall for the great play of outrage, which is why the Australian last week captured the tone of things quite well, quoting Sutiyoso as saying that the apologies from Premier Iemma, along with the self-abasement of our representative, were more than he expected, by which we might infer that even he thought we went over the top in groveling. When will Australian ministers and diplomats stop falling for one of the oldest tricks in what Michael Byrnes called 'The Asia game'—claims of outrage and cultural sensitivity?
The other amusing aspect of the event is that the Governor learned that there is such a thing as the democratic principle that everybody should be equal under the law, and that governments, state or federal, are not above the law or should not be able to control it (no doubt this will stand him in good stead in his campaign to become President).
Indonesian commentators provided a critical analysis of Sutiyoso's assumptions. It seems the Australian government could manage these things better by working closely with the Indonesian press to provide a more sensible response to these events, and I'm sure there will be others in the future.