There is a worryingly emotional strand in Australia's
relationship with its large neighbor, Indonesia. It would be hard to
pin the word racist on Australia, which has absorbed large number of
Asian and other migrants with ease. But assumptions of cultural
superiority redolent of an earlier era are far too common for the
relationship to be an easy one. The situation would doubtless be a
lot worse if Indonesians - and Australia's other neighbors - were
more familiar with what was being said about them in Australia.
president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, made a successful visit to
Australia just a month ago and Jakarta has recently supported
Australian participation in the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur in
December. But relations are again in difficulty - not over policy
differences, this time, but because of the emotional public response
in Australia after an Australian woman, Schapelle Corby, 27, was
sentenced on Friday to 20 years in prison for drug smuggling. Corby
was arrested in October after arriving in Bali with 4.1 kilograms,
or 9 pounds, of marijuana in her baggage. She claimed it had been
planted there, most likely by a drug syndicate working with
Australian baggage handlers.
Egged on by much of the
news media, and helped along by politicians keen to back popular
sentiment, most Australians have been convinced of the woman's
innocence. It is assumed that Indonesia's justice system is
incompetent and that no Australian should have to face the "horror"
of years in an Indonesian jail.
Prime Minister John
Howard declined to intervene with Yudhoyono, but did offer sympathy
and official legal help for the woman. A boycott of Bali has been
called and donations to tsunami and other relief funds for Indonesia
have dried up. On Wednesday Indonesia was forced to close its
embassy in Canberra after receiving a package containing a
This is by no means the
first time that Western tourists caught with drugs in Southeast Asia
have become the center of problems in bilateral relations. But the
popular reaction among Australians suggests that they expect
extraterritorial rights when abroad. Indonesia's courts are not
noted for high standards, but in this case the procedures appear to
have been reasonable. If the drugs had been planted it would have
had to have been in Australia.
It may be that this case
will be resolved either through a successful appeal or by an
agreement to allow Corby to serve a reduced sentence in Australia.
Diplomats are doing their best to calm the waters. Though the death
penalty was a possibility, the sentence may have been harsh given
that marijuana is not a rare commodity in Indonesia. But Australia's
reaction will leave a sour taste among all its neighbors, who expect
to be treated as sovereign nations.
The negative emotional
reaction to Indonesia comes just a few months after a remarkable
Australian contribution to tsunami relief. Australian forces were on
the ground helping long before American and most other foreign
troops arrived and their performance was widely praised. Both
officially and privately, Australians contributed far more per
capita to relief and rebuilding operations than any other nation.
Indonesians noticed and
were grateful. The generosity not only helped paved the way for
Yudhoyono's visit, putting aside disagreements over Iraq and
Australia's forward defense policy, but enabled popular sentiment
about Indonesia in Australia to get beyond the Bali bombing of
October 2002, in which 88 Australians were killed.
Less admirable, however,
was the self-satisfaction and condescension in Australia over the
tsunami relief effort. Talk shows gushed with pride over "how
generous we are," without stopping to ask the size of Australia's
aid budget or contribution to relief of other Asian disasters or
recent treatment of asylum seekers. Newspaper headlines proclaimed
that Australia was "taking charge" of operations in Aceh and ignored
or disparaged Indonesia's own efforts or those of its neighbors
Singapore and Malaysia.
Fortunately, few in the
recipient countries got to hear such boasting. But such attitudes
illustrate starkly the problem that Australia has in treating its
neighbors - primarily, but not exclusively, Indonesia - as equals.
If Australia wants to re-engage with them it will have to avoid
populist outbursts like the one over the Corby case.