Total recall: the 2006 Papuan asylum seeker incident and Australia-Indonesia relations

In the wake of recent allegations that Australia spied on the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife, and a group of his advisors in 2009, Indonesia has recalled its ambassador to Australia, Nadjib Riphat Kesoema, and is ‘reviewing’ current bilateral cooperation. The last time Indonesia recalled its ambassador was in 2006 following the Papuan asylum seeker incident.

This earlier diplomatic crisis was sparked by the arrival by boat of 43 Papuan asylum seekers in northern Australia in January 2006. In the midst of extensive media coverage and a flurry of diplomatic activity on both sides, the subsequent decision by Australia to grant temporary protection visas to 42 of the asylum seekers triggered a strong protest from Indonesia. As recounted in a Lowy Institute paper by Dr Rodd McGibbon:
The response from the Indonesian parliament was predictably one of outrage. ‘We question the decision to grant visas and political asylum at a time when the security situation in Papua province is tense,’ said member of the House Commission I, Effendy Mara Sakti, of the Indonesian Democratic Party–Struggle (PDI–P). Another House Commission member, Yudy Chrisnandy of the Golkar Party, said the granting of political asylum and temporary visas was unethical and could disrupt relations between the two countries.

It was President Yudhoyono’s reaction, however, that surprised Australian leaders in its vehemence. Signalling a rift in relations, Indonesia promptly withdrew its ambassador to Australia. Yudhoyono also canvassed the possibility of reviewing other aspects of the relationship, including cooperation over people-smuggling and counter-terrorism.
Yudhoyono’s message was strident and clear. During the depths of the crisis, he is reported to have said of Australia, ‘don’t insult us, don’t toy with us, and don’t deny us justice’. Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia, Hamza Thayeb, was recalled in March 2006.

The resolution of the Papuan asylum seeker crisis required the personal intervention of Prime Minister John Howard, including the announcement of changes to the way that asylum seekers would be processed and an eventual leaders meeting between Mr Howard and ‘SBY’ in Batam, Indonesia, in June 2006.

Ambassador Thayeb returned to Australia in June 2006, just prior to the Batam meeting and following talks between the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, and his Indonesian counterpart, Hassan Wirajuda. The Batam meeting helped pave the way for the eventual completion of negotiations surrounding the ‘Lombok Treaty’ between Australia and Indonesia.

In many ways, the lessons of the 2006 crisis can be applied to the current situation. First, there is an increasingly close and complex relationship between domestic and foreign policy considerations in our two democratic, albeit very different, societies. As McGibbon notes, Indonesia’s response to the 2006 crisis was ‘no doubt prompted by the need to address popular constituencies in a new democratic era’. If anything, these pressures have increased on both sides as Indonesia heads toward its national elections in 2014 and as the new Government in Australia attempts to implement its domestic election commitments relating to border security and asylum seekers.

Second, the negative stereotypes generated by both incidents reflect a continuing lack of ‘ballast’ in the contemporary relationship. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating has elaborated on this concept in the following terms—‘ballast [has] to come from the economic and social policy departments of government and, more importantly, from business people, professional organisations, students and community groups. From the people of both countries’. This is clearly a long-term challenge.

Third, both the 2006 crisis and the current spying controversy highlight the need to give further practical policy effect to the oft-repeated phrase that Indonesia is ‘our most important relationship’. Whether this should come in the form of intelligence-sharing and strategic cooperation on par with that which Australia undertakes with Western allies like the US and the UK is a matter for debate. What is clear, however, is that the formal dialogue structures surrounding the current bilateral relationship are not, on their own, sufficient to withstand the turmoil generated by the inevitable intensity and tempo of contemporary issues and events.

An overview of Australia’s contemporary relationship with Indonesia can be found in this Parliamentary Library briefing prepared for the 44th Parliament.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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