Australian Gov't bypasses Jakarta, Builds Ties with Military

Despite continuing rumbles between the Abbott government in Canberra and Indonesia over a variety of issues including boat people and spying, between Canberra and the Indonesian military, things have never been better.

It appears there may be a quiet agreement between Australian and Indonesian defense chiefs on undocumented migrants. The Abbott government has managed to bypass Jakarta’s endless rhetoric and political indolence, circumventing political stonewalls altogether and halting boat arrivals with the direct support of the Indonesian military and police. Last week Indonesian officials in Jakarta were astonished to learn that special life rafts to carry boat people were given by the Australians to the Indonesians.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa remains steadfast in opposing the Abbott coalition’s boat turnaround policy despite six reported incidents in which asylum seekers have been pushed back or even sent back on new lifeboats purchased solely for that task. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, deeply concerned about impositions on sovereignty as well as public ire, is still smarting after a furor over Australian phone tapping recent accidental maritime incursions.

The Indonesian military, however, previously told to beef up maritime border protection and point their radar Australia’s way, has been largely silent on rhetoric about threats to Indonesia’s sovereignty from Australia and somehow missed two giant orange life rafts being chaperoned around the sea for several days before finally being nudged back toward Indonesia.

Last week after a lifeboat filled with asylum seekers landed on popular Pangandaran beach in West Java, Indonesian media reported the tongue-in-cheek comments of National Army Commander Moeldoko on the police investigation into the occurrence – an event that the military and perhaps even the Indonesian Police, whose job it is to catch the people smugglers, was almost certainly well aware of and well informed about.

The Indonesian language daily Berita Satu reported that the raft suspected to have been given by Australian authorities had landed on Pangandaran beach with dozens of illegal immigrants inside and that the case was being looked into by police. But Moeldoko refused to give anything away.

“So strange, it’s not like the boat could have just fallen out of the sky. It’s now being investigated by the police,” he said.

According to Prime Minister Tony Abbot, the “way to Australia is closed” and boat arrivals have stopped. But this couldn’t have happened without the Indonesian military and police who have done more recently to apprehend people smugglers and police maritime borders than they have in 10 years of otherwise unwelcoming tolerance of the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers waiting in transit around the country.

This is in the face of a controversial unilateral policy that has irritated Jakarta since the 2013 election and has the Australian media and public locked out of informed debate by strict terms of operational security.

Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s operational secrecy is, in effect, so as not to ruffle Jakarta’s feathers with public debate on policies affecting both countries’ sovereignty.

The military previously had to defend claims they were not in line with government policy over allegations that Moeldoko had personally come to an agreement on boats with Australian Defence Force Chief Gen. David Hurley.

Moeldoko depoliticized the allegations and referred to his own operational discretion, subtly portraying the extent to which the military still commands authority and legitimacy over certain matters.

The Jakarta Post quoted Moeldoko as saying, “My statement did not indicate that I agreed [with the policy], but that I understood such tactical moves. And my reasoning was that the UN declaration says that every country has the right to protect its sovereignty. If it were my responsibility, I would have done the same thing. So, that’s the context. I am not talking about foreign policy. I am talking about tactical matters in the field,” he said.

Indonesian lawmakers are angry at this latest Australian ‘provocation’, although Singaporean fighter planes crossed into Indonesian airspace this week, demonstrating that threats to Indonesia’s territorial sovereignty can come from other directions, and extenuating the way that the Indonesian military has reasserted itself into the political debate.

With such sovereign and domestic threats featuring on the horizon, and the endless corruption scandals biting chunks out of democratic legitimacy, some fear that Indonesian voters may turn towards the strong leadership offered by presidential candidates with a military background. Indeed, Prabowo Subianto, a former general, is second in line to the throne after Joko Widodo – although a long way back in the polls.

The presence of conservatively nationalist military actors in the political sphere signals retrograde forces at play in Indonesia’s still vulnerable democratisation. In Indonesia politics can be a largely patrimonial game so if Australia enjoys special cooperation on a controversial humanitarian issue now it may one day have to return the favor.