Accessibility links

Australia, Indonesia Relations Cool After Papuan Asylum Seekers Granted Visas

  • Phil Mercer

Australia and Indonesia remain locked in a diplomatic dispute sparked by Canberra's decision to grant temporary visas to 42 Papuan asylum seekers. Jakarta has accused its neighbor of meddling in its internal affairs and has asked the Australian ambassador to explain the decision before a parliamentary committee. The dispute is threatening the closer ties the two nations have enjoyed in recent years.

Indonesian expatriates at a community center in Sydney sing about family harmony.

But the 50,000 Indonesians living in Australia are increasingly concerned at the lack of harmony that is affecting relations between the country of their birth and their adopted home.

The relationship hit turbulence in March when Australia granted temporary protection visas to 42 asylum seekers from Papua who landed in northern Queensland in January. The migrants claimed they were fleeing abuses committed by Indonesia's military in its fight against separatists in the troubled province.

Jakarta was outraged. It recalled its ambassador and accused Canberra of interfering in its domestic affairs. Protesters demonstrated outside Australia's embassy in the Indonesian capital.

Denny Christian, a 28-year-old from Jakarta studying accountancy in Australia, worries that the Papuan affair could make life difficult for Indonesians in the country.

"I worry about the relationship between Australia and Indonesia because many Indonesians want to study here so if there is a problem like this it could be bad for them and for those people already here," said Christian.

Australia has since changed its immigration rules to try to deter others from making the hazardous voyage from Papua. Any illegal migrants arriving by boat must wait in detention centers on Pacific islands while their applications are processed.

Critics complain the new measures were designed to appease Jakarta but the Canberra government denies this.

Canberra also insists the Papuans were granted visas as part of a normal legal process.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says it is essential that the two nations respect each other's differences in the visa dispute.

"We all know that the Indonesians were offended by the decision the Immigration Department made over the 42 of the Papuan asylum seekers. This is a sensitive issue there," said Downer. "They, on the other hand, need to understand that we have our laws in Australia. We've got to act according to our laws, not stray outside of our laws, and that mutual respect of each other's legal systems is an important component of a good relationship."

The two countries have very different cultures - Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation while Australia has a strong European heritage. Ties between the two have often been strained.

The relationship hit a low point in 1999 over East Timor. Australia supported independence from Indonesia for the tiny province and led international peacekeepers during its violent transition to nationhood.

There were also testing times last year when Australian drug smuggler Schapelle Corby was jailed for 20 years by a court in Bali. Many Australians thought Corby was innocent.

Despite the problems, the relationship between these two very different neighbors has warmed in recent years.

Yon Sumaryono, an Indonesian community leader has lived in Australia for 40 years. The former university teacher says recent history proves the Asia-Pacific neighbors can get along.

"In recent years the relationship between the two countries - Australia and Indonesia - has really been very good and probably the best that I've experienced in several decades I've been living in Australia," said Yon Sumaryono.

Australia's generous support for Indonesian victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami and cooperation between both countries after the Bali bombings helped cement ties.

Collaboration in combating terrorism is the mainstay of this improved relationship.

Canberra sees Jakarta as a key ally in the fight against militant groups in Southeast Asia, including Jemaah Islamiah.

That organization is widely blamed for the bombings in Bali four years ago, which killed 88 Australians, and the second attack on the island in 2005 when four Australians died.

But Michelle Ford, a lecturer from the University of Sydney says that disagreements over the Papuan asylum seekers could jeopardize joint security operations in the future.

"Australia and Indonesia have cooperated remarkably in the anti-terrorist campaign," said Ford. "However, I think the Papuan issue has a very strong possibility of undermining that because it's the easiest and most effective way for Indonesia to retaliate is to lessen its attention to the parts of the anti-terrorism campaign that most concern Australia."

Ford says it is important for Australia to get along with its largest neighbor, because it will have an influence on the country's economy and its relationship with the rest of Asia.

How quickly the fractured relationship heals could be decided this week when Australia's ambassador to Indonesia appears before a parliamentary committee to explain the visa decision. Another Australian diplomat, the head of the Foreign Affairs Department, has already visited Jakarta in an attempt to defuse the dispute.

In both countries, most leaders agree that neither can afford to see such a valuable partnership fall apart.

XS
SM
MD
LG