Kevin Rudd's Visit and the Boat People Dilemma  

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  • Kevin Rudd. AP/Rick Rycroft

    Kevin Rudd. AP/Rick Rycroft

    TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - The visit of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Jakarta on July 4, just days following his reinstatement as head of the Labor government in Canberra, is sure to create positive vibes in relations between the two countries. First, because Rudd is no stranger to Indonesia, having visited the country and interacted with its leaders during his previous leadership tenure.  Secondly, because official relations between Australia and Indonesia, have for the most part been on an even keel, despite the occasional political and trade hiccups.

    But besides the silaturahmi, or courtesy call, that his visit is happily being regarded by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Indonesian officials, we can expect him to raise the one subject that Australians see as most important and politically sensitive, particularly in the run-up towards elections – asylum seekers. 

    Jakarta will look forward to hearing Rudd’s clarification on the confusing messages on the issue, from both the government and opposition parties.  In other words, Yudhoyono will most likely be listening to what Rudd has to say and to suggest. After all, the boat people problem is generally perceived by Indonesians to be an Australian problem, with Indonesia being simply a way-station.  “Their destination is Australia, so show the way southwards,” is the oft cynical retort of warung kopi (coffee shop) conversationalists, and the question of why Indonesia should be burdened by the whole process.

    The Indonesian government does, however, look on the problem quite seriously and has indicated its readiness to cooperate with its Australian counterpart  as best it can, meaning with whatever resources at its disposal. But it also means reviewing its lax visa policy towards fellow Muslim Middle East countries which allows their citizens easy entry into Indonesia, and to do something about the country’s long and porous coastal areas, a fertile ground for unscrupulous people smugglers. 

    So, in light of these circumstances, what can Kevin Rudd bring to the negotiating table in Jakarta?  Will he, as some Australian media contend, come with a bag full of goodies –  such as ‘gifts’ of second-hand C-130 Hercules military planes and much needed patrol boats to cover the coastal areas from the smugglers?  Or perhaps expand Australia’s aid program to include comprehensive economic empowerment projects to coastal communities so they will be less tempted to offer their boats to smugglers?

    These are certainly not new points of discussion on dealing with the increasing number of Australia-bound boat people. But given the urgency of the problem, any agreement reached will have important political significance.  For unquestionably, what will weigh heavily on both Kevin Rudd and the President is how the results of their discussions will impact on their political prospects in their respective upcoming elections. 

    To be sure, it will be more important to Kevin Rudd in the Australian polls this coming September, rather than for Yudhoyono, whose party will not be gearing up for elections until early next year.  Besides, the boat people issue is unlikely to be a major election issue in Indonesia.