October 2012

The Nation Reviewed

In it together

By Waleed Aly
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Australia and Indonesia since the Bali bombings

Long Road to Heaven, the Indonesian feature film, has a scene where we see Imam Samudra, Amrozi and Ali Imron in Bali planning the details of the most devastating terrorist attack in that country’s history, which took place ten years ago this month. It’s a brief, matter-of-fact exchange with a chillingly rational result. Paddy’s Pub and the Sari Club will be the targets. This will keep Indonesian deaths to a minimum, while maximising foreign casualties. Amrozi and Ali Imron ask a bombmaker to create a device designed for a mass-casualty attack.

If you want to know why the Bali bombings are significant (Australian grief aside), there it is in a nutshell. Terrorism was hardly new to Indonesia at the time. The number of pre-Bali attacks is probably best measured in dozens. But with a handful of exceptions, including a spate of spectacular hijackings by Moluccan separatists in the Netherlands in the mid 1970s, attacks were small in scale and domestically focused. Foreigners were largely irrelevant to proceedings. The targets were typically mosques, temples, the odd corporate site, government events and politicians. Perpetrators were often Islamist, sometimes East Timorese and occasionally members of the armed forces sympathetic to a given rebel movement. Even the stand-out attacks, like the hijacking of a Garuda Indonesia flight in 1981, were centred on domestic demands: in that case, the release of members of the Kommando Jihad group.

Indonesian terrorism was therefore understood as resistance to authoritarian rule, particularly that of President Suharto. But terrorism didn’t stop after Suharto. Even allowing for the almost customary period of post-autocratic upheaval, Indonesian terrorism underwent an evolution that very few analysts noticed. It was becoming more internationally connected, designed for mass casualties and global in its horizons. Perhaps the first warning was the bombing of the Philippine consulate in 2000, for which Jemaah Islamiyah was suspected. But it wasn’t until Bali (or indeed some time after it) that we came to grips with the presence of a globalised terrorism network. Al Qaeda now had South-East Asian friends. Or, perhaps, clients.

The consequences of this were profound. They always are when globalisation announces itself. The impact of Bali may not have been as dramatic as that of September 11 or the London Tube bombings, but for Australia it meant a marked recalculation of our approach to international relations. In a stroke, the very logic of the Australia–Indonesia relationship was reversed. Until Bali, we never would have dreamt that a strong Indonesian state would be in our interests. We had no desire to see a powerful Indonesian intelligence community, which could, after all, spy on us. Law enforcement was fine, but this was post-Suharto Indonesia and we had our suspicions. The transition from autocracy to liberal democracy we had cheered necessarily meant weakening the state. Indonesia was a rival, not ardently so, but nonetheless to be treated in the way that Westphalian logic typically implies: play nice, but protect yourself. It’s a competition.

So what to think when such self-protection turns out to be deadly? Suddenly the holes in Indonesian intelligence and law enforcement were, in the most vivid, galling way, our problem. The Australian Federal Police became a kind of regional consultant. Never has its relationship with the Indonesian National Police been so close. It helped to establish the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation that, at the risk of gross simplification, is about beefing up Indonesian law enforcement so it gets better at counter-terrorism. Similar links have been built with the Philippine and Thai police forces, both of which are facing separatist terrorism.

This is not as simple as it sounds. It is no small matter to recast the axioms of international relations, to recognise that sovereignty is not enough for our wellbeing, that we can no longer truly be independent even from comparatively weak states, and that a new logic of interdependence is upon us – no longer as theory or aspiration, but as pragmatic reality. This is perhaps the great shift of our age, and it shows up everywhere, from economics, through climate change, to immigration policy. This is not just about co-operation. It’s not just about mutual interest. It’s not even about coexistence. It’s about something far more compromising: entanglement.

In concrete terms, that means doing things like tipping off Indonesian police that suspected Australian heroin couriers are about to enter their country, then authorising Indonesian authorities to “take what action they deem appropriate”. The result was the Bali Nine saga: in short, an Australian police force working actively to bust Australian citizens on drugs charges that had every chance of landing them in front of an Indonesian firing squad. Indeed, two have been sentenced to death, and are in prison waiting for their sentences to be commuted.

