As the diplomatic spat intensifies, Indonesia warned Australia on Tuesday that it would relax preventive measures against boat people using the archipelago as a stepping stone for their onward journeys to Australia.
Following a request from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for a review of areas of bilateral cooperation on Tuesday, the National Police and the Law and Human Rights Ministry, which oversees the Immigration Agency, have prepared to halt collaboration on combating people smuggling.
National Police chief Gen. Sutarman said he would soon report a list detailing areas of police cooperation with Australia for the President to review.
“We will wait for the President’s response on how the police should handle any cessation of cooperation,” Sutarman said, adding that topping the list would be preventive measures against asylum seekers heading toward Australia.
The boat people issue is politically sensitive in Australia, and newly elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised voters he would reduce the number of boat people reaching Australian territory by forging closer relations with Indonesia.
Those relations quickly soured on Monday following reports that the Defence Signals Directorate (now the Australian Signals Directorate) allegedly wiretapped the phones of Yudhoyono, First Lady Ani Yudhoyono and several ministers in 2009.
Yudhoyono said that the US and Australian wiretapping had “certainly damaged strategic partnerships with Indonesia”.
“I also regret the statement by the Australian prime minister that without remorse belittled this matter of wiretapping Indonesia,” said Yudhoyono in his Twitter account.
Politicians have also urged Yudhoyono to retaliate for the eavesdropping by no longer attempting to prevent boat people, most of whom come from the Middle East, from making the crossing to Australia.
“We are in a better position than Australia. This issue [boat people] could be utilized as a bargaining chip in demanding an apology from Prime Minister Abbott,” said a member of the House of Representatives’ Commission I on defense, foreign affairs and information, Susaningtyas Handayani Kertopati.
The spokesman for the Law and Human Rights Ministry, Marolan J. Barimbing, said that while Yudhoyono had not yet issued an instruction to terminate or scale down the ministry’s efforts to stem the flow of boat people, it was taking preparatory measures.
“We are anticipating such an instruction by reviewing our areas of cooperation, particularly those related to immigration. Our priority is our national interests. We’re working based on regulations set up to protect the country from undocumented migrants, not to serve another country’s interests,” he said.
Over the last five years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has seen the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia seeking UNHCR assistance increase 18-fold.
Authorities conduct activities related to preventing migrants from crossing into Australian territory on a near daily basis.
The police arrested three Indonesian Navy personnel on Sunday for allegedly aiding 106 migrants from Myanmar who were attempting to pass through Indonesian territory en route to Australia.
The arrests were made after police stopped a tourist bus and a minibus on the road. The 106 migrants were on their way to a boat that would take them straight to Australia from the southern coast of Garut regency, West Java.
Despite Indonesia’s myriad domestic problems, it has been increasingly burdened with keeping Australia’s backyard clear of unwanted migrants from impoverished or restive countries.
During Abbott’s visit to Indonesia from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1, he and Yudhoyono committed to further strengthen Australian and Indonesian leadership in regional efforts to combat people smuggling and human trafficking.
Australia is among Indonesia’s largest sources of foreign aid as it provided A$646.8 million (US$608.7 million) in financial assistance between 2012 and 2013, up by 20 percent compared to the previous year.
Military (TNI) spokesman Rear Adm. Iskandar Sitompul said that the TNI was awaiting instruction from the Defense Ministry regarding the future of TNI cooperation with Australia, including on the joint sea patrol on the territorial border.
“The joint patrol is aimed at catching migrants and handling other territorial issues,” he said.
The Defense Ministry’s director for international cooperation, Brig. Gen. Jan Pieter, said the ministry was still waiting for the President’s instruction on any plan to freeze defense partnerships.
“Until now, security with Australia remain in good shape,” he said.