On the ground: the Indonesian response to the spying saga

What’s behind the public, media and political response in Indonesia to the revelations of the extent of Australia’s spying activities? AAP/Eka Nickmatulhuda

Expressions of public outrage in Indonesia at allegations Australia had engaged in the phone tapping of Indonesian politicians – including president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and Cabinet members – have so far been limited. However, there is still obvious potential for escalation.

The biggest demonstration so far has been outside the Australian Embassy on Thursday, at which some groups called for action to be taken against Australian residents in Indonesia. There was also a fairly small demonstration in Yogyakarta the previous day, with the ritual burning of an Australian flag.

In a piece I wrote in The Conversation two weeks ago, I downplayed the likely impact of the spying issue on Australia-Indonesia relations. I still do not see it as likely to inflict fundamental damage to the relationship: both countries have too much to lose for that to be a real likelihood.

But clearly things have become much worse in the past week. And one reason for this has been the revelations of precisely whose phones have been tapped. Of these, it was probably the tapping of the First Lady, Ani Yudhoyono’s, phone which aroused most interest – and in many quarters, the most resentment. One parliamentarian from Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party said:

Australia has gone over the top in tapping Ms Ani’s phone. Do they really think Ms Ani is a threat to Australia?

Other Indonesians, though, have suggested that the incident showed who really runs the country.

More broadly, what have been the factors shaping Indonesian reactions to the issue?

Certainly, the problem cannot be taken out of the context of the 2014 general and presidential elections. With those elections coming up, no political leader is going to risk looking weak facing this challenge to state sovereignty. Although parties will not be nominating their presidential candidates until after the general elections in April next year, the unofficial campaigning is well underway.

The presidential candidate most likely to be unsympathetic towards Australia, retired general Prabowo, has been quiet on the issue. Last week, he simply said:

Phone tapping is common. If you have something secret to say, don’t discuss it on the phone.

Prabowo does not appear to have elaborated on these views since then.

The election front-runner, Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, has said even less. Noting that his name was not on the list of those tapped, he simply said this was understandable – his job was managing day to day municipal affairs in Jakarta, not national politics. But in 2009, he was not even Governor of Jakarta: he was the mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo, and well out of the national spotlight.

Yudhoyono himself may be taking a strong position in order to try to shore up support for his Democrat Party in the general and presidential elections. The party has suffered a major drop in support over the past few years, and currently looks dead in the water. However, to imagine that beating up on Australia could rescue it in the eyes of the electorate would require a major leap of faith.

But Yudhoyono is also clearly highly offended personally by the phone tap revelations, given how much he had staked politically on maintaining good relations with Australia. He trusted Australia – why did Australia not trust him?

So while concern for Indonesia’s political future is undoubtedly one factor shaping reactions to the spying scandal, it may not be the dominant one. Rather, these reactions are as much about Indonesia’s past as its future.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s reactions to the spying relevations are in part about his own past and his political legacy. EPA/Abbor Rizki

On the one hand, there is the continuing undercurrent of nationalist sentiment fuelled by past violations of Indonesian sovereignty. Most notably, of course, Indonesia was subject to Dutch colonialism. But even since independence, Indonesia has suffered a range of foreign interferences in its affairs: over the regional rebellions in the late 1950s, the East Timor occupation and separatism in the Papuan provinces. Phone tapping is seen by many as simply an extension of that colonial influence.

There is also the continuing sense of technological colonialism – the recognition that Australia (and the US) could only undertake this electronic spying because they had superior technical capacity.

The leader of the Hanura party, Wiranto, said that the events showed Indonesians needed to become more “technologically literate”. Other observers asked what Indonesia’s own intelligence agencies, including the National Cypher Agency (Lembaga Sandi Negara, or LSN), were doing about the problem. The LSN’s job is to protect state secrets: it clearly failed to do so. A senior official of the National Democrats party noted bluntly:

National sovereignty and self-respect are at stake. The LSN must accept responsibility.

He went on to suggest that the LSN had failed because it had been devoting too many of its resources to non-core tasks, especially monitoring the preparations for the 2014 elections.

But in the case of Yudhoyono specifically, his reactions are in part about his own past: his political legacy as Indonesia’s first directly elected president. His second term of office has been, to say the least, a disappointment to many Indonesians. He has let government drift, seemingly unable or unwilling to assert control on just about any issue for fear of being criticised.

But the spying issue is one where Yudhoyono is safe from attack. No Indonesian is going to criticise him for attacking Australia on the issue. To the contrary: he would be criticised if he did not object strongly. The concerns with Yudhoyono legacy, then, may well have helped fire him into action – in addition, of course, to the affront to his dignity and that of his wife.

But perhaps the real question is not why Yudhoyono and others in Indonesia have reacted so strongly to these allegations. Rather, it is why should Australia not have expected such reactions? Put the shoe on the other foot: if Indonesia had been revealed to have been tapping the phones of our national leaders, would Tony Abbott and the Australian government have done any less?