Diplomats may be in consternation as relations between Australia and Indonesia reach a low ebb — but what do Indonesians on the street think about their southern neighbour?
Officially, Jakarta is deeply unhappy with the Abbott government’s “turn back the boats” plan, revelations of government spying and the Australian navy ending up in Indonesian waters. The media in both countries are keen to fan the flames, with The Jakarta Post accusing Abbott of exacerbating the situation for political gain and The Australian claiming Indonesia should take responsibility for the boats.
But for the people on the streets of Jakarta, a city of 10 million, there is far less venom towards Australia and even our government than the papers might have us believe. Crikey talked to some people to gauge their opinions.
Han, 52, has lived in Jakarta for most of his life and makes his living as an ojek man (a motorcycle taxi driver). I met Han because I am a “bule”, or a white foreigner. Bules are ever-popular in Jakarta; it is a rare day indeed when a stranger on the street does not stop and enthusiastically ask to take a picture with you.
For Han, every bule is a new friend, and he’s especially fond of Australians. “I had a good Australian friend,” he said. “She taught me good English.”
Han grew up in the Suharto years and is very sceptical of governments, both Indonesia’s and Australia’s.”We all know they are corrupt,” he said dismissively. “Why should it matter to me what your government says? Mr Abbott is never going to ride my ojek.”
This attitude is fairly representative of how Indonesians in Jakarta feel at the moment. They seem to find it easy to ignore the rhetoric.
Kade is also a survivor of Suharto and works as a cleaning lady. “Do you know about the Ministry of Information?” she asked, referring to the infamous arm of Suharto’s government that controlled the media during his 31 years as president. “We don’t have that anymore. It’s good. They can write what they want. But that still doesn’t mean it is all true.”
When I asked Kade if she was upset by Australia turning back asylum seekers, she nodded sagely. “It’s just we can’t help those people here.”
Indonesia’s economy is growing, but food security, sanitation and adequate housing still present problems, especially for the rural poor. Even in the buzzing metropolis of Jakarta there are still Indonesians who don’t have access to these services.
As an archipelago nation of 17,000 islands, it presents no small task for the government to build the infrastructure to support development in regions like Nusa Tenggara or Papua. Can the country support asylum seekers who have been turned back from Australia?
“It does worry me a bit,” said Alonzo, 21, a communications student at Universitas Atma Jaya in Jakarta’s Semanggi district. “Jakarta is already overpopulated lately.”
Lately is a bit of an understatement. Jakarta has had problems with unregistered communities building shanty towns on government land for years. The people who live in them, often rubbish collectors or streetside vendors, usually live close to river beds in their makeshift communities without access to proper running water or electricity. They are the worst affected by the flood of the wet season, and when their homes are washed away, they pack up what little they can find and move to another plot of vacant land. These makeshift villages are called kampungs. It’s hard to put an accurate figure on how many people live in such places, but human settlement research group Un-Habitat placed the number at around 26% of Jakarta’s population in 2008.
Even as Jakarta struggles with its own population, Alonzo, who is part of the rising middle class, says the brinkmanship at a political level does not affect people day to day. “As I see, it has damaged our political relationship. Abbott may be tied to his campaign promises. That makes it difficult for him.
“But that doesn’t affect the relationship between us,” he said, referring to myself and him. “And why should it?”