Our role in defending democracy in Indonesia
The Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is due to visit Australia in early March and will be addressing both houses of Parliament.
It’s not that common to have a foreign leader address the Australian Parliament but it will be repeated later in March when the US President Barack Obama is expected to do the same.
Australia-Indonesia relations are always complex. At the leadership and government level they remain strong as the Howard Government had left them, despite frustrations in official Indonesian ranks over the Rudd Government’s handling of the Oceanic Viking saga and the ongoing issue of the Sri Lankan asylum seekers that remain in limbo off a West Java port.
The two Governments continue to work closely on counter-terrorism and combatting other trans-national crimes. More than 3500 Indonesian Police have been trained since June 2004 at the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Co-operation jointly run by the Australian Federal Police, and where the AFP provides a majority of funding and training.
But people to people links between the two countries remain less firm. Awareness in Australia of Indonesia and its people is not as good it could and should be.
Beyond the odd holiday to the predominantly Hindu Bali, understanding of Indonesia’s largely moderate and tolerant religious beliefs are not widely known.
The issue of Islam in Indonesia is often only mentioned in our country’s broader discourse after a terrorist attack.
Just how big is the extremist fringe? Last week I interviewed terrorism expert Sidney Jones from the International Crisis Group in her Jakarta office.
When asked just how many individuals are on the radical fringe, willing to carry out terrorist acts, she said “around 50”. Obviously it only takes one person to perpetuate violence, but in a country of 240 million - that’s 0.000021% of the population.
Importantly the vast majority of Indonesian muslims and their leaders abhor terrorism.
In Jakarta, I spoke to the Chairman of both Nahdlatul Ulama and Mohammadiyah - the two major Muslim groups in Indonesia, they represent around 70 million Indonesian Muslims collectively. I also attended Friday prayers at the city’s largest Mosque and spoke to the Grand Imam Dr KH Ali Mustofa Yakub.
All three men were keen to make clear their belief in tolerance and to highlight the long tradition of respect for others to practice their own religions in this diverse country.
In fact it’s a plurality of religion enshrined in Indonesia’s 1945 constitution.
This week, AusAID representatives showed me some of the work they’re doing on the island of Lombok, in the largely Muslim province of West Nusa Tenggara.
We attended the opening of a school built with AusAID funding. The whole village, one thousand of them, turned out for the opening, with flags lining their one unpaved road.
It’s a Muslim village and the school that was being opened is a Madrasah, a Muslim school.
I spoke to some of the parents and they admitted when the idea of Australian funding for their school was proposed they were suspicious. What did Australia want in return?
The community was reassured by AusAID that it only wanted to help build them a school and to ensure they were equipped with the skills to sustain it, so they accepted the offer.
Now that they have the school built, there’s nothing but pride in the new school at the centre of their village.
It’s one of 500 Muslim specific schools and one of 2000 schools in total, built with AusAID funding over the last couple of years.
The program has created pockets of goodwill towards Australia in communities across Indonesia.
In an enormous country like Indonesia it’s a small step towards greater engagement, but it’s hard to think of a better targeted and more worthwhile one.
- Kieran Gilbert’s visit to Indonesia has been funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs as part of its Elizabeth O’Neill Award for journalism.
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