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Australia and Indonesia

I’ve found an opportunity to explore my interest in Southeast Asia’s maritime history, by taking up the invitation to be a guest lecturer on a luxury cruise ship. We joined the ship in Fremantle, which gave me the chance to revisit the wreck of the Batavia in the Shipwreck Museum, as well as to see the W.A. Maritime Museum. The latter has a nice display on pearling in Broome, including a photograph of the Hilliard family, showing what I assume to be a young Robin with his parents.

For those unfamiliar with the story of the Batavia, it is vividly captured in Mike Dash’s book on the subject. In 1629 the Dutch vessel, captained by the ailing and unloved Franscisco Pelsaert, came to grief on the rocky islands known as Houtman’s Abrolhos off the West Australian coast. While Pelsaert took a small group of crew to the city of Batavia (Jakarta) for help when food and water were running low, an apothecary, Jeronimus Corneliz., led one of the most gruesome mass murders in history, killing some 125 of the passengers. Pelsaert eventually returned with reinforcements, and captured the mutineers, executing most of them on the islands after a short trial. Finding the wreck was an involved story, in which the author, Henrietta Drake-Brockman, played a significant role, and the Museum displays a large and impressive part of the stern, as well as much of the money on board, a part of one of the city gates of the city of Batavia (one of the few remnants of the old Jakarta fort), and even a skeleton of one of the victims. Given than no museum dares to display indigenous body parts, it is remarkable that this latter reminder of the horror of the massacre remains. The story of the Batavia has inspired many theories and novels, including English Science Fiction writer, Michael Moorcock’s, best known series which was where I first read of the Batavia.

We sailed past the islands where the wreck and mutiny took place during the early hours of the first full day at sea, and I timed my lecture on the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) and Australia to coincide with our passage along the part of the coast where Dirk Hartog landed in 1616. His plate memorialising this event and giving the Dutch legal claim to Australia is also in the Shipwreck Museum. As I’m writing, we’re passing through a storm, but our ship remains remarkably stable, very much a contrast with what conditions must have been like for the seventeenth-century Dutch ships. It’s great to see the views of the W.A. coast, which were beautifully drawn in the mid-seventeenth century as part of Abel Tasman’s expedition which mapped most of Australia and a significant part of New Zealand (sorry James Cook fans, he just cleaned up the left-overs).

Along with Dr Julia Martìnez of the University of Wollongong I have been working on an Australian Research Council Grant looking at Indonesians in Australia between 1880 and 1972. As part of the end-stage of the project, Dr Martinez and I have been giving public seminars in Jakarta, Darwin and Broome. The project is concerned with the experiences of ordinary people living and working between north Australia and Indonesia. The stories of sailors, dock workers, divers and pearling captains from Broome to the Torres Strait, and from Dobo to Komodo, show the relationship between the two countries in a completely new light.

This project seeks to uncover the unknown history of mobility between north Australia and Indonesia from the late nineteenth century until the end of the White Australia Policy. The project focuses on the pearling industry, and the bringing of Indonesian workers to Australia under a variety of schemes, including indenture. Our work has brought to light stories of entrepreneurs, union leaders and war heroes who formed part of an international maritime community within the region.

Our research has revealed that the involvement of Australians in pearling in Eastern Indonesia has been largely neglected or under-estimated. We have uncovered personal stories of the Indonesians who came to Australia, some of whom eventually became Australian citizens, stories that are unknown even within the growing literature on Australian-Indonesian relations.

The Broome presentation was a major highlight of the project, as we had a chance to meet with former pearling industry workers, such as Ahmat bin Fadal, originally from the island of Bawean, who was one of the last Indonesians to come to Broome as a pearl diver. We had the great honour of being welcomed to Country by Marjardee, a Yawuru woman whose father, Abdul Gafur from Alor, was the first Indonesian to be fully initiated into the Yawuru. People at the seminar were keen to tell us about their family members, and we in turn were able to provide information from un-opened archives that shed new light on where their parents or other relatives came from, and their struggle go get recognition from the Australian government. A recording of the event, along with supplementary interview, was made by the ABC Kimberley, and is available on their website:

Last week’s visit by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was a good opportunity for me to view the strengths and weaknesses of the Australia-Indonesian relationship up close. Predictably, the lead-up in the newspapers (especially The Australian) was all about terrorism and people smuggling. Despite SBY giving a lengthy address to the Australian Parliament suggesting that Australians have too narrow an understanding of Indonesia, and explicitly pointing out that Australian perceptions are over ten years out-of-date, those same themes seemed to preoccupy the Rudd Government. In the latter case, I think it’s because Prime Minister Rudd himself has not moved beyond the identification between Indonesia and Islamic terrorism that dominated his time as Shadow Foreign Minister. The many references to the Travel Warnings in SBY’s and his ministers’ speeches show that Indonesia has long ago lost patience with the Australian Government on this issue. Nevertheless, the more positive signals from Australia—having the President address the joint Houses, and presenting him with an Order of Australia—went down well.

On the Indonesian side, the signals of positive intent were strong, but based on a cultural misperception. In Indonesia a large entourage is an demonstration of prestige and status, so the President brought thirteen ministers, six governors, assorted parliamentary delegates, and numerous other advisors and minders. Although probably not all of them were used, I’m told that over 200 visas were issued for the visit. However the size of the visit, including last-minute notice of who was coming, created a logistical nightmare, and did not really allow the Australian side to prepare properly, so much of the delegation was surplus to requirements. The Sydney Morning Herald featured a front-page story saying that the Governor of New South Wales was ten minutes late for her meeting with SBY, but didn’t report that this was because there was only one lift available for the massive Indonesian delegation.

While the Australian Government could send more positive signals by dropping the level of travel warning to the same level as India, the Indonesian side still has work to do as well. Rumour has it that the long-awaited Free Trade Agreement, initiated by the Howard Government, is being held up by the ever-disfunctional Indonesian parliament. Likewise Indonesian leaders are constantly telling us how they want more Australians to study Indonesia, but do nothing to fix the arduous visa and research permit processes. These processes are Suharto-era remnants involving multiple government departments, and thus provide minor officials with endless opportunities for bribe-collecting.


Those of us in Asian Studies have been waiting for a long time for a Prime Minister like Kevin Rudd who wants to make Australia 'Asia literate'. The Rudd Government has provided a positive boost to the morale of Asian Studies, but will the rhetoric be matched with a clear plan as to how to achieve such Asia literacy?

On the education front, there has been a restored version of the former Asian languages strategy, but only at a rate of about two-thirds of the program that the Howard Government cut out, meaning that the funding translates into tiny amounts by the time it gets to school levels. Given the indifference towards Asia amongst many educational administrators, you wonder whether they will think it worth their while spending time applying for a program that only gives a maximum of $20,000 per school.

The travel warnings continue, meaning that the program will probably not fund anything that involves actually exposing teaching to time in Indonesia.

One of the first effects of the initial attempt by the Rudd Government to show that it was tough economically was a cut to the National Library, resulting in the scaling back of the Indonesian publications acquisitions scheme. I found out on my recent trip to Europe that this means the National Library no longer goes out to acquire publications itself, but relies on the Dutch KITLV program to provide it with second copies of their acquisitions. How bizarre is that?

In general there is a total indifference to any Arts links with Asia from the Rudd Government, and the current minister, whose music I much admire, shows no interest in Asia. At the Australia-Indonesia conference earlier this year, the Arts received short shrift, in spite of the way that cultural programs have been so important in providing basic awareness of Asia in Australia. Some of my friends and students, for example, are involved in schools programs teaching kids in rural areas about Indonesian dance and music, but have to be supported by private bodies for this.

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The Australian government persists with its travel warnings against Indonesia, despite heavy lobbying from Indonesian and Australian groups. Indonesia is a level 4, "Reconsider the need to travel" country, along with Saudi Arabia, Haiti and (now) India, while Israel, despite the recent attacks, remains level 3, "High degree of caution."

