November 23, 2013
Tom Allard, Michael Bachelard
The Australian spying revelations came when Indonesian relations were already strained over asylum seekers.
Biggest diplomatic crisis since 1999: Tony Abbott. Photo: AFP
In the annals of international diplomacy, there has never been a salvo quite like it. Alone in his study in his private residence outside Jakarta, just after midnight on Tuesday, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took to the social media platform Twitter and let Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott – and his 4 million followers – know just how he felt about revelations Australia had bugged his and his wife’s phone.
As he composed a series of tweets, his anger seemed to rise. Indonesia had protested the spying operation, he noted. Australia needed to make an official response. In the meantime, relations would be reviewed, the strategic partnership ”certainly damaged”.
And then this final missive. ”I also regret the statement of Australian Prime Minister that belittled this tapping matter on Indonesia, without any remorse.”
The content, and mode of communication, could not have been more emphatic. Abbott had urged repeatedly that sensitive discussions between Australia and Indonesia be kept away from the media.
Yet SBY chose the most public form of media available to deliver his message.
Less than three months into Abbott’s prime ministership, having elevated the relationship with Jakarta to his overarching foreign policy objective, ties have been ruptured.
Abbott’s insistence that he would not apologise for the intrusion, nor review or explain why Australian spies were eavesdropping on the President’s phone, infuriated the Indonesian leader. As a result, Indonesia has suspended co-operation on people smuggling operations. Joint military exercises have been halted. Threats have been made to Australian exporters.
Abbott is in the midst of a diplomatic crisis not seen since Australia backed East Timor’s independence in 1999. And long-time Indonesia watchers say the atmosphere on the street has not been this poisonous since then either.
How did it come to this?
According to William Maley, director of the Australian National University’s Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, good diplomacy requires ”tact, understanding and a willingness to listen”. The Coalition government, he says, has displayed few of these attributes in dealing with Indonesia, starting with its insistence on turning back boats laden with asylum seekers to Indonesia.
”Ever since they were in opposition, Indonesia has consistently warned them about this. They don’t like this unilateral approach to people smuggling,” he says. ”[The Coalition] have just ignored the signals from Jakarta, even as they have become stronger.”
When Indonesia began refusing requests to accept asylum seekers picked up by Australian vessels, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said ”there’s no real rhyme or reason” to Indonesia’s behaviour.
This was especially galling in Jakarta, which felt it had made its position abundantly clear.
”The subtext was ‘we are dealing with people who are not rational’. This is how it was perceived in Indonesia,” Maley says.
In this context of already strained relations came the spying revelations, exposed by documents obtained by former contractor Edward Snowden when he was working at the National Security Agency, the United States’ massive signal intelligence arm.
A PowerPoint presentation from the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) – now called the Australian Signals Directorate – identified the mobile phones of Yudhoyono, his wife, and eight other cabinet members and senior officials as targets for surveillance.
It then detailed how it had monitored the calls of Yudhoyono in August 2009, soon after the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta were attacked by two suicide bombers, killing seven other people, including three Australians. The timing of the interceptions is curious. Yudhoyono had delivered an unusual speech immediately after the bombings, insinuating – wrongly – his political rival Prabowo Subianto was behind them.
Even so, Yudhoyono has been Australia’s staunchest ally in Indonesia. As security minister, he forged the close links between the two countries after the Bali bombings, recognising the threat of Islamic extremism while others in the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri remained in denial. Indeed, Yudhoyono is seen in Indonesia as blindly, unreasonably pro-Western, so to chasten him in this way is a double betrayal.
According to Kornelius Purba, a prominent Indonesian newspaper columnist, the spying revelations have achieved the difficult feat of uniting Indonesians behind their President, who has been frequently criticised for his indecisiveness.
”Firstly, you wiretapped his wife, and any gentleman would get mad if you wiretapped his wife – that’s about privacy,” Purba says. ”Secondly, you are friends of us, very important friends, and you betray us.”
Overarching the resentment among Indonesians to Australia’s stance on both spying and people smuggling is a sense that their sovereignty has been infringed. A sprawling nation with diverse ethnicities, cultures and languages hewn from a former Dutch colony, the bond that holds the country together is its hard-fought war for independence, which followed more than 300 years of occupation.
”Canberra really needs to realise that it has trampled over one of the most sacred and cherished of all Indonesian diplomatic principles, non-intervention,” Pierre Marthinus and Isidora Happy Apsari wrote in an opinion piece in The Jakarta Post during the week. The authors, from Jakarta think-tank the Marthinus Academy, depicted the issue in terms of the traditional Javanese ideas of power, and the wayang kulit shadow puppet plays. They say the phone tapping of the President, his wife and inner circle, hit directly at the centre, the ”keraton” or palace, from which, in Javanese tradition, all power emanates.
”Canberra’s crass spying is the symbolic epitome of the antagonistic wayang characters, the brute with protruding outward-looking eyes bulging out of their sockets, unrefined, unreflective, emotionally unstable and malevolent,” the authors wrote.
