It has been a very full day in Jakarta for the delegation I am travelling with. After a briefing of an hour or so last night from Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia and some Embassy staff, we had a dinner with nine members of the House of Representatives’ Australia-Indonesia Cooperation Group, from a range of different parties. It was informal, but informative.
This morning we had a meeting for over an hour with Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Hassan Wirajuda. I found this extremely interesting and valuable. The format basically enabled each of the 8 members of our delegation to ask a question or make a comment, with the Minister making comments himself throughout. Our delegation is particularly interested in assessing the progress of reconstruction in areas affected by the Tsunami at the end of last year and that was certainly a topic of discussion. However, all Australians should also be interested in the broader challenges Indonesia faces in ensuring economic development that can put a big dent in major problems of poverty, whilst also addressing human rights issues and removing corruption. The best aspect of the Howard Government’s $1 billion assistance package is the prospect it offers to lay foundations for wider future economic development in Indonesia.
I was keen to ask about human rights issues. I had just read an article in The Age by Garry Woodard which mentioned how weak the Australian Government has been in putting pressure on the military junta in Burma, and it seemed a good opportunity to ask the Minister what the attitude of the Indonesian Government was towards Burma’s human rights record.
It is not appropriate to detail comments made in the meeting, but nothing was said which made me question Garry Woodard’s assessment. This article by Reuters, from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s pages, also gives an indication of Indonesia’s attitude. Indonesia is assisting Australia’s efforts to be more closely involved in ASEAN, which our country should be grateful for, and it is ironic that they and some of their ASEAN counterparts are taking a stronger line on the actions of a regional military dictatorship than Australia, particularly when Minister Alexander Downer was saying Australia couldn’t sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation because it would make it “impossible for any Australian government to criticise Burma on human rights issues“. Indonesia’s moves in recent years towards a fully functioning democracy have been extremely positive, and the more it and other nations in the region provide democracy, economic development and better human rights standards, the more unacceptable dictatorships like Burma (or Vietnam) will become within ASEAN and our region.
Following the meeting with the Foreign Minister, we went for a visit to the Australian Embassy, which is still showing the signs of the bomb blast that occurred in October last year. We were shown the spot where the bomb went off and could see the major security walls and rebuilding work that is happening, which was a sobering experience. This Embassy has over 80 Australian based staff, which is our largest in the world. After an informal chat to some of the Embassy staff (which also gave some useful insights into local issues), we went on to lunch with some members of their equivalent of our Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee.
Following that we met with the Deputy Speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) (which is a bit like a Joint sitting of their Parliament which meets to ratify the President’s appointment and meets to receive the President’s reports which are like the US President’s Address to Congress.) Following that, we met the Speaker of the House of Representatives and another 4 Parliamentarians. Indonesia’s Parliament is more innately powerful than Australia’s, as it is more clearly separate from the Government and the Executive. This meeting was quite frank and very useful. Finally we met with the Speaker of the Regional Representatives Council (DPD) which is a new House of Parliament, similar to our Senate. It has 4 representatives directly elected from each region. Included in that meeting were 6 other ‘Senators’, including 3 out of the 4 people elected to represent Aceh. We naturally spent a lot of time getting their views on how the rebuilding of Aceh was going and what could be done better. We are flying to Aceh in the morning to look and listen for ourselves, and I will write more on that afterwards.
The day finished with a reception hosted by Australia’s Ambassador, David Ritchie, at the hotel we are staying at, which was attended by a range of officials and representatives of various organisations. I spent most of my time talking with Australian Embassy workers and getting their assessment of the pluses and minuses of issues locally.
Whilst $1 billion of Australian Government assistance and the $300 million of aid donated by the Australian people directly, along with wider issues of governance and ways to improve contacts and understanding between Australians and Indonesians were what dominated our discussions in all these meetings, the issue of Schapelle Corby did come up briefly a few times. Again, it is not appropriate to report specific comments, but I can say that I heard nothing from anybody that would give any cause for concern for Ms Corby or her supporters.