In recent weeks there has been a buzz over the country’s new foreign policy direction and in particular the new-found desire for our nation to begin a serious multilevel relationship with Indonesia. Australian businesses have been told that the time has come for them to get over long-held, unjustified ill feelings towards anything Indonesian.

Despite such strong, almost fanatical scepticism, scratch the surface and we find that most of us don’t really know why we just don’t trust Indonesia. This is despite the incredibly strong and warm connections between Australian and Indonesian political leaders.

At the end of World War Two, Indonesia enjoyed unfettered encouragement and warm emotions from almost all levels of the Australian community. Newspaper stories from that period document examples of fund raising by local communities, federal and state government gifts and criticism, particularly from the Australian trade unions, of how Indonesia had been treated in the past.

Indonesia, the world’s newest nation, had just gained its freedom from the Dutch, who really only wanted to exploit Indonesia for its natural resources. The Dutch had shown no regard for the native Indonesians throughout its 350 years of domination. Indonesia was the first country in Asia to successfully rid itself of its colonial rulers. But the friendliness that Australian society showed to Indonesia rapidly deteriorated within less than a decade. Since then our trust in Indonesia has hardly managed to regain anything like its end of war level.

Today Australia’s long-term feelings toward Indonesia are coming back to haunt us. Until recently the economic fortunes of Australia were mostly tied to North America and Europe. However, this has been decoupled in recent years. In the current period our largest trading opportunities and future wealth is certain to come from Asia and Indonesia is likely to play a starring role. That is not to say it is a smooth ride. The recent live cattle problems showing extremely disturbing images on Australian media can only reinforce our underlying distrust that Indonesia can act responsibly. The Australian government quickly reflected the feelings of Australian people by immediately putting in place a ban on live exports.

Over recent years this distrust towards Indonesia has spread to the subject of the environment and how the country uses its natural resources. In the past decade several big international NGOs have entered into the dialogue for the first time highlighting aggressively any number of Indonesia’s environmental problems. The already negative feeling Australia has towards Indonesia is only made worse with these well funded and highly publicised co-ordinated campaigns. The job of the NGO is certainly made easy because of the already low status Indonesia holds in Australian society and it looks set to continue if legislation, such as the current legal logging bill, is passed.

The difficult challenge for the Indonesian government and organisations in the country is how to get any genuine rebuttal heard or propel any positive stories about any social, economic, legal or ecological programs against the overwhelming wave of negative sentiment. A truly constructive and balanced discussion is hard to imagine in the current climate. Distrust is a strong and difficult emotion to battle against, it has been continually used against Indonesia and Indonesian companies over the past half decade with specific and telling effect.

The concerns the Indonesians have in regard to their environment are not the only ecological concerns facing the world. If Indonesia were to disappear from the earth there would still be more than enough problems to keep us all worried for many years to come. However, despite the many other hot spots and recent massive environmental disasters, such as the Mexico oil spill or the tar sands of Canada, it appears international NGOs prefer to singularly make their exemplar Indonesia. The longest running ecological disaster in the world is without doubt the Bhopal explosion in India in late 1984. Yet there is no significant ongoing international NGO support to the hundreds of thousands of victims and little repatriation of the heavily polluted and now unusable land. The fight is left up to the desperately poor people of that part of India to battle for environmental justice.

Following the horrendous Asian financial crisis, Indonesia has only recently entered the status of a full democracy, something the current and past Australian governments have recognised and encourage openly. Indonesia is becoming a less-corrupt society with the introduction of more accountable institutions of government. This shift will only occur with international support, it is hardly likely to happen in isolation.

The importance of Indonesia to future global trade has been emphasised over recent years. The US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, was sent to Indonesia immediately following President Barack Obama’s election a few years ago. The number of parliamentary cross visits between Australia and Indonesia has probably been far more than between any two other countries in the world ever before.

Australian society is now in an interesting place. On the one hand our political leaders are saying we need to embrace Indonesia, our future standard of living and the wealth of the nation is dependent on developing a healthy respectful society and trade relationships with our Asian neighbours, which has to include Indonesia. At the same time we continue to face pressure from other parts of our society, who continue to highlight negative aspects of the nation, stories that are easily communicated in a climate of distrust.

It is up to our society to accept Indonesia for what it really is — a nation in development but also a nation that is working hard to cement its place on the world stage and a nation that in future years we will find difficult not to like.

*Phillip Lawrence is an expert on Indonesia and PhD scholar at the University of Sydney. He also consults on the forestry industry to clients as diverse as the United Nations and Asia Pulp & Paper.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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