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Drug case brings out the worst in Australia

Philip Bowring

THURSDAY, JUNE 2, 2005
HONG KONG 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.
 
Indonesia's pragmatic 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 "biological agent."
 
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.
 
 
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