In the annals of international diplomacy, there has never been a salvo quite like it. Alone in his study in his private residence outside Jakarta, just after midnight on Tuesday, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, took to Twitter and let Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott - and his 4 million followers - know just how he felt about revelations Australia had bugged his and his wife's phone.
By · 23 Nov 2013
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23 Nov 2013
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In the annals of international diplomacy, there has never been a salvo quite like it. Alone in his study in his private residence outside Jakarta, just after midnight on Tuesday, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, took to Twitter and let Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott - and his 4 million followers - know just how he felt about revelations Australia had bugged his and his wife's phone.

As he composed a series of tweets, his anger seemed to rise. Indonesia had protested the spying operation, he noted. Australia needed to make an official response. Meanwhile, relations would be reviewed, the strategic partnership "certainly damaged". And then this final missive: "I also regret the statement of Australian Prime Minister that belittled this tapping matter on Indonesia, without any remorse."

The content, and mode of communication, could not have been more emphatic. Abbott had urged repeatedly that sensitive discussions between Australia and Indonesia be kept away from the media. Yet SBY chose the most public form of media available to deliver his message.

Less than three months into Abbott's prime ministership, after identifying and elevating the relationship with Jakarta as his overarching foreign policy objective, ties have been ruptured. Abbott's insistence that he would not apologise for the intrusion, nor review or explain why Australian spies were eavesdropping on the President's phone infuriated the Indonesian leader. As a result, Indonesia has suspended co-operation on people-smuggling operations. Joint military exercises have been halted. Threats have been made to Australian exporters.

Abbott is in the midst of a diplomatic crisis not seen since Australia backed East Timorese independence in 1999. And long-time Indonesia watchers say the atmosphere on the street has not been this poisonous since then either.

How did it come to this?

According to William Maley, director of the Australian National University's Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, good diplomacy requires "tact, understanding and a willingness to listen". The Coalition government, he reasons, has displayed few of these attributes in dealing with Indonesia, starting with its insistence on turning back boats laden with asylum seekers to Indonesia. "Ever since they were in opposition, Indonesia has consistently warned them about this. They don't like this unilateral approach to people smuggling," he said. "They have just ignored the signals from Jakarta, even as they have become stronger."

When Indonesia began refusing requests to accept asylum seekers picked up by Australian vessels, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said "there's no real rhyme or reason" to Indonesia's behaviour. This was especially galling in Jakarta, which felt it had made its position abundantly clear.

"The subtext was we are dealing with people who are not rational. This is how it was perceived in Indonesia," Maley said.

In this context of already strained relations came the spying revelations, exposed by documents obtained by the former contractor Edward Snowden when he was working at the US National Security Agency.

A PowerPoint presentation from the Defence Signals Directorate - now called the Australian Signals Directorate - identified the mobile phones of Yudhoyono, his wife and eight other cabinet members and senior officials as ripe for surveillance. It then detailed how it had monitored the calls of Yudhoyono in August 2009, soon after the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta were attacked by two suicide bombers, killing seven other people, including three Australians.

The timing of the interceptions is curious. Yudhoyono had delivered an unusual speech immediately after the bombings, insinuating - wrongly - that his political rival Prabowo Subianto was behind them.

Even so, Yudhoyono has been Australia's staunchest ally in Indonesia. As security minister, he forged the close links between the two countries after the Bali bombings, recognising the threat of Islamic extremism while others in the government of Megawati Sukarnoputri remained in denial.

According to Indonesian newspaper columnist Kornelius Purba the spying revelations even achieved the difficult feat of uniting Indonesians behind their President, frequently criticised for his indecisiveness. "Firstly, you wiretapped his wife, and any gentleman would get mad if you wiretapped his wife — that's about privacy," Kornelius said. "Secondly, you are friends of us, very important friends and you betray us."

Indeed, Yudhoyono is seen in Indonesia as blindly, unreasonably pro-Western, so to chasten him in this way is a double betrayal.

Overarching the resentment among Indonesians to Australia's stance on both spying and people smuggling is a sense that their sovereignty has been infringed. A sprawling nation with diverse ethnicities, cultures and languages hewn from a former Dutch colony, the unifying bond that holds the country together is its hard-fought war for independence after more than 300 years of occupation.

