Indonesia, Australia in Diplomatic Chill Over Separatists

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - A year after Indonesia and Australia put aside years of suspicion and ill feeling to hail a "new era" in relations, ties between the world's most populous Islamic state and Washington's closest ally in the Asia-Pacific have taken a dramatic turn for the worse.

Once again, the chill stems from an Indonesian view that Westerners are supporting campaigns that threaten its national sovereignty.

The row centers over a decision by Australia to grant temporary asylum to 42 refugees from Indonesia's far-eastern Papua province.

The group had earlier this year traveled in a large dugout canoe to Australia's far-north coast and claimed that the military was carrying out "genocide" against Papuans.

Protesting the visa decision, Jakarta recalled its ambassador from Canberra, and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Monday called for a review of relations with Australia, given the "inappropriate" decision to grant visas to the Papuan asylum-seekers.

"Relations between Indonesia and Australia are entering a difficult time that is full of challenges," he hold a press conference in Jakarta, calling for "serious and intensive diplomatic meetings."

"Indonesia will not tolerate whatever elements, in whichever country, including in Australia, which clearly provide support for a separatist movement in Papua," he said, in an apparent reference to pro-independence Western non-governmental organizations.

Separatists have been fighting for more than four decades for independence for the resource-rich, multi-ethnic region they call "West Papua" -- currently the Indonesian provinces of Papua and neighboring West Irian Jaya.

The indigenous inhabitants of the area, a Dutch colony until taken over by Indonesia in the 1960s, are mostly Christian, and do not share historical or cultural ties with Indonesians.

The area is home to the world's biggest copper and gold mine, operated by a U.S.-based company. Two American teachers at a mine school were shot dead in a 2002 ambush which was blamed variously on the military and separatist rebels.

Researchers say some 100,000 people have been killed during the 43-year campaign. In the most recent violence, clashes between Papuan student demonstrators and police in mid-March left three policeman and an air force officer dead.

Howard's government has reiterated in recent days that it does not support independence for Papua. At the press conference, Yudhoyono thanked Australia for that stance, but said it should be borne out in practice.

Indonesia has repeatedly asked Australia to repatriate the refugees, saying they would not be punished. But Canberra late month decided to grant three-year protection visas.

The refugees, 32 adults and 10 children, were initially held on an Australian island territory but arrived Monday in Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city. They carried with them a West Papua "morning star" flag - the one used in the area before Indonesia took over - and whose display today can land a Papuan in prison.

Nick Chesterfield of the Free West Papua Campaign in Melbourne welcomed the government decision, saying it would allow Australians "to hear first-hand about the atrocities and escalating human right abuses that are unfolding in one of our closest neighboring countries."

Supporters of West Papuan independence are active in a number of Western countries, including Australia.

History of suspicion

Indonesia has long been sensitive about its territorial integrity and Australian motives.

Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 13,000 islands. Most of its 232 million-plus people are Muslims with ethnic Javanese comprising just under half of the total population.

Other ethnic groups for decades have been pressing for self-government or independence in various parts of the country, from Papua in the east to Aceh in the far west. The fall of the dictator Gen. Suharto eight years ago lent new impetus to these struggles.

One such region was East Timor, a predominantly Catholic area ruled by Muslim Indonesia for 24 years before it became the world's newest independent nation in 2002.

In 1999, pro-Jakarta, military-backed militia went on the rampage after a referendum favored independence. Australia led a U.N. peacekeeping force to the province to protect the East Timorese people.

Australia's role in the loss of the territory deeply angered many Indonesians, and sparked fears that East Timor's success would pour fuel onto other secessionist movements, such as the one in Papua.

(Osama bin Laden on several occasions referred to Australia's involvement in East Timor as a transgression against Islam, suggesting that it was thus a legitimate target for jihad.)

It was only last year that slowly improving bilateral relations - helped in part by anti-terror cooperation after the 2002 Bali bombings, and by Australian aid following the Dec. 2004 tsunami - eventually bore fruit.

A year ago this week, Yudhoyono visited Australia and he and Prime Minister John Howard agreed to a "comprehensive partnership" including cooperation in fighting terrorism, narcotics, illegal migration and people smuggling. They would also explore the possibility of exploring a free-trade agreement.

The development was seen as especially significant given differences between the two countries over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, which Australia supported politically and militarily and Indonesia strongly opposed.

It was also a diplomatic coup for Howard, who had long been accused by domestic opponents of jeopardizing relations with Asian neighbors because he was too close to Washington.

The two leaders at the time spoke warmly about the importance of a partnership between what Yudhoyono described as "a wondrous place where Islam, democracy and modernity thrive together" and Australia, "a bastion of stability, progress, dynamism."

A year later, such sentiments appear to have been set aside.

The depth of feeling was evident last week when an Indonesian newspaper published a front-page cartoon depicting Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer as copulating dingoes, with the prime minister saying: "I want Papua, Alex! Try to make it happen."

A caricaturist for the Weekend Australian hit back on Sunday with a cartoon showing Yudhoyono and a Papuan tribesman in the same pose, with the president saying: "Don't take this the wrong way."

Both governments called the cartoons tasteless, but in Jakarta some lawmakers went further, urging Yudhoyono to sever diplomatic ties, close a sea lane to Australian shipping, and sue the Australian newspaper.

Downer said the Australian embassy in Jakarta was on the alert for any possible backlash from Indonesians angered by the "extremely offensive" cartoon of their president.

Indonesian political analyst J. Soedjati Djiwandono on Tuesday called Jakarta's handling of the row clumsy and short-sighted, and urged the two governments "to cool down" and restart communications to ensure a speedy return to normal relations.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow