This man may be our best ally against people smugglers
Marty Natalegawa is a consummate diplomat. The Indonesian Foreign Minister is also his country’s former representative to the United Nations and Ambassador to the UK.
At the age of 46 he has done more than most top diplomats do in an entire career. Now he’s the Foreign Minister.
On Tuesday this week I interviewed Marty Natelagawa in his Jakarta offices. In a long line of difficult issues between Australia and Indonesia, people smuggling has been the most awkward in recent months, so of course I had to begin our discussion on just that.
Specifically, the case of Sri Lankan asylum seekers who remain on their cargo boat off the port of Merak, four months after being intercepted by the Indonesian navy at the personal request of Prime Minister Rudd to President SBY.
Foreign Minister Natelagawa said recently, “we have to bring on board Australia’s engagement again” to resolve the issue.
He didn’t say it explicitly but the sub-text is clear, Australia can’t ask for Indonesian help to intercept a vessel like this then wash their hands of the problem.
Within weeks Australia’s Ambassador on People Smuggling was on Indonesian soil for talks, which were held late last week. When I spoke to the Minister his message was now a more positive one, not that Australia needs to “get back on board” rather “Australia has always been part of the solution”.
A post-graduate degree at Cambridge and a PHD from ANU under his belt, he is obviously a clever man and with his diplomatic experience he is well versed at how to extract what he wants with subtlety. Exactly what will break the impasse and what further Australia can do remains to be seen but Australian authorities have been left in no doubt that Indonesia does not want to be left alone in trying to resolve the standoff.
One of the many difficulties in dealing with people smuggling for Australia’s northern neighbour remains the fact that it is not a crime under Indonesian law.
In fact, the Captain of the boat that carried the Sri Lankans still sitting off the coast of West Java, the notorious Captain Bram, looks like he might escape with a fine despite the fact he’s arranged the passage of an estimated 1500 asylum seekers to Australia over the last decade.
On this issue the Foreign Minister is conciliatory and concedes it’s something Indonesia must deal with. Asked when there’ll be a change of law he said hopefully “sooner rather than later”.
Another complex problem for the Minister to manage as Indonesia and Australia try to combat the trade while being hampered by the lack of deterrence under Indonesian law.
Natalegawa is philosophical about the delays in achieving that deterrence through Indonesia’s nascent democracy but it’s also clear that is his preference. This is one of the complex balancing acts this man faces but for Indonesia it seems they could not have a better person in the job.
Beyond his qualifications he has the essential ingredient for a diplomat - pragmatism - acutely aware of the difference between what is ideal and what is possible.
- Kieran Gilbert is in Indonesia on a Government funded visit, as part of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Liz O’Neill award for journalism.
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