”Simply put, the Australian brute is not welcome within the keraton walls unless it can behave accordingly.”
Certainly, Abbott rankled Indonesia in the aftermath of the revelations by not only failing to provide an explanation or an apology, but the manner in which he conveyed his sentiments. Abbott said that the Australia’s intelligence activities were to ”help our friends and our allies, not to harm them”.
This was no doubt an attempt to remind Indonesia about the crucial assistance the signals directorate provided in apprehending scores of terrorists. But, given he was responding to the furore over the surveillance of Yudhoyono, it was taken quite differently. As Marcus Mietzner, an analyst of Indonesian politics from the Australian National University, observed: ”To say ‘we are spying on [Yudhoyono] for your own good’ is outrageous.”
Then there was Abbott’s well-intentioned expression of regret for the ”embarrassment” suffered by Yudhoyono due to ”media reports” of the spying.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa retorted it was Australia that should be embarrassed. Even so, Abbott repeated the comment in Parliament the next day. A few hours later, Indonesia announced the suspension of military and people-smuggling co-operation.
Crowning it all, Abbott’s pollster Mark Textor took to Twitter to compare the Indonesian President, or perhaps Natalegawa, to a ”Pilipino [sic] porn star with ethics to match”.
Textor apologised, but made the implausible suggestion he was alluding to no one with his porn star jibe and added a pointed rejoinder aimed at Yudhoyono by saying Twitter was ”no place for diplomacy”.
The interception of the Indonesian leaders’ phone calls occurred under the Rudd government’s watch. But Abbott – apart from one lapse – has refrained from playing party politics on the matter.
His approach to neither confirm nor deny the surveillance has been the bipartisan orthodoxy and no doubt reflected the advice of his foreign affairs and intelligence chiefs. It is a long-standing convention and Michael Wesley, a professor at the ANU College of National Security, says it has served Australia well.
”It’s a slippery slope,” he says. ”Once you make an admission, you open yourself up to having to do it again and again in the future.”
Even so, the Snowden revelations are an extraordinary case. Numerous US officials have already conceded the documents are genuine. Moreover, President Barack Obama last month defused a similar scandal involving the tapping of German leader Angela Merkel’s phone, announcing a review of overseas intelligence and calling her personally to assure her the practice would cease. Obama mollified Merkel successfully, and provided an example that Indonesia expected Australia to follow.
But Australia’s intelligence leadership is furious about the Snowden leak, and about the way Obama handled Merkel’s displeasure.
Then there is the view that Australia had long operated an extensive surveillance network in Indonesia, as Indonesia knew all too well. Indonesia spies on Australians too, and has attempted to eavesdrop on its politicians, its intelligence chief Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono said in 2004, leading to some suggestions the Indonesians are overreacting.
”Sure, some of the outrage might be a bit confected. But even when it’s confected, it can take on a life of its own,” said Greg Barton, who was an adviser to the former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid. ”Indonesia feels its time is coming. They are rising. They want to be treated seriously. They want respect.”
Natalegawa insists that Indonesia does not tap the phones of Australia’s leaders. The comment was taken by many with a grain of salt but, even if Indonesia wanted to, it would find it difficult. As a member of the ”five eyes” intelligence community also involving the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, Australia has access to cutting edge technology for surveillance and, importantly, counter-intelligence. That means Australia’s encryption methods are far more advanced, and better able to thwart snooping by other nations.
As part of the intelligence-sharing agreement, Australia has primary responsibility for signals intelligence for south-east Asia, and especially Indonesia, using satellites and linked ground stations in Geraldton, Shoal Bay and Pine Gap to watch and listen to what its neighbours are up to. In this digital age, a well-resourced intelligence community can hoover up data on an almost unimaginable scale.
”The Australian intelligence community has run amok,” Natalegawa says.
The anger in Indonesia is palpable and, while Abbott was expecting some blowback from Jakarta from his stance, the ferocity of Indonesia’s reaction has surprised him and forced a series of crisis meetings.
Counter-terrorism co-operation between the two nations – critically – remains intact for the time being. Otherwise, it is a disaster.
Indonesia’s withdrawal of military and – late on Friday – police support to counter people smuggling, in particular, is potentially immensely damaging to Abbott.
More broadly, Indonesia has been a crucial ally for Australia in the region, an influential supporter of its bid to become involved in key regional diplomatic forums while backing the US entry into the important East Asia Summit.
Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Abbott to say.
But the Australian Prime Minister will have to take action to staunch a deep wound in Australia’s most important diplomatic relationship outside the US.
As Abbott works out what he will do, the anger in Indonesia – already pervasive – will likely deepen.
Yudhoyono’s unprecedented foray into Twitter diplomacy has been picked up with a vengeance by Indonesians, the biggest users of the social media site in the world. The enduring popularity of the #GanyangAustralia hashtag on Twitter – it means ”crush Australia” – highlights how the phone-tapping issue has achieved widespread notoriety.
One Twitter user, @dioSEVTIANO, summed up the mood thus: ”A good friend who betrays … and stabs from behind … is the new label for Australia.”
The Sydney Morning Herald