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Australia Indonesia Association notches up 70 years of friendship

03 July 2015
Image by Josh Estey on flickr


Despite the strained poliltical relationship between Australia and Indonesia, the Australia Indonesia Association aims to unite the peoples of both nations through art and culture, WRITES HAMISH McDONALD

Seventy years ago today, on a winter night in Sydney, a diverse group met in the Oddfellows Hall in Castlereagh Street and set up an organisation to promote Australia's relations with a country that didn't then exist, Indonesia.

In this enterprise they were odd fellows indeed. They included a former headmaster cashiered in India for independence sympathies, a wealthy lubricant dealer who was also a card-carrying Communist Party member, the daughter of a well-known Theosophical Society family and a battle-axe granny who worked in the GPO's Dead Letter Office.

With an eye no doubt to respectability, the elected leadership of the Australia Indonesia Association wore clerical collars. The inaugural president was the eminent scholar of Aboriginal Australia, A.P. Elkin, and the ethno-linguist Arthur Capell the senior vice-president, both ordained Anglican priests, while another office holder was an actual bishop, George Cranswick, chair of the Australian Board of Missions.

The association declared its aim "to promote friendly relations with a region of which Australians have little knowledge, yet a region that will play an important part in Australia's sphere of foreign affairs in the post-war world".

It also supported application of the Atlantic Charter, a document US President Franklin Roosevelt pushed on a presumably reluctant Winston Churchill in August 1941 endorsing among other things the right to self-determination. This would be "the surest guarantee of a progressive and prosperous Indonesia".

The war ended six weeks later with Japan's surrender, and it was two days later that Indonesia can be said to have begun, with a brief declaration of independence in Jakarta by Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta.

It was hardly a decisive moment, however. Newly freed from their own foreign occupation, the Dutch set about reimposing control over their former East Indies empire, and this was to see conflict continuing for another four years.

Australia's policy wavered between loyalty to a wartime ally whose exile forces and resistance had helped fight the war, and growing realisation that supporting colonial rule in Asia would put us on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of our own region.

On one hand, prime minister at the time Ben Chifley went back on a promise made early in the war to let the Dutch train up an army of 30,000 troops in Australia ahead of deployment into the Indies, and his Labor government did not strongly oppose the black bans put by communist-controlled unions on Dutch shipping.

On the other hand, the Australian Army, which had taken the Japanese surrender in the eastern part of the archipelago, handed over control to the Dutch along with massive stores of military equipment, while eight corvettes of the Australian navy were also transferred. These resources were used to attempt to strangle the Indonesian Republic in its precarious realm on Java.

By the time Labor lost office to Menzies in 1949, the Dutch had lost remaining support from the United States, and Australia's new Department of External Affairs had nudged Canberra into an honest broker role that won international support for the handover of power to Indonesia at the end of the year.

By then at least some Australians had met and talked with some Indonesians on an equal footing: sailors from the Dutch shipping operating from Australian ports during the war, political prisoners evacuated from penal settlements in New Guinea. To the horror of White Australia proponents, some had met and married Australian women.

As the Australian National University's Ross Tapsell recounts in his recent book By-Lines, Balibo Bali Bombings, war correspondents such as Tony Rafty and Graeme Jenkins had stayed on in Java after the surrender and conveyed sympathetic portraits of the Indonesian resistance and its leader, Sukarno.

Relations between Australia and Indonesia have waxed and waned. A burst of enthusiasm in the 1950s, with Australian volunteers such as Herb Feith going to work in Jakarta and Indonesian students coming here under the Colombo Plan, was followed by barely disguised conflict over regional rebellions and the formation of Malaysia.

The paroxysm of 1965 entrenched a divergence of Australian views about Indonesia, between those who saw authoritarian government as the remedy for political chaos and economic stagnation, and those who could not overlook the mass murder of a million communists and decades of on-off repression. The manipulated act of self-determination in New Guinea, the invasion and annexation of Portuguese Timor widened this split.

Post-Suharto democracy has brought attitudes more into single focus, though terrorism, corruption and unreliable justice still surround Indonesia with an aura of danger for the Australian public.

The Australia Indonesia Association has endured, though never gaining more than 100 members, says current president Eric de Haas. Most have some Indonesian connection, through marriage, business and academic interests. He himself was born in Jakarta of Dutch parents who later migrated to Australia, then went back to work there for 18 years and found his wife Ika. Aside from social functions, its main activity is now providing scholarships for study.

Promoting good relations with Indonesia has sometimes been a forlorn task, de Haas admits. "I try to look at the longer term," he says. "Relations go up and down at the political level, but at the people-to-people level they are fairly constant. I just keep pushing."

Hamish McDonald is a former correspondent in Jakarta and current Journalist-in-Residence at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.




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