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Indonesia and Australia: mates no more?

By Duncan Graham - posted Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Kiwis have a marvellously grotesque way of describing the acceptance of unpalatable policy changes: Swallowing dead rats.

There'll be much consumption of deceased vermin in Washington and Canberra should former Indonesian general Prabowo Subianto get elected president of Indonesia in the 9 July poll; the man is on a US visa blacklist for alleged human rights abuses, and Australia is believed to have the same prohibition.

If Prabowo is Indonesians' democratic choice – as seems increasingly possible - there's no way the head of a nation of 240 million and the world's most populous Islamic country is going to be escorted into a sealed sideroom should he front at a Sydney airport immigration counter.


The words used to justify this fricassee a la rodent will be collectors' items – allegations unproven, changing times, practical considerations – but the protests once President Prabowo is out of the airport carpark are likely to seriously damage Australian-Indonesian relations.

Past president, the late Gus Dur, and present incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) were enthusiastically accepted, with the latter addressing the federal Parliament in 2010. Soeharto was never welcome, making only one visit to Townsville in 1975.

The only way Prabowo would be universally applauded would be through engineering the peaceful cessation of hostilities in West Papua and robust prosecution of the military involved in alleged human rights abuses.

As the former Kopassus (special forces) commander's record in problem solving so far has been force first, a speedy and fair resolution of the strife seems unlikely. He has already been quoted wanting a return to an era where the police are feared by the citizenry; his party colleagues have been seducing Islamic organizations, including the Front Pembela Islam (Islam Defenders' Front).

This is the para-military pseudo-religious group whose thugs specialise in threatening those they consider anti-Islam. During the fasting month of Ramadhan (starting this year on 28 June) they like to trash bars and aren't fond of Christians or female pop stars who don't wear headscarves. They usually act with impunity. God knows what they'll want in return for their support.

Imagine the new Indonesian president's motorcade in Australia negotiating gauntlets of protests, his speeches heckled, demonstrators in pursuit, flags burned, Indonesian sensitivities inflamed.


With Prabowo as President it's unlikely Prime Minister Tony Abbott would be praising the "statesman" and "good friend" (the words he's used for SBY). Nor would Foreign Minister Julie Bishop be predicting relationships will "strengthen, broaden and deepen".

The US and Australia will have to chant the mantra that they'll work with whoever is democratically chosen. But if that man is Prabowo relations between the two nations could hurtle back to the darkest days of the despot Soeharto, the candidate's former father-in-law. (Prabowo is now divorced).

Although the position of Labor and Liberal is to respect Indonesia's sovereignty, minor parties like the Greens don't hold back when criticising Indonesian administration of West Papua.

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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