Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Indonesians Furious at Australia's Eavesdropping

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Indonesians Furious at Australia's Eavesdropping

Article excerpt

The revelation in November that Australia's Signals Directorate had been tapping the telephone conversations of senior Indonesian officials, including those of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife, Ani Yudhoyono, created an uproar in Indonesia. Media commentators of all political persuasions reacted angrily, and there were protest demonstrations at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. Indonesia recalled its ambassador to Canberra. Public opinion in neighboring Malaysia was sympathetic to Indonesia's point of view. At the end of the month, when Indonesian media claimed that Singapore and South Korea had assisted the Australian spying effort, both countries were at pains to deny any involvement.

The Indonesian public, rather like the public in France and Germany, considers it an insult to their country to have their leaders' conversations tapped, especially when Indonesia is publicly called a friend and ally by the states behind the spying operation. The entire program was initially justified as being part of the war against terrorism, but Indonesia has run one of the most successful counter-terrorist drives in the world in the past decade, and some soldiers and police have paid with their lives for this effort; citizens don't appreciate their government being treated as if it was part of the problem.

Australia spied on Indonesia-the world's most populous Muslim country- as part of the top-secret Five Eyes intelligence operation that brought together the U.S., Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia in what, despite the mixed character of each of their societies, appears to the rest of the world as an Anglo-Saxon club. Its existence was revealed by documents leaked by Edward Snowden and publicized in The Guardian, The New York Times and other papers. The overall operation is run by the U.S. National Security Agency, which happily shares information with Israel.

Washington therefore has cause for relief, in this instance, as Australia is taking the flak for being its sub-contractor. It is not only Australia's front-line role that explains why it has borne the brunt of Indonesian anger. The two countries are close neighbors, and there has been friction between them in the past. Australia was regarded as being sympathetic to East Timor's independence movement in 1999; its earlier collusion with the Indonesian occupation of the half-island nation was forgotten. After the Bali bombings in 2001, some in Australia thought that Indonesia could have shown more vigor in pursuing and prosecuting the culprits-not just the terrorists immediately responsible, but their mentors. Because of this history, there is an undercurrent of distrust of Australia in sectors of Indonesian society that easily surfaces in a crisis. It doesn't help that Australia's new prime minister, Tony Abbott, shrugged offIndonesian anger at the spying operation with the "everyone does it" excuse.

Indonesians disapprove of U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, and were disappointed that President Barack Obama did not prioritize visiting Indonesia when he took office, given his time in the country as a boy. Nevertheless, antagonism toward the U.S. remains relatively limited, so Washington has the option of making amends relatively easily-and would be well advised to do so.

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