Sat, 26 Feb 2000

Alwi: RI-Australia matters to be settled quietly

JAKARTA (JP): Foreign minister Alwi Shihab said on Friday Jakarta and Canberra would settle delicate matters quietly behind the scenes to avoid them becoming public issues which could further damage relations between the two countries.

While transparency is the popular catchword in current government affairs, Alwi obviously felt that openness regarding such issues would hamper Australian-Indonesian relations.

He swore to keep contentious issues hidden from the public eye.

"I'll only call you (the media) in when there are good and happy things to report. If there are unpleasant matters than there's no need," he told journalists.

He did not explain whether keeping contentious issues hidden from the public would deceive people about the true state of relations.

Alwi added that during a meeting with his visiting Australian counterpart Alexander Downer last month, the two sides had agreed to settle outstanding issues discreetly.

"I've promised that such matters would be settled quietly," Alwi asserted.

His comments came on the heels of reports last week that the foreign ministry had sent a diplomatic note to the Australian Embassy asking it to officially explain the allegation that Australian military planes had entered Indonesian airspace over the Maluku islands in November.

The Australian Embassy here quickly denied that any Australian airplanes had passed through Indonesian airspace without permission.

Australian Ambassador John McCarthy met with Alwi on Friday morning to officially present Canberra's denial.

McCarthy also met Minister of Defense Juwono Sudarsono on Friday to discuss various bilateral issues.

Later on Friday afternoon Alwi said the matter was now closed. He did not elaborate what further steps would be taken, adding only that Indonesia's report would be kept as "information" for the Australian side.

He then told journalists that he regretted that the note had been leaked to the press, and pledged that such a fiasco would not be repeated.

"This (the leak) should not happen again!" he said.

"I don't know from where it came. Maybe it was from the foreign ministry, maybe from the embassy or even from the courier who delivered the letter," he said.

Alwi's stance of playing down the alleged infringement by Australian air force planes is in stark contrast to that of Indonesian military and defense officials, who have complained several times in the past about Australian planes passing through Indonesian airspace.

Diplomatic ties between Jakarta and Canberra are only starting to improve from a rocky period following events in East Timor.

Defense cooperation has been particularly strained following Indonesia's decision to cancel a 1995 agreement with Australia on security cooperation.

The decision to revoke the agreement last year came after Australia one-sidedly froze technical military cooperation with Indonesia.(dja)