"We continue to receive credible information that terrorists could be planning attacks in Indonesia" has remained the justification for years, and this was reiterated by the Minister recently (and uncritically reported as something new by the media). The Australian government has been crying "wolf" like this for a long time, and all that this line does is reduce their credibility. Like the story of "the boy who cried wolf", there may indeed be real terrorists out there, but how do we tell? Wouldn't it be better to issue such warnings only when there is a real likelihood of attack, instead of as a blanket coverall to protect the government from media criticism in case something really does happen? Like the previous government, this one is more concerned with spin than providing a realistic assessment of what Indonesia is like to the Australian public.

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Just arrived back in Bali, which is why I've had 5 minutes to update by blog (apologies to all those who've been waiting for months for news). Flew Singapore airlines, who pay their CEO less than one third of what Qantas pays theirs, but Singapore was on schedule (and always has more leg room). Is their a correlation?

Bali's tourist industry is hotting up, and it's not just the Ubud Writers Festival (which is the main reason I'm here). Until the current economic crisis hits (which may see a return to Bali's downturns of the early and late 1980s), business is booming, at least in all the tourist spots.

My part in the project looking at the clothing industry in the Asia Pacific is slowly gathering momentum. Interesting how the industry is now centralised in one little corner (and even two streets) of Bali, at Seminyak, but that Bali, like Cambodia, has been able to remain competitive as a clothes producer by avoiding the bulk production of low-quality goods in the style of China, and instead has gone for fashion niches.

Three sad items that I haven't had time to put on the public record. The past few months have seen a number of losses to the world of Indonesian scholarship, particularly Bali:

First, Ketut Kantor, gambuh and other dance teacher to a generation of Balinese dancers at ASTI/ISI and to a lot of westerners, died of a stroke, the last in a series (and probably preventable in a Western country, but it would have helped if he didn't smoke). Ketut was an important advisor to me in the 1980s when I was researching gambuh, and a great store of knowledge. I was glad to have visited him earlier in the year.

Then not long afterwards Cristina Formaggia, the energy behind the Gambuh project, died in Italy. Cristina not only got together the wonderful Lontar publication, but was responsible for getting the funding to give Bali'smost important dance form a major stimulus. And because of her visitors can see the dance every month at Pura Batuan (pester those tour guides, the more rapacious refuse to take people there because they can't get their usual 60% cut).

Then in August Thea van Lennep, who taught me and a whole lot of other Sydney University students Dutch and linguistics, died in Sydney. Thea was an inspiring teacher, and imparted a love of writers such as Haase and Dumont, as well as of the savage irony of Van der Tuuk's letters.


As my regular readers are aware, this year we are celebrating 50 years of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney. We have already held a series of events in Jakarta, and on Friday evening, to coincide with Indonesian Independence Day celebrations, we held an alumni reception.

Indonesian staff.jpg
Assembled staff of the Department

It was gratifying to see the strong expressions of support at all levels. The Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor International both spoke of the University's continuing support, the Indonesian Consul General, Pak Sudaryomo, gave a very warm and heartfelt appreciation of our links, and most importantly our alumni described how the study of Indonesia had changed their lives, and expressed the importance of maintaining the Department.

And it is quite an illustrious list of alumni: the late Glenda Adams, one of Australia's leading novelists; Les A. Murray, Australia's foremost poet; media magnate Kerry Stokes; the leading landscape architect Made Wijaya; Professor Toru Aoyama, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies; A/Prof. Husein Mutalib of NUS; Dr Lono Simatupang of Gadjah Mada University; Prof Mike Laffan of Princeton; former staff from Leiden such as A/Prof Stuart Robson; academics from most of Australia's universities (such as Prof Harry Aveling, Prof Barbara Hatley, Dr Angus MacIntyre, A/Prof Richard Chauvel, Dr George Quinn...); Terry Rolfe from the UN; Dr Helen Jarvis who is now a state secretary in Cambodia; federal civil servants in Immigration, Education, Defence, Foreign Affairs and other areas; missionaries; journalists in SBS, the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere; and importantly teachers who have in turn had a major impact of the lives of generations of Australians.

My fellow committee members, Keith Foulcher, Trina Supit and Leonie Wittman, did a great job, and thanks too to the Alumni Office, the Dean of Arts and the School of Languages and Cultures for their subsidies and other forms of support.

