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Indo-Australian Relations on the rocks over cartoons

Updated On: Apr 04, 2006

The uproar over the Danish cartoons prompted the president of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to write to the international media asking for calm and rationality in facing this challenge in a highly prominent editorial in the International Herald Tribune on Feb 12.

He appealed to the international media and the non-Muslim community to stop justifying the ‘distasteful’ cartoons under the heading of ‘freedom of the press’ which he felt would lengthen the outrage by Muslims all around the world. But this week, President SBY found himself the target of cartoons in an Australian daily. The Weekend Australian cartoon caricatured President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's treatment of the province nearest to Australia where separatists are struggling for independence.

The cartoon depicts Yudhoyono as a male dog copulating with a concerned-looking Papuan who is also represented as a dog. In another interpretation of the cartoon by Bill Leak, President Yudhoyono is depicted wearing a black rimless cap and having a tail, saying "Don`t take this the wrong way...". Under him, there was a black man the cartoonist said was a Papuan. The reactions of to the Australian cartoons were fierce. Habib Riziek, chairman of the Islam Defender Front (FPI), said the management of The Australian belonging to Rupert Murdoch should take an example of the country`s racist treatment of Aborigines. According to Antara, he said it was the Australian government which was oppressing the Aborigines who were the legal owners of the Australian continent. In addition, whites were newcomers who had been expelled from Britain. He also mentioned that in the past white criminals in Britain were expelled to Australia. They marginalized Aborigines people and made them the second class people though they are indigenous people.

Some critics point out that this cartoon may be in reaction to a cartoon that appeared in an Indonesian newspaper last week that portrayed Howard and his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer as two copulating dingoes, Australian wild dogs. Howard, depicted in the Rakyat Merdeka newspaper on Wednesday as the male, tells Downer: "I want Papua." While there were less top level reactions within Indonesia to the Indonesian cartoons, Australian leaders were quick to downplay the Weekend Australia’s version. Howard was quick to condemn the Weekend Australian cartoon as "tasteless". Downer condemned the Yudhoyono cartoon and urged newspaper editors to act responsibly and be aware of the consequences of their publication.

Ultimately, however, Howard defended Australian press freedom as over and above Indonesian protests. He did not disapprove of the cartoon but will defend the rights of newspapers to publish freely. Howard said cartoons were part of Australian society. "I don't approve of the taste but I'll defend to the death the cartoonist's right to be tasteless," he said.But  Howard admitted: "We're going through a difficult patch ". “I might... say to our very good friends in Indonesia, we understand how you feel about west Papua, we understand that, but we ask you to respect and accept the process that goes on in Australia about people coming from west Papua," he said.

Meanwhile, while the row over the cartoons does not seem to have an end in sight, a new rift is opening up as Papua refugees target PNG as an asylum haven.  The Indonesian Defence Minister recently sent two divisions of TNI (Indonesian army) to West Papua with three navy boats to patrol the river system which is the tributary artery towards asylum in PNG as well as Australia.

Sources:

Howard tells Indonesia he does not want Papua (Jakarta Post, 2 April 2006)

Australian daily insults all Indonesian people (Antara, 2 April 2006)

Australian PM says Indonesia ties going through "difficult patch" (CNA, 2 April 2006)

PAPUA: More Papuans Looking To Flee To PNG (Pacific Magazine, 27 March 2006)

Terror fears may spark asylum bids (The Mercury, 14 March 2006)