In January I was moved to write several pieces while travelling through Nusantara, or the Republic of Indonesia as it’s now called. Indeed, it’s hard to say whether the term Nusantara was ever used throughout the entire string of islands now comprising the nation state of Indonesia. Like all countries, the notion of Indonesia is in a sense imagined retrospectively. Certainly the Hindu Majapahit Empire was the most extensive of all Nusantara’s great empires.
Today though the borders of modern Indonesia extend even beyond those of the Majapahit ‘Golden Age’. Herein lies a problem for the land that’s girt by sea. In such a land, Australia, having control of one’s borders is both an obsession and an illusion.
The inescapable porosity of our borders
Australia’s borders have always been porous. The very notion of Nusantara, is an implied recognition of this. Ten thousand years ago it would have been possible to walk from the present site of Darwin to the present site of Merauke, in about three weeks. In February 1803 Matthew Flinders met a fleet of what he called Malay fishers off the coast of Arnhemland. We now know that they were part of the trepang industry, working with Aboriginal people along the northern coast and trading trepang back into China through the port of Makassar (Ujung Pandang). Biogeographically and historically speaking Australia’s borders have been open to the world, particularly Nusantara and New Guinea.
For some the notion of porous borders is a difficult concept. Former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, for example, is so apparently distressed by the situation that he said recently that we have “clearly lost control of our borders“. Much of this type of rhetoric is for domestic political consumption and it strikes a chord of fear amongst some in the land that’s girt by sea. Fear is part of the political armoury of conservative politicians. Unfortunately fear also sells newspaper and draws media audience attention. It works for some journalists across the board, from Radio National to Sydney’s notorious radio station 2GB. Sadly, sometimes it seems that the purveyors of such myths come to believe them. This is a matter that’s troubled me for some time, not so much because of the great prominence given to the small number of refugees coming by boat, but because of the diplomatic challenges that it presents to us.
The question of borders
Indonesia has it tough enough being an archipelagic state. Defining the borders and exclusive economic zone of an archepelagic state is difficult, notwithstanding the definitions provided in Convention on the Law of the Sea. In quoting that law it’s clear that the “sovereignty of an archipelagic State extends to the waters enclosed by the archipelagic baselines drawn in accordance with article 47, described as archipelagic waters, regardless of their depth or distance from the coast.” If only it were that simple. Traditional fishers have been using the waters to Australia’s north since long before there were such things as sea borders and exclusive economic zones.
Today traditional fishing continues along our northern border with Indonesia. Some traditional fishing is permitted inside Australia’s borders, this adds complexity to the question of borders but reflects this traditional movement of people. In particular traditional fishers are allowed to fish at Ashmore, Seringpatam and Scott Reefs as well as Cartier and Browse island
The Attorney General’s Department of the Australian Government is clear on Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). “Australia’s exclusive economic zone extends from the outer edge of the territorial sea up to 200 nautical miles from the territorial sea baseline. The outer limit is less than 200 nautical miles in some areas, in accordance with agreements with neighbouring countries.” The maritime border is a constant source of tension between the two countries. Some of the issues that arise were explored in Ruth Balint’s book and her 2001 award winning documentary ‘Troubled Waters’.
Indonesian Fishers and People Smuggling
Indonesian fishermen are often drawn into the smuggling of people into Australian waters. Dimishing fish stocks and high interest loans on fishing boats, are often behind their low level involvement, at the end of the process.
In October of 2009, Sue Hoffman of Murdoch University, observed that Indonesian fishermen are at the centre of a flashpoint in the bilateral relationship. She noted that “Australia’s practice of impounding and burning the boats of illegal fishers has also been criticised as too severe. She also made the point that “People smuggling is not a crime in Indonesia . . . and sentencing in Australia is not adjusted for the role a person plays in the process.”
It’s an awkward situation and its implications have a significant impact on the perception of Australia inside Indonesia. Just as Australians are concerned about what they perceive as the harsh treatment of Schapelle Corby and the Bali Nine, convicted in Indonesia of crimes that are far less serious in Australia, so many Indonesians are concerned about the harsh treatment of their nationals in Australia.
Increasing Popular Knowledge of Asia in Australia
The point of this post isn’t to enter into detailed discussion of the Law of The Sea, Australia’s borders, EEZs, refugeees, or the role of Indonesian fishermen in illegal fishing or people smuggling. My point is merely to draw attention to the need for awareness and for study of such matters and their historical context. In the broader sense, there’s a great need for more study of Asia in Australia, particularly Indonesia.
Recently, after publishing my critique of Howard era Australian policy towards Indonesia, I came across a copy of the 2005 Indonesia Update Conference proceedings. In the book was an excellent address by David Reeve analysing common Australian understandings of Indonesia and common Indonesian understandings of Australia. He drew heavily on the letters columns of newspapers in both countries and, to our shame I fear, some comments from notable Australian radio ‘shock jocks’.
In conclusion David offered the then Howard government some recommendations for better managing the bilateral relationship. Two of them were particularly interesting and in part read
- Exchange Schapelle Corby and perhaps others for the traditional Indonesian fisherman in detention. New policy is needed on fishermen; and tensions over the issue are escalating on both sides.
- Australian film-makers make good documentaries that could increase Indonesians’ knowledge of Australia. The rights to them should be purchased and they should be subtitlees and dubbed into Indonesian, and they should be given free to Indonesian television channels.
These are wise notions.
Finally, I just came across this comment on Webdiary titled “Double-barrelled shot marks start for Chris Evans“. It’s very brief but addresses some of the issues I’ve mentioned in this Blog.