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Australia, Indonesia seek to patch up ties after military row

SYDNEY/JAKARTA — Jakarta and Canberra sought to calm tensions yesterday after Indonesia suspended military cooperation because of “insulting” teaching material found at an Australian base that questioned its sovereignty in Papua province.

SYDNEY/JAKARTA — Jakarta and Canberra sought to calm tensions yesterday after Indonesia suspended military cooperation because of “insulting” teaching material found at an Australian base that questioned its sovereignty in Papua province.

Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne expressed regret and promised a thorough investigation of the row, which highlighted the sometimes prickly relationship between the neighbours. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he looked forward to the matter being resolved “as soon as possible”. “I acknowledge and value President Widodo’s commitment to the strategic partnership between our two countries and value our personal friendship,” said Mr Turnbull in a statement.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo said ties with Australia are “still in a fine condition” and that his Defence Minister and military chief have been asked to investigate. “We have agreed, Indonesia, Australia, to respect each other, to value each other and not meddle in each other’s domestic affairs,” said Mr Widodo.

Earlier, the Indonesian President said he had given the permission for the suspension of cooperation, after his office had initially claimed that he did not give the instruction.

The neighbours have had a rocky military relationship in recent years. Australia stopped joint training exercises with Indonesian special forces (Kopassus) after accusations of abuses by the unit in East Timor in 1999, as the territory prepared for independence. Ties resumed when counter-terrorism cooperation became imperative after the 2002 nightclub bombings on the resort island of Bali.

Ms Payne added yesterday: “We have indicated our regret that this occurred and that offence was taken. I think that’s appropriate when a significant counterpart raises their concerns with you.” Australia would present the findings of the report to Indonesia’s government and military, she added. The minister also denied allegations, reportedly made by Indonesia’s Armed Forces Chief Gatot Nurmantyo in a lecture last year, that Australia had tried to recruit Indonesian soldiers as agents during training.

General Nurmantyo said yesterday that “unethical” teaching material had been found by an Indonesian officer who had been sent to Australia to teach. The material “discredited the Indonesian military (TNI), the nation of Indonesia and even the ideology of Indonesia”, he said, referring to material concerning East Timor and “Papua needing to be independent”, as well as mocking the country’s founding principles.

Papua, where a separatist movement has simmered for decades, is a sensitive issue for Indonesia, which took over the former Dutch colony after a widely criticised United Nations-backed referendum in 1969.

Analysts interviewed by TODAY said the episode is a minor hiccup in bilateral relations, adding that Canberra needs to better understand Indonesian sensitivities.

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a research fellow from Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said there is no rupture in Australia-Indonesia military ties. “It is one incident of one aspect that the bilateral military cooperation is being suspended for. So just one aspect and not wholesale discontinuation of bilateral military cooperation between the two countries,” he said, referring to how only joint training has been suspended.

Mr Emirza Adi Syailendra, a research analyst with S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, added the episode “is a reminder that Australia needs to be politically sensitive towards Indonesia, especially when it comes to ideological matters and sensitive issues”.

Mr Aaron Connelly, from the Lowy Institute for International Policy, highlighted that the Indonesian armed forces chief is “deeply allergic to engagement with foreigners”.

“He (Gen Nurmantyo) has sought to restrict the armed forces’ engagement with many military partners and has regularly delayed or refused to grant permission to allow specific programmes of Indonesia-Australia cooperation to go forward,” he said. “In this context, it seems likely that this was yet another attempt by Gen Nurmantyo to prevent or delay cooperation.” AGENCIES with ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY BEN HO

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