PM Kevin Rudd recently said in Singapore: "I am committed to making Australia the most Asia-literate country in the collective West. My vision is for the next generation of Australian businessmen and women, economists, accountants, lawyers, architects, artists, filmmakers and performers to develop language skills which open their region to them" (quoted in the Sun Herald 17 August 2008). As yet this vision has yet to link up with the strong commitment shown by our alumni, and it is worrying that the Rudd Government's good intentions are undermined by lack of real funding to universities.


Just winding up a couple of days of official visits to Jakarta. Sounds exciting not, but actually turned out to be quite extraordinary. The University of Sydney has really embraced Indonesia in a big way. Our delegation was made up of 25 academics and support staff, including a swag of Deans. What was impressive to the Indonesians was that 7 of us are fluent Indonesian speakers (and not just Michele Ford and I from Arts, but from almost all the faculties). Our Symposium on Thursday involved participation from 5 Rektors of the top universities (we think this is a first, since you usually don't get Rektors together, let alone talking for a whole afternoon about research and collaboration with Australian universities). It was opened by the Minister for Education, with prior meetings with the Minister for Research and Technology, and participation from high-level officials from their offices. We spent yesterday morning at UI working on specific programs. Sydney has announced that we will put up more for scholarships from Indonesia, and we're looking to open an office.

A couple of crucial issues of getting the exchange working came up in the Symposium, since the Minister raised the inequality in exchanges: there are 17,000 Indonesian students studying in Australia, but only 60 Australian students in Indonesia. David Reeve gave an elegant summary of the problems that lead to this on both sides, including of course the insane Australian travel warning. On the Indonesian side, there is the bureaucratic process of getting visas (as David said, if you want students to come from Australia you need to actually let them in the country). Study visas take 3 months, a lot of expense and a lot of hassle reporting in and out. I also raised with the people from Ristek the issue of research visas.

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For those who are Sydney University Indonesian Studies alumni and friends, the reunion on 15th August now has a website, <>.

Answer 'probably not'. I was watching the ABC quiz show 'Einstein Factor' this afternoon. On this show they have a 'brains trust' of three regular experts, plus three contestants. One of the questions both groups were asked was 'Which country is Borobudur in?' Choices were A Cambodia, B Indonesia, C Malaysia. Not one of the six got the correct answer.

On another aspect of ignorance, the Australian Government has just advertised its latest round of scholarships for languages teachers to undertake immersion programs. Chinese teachers go to China, Arabic teachers go to Jordon, but if anyone applies for the study of Indonesian, they get to go to Darwin. Many of you may not have thought that daily conversations on the streets of Darwin are in Indonesian, but apparently the Australian Education Foundation, on behalf of the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations considers this to be the case. Yes, it's our old friend the Government travel warning, which rates Indonesia as more dangerous than Israel or South Africa (I heard that Johannesburg has the highest crime rate in the world, can anyone tell me if that's true?).


On 15th August this year we will be holding an alumni reunion to celebrate the 'Tahun Emas' of our Department of Indonesian (and Malayan) Studies.

In 1958 the first classes on Indonesian language and culture at the University of Sydney were taught by Dr Frits van Naerssen, who had arrived from the Netherlands at the end of the previous year to take up his duties as Senior Lecturer in Indonesian and Malayan Studies. Van Naerssen went on to become the first Professor, and led the Department in its hey-day of the 1960s, when a new generation of Australians was discovering Asia, and the focus of world politics was on the region. Graduates of the Department have gone on to become distinguished academics not only in Australia, but also at institutions such as Princeton and Leiden Universities, and to be come leading Australian writers, diplomats, school teachers, aid workers, journalists and internationally-successful business figures. Through collaborative programs such as that with Satya Wacana University in Java, the University has reached out to the wider community, and the Department has always emphasised strong collaboration between Indonesian and Australian academics, producing Indonesian PhD graduates in areas as diverse as architecture, politics and literary studies.


