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Australia Comments on Indonesia's President Criticism - 2002-02-27

Australian officials say they do not think criticism by Indonesia's president made at the opening of a people-smuggling conference was directed at them. Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri criticized countries that unilaterally block refugees from crossing their borders.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says he does not try to hide that fact that Australia and Indonesia had a difficult relationship in the past. But he says the relationship has now changed. "But I have to say the way the relationship has now warmed and developed is extraordinary really. And I think the relationship now between us as we address this very significant regional and global issue of people smuggling has been very productive and we're very happy about the way it's working," Mr. Downer said.

Mr. Downer also says he is certain criticism Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri made Wednesday was not directed at Australia. But he would not say which countries he thought the president was referring to.

In a speech at the opening of the three-day regional conference, President Megawati criticized nations that act alone to prevent the problem of people smuggling from reaching their shores. "We have witnessed some impatient governments taking unilateral steps to protect their national interests. No matter how broad the scope and boundary we are delineating for our national interests, and how confident we are in our justification to defend such interests. Still it does not allow us to do whatever we want," Ms Megawati said.

Friction arose between the two nations last year over which country should bear responsibility for illegal migrants trying to enter Australia from Indonesia.

A stand-off ensued when Canberra blocked a ship carrying hundreds of Afghan refugees from landing in Australian territory. Jakarta refused to let the asylum-seekers return to Indonesian soil. Eventually, they were sent to a third country.

Thousands of migrants come to Indonesia every year, and then set sail to enter Australia illegally.

The people-smuggling conference brings together ministers from more than 30 countries in an effort to find ways to deal with the problem. Indonesia and Australia are the hosts of the conference.