Fri, 14 Feb 2003

Aussie ambassador presents credentials

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

On the eve of a visit by Australian Prime Minister John Howard to Indonesia, the country's new ambassador to Jakarta, David James Ritchie, finally got to present his credentials to President Megawati Soekarnoputri on Thursday after a three-month delay.

Ritchie now fills the vacant ambassadorial post in Jakarta left empty since October last year when then ambassador Richard W. Smith was appointed Australia's deputy secretary of defense.

Born in Papua New Guinea in 1953, Ritchie joined the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs in 1975. He has served in many African and Pacific countries, his last posting being that of deputy secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra.

Ritchie arrived in Jakarta last November, but his fate was put in the balance by the Indonesian House of Representatives, which has long been hostile to Australia.

Pending his approval by the House, the Australian government appointed him ad interim charge d'affairs here.

It was not only the Australian ambassadorial post here that was left vacant. Indonesia also deliberately left its ambassadorial post in Canberra empty for almost one year after Jakarta appointed then ambassador Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat secretary-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in May 2002.

These relatively long delays indicate that good relations between the two countries have still not been fully restored.

Bilateral relations have been on a roller-coaster over the past few years, especially after Australia helped East Timor break away from Indonesia in August 1999. Australia even led an international peacekeeping force in East Timor.

Ritchie came to Jakarta during a difficult time, especially after the Oct. 12 Bali bombings, which killed more than 190 people, many of them Australians.

Indonesia's prompt response to the bombings, with the arrests of key suspects coming within a relatively short space of time, helped improve relations somewhat.

Another setback emerged, however, after the Howard administration raided the homes of Indonesian citizens in the Australia as part of the effort to crush terrorism there.

Worse followed when Prime Minister John Howard said that Australia might conduct preemptive strikes against terrorist bases in foreign countries before the terrorists could stage attacks on Australia.

Megawati's acceptance of Australia's ambassador to Jakarta may indicate that bilateral relations are improving once again.

Not only that, the government has now submitted to the House its nominee for Indonesian ambassador to Australia -- Susanto Pudjomartono, the former chief editor of The Jakarta Post.

The House is expected to hold selection hearings later this month.

The improving relations should be further strengthened by Howard's planned visit to Jakarta on Friday, which coincides with Valentine's Day.

This will be his third visit to Indonesia since he was reelected prime minister last year.

Howard is expected to discuss the ongoing investigation into the Bali bombings as well as the Iraq issue with Megawati on Saturday.

The Iraq issue is a major point of disagreement between the two neighboring countries. Canberra fully supports Washington's war plans for Iraq, while Jakarta opposes them all the way.

Australian embassy press attache Kirk Cunningham said: "The prime minister will also hold several meetings with Indonesian Muslim leaders."