Abu Bakar Basyir is at it again, although the clip where he exhorts his followers to attack tourists is old news, since it was made in October. For commentary see I'm not sure anyone takes this seriously, since the old ABB is clearly a sandwich short of a picnic (you might have heard him on the Mike Carlton documentary telling our reporter that the 2002 Bali bomb was launched by a CIA sub-marine). It would probably do no good to arrest the senile preacher for inciting violence, as this would feed his media profile, but a recent TV program suggested a good alternative, have him put away as clinically mad, since he clearly has no grasp of reality.


Friend of and occasional lecturer in the Indonesian Department, Jumaadi, described on the ABC website as "a post-graduate student at the National Art School in Sydney," has just won the John Coburn prize (worth $5,000) for emerging artists in the NSW religious art competition. His winner work was called Whisper.

See his site


The following was sent to me by Ayip: travel-warning-1.jpg


Looks like I have been taking the wrong approach in saying that the Australian travel warnings about traveling to Indonesia should also be matched by warnings about traveling to that dangerous, terrorist-ridden country Great Britain. A report in Sunday's Sun Herald, drawing in turn from a report in The Guardian, points out that Australia is the second most dangerous destination for those coming from the mother country. 'Violent crime, extreme weather and incidents involving fauna' (! luckily the flora was OK) meant that Britons called on their consular services in Australia nearly as much as those in Thailand. The report goes on the cite the statistic that '59 Britons died in Australia between April 2005 and March last year' (although to be fair since there are so many Britons resident in Australia, there were probably quite a few deaths from old age in there).

Britain obviously needs to warn its citizens that they should not travel here unless absolutely necessary, which would have the added bonus of relieving pressure on those living near backpackers' hostels.


John Howard has recently visited Bali, albeit for 'just a few daylight hours', as the Weekend Australian of July 28-29, 2007 observes. His visit was mainly to open an eye hospital, dedicated to the Bali bombing visits. Such a hospital plays a vital role, and having seen at first hand what work like this (based on the Fred Hollows legacy) can mean in people's lives, I'd consider such institutions essential elements of Australian aid in the region.

At the same time a new consulate-general has at last been opened, but again the Prime Minister defended the travel warnings that are meant to deter Australians from coming to Indonesia. His disingenuous comment that 'we are leaving it to the judgment of individual Australians to decide what to do' ignores the fact that these warnings have an institutional role. For example, the Endeavour Language Teacher Fellowships (ELTF) 'are an Australian Government initiative which offer practising and trainee (pre-service) language teachers an opportunity to improve their language proficiency and cultural knowledge through an intensive, short-term study programme', as their blurb says, but for Indonesian language teachers, they only support travel to an intensive program in Darwin. Now I've got nothing against the lovely city of Darwin and their excellent language teaching facilities, but if Arabic teachers can go to Jordan, Chinese teachers to China, etc, why does the Department of Education and Training, which funds this scheme, not sponsor Indonesian teachers to go to Indonesia (answer presumably, travel warnings)?

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I was saddened to learn of the death of the Australian writer Glenda Adams this week. Glenda (as Glenda Felton) was one of the first honours students in Indonesian at the University of Sydney, writing a thesis on the Journeys of Purwolelono (although I have not been able to find a copy of the thesis in the departmental collection). Her first novel, Games of the Strong, was also based on her experiences of living in Indonesia, although it does not specifically identify the country as its location. Her Indonesian experiences coloured her other work, and in the 1990 issue of Australian Cultural History she wrote a moving reflection on her time in Yogya.

Glenda Adams was one of Australia's wittiest and most sensitive writers, as well as a leading teacher of creative writing at UTS, her passing leaves a large gap in our culture.


The recent arrests in Indonesia of leaders of JI have caused the usual excitement amongst the Security-wallahs (the people who make a living out of telling governments how Islamic terrorists are making the sky fall). It is interesting to see the various internal and external discussions going on here.

On the one hand the arrests are very good, they show that the violent terrorist organisation usually known as JI is a lot weaker (relatively obscure people are having to fill some of the gaps in leadership), and the net is closing. On the other hand M Top is still at large and no doubt trying to get hold of bomb-making material, and there are still nutcases who want to sign up to support him in such activities.

