Indonesia: Significant Anti-Australian Feelings


Associate Professor David Reeve

Last year's intense burst of anti-Australian feeling in Indonesia lasted for six weeks, in September and October 1999. It ended on the day that Abdurrahman Wahid was elected President. On that afternoon the demonstrators in front of the Australian embassy in Jakarta went away and didn't return. At the time it seemed that the crisis might be over for good, with a return to normal under the new government. However, the events of late 1999 reinvigorated an older image of Australia as interfering, aggressive, hypocritical and unreliable. That image has been invoked several times during 2000, and its use may well become more frequent.

This broad, deep burst of anti-Australian feelings in Indonesia was not just the product of an orchestrated media campaign and rent-a-crowd demonstrators. Anger at Australian actions was widespread. This was a classic case of diametrically opposed perceptions, of misunderstandings and cross-purposes. The events unfolding in East Timor looked quite different in Indonesia and in Australia. The coverage of devastation and destruction that galvanised Australian outrage and demands for action was virtually unknown in Indonesia. Within Indonesia it looked as though 'Australia' was making capital out of Indonesian problems. The role of the media in both countries was central to the emotions aroused.

The emotions in Indonesia sprang up like a forest fire. Within days, the possibilities of a break in diplomatic relations or even war with Australia were being canvassed. The rhetoric remained intense for the six weeks, while the Australian embassy became increasingly embattled, with constant demonstrations, then bullets, and a firebomb. The massive deterioration of relations at the political and military levels threatened to spill over into trade, aid and education. Few spoke up for Australia. The goodwill generated during the 1990s was swept away overnight.

Indonesians felt that their anger was a perfectly appropriate response to a wide range of anti-Indonesian actions in Australia. It was widely believed that Indonesians in Australia were under attack. The press highlighted reports of Indonesians being spat upon, abused, and ordered out of lifts, taxis and restaurants. Then there were the demonstrations, flag-burnings, attacks on Indonesian consulates, strike action and boycotts against Indonesian companies and goods. Above all there was the picture of 'Australia' taking the lead in exploiting Indonesia's humiliation in East Timor.

One theme in the media was that Australia was involved in manipulating the outcome in East Timor, favouring the pro-independence group and coercing the Timorese. Another was that the Australian government was unreliable, suddenly shifting its position on East Timor, treating Indonesia's problems as a political commodity for short term domestic political advantage. A particularly sharp emotion was aroused by the idea that Australia would violate Indonesia's territorial integrity, with claims that Australia would send in troops with or without Indonesian permission.

Since the devastation in East Timor was not generally known, Australian motives were suspect, including possible territorial ambitions or plans for a military base, probably in league with America. Australian attitudes and actions were characterised as ambitious, brutal, threatening, aggressive, arrogant, insolent and excessive. Television pictures of Australian military vehicles, ships and personnel did indeed look alarming, particularly when troops landed. All the malicious aspects of Australian actions seemed confirmed by the press and television images. Conspiracy theories appear frequently in Indonesian political debate; Australian actions were also depicted as part of an international plot, perhaps imperialist, perhaps Christian, perhaps instigated by international capitalism.

This burst of feeling reinvigorated and extended the image of Australia as arrogant, interfering, and untrustworthy that was last on show in 1986 with the furore over a press article on President Suharto's wealth. That image had faded during the 1990s, with a broadening of the relationship and hard work on both sides. But in late 1999, the image was reinvigorated, extended and intensified. The theme of suspicion of 'Australia' was re-inculcated across Indonesia, in the military, in the bureaucracy, in the press and in society at large. There are still good day-to-day relations in the specific fields where Australians and Indonesians work together, such as trade, business, companies, education, but the highly negative image of 'Australia' can still easily be evoked in 2000, out of conviction or calculation, by politicians, bureaucrats and military. Scape-goating has been a major factor in recent Indonesian politics.

President Abdurrachman Wahid says he wants improved relations with Australia, but he has been frank about the anti-Australian feelings he has to deal with. Those suspicions have been revived with respect to separatism in Papua. A recent article in the 'Jakarta Post' was titled 'Is Papua Australia's Next Target?' Articles such as this revive the idea of Australian involvement in the disintegration of East Timor, of foreign provocateurs, of Australian neo-colonialist intentions, and of an unreliable Australian government that could quickly shift position for domestic political advantage.

WATCHPOINT: Many pitfalls lie in the path of improved relations between Indonesia and Australia, and there are no guarantees of how long it will take.


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