Australia Scrambles to Heal Military Rift With Indonesia

The Indonesian and Australian flags displayed here in 2009 in Indonesia. Photo: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / Flickr

SYDNEY — Australia scrambled to calm tensions with Indonesia on Thursday, promising that an investigation was nearly complete into an alleged insult of Indonesian state ideology that prompted Indonesia to suspend military cooperation with its neighbor.

The exact cause of the rift between the two allies remained slightly murky one day after Indonesia’s announcement of the suspension took officials in Canberra by surprise. Military ties between the two nations have been relatively warm in recent years, having improved since Indonesia downgraded its relations with Australia in 2013 over the alleged bugging of phones belonging to Indonesia’s then-president.

Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne said Thursday that the current issue began in November, after an Indonesian military officer raised concerns about some teaching materials and remarks made at an Army language training facility in western Australia.

Indonesian military spokesman Maj. Gen. Wuryanto said there were reports an Indonesian instructor at the facility felt that a “laminated paper” on display was insulting. According to Indonesian media, the paper contained words that demeaned Pancasila  a set of vague principles that mandates belief in one God and unity among Indonesia’s 250 million people. Wuryanto, who like many Indonesians uses one name, said the training material was among many factors behind the decision to suspend cooperation with Australia.


On Thursday, Payne was asked about reports that the material also suggested West Papua should be given independence from Indonesia, which is battling the remote region’s separatist movement.

“The issue of West Papua was raised by the Indonesian defense minister, yes,” Payne told reporters.

Payne said an inquiry was launched in November to look into the incident, and its completion was “imminent.” The training material in question had been removed, and would soon be replaced with “appropriate” material, she said.

“We have indicated our regret that this occurred and that offense was taken,” she said.


The neighboring nations, though close partners on many issues including terrorism and trade, have long had a turbulent relationship. Tensions have repeatedly flared over Australia’s policy of turning back boats to Indonesia that are carrying asylum seekers from other countries. Indonesia’s use of the death penalty  which Australia opposes  has also strained ties, particularly in 2015 when Indonesia executed two Australians for drug crimes.

And in 1999, the relationship suffered one of its most serious blows after Australia led a U.N. military force into the former Indonesian province of East Timor following a bloody independence ballot.

Story: Kristen Gelineau