Leaving aside the objective issues of closing down terrorist groups, the reporting on the story has elicited some fascinating responses. Some of those who want to run scare campaigns in the West, including Australian politicians, are still running the line that 'we cannot relax our vigilance'. The DFAT website still advises Australians not to go to Indonesia: 'We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Indonesia, including Bali, at this time due to the very high threat of terrorist attack. We receive regular
targets, including places frequented by foreigners. If you are in Indonesia, including Bali, and are concerned for your safety you should consider departing. If you do decide to travel to Indonesia, including Bali, you should exercise extreme caution.' As I've commented before, when the US has shooting sprees, and the US and the UK issue major statements about terrorist activities in those countries, there are no similar warnings telling Australians not to visit New York or London. And the law-and-order campaigns continue, with for example the revelations in today's Sydney Morning Herald about NSW police attempting to get student leaders to spy on demonstrators. The absurdly-named 'War Against Terror' is a key part of the creation of such Stasi-like practices; some in the security world must feel disappointed every time a leading terrorist is captured. Did the US deliberately let Osama bin Laden get away in the earlier stages of the war in Afghanistan?

On the other hand, some of the Indonesian responses to the capture have been pretty depressing as well...

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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.

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For a long time it has seemed like academics are the only ones drawing attention to the decline of Indonesian studies in Australia, and after a certain point governments tune out because this seems too self-serving. So it is a relief to see that the media are finally turning their attention to the issue. There have been a number of articles in all the newspapers about the state of language studies, and on the study of Asian languages (including a very good piece in the Australian Financial Review a couple of weeks ago), and I was particularly heartened by broadcaster Mike Carlton's pieces in recent columns in the Sydney Morning Herald, especially last Saturday's (12-13 May 2007) where he talked about visiting the ACICIS (Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies) students in Yogyakarta, and finding them all to be enjoying themselves. No horror stories of terrorists or other dangers, but rather a pleasant picture of the normality of life of Java. I await Carlton's documentary on Australian-Indonesian relations with great interest.

In the article he also draws attention to opposition leader Kevin Rudd's promise to restore the National Asian Languages Program, cut by the Howard Government. Apparently Rudd was the original architect of this program. Its restoration will be a great boost, but given the decline in students at University studying subjects such as Indonesian, where will the teachers come from? Let's hope that a restored Program is not done on the cheap, with untrained teachers being thrust into situations for which they are not prepared.

The continuing stream of revelations about the Garuda crash show how little Indonesian political processes have changed since the Suharto era. I know it is a natural instinct of politicians everywhere to protect their backsides, but Indonesia's political leadership has taken denial of responsibility to new heights. It seems that in Indonesian politics if you deny there is a problem then it will go away. A number of us have commented on how the New Order promoted a bureaucratic culture of 'asal Bapak senang', or 'as long as the boss is happy', by which bad news was never reported up the system, statistics were fudged and mistakes covered up to maintain the appearance of order.

The first denial of responsibility in the case of the Garuda crash is the refusal by the legislature or the executive to do anything to regulate the aircraft industry. The information about the excessive age of Indonesia's aeroplanes has been publicly available for at least eighteen months, but it was only after the Adam Air crash that any noises were made about ensuring that old planes would not be allowed to fly. Even then they were not immediately stopped, and even Adam Air was allowed to continue operating — no connection to the fact that it is owned by the Speaker of the House? Only a second disaster stopped Adam Air. Government and regulatory sources were quoted as saying that age was not as important as maintenance, which may be true, but given the low standards of maintenance and lack of policing by regulatory bodies, this response was what we Australians call a 'furphy' ('redherring' would be the closest translation).

Cheap airlines continue to operate, I'm told you can get an intercity flight for as little as $9. I think Wings Airways has the best motto, painted in big letters on their planes, 'Fly is Cheap'.

