'Heightened nationalism' in Indonesia as it cuts military ties with Australia

A picture made available on 05 January 2017 shows Indonesian military personnel lining up during a drill in Jakarta, Indonesia, 15 April 2015. Source: EPA

The spat between Indonesia and Australia over alleged offensive military training material is consistent with a more ‘prickly and sensitive’ country under President Joko Widodo, an Indonesia legal and political expert says.

It is unlikely Indonesia would have halted military ties with Australia over reportedly offensive training material under previous democratic governments, an Indonesian political expert has said.

“We have to keep in mind that Indonesia under President Jokowi is a country that is very sensitive to perceived slights to its status, to national sovereignty,” Professor Tim Lindsey, director for Indonesian Law Islam and Society at the University of Melbourne told SBS News.

"Indonesia under Jokowi is a much more prickly and sensitive country, it reacts much more sharply and quickly to matters that under previous presidents might not have been so controversial."

The country temporarily suspended military co-operation between the two countries on December 29 after a member of the Indonesian Special Forces, which is referred to as Kopassus, saw the training material at a Special Air Service base in Perth.

A heavier emphasis on nationalism arose from a presidential election campaign that largely revolved around such rhetoric between President Jokowi, as he is called, and Prabowo Subianto, now Opposition Leader.

And the Indonesian Army, the TNI, long considered the guardians of such national sovereignty, want to uphold that.

WATCH: Indonesia suspends military co-operation with Australia


When Indonesia became a democracy after the Revolution in 1998, it became a far more liberal and open society. Discussions that were critical of previous sacrosanct issues in Indonesia, such as the national ideology, politics and the president, were common.

However, what most surprised Professor Lindsey was the unilateral action of TNI – a manoeuvre he said would likely become clear in the coming days.

“The question now is whether it is endorsed at cabinet level and becomes a much more serious political tension between the two countries,” Professor Lindsey said.

But he said if it stayed at the current level it may well blow over.

Dr David McRae of the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne agreed, saying the reason for the spat could be something quite simple.

“It could simply be a case of frustration at the pace of an Australian investigation and seeing military co-operation as the domain of the military to handle,” he said.

Tension over West Papua?

Reports emerged on Thursday that indicated the suspension could have resulted from insulting material related to West Papua.

Professor Lindsey said if these were true, Indonesia might have felt offended because it distrusted Australia’s intentions over West Papua.

“Many Indonesians believe quite incorrectly that Australia has colonial style ambitions over West Papua,” he said.

“They see it as a significant Christian area and one that would be...for that reason, attractive to Australia.

“This is a widespread misconception in Indonesia.”

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