Indonesia spying scandal rocks the boat but won’t sink it

By Adjunct Professor Colin Brown, Griffith Asia Institute

In a piece I wrote in the Conversation two weeks ago, I downplayed the likely impact of the spying issue on Australia-Indonesia relations. I still do not see it as likely to inflict fundamental damage to the relationship: both countries have too much to lose for that to be a real likelihood.

But clearly things have become much worse in the past week. And one reason for this has been the revelations of precisely whose phones have been tapped. These include SBY himself, his wife Ani, and such clearly moderate (from the Australian perspective) political leaders as Vice President Boediono and then Finance Minister Sri Mulyani.

Of these, it was probably the tapping of Ms Ani’s phone which aroused most interest, and in many quarters most resentment. One parliamentarian from SBY’s Democrat Party said: Australia has gone over the top in tapping Ms Ani’s phone. Do they really think Ms Ani is a threat to Australia?

Other Indonesians, though, have suggested that the incident showed who really runs the country.

Read more of Professor Colin Brown on The Conversation

More broadly, what have been the factors shaping Indonesian reactions to the issue?

Certainly the problem cannot be taken out of the context of the 2014 general and presidential elections. With those elections coming up, no political leader is going to risk looking weak facing this challenge to state sovereignty.

Although parties will not be nominating their presidential candidates until after the general elections of April 2014, unofficial campaigning is well underway.

The presidential candidate most likely to be unsympathetic towards Australia, retired general Prabowo, has been quiet on the issue. Last week he simply said: Phone tapping is common. If you have something secret to say, don’t discuss it on the phone.

He does not appear to have elaborated on these views since then.

The election front-runner, Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, has said even less. Noting that his name was not on the list of those tapped, he simply said this was understandable — his job was managing day to day municipal affairs in Jakarta, not national politics. But in 2009 he was not even Governor of Jakarta: he was the Mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo, and well out of the national spotlight.

SBY himself may be taking a strong position in order to try to shore up support for his Democrat Party in the general and presidential elections. The party has suffered a major drop in support over the past few years, and currently looks dead in the water. However to imagine that beating up on Australia could rescue it in the eyes of the electorate would require a major leap of faith.

So while concern for Indonesia’s political future is undoubtedly one factor shaping reactions to the issue, it may not be the dominant one. Rather, these reactions are as much about Indonesia’s past as its future.

On the one hand, there is the continuing undercurrent of nationalist sentiment fuelled by past violations of Indonesian sovereignty. Most notably, of course, Indonesia was subject to Dutch colonialism. But even since independence, Indonesia has suffered a range of foreign interferences in its affairs: over the regional rebellions in the late 1950s, the East Timor occupation and separatism in the Papuan provinces.

Phone tapping is seen by many as simply an extension of that colonial influence.

There is also the continuing sense of technological colonialism — the recognition that Australia (and the US) could only undertake this electronic spying because they had superior technical capacity.

The leader of the Hanura party, Wiranto, said that the events showed Indonesians needed to become more “technologically literate”.

Other observers asked what Indonesia’s own intelligence agencies, including the National Cypher Agency (Lembaga Sandi Negara), were doing about the problem. The LSN’s job is to protect state secrets: it clearly failed to do so. A senior official of the National Democrats party noted bluntly: National sovereignty and self-respect are at stake. The LSN must accept responsibility.

He went on to suggest that the LSN had failed because it had been devoting too many of its resources to non-core tasks, especially monitoring the preparations for the 2014 elections.

But in the case of SBY specifically, his reactions are in part about his own past: his political legacy as Indonesia’s first directly elected president.

SBY’s second term of office has been, to say the least, a disappointment to many Indonesians. He has let government drift, seemingly unable or unwilling to assert control on just about any issue for fear of being criticised.

But the spying issue is one where he is safe from attack. No Indonesian is going to criticise him for attacking Australia on the issue: it is a classic no risk manoeuvre.

These concerns with his legacy, then, may well have helped fire SBY into action — in addition of course to the affront to his dignity and that of his wife.

Expressions of public outrage at the spying allegations have thus far been limited, but obviously there is potential for escalation.

The biggest demonstration so far has been outside the Australian Embassy on Thursday 21 November, at which some groups called for action to be taken against Australians resident in Indonesia. There was a fairly small demonstration in Yogyakarta the previous day, with the ritual burning of an Australian flag.

But perhaps the real question is not why SBY and others in Indonesia have reacted so strongly to these allegations; rather, it is why should we not have expected such reactions? Put the shoe on the other foot: if Indonesia had been revealed to have been tapping the phones of our national leaders, would we have done any less?