That is a self-evidently extraordinary turn of events. Sure, there’s an argument to be made that the AFP should have arrested and prosecuted the Bali Nine in Australia. But under the Treaty of Mutual Assistance on Criminal Matters that defined the Australia–Indonesia police relationship as it stood at the time, the AFP could only seek an assurance that its assistance would not lead to the death penalty where charges were pending. In this case, they weren’t. Mutual assistance proved decidedly complicated.

Entanglement brings with it the kind of ethical paradoxes that artificially neat concepts of state sovereignty have a habit of hiding. Here we were, champions of liberal democracy, engaged in a War on Terror that we insisted was about defending our values, helping to expand police power in a state still dealing with its autocratic residue, and flirting with a death penalty we had so long ago expunged. We had no complaint when the main players in the Bali bombings were executed; truth be told, the national mood was closer to celebration than angst.

Similarly, we had no problem when the Indonesians secured convictions for the attacks under retrospective legislation. How potent the symbolism, then, when Indonesia’s Constitutional Court struck the laws down, overturning the conviction of one of the Bali bombers, Masykur Abdul Kadir. The court was established just after the fall of Suharto. Australia’s counter-terrorism interests were being thwarted by the very institutions of liberalising reform that had announced a new, open Indonesia.

Now we’re making similar demands in the field of asylum seeker policy. We want an Indonesia with bigger and better border protection, law enforcement and naval capacity. We don’t especially mind if this has illiberal, punitive consequences for asylum seekers because we have an interest that only a hardline Indonesia can really serve. The problem is that this time, they have no reason to serve it. The asylum seekers there don’t want to stay, and Indonesia doesn’t want to keep them. It hasn’t seemed to occur to us that we are asking them to solve a problem they don’t see as theirs. For all the experience of the past decade, we haven’t quite learnt the lesson of entanglement: that we can no longer view our neighbours as instruments of our own interests. That we’re in this together, that it occasionally gets messy, and that having a bigger military and economy doesn’t mean we can call the shots.

Waleed Aly

Waleed Aly is a writer, broadcaster and academic.

Cover: October 2012
View Edition

From the front page

Nuclear fallout

The waves from Australia’s cancelled submarine contract keep building

Image of Colson Whitehead's ‘Harlem Shuffle’

‘Harlem Shuffle’ by Colson Whitehead

The author of ‘The Underground Railroad’ offers a disappointingly straightforward neo-noir caper set in the early ’60s

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison (image via Facebook) and Industry Minister Christian Porter (image via Sky News).

The standard you walk past

Ministerial standards breach or no, there is something deeply wrong with the government’s principles

Image of Paul Kelly

Unfinished business

Every Paul Kelly song so far, from worst to best

In This Issue

Brett Whiteley painting Francis Bacon's portrait, London, 1984. Photograph by John Edwards. Image courtesy of Art Gallery NSW.


Remembering Australian painters

The Best of Australian Arts 2012

'Lore' by Cate Shortland (director)

'Silent House', Orhan Pamuk, Hamish Hamilton; $29.99

'Silent House' by Orhan Pamuk

More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Return of the devil

Tasmanian devils may soon be returning to the wild on the mainland

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The agony and ecstasy

Clinical trials in Perth will study the use of MDMA to treat PTSD and addiction

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

The shed that contains the future

A green hydrogen project in South Australia aims to demonstrate zero-emission energy production

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Racing against time

The I-Kiribati Olympic sprinter hoping to draw attention to his nation’s climate catastrophe

Read on

Image of Paul Kelly

Unfinished business

Every Paul Kelly song so far, from worst to best

Image of Laure Calamy as Julie in À plein temps (Full Time), directed by Eric Gravel

Venice International Film Festival 2021 highlights

Films by Eric Gravel, Bogdan George Apetri and Gábor Fabricius are among the stand-outs in a program of unusual abundance

Image of Covid-19 vaccines

Dissent horizon

Why do we object more to mandated vaccination than mandated lockdowns?

Detail of cover image from ‘Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life’, showing a woman’s head resting on a pillow

Living to regret: ‘Nostalgia Has Ruined My Life’

With an exasperating but charming protagonist, Zarah Butcher-McGunnigle’s episodic novella demonstrates faultless comic timing