Indonesians are usually an easy-going, amiable people. But last week, they were boiling with anger and a sense of betrayal after revelations that Australia’s Signals Directorate had been tapping the phones of senior Indonesian government officials, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and, worst of all, his wife, First Lady Ani Yudhoyono.
Aussie intelligence was also spying on the very same senior Indonesian cabinet officials who, like the president, are regarded as staunch allies of the US and Australia. This electronic spying was part of the Five Eyes joint intelligence operation between the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Five Eyes is run by the US National Security Agency; its other Anglo-Saxon members act as loyal junior partners, spying on their neighborhoods and, often, their own people.
How much of their local data is passed to Washington is unknown, but it is likely substantial. Disturbingly, it was recently revealed that the NSA passes information on US citizens to Israel.
Indonesians are asking why Australia spied on them – supposedly a friendly neighbor – and, worse, on their admired president and first lady. Interestingly, Indonesians I’ve talked to, including the very bright editor-in-chief of the Jakarta Post, Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, feel deeply insulted and personally offended.
Indonesia and Australia have been trying to better relations for the past 20 years. They have been cooperating closely on a host of government, military, environmental and health programs.
Indonesia, with 248 million people is the closest major neighbor to Australia’s 23 million people, a fact that has often made the highly xenophobic Aussies nervous even though their defense is guaranteed by Washington. US Marines are soon to be stationed in northern Australia, near Indonesia. This militarily useless act has angered Indonesia and China.
Australia’s new, conservative prime minister, Tony Abbot, belittled the scandal as a minor flap and issued the same lame excuse as other spying western governments: “Everyone does it.” That excuse may work in school yards, but not with Indonesia or with many Americans, for that matter.
Showing more courage than France or Germany, Yudhoyono ordered his ambassador to Australia home, and severed many joint projects with the Aussies.
Most important, Australia has been paying Indonesia US$608.7 million annually in “aid” to stop boatloads of desperate asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Afghanistan reaching Australia. This aid seems suspended for now.
Australia has been rebuked by the outside world, for adopting such a heartless policy towards non-white refugees.
Australia has always been an apartheid state. It’s just that few noticed. While South Africa was blasted for trying to maintain white rule, Australia always kept a white-only immigration policy, accepting only small numbers of Asians. Seen any black Australians lately aside from its aboriginals?
Australia’s hard-line right wingers have always warned that dark-skinned Indonesians plan one day to invade lilly-white Australia. Back in the days of Indonesia’s late President Sukarno, Aussie and Indonesian troops often skirmished in what “Bung Karno” called “Konfrontasi”.
Australia intervened to break East Timor away from Indonesian control. The Aussies are intriguing in mineral-rich Indonesian Papua.
Many Aussies, particularly older ones, regard Indonesia as a menacing, chaotic, violent neighbor filled with angry Muslims. Jakarta’s murderous traffic may fit this description, but the rest is the same racist cant we hear from know-nothing, anti-Muslim American conservatives.
So far, Abbot’s replies have been ham-handed and inept. He should climb down, apologize, and eat crow for the stupid misdeeds of his spooks.
Good politics demands that he – and Obama – should fire the top men in the offending spy agencies as a warning and political sacrifice. Spies, like children, must be taught there are limits.
Meanwhile, the US is getting blamed by many Indonesians for AussieGate. America has huge investments in resource-rich Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation and largest Muslim country.
How foolish and counter-productive to antagonize and insult such an important ally and growing economic powerhouse.
Eric S. Margolis is an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared in The Sun Daily, a leading newspaper of Malaysia.