The discovery of “offensive materials” has led Indonesia to suspend all military cooperation with Australia just before the new year, disrupting the otherwise close relationship between the two countries. The instruction came via cable from Indonesian general Garot Nurmantyo on December 29.
According to The Guardian, the Indonesian military announced that the suspension was due to “technical reasons.” Major General Wuryanto, a spokesman for the Indonesian military, said that the measure was “effective immediately,” but also stated that cooperation would be resumed once the matters were resolved. The New York Times further quotes him as saying that, “The Australian side has responded very well, and they claim to understand.”
The offensive material was discovered on an Australian military base. Although it’s unclear where the material were found, Indonesian commandos have trained in Perth for several years, and it’s possible that it was found there.
The material in question insulted the Indonesian concept of “Pancasila” – the founding ideology of the Indonesian state, which includes a mandated belief in monotheism and unity in the Muslim-majority country. The Guardian says that the laminated paper referred to “Pancasila” (“Five Principles” in Indonesian) as “Panca-gila,” where “gila,” means “crazy.”
Australia and Indonesia have had a history of working closely on defense issues. Modern cooperation increased after the 2002 bombing in Bali that killed over 200 people, including 88 Australians. The 2006 Lombok Treaty followed and tied the two countries closely together on issues such as defense, counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, and combatting international crime.
However, there have been hiccups in the relationship. According to The Guardian, relations were suspended in 2013 after the Wikileaks release revealed Australian attempts to monitor the phone calls of the President of Indonesia. Prior to that, Indonesia’s military operations in 1999 in East Timor prompted criticism from Australia and a temporary suspension of cooperation.
However, both incidents were resolved and, according to Reuters, last year the two nations held the first joint exercises since 1995 in the Australian city of Darwin.
It remains to be seen how long the current suspension of cooperation will last. Reuters says that analysts generally expect the disruption to be short-lived. There has been some confusion, however, among the Indonesians as to the terms of the suspension. Australia and Indonesia were due to hold joint naval exercises in February – however, the state of that is uncertain. The United States relies on both countries as a bulwark against Chinese activities in the South China Sea.
ABC Australia quoted a spokesman for the Indonesian Navy who said that he had just found out about the cessation, and that he himself would need more details before he could make a statement: “I need to build more details first. Usually we don’t suspend cooperation on education and training but now I heard we’ve suspended all cooperation.”
Meanwhile, the office of the President of Indonesia has stated that the decision was unilateral on the part of the Indonesian military. According to Reuters, a spokesman for President Joko Widodo said that the matter had not been discussed with the President and that the issue had been exaggerated. Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said that relations with Australia remained “just fine.”
The New York Times quoted Damien Kingsbury, a professor of International Relations at Deakin University in Melbourne, who suggested that the move by the military might have been intended to embarrass President Widodo, who has largely been seen as ineffective. “Australia,” he said, “is a convenient whipping boy.”
Andrew O’Neill, from Griffith University, said that the incident has not damaged relations between Australian and Indonesian troops themselves “get on, they talk the same language and think politics is rubbish.” He continued: “They share mutual concerns, especially about China’s navy and China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.”
What do you think about Indonesia’s announcement? Is stopping cooperation merited or are they being oversensitive? Do you think this will last, and how could it influence events in the South China Sea? Sound off in the comments and tell us what you think.
By James Mayfield
Photo Courtesy Government of Indonesia