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Bashir’s release: Another thorn in the flesh for Indonesia-Australia ties?

Updated On: Jun 20, 2006

Indonesia stood firm in the face of criticism from both the United States and Australia over the release from prison of radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, and categorically asked that its counter-terrorism efforts not be linked to him.

The release of Bashir, the alleged spiritual leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Southeast Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah has threatened to add difficulties to a period of already rocky relations between Australia and Indonesia.  While Australian leaders say Bashir should have stayed in prison, Indonesian officials have bristled at what they see as interference in Indonesia's affairs.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard sent Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono an unusually strong objection in writing last week, expressing his country’s distress, and his disappointment and concern about the release of Bashir.  He said he would also express Australia’s anger about Bashir’s release during upcoming talks with Yudhoyono on the Indonesian island of Batam on June 26.  The planned summit between the two leaders had originally been expected to cap an improvement in ties after a rift over Australia granting temporary visas to 42 people from Papua province. However, it looks increasingly uncertain as to what would be achieved at the summit as Howard himself came under pressure from his domestic critics who accused him of “kowtowing to Jakarta” by making changes to Australia’s border protection laws.  Both the Australian and Indonesian leaders have also played down a bilateral security deal that was to be focus of discussion at the summit.

Hot on the heels of the concerns expressed by Australia in the build-up to, and after Bashir’s release, Indonesian leaders have come out strong in defence ofIndonesia’s stand.  Indonesian legislators who feel that Australia is intervening in their country's affairs have expressed their dissatisfaction.  

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry has reminded foreign countries not to dictate Indonesia over the case of Bashir.  In reply to a reporter’s question about Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s request that the Indonesian government “closely supervise” Bashir’s activities, Foreign Ministry spokesman Desra Percaya stressed, “We will not allow other countries to dictate us because we have our own national sovereignty and laws.”

Vice President Jusuf Kalla took a more conciliatory approach, saying he could understand Howard’s concern about the release of Bashir recently because many Australians were killed in the first Bali bombings.  "In their [Australians’] perception, Bashir was involved [in the bombings].  But the law cannot be enforced based merely on perception, but has to be on evidence," he said. 

Despite calls by foreign officials to maintain constant supervision of Bashir, National Police chief Gen. Sutanto said this would infringe on his human rights.  Contrary to Kalla and Sutanto’s claims that the authorities will be monitoring Bashir’s activities, State Intelligence Agency (BIN) head Syamsir Siregar said there was no need for the government to maintain special surveillance of Bashir, his activities or those of his Islamic boarding school in Ngruki as, “He's a citizen like all of us, so why would we specially monitor him?”

Unfazed by the foreign criticisms over Bashir's release, Yudhoyono reiterated his country's commitment to combat terrorism, saying that Indonesia's national efforts against terrorism should not be measured by Bashir's release because “they are two different things”.  Yudhoyono said the government would maintain its campaign against terrorism and noted Bashir had served his punishment and has to be released in accordance with existing laws of the Indonesian legal system.

While Bashir's detractors point to the fact that two schools with teachings associated with him spawned terrorists behind bombings in Indonesia, many Indonesians appear less willing to conclude that those teachings should necessarily breed terrorists.  Even the Indonesian media appeared to shrug off the fuss made by foreigners over Bashir's release.

Tellingly, the more liberal publications - always quick to oppose any perceived Islamisation of society and the thuggery of radical Muslim groups - also refrained from suggesting that Bashir is a terrorist.

Sources:

Howard will express Australia's anger at militant cleric's release to Indonesian leader (AP, 18 June 2006)

Teacher, preacher or killer? (The Straits Times, 18 June 2006)

Howard conveys 'deep anger' at release of Ba'asyir (The Jakarta Post, 16 June 2006)

John Howard's concern about Ba`asyir understandable, says VP (ANTARA, 17 June 2006)

RI refuses to be dictated by foreign countries over Ba'asyir (ANTARA, 16 June 2006)

Jakarta stands firm on Bashir's release (The Straits Times, 16 June 2006)

President: don't link Ba`asyir`s release to RI anti-terrorism efforts (ANTARA, 15 June 2006)

Howard in no hurry to sign Jakarta security deal (The Straits Times, 20 June 2006)