Garuda's response of painting over their logo on the tail of the 'plane speaks for itself. The company has remained silent, and sources in the travel business say that Garuda is maintaining that all blame should go with the pilot, ie that there was no mechanical error. Recent revelations have been disturbing, that the pilot did not want to pull out of the landing because that is seen as bad for one's image, and that the pilot did not want to go around because he was saving fuel. These indicate systemic problems. One thing that has not been discussed in the media is the fact that Garuda and airforce pilots often moonlight for the smaller airlines. If pilot fatigue was a factor in the crash, this is extremely disturbing.

Then there is the question of who is responsible for Yogyakarta Airport. The Airport building was recently upgraded, I'm told partly by funding from the sale of adjoining land, and perhaps the control tower, although I've yet to find out what the story is behind the last element. One of those who appeared in print as calling for accountability in the crash is the Sultan of Yogyakarta, and it is good that he has been so active in calling for something to be done. The Sultan is also the Governor, and his pushing on the issue may be a way of putting pressure on the Air Force, who owns the actual airport. The issues of land ownership (and deals) and local government responsibility for the airport have been avoided in public discussions.

It is not just in the crash that we see such denials of responsibility. The Bakrie ownership of the company that is responsible for the poison mud flow that has killed a number of people, left 13,000 families homeless and ruined large parts of East Java is well known. But minister Bakrie denies any responsibility, saying that the mud flow is an act of nature, not neglect by his company. He remains a minister.

If the consequences of these and similar events were not so tragic, they would be seen as farcical examples of alternative theories of causality. In Indonesian political rhetoric the terminology of 'responsibility' translates very differently from notions found in other political systems. 'Responsibility', or tanggung jawab (literally something like 'carrying an answer'), seems to mean pronouncing a denial, rather than recognising that one has made a mistake. The failure of the various Truth and Reconciliation Commisions (over the 1965 killings, East Timor etc) also points to an unwillingness in the political process to identify and rectify mistakes and bad decisions or actions.

If any of these international programs to address governance in Indonesia are to bear fruit, perhaps they should begin with this problem of 'who is responsible?'


The recent proposal by the Australian Government to invest in protecting Indonesia's forests is a very positive step, despite the fact, as the Greens have pointed out, that there is an element of hypocrisy in the move, given that the Howard Government's electoral success in Tasmania has come because of its pro-logging policies.

Nevertheless, the major issue is how to stop the large-scale logging going on in Kalimantan, Sumatra and Irian Jaya/West Papua in particular? Some of the logging is illegal, but who will police this, given that in the past (and probably still), the military have been behind logging in national parks and other protected areas.

Other clearing is taking place to make way for palm oil plantations. Burning of forest areas for palm oil plantations is one of the chief sources of the massive smoke palls that blanket Indonesia and its neighbours each year. These plantations are currently seen as lucrative investments both by those already reaping fortunes from them, and by those who are getting into regional governments, and looking for new sources of investment. Ed Aspinall has found that this is the case, for example in Aceh. The world's consumption of junk food fried in palm oil doesn't look like abating any time soon, and governments all around the world, including the Howard Government, are looking to bio-fuels to solve the looming oil shortage — palm oil being seen as a prime source of bio-fuels. Many of those who reap major profits from palm oil are people who set up their businesses during the Suharto era, often with no real outlay by the so-called 'businessmen', but rather by diverting state funds into private incomes.

So solving the problem of forest clearing is not just a matter of slowing demand for forest products, it would also rely on curbing demand for palm oil, and finding alternative livelihoods for those employed in the industry. Given that many of the Suharto cronies remain in power in Jakarta, there will be a lot of blocks to attempts to stop the palm oil industry acquiring more land, let alone convert their current land back to forests.

Another factor in the rapid extinction of forests and all that live in them, is legal logging. With Regional Autonomy, it is now no longer necessary to bribe key figures associated with Suharto, now the bribery and corruption takes place on the regional or Kabupaten level. So again the problem is how to counter that bribery? Should international aid funding be used to pay Indonesian politicians higher incomes so they will be less liable to take bribes?

Despite the ideas of Bono and those like him that we can solve all the world's problems by throwing money at them, the complexities of the situation on the ground in Indonesia mean that any solution to these problems are a long way off, and rely as much on political will as funding.

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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A series of notes and discussions about current research I am undertaking about Indonesia.

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