"Canberra really needs to realise that it has trampled over one of the most sacred and cherished of all Indonesian diplomatic principles: non-intervention," analysts Pierre Marthinus and Isidora Happy Apsari wrote in an opinion piece in The Jakarta Post during the week. The authors depicted the issue in terms of the traditional Javanese ideas of power, and the wayang kulit shadow puppet plays. They said the phone tapping of the President, his wife and inner circle, hit directly at the centre, the "keraton" or palace, from which, in Javanese tradition, all power emanates. "Canberra's crass spying is the symbolic epitome of the antagonistic wayang characters, the brute with protruding outward-looking eyes bulging out of their sockets, unrefined, unreflective, emotionally unstable and malevolent. Simply put, the Australian brute is not welcome within the keraton walls unless it can behave accordingly."

Certainly, Abbott rankled Indonesia in the aftermath of the revelations by not only failing to provide an explanation or an apology, but the manner in which he conveyed his sentiments. Abbott has said Australia's intelligence activities were to "help our friends and our allies, not to harm them". This was no doubt an attempt to remind Indonesia about the crucial assistance DSD provided in apprehending scores of terrorists. But, given he was responding to the furore over the surveillance of Yudhoyono, it was taken quite differently. As Marcus Mietzner, an analyst of Indonesian politics from the Australian National University observed: "To say, 'We are spying on [Yudhoyono] for your own good', is outrageous."

Then there was Abbott's well-intentioned expression of regret for the "embarrassment" suffered by Yudhoyono due to "media reports" of the spying.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa retorted that it was Australia that should be embarrassed.

Even so, Abbott repeated the comment in Parliament the next day. A few hours later, Indonesia announced the suspension of military and people-smuggling co-operation.

Crowning it all, Abbott's pollster Mark Textor took to Twitter to compare the Indonesian President, or perhaps Natalegawa, to a "Pilipino [sic] porn star with ethics to match".

The interception of the Indonesian leader's phone calls occurred under the Rudd government's watch. But Abbott - apart from one lapse - has refrained from playing party politics on the matter. His approach to neither confirm nor deny the surveillance has been the bipartisan orthodoxy and no doubt reflected the advice of his foreign affairs and intelligence chiefs.

Even so, the Snowden revelations are an extraordinary case. Numerous US officials have already conceded the documents are genuine.

Moreover, US President Barack Obama last month defused a similar scandal involving the tapping of German leader Angela Merkel's phone. He announced a review of overseas intelligence and called her personally to assure her the practice would cease. Obama provided an example that Indonesia expected Australia to follow.

Of course, Indonesia spies on Australians, too, and has attempted to eavesdrop on its politicians, its then intelligence chief Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono said in 2004.

"Sure, some of the outrage might be a bit confected. But even when it's confected, it can take on a life of its own," said Greg Barton, who was an adviser to the former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid. "Indonesia feels its time is coming. They are rising. They want to be treated seriously. They want respect."

Natalegawa insists Indonesia does not tap the phones of Australia's leaders. The comment was taken by many with a grain of salt but, even if Indonesia wanted to, it would find it difficult. As a member of the "Five Eyes" intelligence community also involving the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, Australia has access to cutting-edge technology for surveillance and, importantly, counter-intelligence.

As part of the intelligence-sharing agreement, Australia has primary responsibility for signals intelligence for south-east Asia, and especially Indonesia, using satellites and linked ground stations. In this digital age, the intelligence community can hoover up conversations and data on a huge scale.

While Abbott expected some blowback from Jakarta, the ferocity of Indonesia's reaction has surprised him and forced a series of crisis meetings. Counter-terrorism co-operation between the two nations - critically - remains intact for now.

Indonesia's withdrawal of military support to counter people smuggling, in particular, is potentially immensely damaging to Abbott.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Abbott to say. Even so, the Prime Minister will have to take action to staunch a deep wound in Australia's most important diplomatic relationship outside the US. As he works out what he will do, the anger in Indonesia will likely deepen.

Yudhoyono's unprecedented foray into Twitter diplomacy has been picked up with a vengeance by Indonesians, as the popularity of the Twitter hashtag #GanyangAustralia - it means "crush Australia" - shows. One tweeter, @dioSEVTIANO, summed up the mood: "A good friend who betrays ... and stabs from behind ... is the new label for Australia."
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