Tue, 04 Sep 2001

Howard fails to consult Indonesia on refugee crisis

By Rob Goodfellow

WOLLONGONG, New South Wales (JP): The refugee crisis off Christmas Island aboard the Norwegian Container ship M.V Tampa has demonstrated that the Conservative Government of Prime Minister John Howard does not understand how to work cooperatively with Indonesia. By making a unilateral decision to prevent the entry of Afghan asylum seekers into Australian territorial waters, Howard's objective was twofold.

First, his appeal was directly to the Australian electorate. His intention has clearly been to demonstrate that he was prepared to be tough with "illegal immigration", which has emerged as a potentially explosive issue in an election year.

There are reports of at least 5,000 Middle Eastern refugees encamped on Lombok alone, with an inestimable number already in Jakarta, Bali and in Kupang, West Timor. In addition, various assessments suggest that there may be up to 100,000 refugees in various stages of departure, all-heading to Australia via Indonesian ports. It appears that unchecked, large groups of refugees could be arriving, "coincidentally", right about the time that Australians go to the polls for a general election some time this November.

Howard's uncompromising policy has proven, at least in the very short term, to be domestically popular, although two days after Australian Secret Air Service Commandos (SAS) became involved, the Australian popular press changed tact. At first articles appeared which demonized refugees as "illegals" who had flaunted Australian law and carried with them the potential to spread exotic diseases.

Then in the spirit of generating enough controversy, the press predictably began to appeal to the refugees' "underdog status", a powerful sentiment in a country that at least believes in the myth of egalitarianism.

Time was running out. In the end New Zealand and the tiny Island of Nauru were essentially bought off to save face for the Howard Government as pressure was brought to bear by the United Nations. However, the real issue remains. If the problem is one that essentially involves two neighbors, Australia and Indonesia, what went wrong and why? Why did Howard not have a process in place that involved a dialog with Indonesia over the issue of people smuggling out of Indonesian ports? Why is President Megawati Soekarnoputri not returning Howard's telephone calls? Why is Australia blaming Indonesia for a "lack of cooperation"?

Australians still do not fully appreciate the strong feelings that sections of the elite in Indonesia, especially the armed forces, have over East Timor. The well debated issues of militia violence and Indonesian culpability aside, the Javanese dominated officer corps of the Indonesian Military (TNI), once offended, are very patient in getting their revenge. The Australian government does not appreciate that the Indonesian Military and the present government have no reason whatsoever to go out of their way to generate solutions to a situation which has the potential to embarrass the Howard Government -- the same administration deemed responsible for "betraying" Indonesia when the country was most vulnerable during the darkest days of the Asian monetary crisis.

In fact it is in Indonesia's interests to expedite the departure of refugees from their shores, to turn a "blind eye" to the lucrative people smuggling rackets, and to sit back and watch the show. Furthermore Indonesia is now preoccupied with economic recovery and territorial integrity. Why should Indonesia want to use scarce state resources on the issue of illegal immigrants when the express intention of the refugees is to pass through Indonesia quickly en route to north Western Australia?

Last year the Australian Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock commissioned a foreign language documentary movie which was aired at Australia's expense in countries like Pakistan. The intention of what was effectively a propaganda film was to demonstrate to potential asylum seekers (many of whom were in refugee camps and did not have access to clean drinking water let alone a television set) that should they survive the attacks of murderous pirates, giant mid-ocean whirlpools, and tropical storms, and arrive in Australia, then they were likely to be eaten by sharks, mauled by giant crocodiles, bitten by snakes, or left languishing in dusty refugees camps in the middle of the Simpson Dessert.

The exercise was not only a complete waste of public money but more importantly it was a lost opportunity to create a cooperative process with Indonesia, one that would have not only forestalled the present crisis, but gone part way to mend the bilateral relationship soured over the Interfet operation in East Timor.

Such a solution would first have to involve an appropriate "behind the scenes" dialog, one which demonstrated that Australia understood the basic modus operandi of census-decision-making in Indonesian politics, and one that involved an actual relationship of trust between real people at the level of government, foreign affairs and the military.

Such a process would have to involve making Indonesia a partner in generating a solution rather than, as Howard suggests, just an irritating part of the problem. It would have to seek ways of working cooperatively with Indonesia so that it was in Indonesia's best interests to work with Australia. Rather Howard made the very risky presumption that just because he boldly declared on national television that "he had placed a telephone call to Mrs Megawati" that she was in any way obliged to pick up the phone. Now Howard is looking a little foolish and Megawati is looking like she has again showed who is really in control and why her support cannot be taken for granted just because the white man whistles.

The Howard Government appears to be clueless on how to manage the Australian-Indonesian relationship, as demonstrated in the M.V Tampa incident. If Howard survives the November Federal Election, then the arrival of thousands of Afghans off the Coast of Western Australia in the next 12 months will certainly cause him to rethink his approach to Indonesia.

The writer is a cross-cultural specialist based at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia.