American Spying Beyond Europe: Australia-Indonesia Meltdown

Written by | Saturday, February 1st, 2014

Edward Snowden’s revelations about American espionage have riled Europeans and so has the Obama administration’s response to the whole affair. Countries as far afield as Japan, India, Indonesia and Turkey are trying to digest revelations about the nature and extent of America’s electronic espionage on them. Particularly shocking to many was the news that even friendly states have been spied upon. Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), claims that its programs “can and often do target the signals” of around 30 “third-party” states, with which Washington has otherwise maintained friendly ties. While the NSA spied on, among other targets, the European Union’s diplomatic headquarters in Brussels, it exempts only a handful of close “second-party” allies, primarily Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia (participants in the so-called ‘five eyes’ espionage network).
American spying on its European allies has its parallel in the Asia-Pacific where Australia has recently admitted to have spied on its largest neighbour and “a friendly country” (as John Howard, former Australian PM, called it) – Indonesia. In fact, Jakarta’s response to the spying imbroglio last month – when the country’s president Yudhoyono recalled his ambassador and suspended security co-operation with Australia – reflects a political history of regular foreign intervention in Indonesian affairs that few Australians are aware of.
Indonesia emerged as a modern nation in the wake of World War Two, when Japanese troops ousted the Dutch, who had subjugated and exploited the country for centuries. After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Indonesia’s founding president Sukarno declared independence. However, allied soldiers arrived in Jakarta in September 1945 and began to occupy major cities with the aim of returning Indonesia to its pre-war status as a Dutch colony. Thousands died in the bombing of Surabaya. Dutch soldiers and administrators returned; Dutch POWs, released by Indonesia, were armed and sent back on rampages against Indonesian civilians and police. Australian troops participated in the occupation of the outer islands.
In 1965, Indonesia witnessed one of the greatest genocides of the 20th century, as army general Suharto led a military coup against the left leaning but essentially nationalist and internationally non-aligned Sukarno government. At least 500,000 innocent Indonesian civilians were butchered over the following year at a rate of 1,500 people per day, to the applause of western powers including Australia. The deep involvement of British and American intelligence in staging this bloody military coup is beyond reasonable doubt, even though many documents still remain classified. The excuse was that, in the context of the Cold War power struggle, Indonesians could not be trusted to decide their own future.
The lack of an apology for such consistent unneighbourly behaviour may seem astonishing in the context of the “Asian Century” and needs to be understood as a direct consequence of the on-going nature of these operations. Continuity, as well as profound ambivalence, is evident in the personal histories of members of today’s Indonesian elite, which I have studied. Looking back to the military coup, for example, we discover that on 19 November 1965: “…the Australian Embassy in Jakarta proudly reported on an ‘action’; a massacre, led by an Australian-trained military officer, Colonel Sarwo Edhie, a 1964 graduate from an 18-month course at the Australian Army Staff College at Queenscliff, near Melbourne.” Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is married to his daughter.
What then is the meaning of the current spying scandal? Why would Australian agencies spy on Sarwo Edhi’s daughter? Why, for that matter, should Australia spy on Yudhoyono, who has earned himself some criticism in Indonesia precisely for selling out to the interests of western investors and governments? Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party and coalition partner the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) have been devastated recently by the discovery of corruption involving Australian cattle imports. Yudhoyono may be hoping that a firm response to the spying incident might help to restore his nationalist credentials sufficiently to enable him to serve as kingmaker in next year’s presidential election. But given that Edward Snowden was the source of the information, it is also possible that Yudhoyono was genuinely offended.
The ambiguities in the relationship are such that Australian distrust is easy enough to understand. It is not that Indonesia is actually a threat to us. In more than 20 years of research, I have never seen the slightest indication of hostile Indonesian ambitions toward Australia. Instead, the potential threat is that this captured elite might turn around and curtail attempts at foreign intervention, become genuinely nationalistic, and demand a fairer deal for their country. Feelings among the Indonesian elite – even those who have collaborated with Australia in the past – are deeply ambivalent. On his deathbed, Yudhoyono’s father-in-law is said to have repented of his role as a key engineer of the killings. Similar stories emerge when we look at other dynasties: There have been frequent reversals in Indonesian powerbrokers’ relationships with the Dutch and subsequent foreign powers, oscillating between collaboration and strong opposition.
These ambiguities are now becoming explosive for two reasons. First, Indonesia is a rising power and this is slowly dawning on the national psyche. A new assertiveness can be seen occasionally in political posturing, and there is a new sense in Indonesia of Australia as a small and recalcitrant neighbour that does not want to see the writing on the wall. Some members of the Indonesian elite also realise Australia is itself a victim of colonial history, and is disadvantaged in the Asian Century by a set of traditional alliances that are difficult to re-negotiate, and prevent Australia from prioritizing good relations with its neighbours. Second, after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, Indonesians are increasing becoming aware of their nation’s sad post-colonial history. Even the truth about 1965 – long buried by the Suharto regime – is now being openly discussed and acknowledged. Considering Australia’s position as a white settler nation in Southeast Asia and being newcomers to the neighbourhood, we need to consider urgently whether we should loudly and formally distance ourselves from this imperial legacy.
How long until it is too late to apologise to a country whose economy is now larger than Australia’s? My impression is that Indonesia’s leaders still would be receptive to a genuine offer of friendship, and I cannot think of any course of action that would give a greater boost to Australian sovereignty, regional security and prosperity. It is Australia’s great fortune to be part of Asia, and there is nothing to fear in this neighbourhood but our fear itself. It’s time to say “sorry”, and “never again”.
Beyond the Indonesian scandal, the case of NSA spying on Angela Merkel shows that political “friends” around the world are shocked by this attitude. Spying may be a universal and in that sense a ‘normal’ practice, but it is far from being a uniform practice. Like militaries, the foreign intelligence agencies of different countries have very different capabilities and orientations, ranging from self-defence to forward-oriented offensive action or ‘intervention.’ Offensive military and intelligence orientations often go together and tend to reflect a political objective to maintain or expand imperial control, by overt or covert means respectively. Most nations today have neither the capacity nor the inclination to engage in such offensive actions, and struggle even to maintain their own sovereignty.
In response to rising domestic criticism of NSA’s lack of public accountability from members of congress, such as Democrat Alan Grayson, and following a senate inquiry in which NSA director Keith Alexander confirmed the agency was collecting and storing information on all Americans, US President Obama’s recently announced some reforms. Leaders of friendly nations apparently shall no longer be spied upon, judicial oversight shall be increased, and some data on private citizens’ communications shall no longer be stored. Journalist Glenn Greenwald, who published Snowden’s NSA leaks, has called this a ‘publicity stunt,’ and most other commentators are also sceptical. Actions, they suggest, speak louder than words. The real question therefore is: Will the US and its core allies honour the emerging moral code of a multipolar geopolitical scenario, in which other powers like China, Indonesia, Brazil and, of course, the EU are treated as equal partners by the US, or will they fear of geopolitical change cause arm-twisting and manipulation tactics to continue? A return to genuine and creative US leadership, especially in response to the pressing global issues we face today, would be very welcome, I believe, and would do much to restore global confidence in the achievability of a prosperous and secure future for all.

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