Australia’s crackdown on people-smuggling boats does not rely on any one partner, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday after Indonesia said it was withdrawing cooperation.
Jakarta has reacted angrily to reports that Australia tapped the telephones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife, and this week halted joint military exercises and cooperation on asylum seeker boats.
“It has always been my view that a regional deterrence framework involves the region,” Morrison told a weekly media briefing in Sydney.
“Of course Indonesia is a very important partner. It has always been a very, very important partner and it has been a partner that has acted as a great international citizen to address the scourge of people-smuggling,” Morrison said.
“I simply make the point that our operation has been designed to ensure that it rests on no single measure or any single partner. And the smugglers can be assured that we would resist and deter and stop them at every possible point we can from source to destination,” he added.
Cracking down on the influx of asylum seekers arriving by boat was a key election promise of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, with the then-opposition leader promising to turn back boats to Indonesia if safe to do so.
Since his election in September, Abbott’s government has also asked Jakarta to accept asylum seekers rescued at sea in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone, something which has been refused at least twice.
Morrison praised Indonesia, from where many leaky fishing boats embark on the dangerous voyage to Australia, for its efforts in stopping people smuggling.
“And they’ve done that as good international citizens, as good regional partners and showing the leadership for which they are well-known on these topics,” Morrison said.
The minister refused to comment on the strained relationship with Indonesia, saying that it would not be in the national interest.
Meanwhile, protesters hurled eggs at the Australian embassy in Jakarta yesterday as former intelligence chief Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono dismissed official anger at espionage allegations as an overreaction and said tapping leaders’ telephones was “normal.”
Demonstrators in military-style uniforms gathered outside the mission to vent their anger over claims the Indonesian president’s telephone was tapped, hurling eggs and tomatoes at and over the wall of the compound.
“Destroy them,” a speaker shouted to protesters from the nationalist group Red and White Fighter Command, who were wearing black and red military-style outfits.
About 100 protesters were at the mission, which was heavily guarded by police, as the demonstration got under way.
Members of hardline groups the Islamic Defenders’ Front and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia were just beginning to arrive.
The row has pushed ties between the neighbors to their lowest level since Australian forces went into East Timor in 1999 as Indonesia pulled troops out of its former territory.
However Hendropriyono, who led Indonesia’s national intelligence agency from 2001 to late 2004, played down the seriousness of the row, in comments likely to undermine the tough stance of the Indonesian leadership.
JUST ‘STATUS QUO’
“For intelligence, it’s normal,” he told Australia’s Fairfax Media, referring to the reported Australian attempts to spy on the conversations of Yudhoyono, his wife and ministers in 2009.
“The function of intelligence is to collect as much information as possible, which is as accurate as possible. The easiest way to do that is by wiretapping,” he told Indonesian news Web site Liputan6.com.
“Pickpockets are supposed to pick pockets,” he added.
The former army general also batted aside comments by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa that Indonesia would never tap the telephones of Australian politicians.
Indonesian intelligence agencies had a responsibility to try to tap the telephones of foreign politicians, whether they be “friend or foe,” he told Fairfax.
He also criticized the angry reaction from Indonesian leaders to the scandal, telling the Indonesian news site: “I think this is an overreaction to a failed Australian intelligence operation. The reaction is a little too much.”