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Australia-Indonesia ties blow hot and cold

Written by: Staff

CANBERRA, Apr 5: A row over refugees from Indonesia's Papua province fleeing to Australia is just the latest chapter in a relationship that can move suddenly and unexpectedly from warmth to icy cold.

Canberra decided last month to recognise 42 Papuans as refugees after they arrived on Australia's northeastern tip in late January in a boat carrying a banner accusing Indonesia's military of genocide.

Indonesia immediately recalled its ambassador for consultations and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had asked Australian Prime Minister John Howard to return the group to Indonesia, wants ties reviewed.

Media reports today that another boatload of asylum-seekers from Papua had landed on Australian soil has only made things worse.

Australian National University political analyst Greg Fealy said it was a relationship that blows hot and cold.

''Just as quickly as you can have a new chapter, a good chapter in the Australian-Indonesian relationship it can turn out to be a very thin chapter and followed by a very grim chapter ... and that's been the pattern for many years,'' he told Reuters.

Fealy said the Papua refugee row was not as serious as the breakdown that happened when Australia led a UN-mandated force into East Timor in 1999 to quell violence after Timorese voted for independence from Jakarta.

But that experience increased Indonesia's sensitivity, he said.

''The wounds from the East Timor crisis are still very apparent in Indonesia and it's one of the things that makes Papua so sensitive -- the fear that Australia will do an East Timor with Papua, that's why this issue is so damaging,'' Fealy said.


Papuan independence activists have campaigned for more than 30 years to break away from Indonesia, while a low-level rebellion has also simmered. Some of the most prominent support for the separatists is from organisations in Australia. Howard has been at pains to state Australia views Papua as part of Indonesia. While acknowledging ties had been strained, he said it was not a ''fatal strain''.

''I think the relationship is strong enough and deep enough and warm enough to survive this but it is an issue in which the Indonesians feel a great deal of sensitivity and it's an issue we are closely following,'' Howard told reporters today.

Australia's opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd urged Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to call their Indonesian counterparts in a bid to stop the relationship spiralling out of control.

''(Indonesia is) important because of our common interests with counter-terrorism, our common interest in the effective control of illegal immigrants,'' Rudd said. ''We need to make sure this relationship is back on an even keel as soon as possible.'' Analysts blame the traditionally volatile ties on many things, including some obvious differences -- Indonesia is developing and the world's most populous Muslim nation, while Australia is a mainly Christian, developed nation.

''Based on history, Indonesia is a non-capitalist country that had been imperialised by the West,'' University of Indonesia political analyst Arbi Sanit told Reuters.

''Indonesia has a blood feud and anger inside at the West, while Australia is part of the West, which is pro-capitalism.'' Some analysts point to a 1963 battle in Borneo between Indonesia and Malaysia, in which Australian troops helped Malaysia, as possibly the lowest point in bilateral ties.

Since the East Timor crisis, relations have improved as the two countries joined forces to fight the war on terrorism, with Canberra's efforts gaining momentum after Yudhoyono became Indonesia's first directly elected president in October 2004.

Canberra rushed to the aid of its northern neighbour following the 2004 earthquake and tsunami and has also stepped in to help Indonesia deal with a deadly outbreak of bird flu.

Some analysts believe the storm over the Papuan refugees will eventually blow over.

''The quality of relations between Indonesia and Australia goes up and down ... However the relationship will normalise and be in harmony again,'' political analyst and former Rector of Gajah Mada University Ichlasul Amal told Reuters.


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