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Some Important Moments in Australian-Indonesian Relations

A lot has been said in the news recently about Australian relations with Indonesia. Largely revolving around asylum seekers and Tony Abbott’s pledge to ‘Turn Back the Boats,’ there has been a mood of looming crisis between the two countries. Indonesia has criticised the Coalition policy, showing just how difficult the issue is. With Abbott now in Indonesia, it will be interesting to see what his skills as a foreign affairs leader are like.

While this is a key moment in our relations with one of our closest neighbours, I thought I’d put it into perspective by looking at other moments where Australia and Indonesia didn’t see eye to eye.


West New Guinea

After playing an important role in assisting with Indonesian independence in 1949, relations between Australia and Indonesia soured over the status of West New Guinea. Australia was anxious to prevent Indonesia from taking over the region, partly owing to its own colonial concerns next door in Papua and New Guinea.

Differences existed for over a decade, until a US supported deal saw WNG become part of Indonesia in 1963. Australia’s fears of an expansionist Indonesia were largely unfounded (a trend that would repeat itself), but this was the first of a regular series of moments that pushed Australian-Indonesian relations.



At a very similar time to the disagreement over WNG, tensions grew over the Indonesian reaction to the creation of Malaysia. Sukarno initiated a policy of ‘Confrontation’ that actually led to direct conflict between Australian and Indonesia forces.

Eventually the dispute was settled, largely due to the overthrow of Sukarno and the rise of a right-wing military dictatorship led by Suharto (leading to a genocide of over a million ‘communists’). Suharto, with his anti-communist views proved much more satisfying to American and Australian policymakers who were concerned about Sukarno’s unpredictability.

Once again, crisis loomed and was ultimately avoided.


East Timor and its Aftermath

In 1975, following the withdrawal of Portuguese rule, East Timor was invaded and ultimately incorporated into Indonesia. Australia was forewarned about this and effectively did nothing to stop it, despite 5 Australian journalists being killed.

Fast forward almost 25 years and Australia became heavily involved in assisting East Timor gain its independence, as part of a UN operation.

This policy coincided with considerable upheaval in Indonesia, as the Suharto regime collapsed, and terrorist activity affected Australia in 2002 and 2004.

All combined, this led to what has been referred to as ‘probably the lowest period in Australian-Indonesian relations.’Despite this, relations have improved, only to be pushed by the recent developments.


So the rollercoaster ride of Australian relations with Indonesia continues. Will Tony Abbott be able to keep things going smoothly or are we due for another series of strongly worded threats? I’m curious to see how Abbott can reconcile his strong words at home with the need for diplomacy overseas.


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Is it Worthwhile Beginning a History PhD in Australia?

In the immortal words of Reverend Lovejoy, “short answer yes with an if, long answer no with a but…”

            Recent political developments have attracted a great deal of discussion amongst my postgrad/teaching associate colleagues and myself. At the top of the list has been the proposed intervention of politicians into the funding for research projects.

            We have been especially concerned about the statements made regarding ‘ridiculous’ projects that Liberal politicians have targeted for attack; projects that us humanities scholars actually feel are very important and worthwhile. It seems that the new government will take a deep interest in ensuring that research funding is not ‘wasted’. Who determines what ‘waste’ means (politicians) is the key issue.

            This led me to ponder the question as to whether in this funding environment it is worthwhile starting a doctoral project in the humanities. From one perspective, it could be suggested that this is a terrible time to begin a project, with the uncertainty of financial support making an already stressful project even worse.

            But after thinking about it for a little while, I believe that now is the most important time to conduct the kind of research done by historians and other humanities scholars.

            The kind of work done in the humanities leads us scholars to question, investigate and critically evaluate not only our specific topics but also the world around us. It seems that it is just this kind of approach that conservative elements in our society find most alarming. Academia is therefore a battleground upon which the ‘culture wars’ are going to be fought over the next few years.

            As such, it is more important than ever that the work of historians and other humanities scholars be continued and strengthened by new research projects. Whether the work being done looks at gender roles in the Middle East, the work of German intellectuals from the 18th and 19th centuries or the influence of the United States on Australian politics in the 1950s and 60s, it must continue.

            By rejecting the proposition that politicians can intervene in research funding (a concept I find absolutely offensive), new scholars can maintain a sense of independence in their work. In other words, now is the time to demonstrate that it is not only in science and medicine that ‘valuable’ research can be conducted. Now obviously the practicalities of this are not as simple as I’ve presented it, but a spirit of resistance needs to be harnessed in the current climate.

            I’ve been surprised by my own reaction to the statements of the Coalition, as there is a part of me that is convinced of the importance of my work. To be confronted with the view that a large segment of society views the kind of work that I do as ‘ridiculous’ is deeply concerning.

            It is mainly for this reason that I think now is the time for scholars in all areas of the humanities and social sciences to come together to show that what we do is just as important as what other academics do. With this in mind it is not only worthwhile for new students to commence a research degree in the history or some other area of the humanities, it is absolutely necessary. 

A link on The Conversation also deals with issue in an excellent way.

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