SYDNEY: Australia Thursday rejected claims it tried to “recruit” Indonesia’s best soldiers as it worked to mend relations with Jakarta after military ties were suspended.
The two neighbors revealed Wednesday military cooperation had been put on ice last month after teaching materials deemed offensive to Jakarta were found at an Australian army base.
Cooperation including joint exercises and education and exchange programs were halted after a visiting Indonesian officer raised concerns about the materials.
Authorities did not say what caused offense but the Australian Broadcasting Corporation said it related to posters of West Papua, an eastern Indonesian province where a low-level insurgency has been simmering for decades.
The ABC also broadcast footage Thursday of Indonesia’s military chief General Gatot Nurmantyo giving a lecture in November, voicing fears Canberra was trying to recruit soldiers sent to Australia for training.
“Every time there is a training program — like recently — the best five or 10 students would be sent to Australia. That happened before I was chief so I let that happen,” he said in translated remarks, according to the broadcaster.
“Once I became chief commander of the national forces, it (the students being sent) did not happen again. They will certainly be recruited.”
Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne denied Canberra had targeted Indonesian soldiers to be potential agents.
“No, that is not the case and it is something which we would not countenance of course,” she said.
Payne added that an investigation into the teaching materials that sparked the spat was almost complete and the government took the concerns seriously.
“We are working closely with our counterparts both at the military and at the political level to rectify any concerns, to address any concerns and to resume the relationship in its entirety as soon as possible,” she said.
‘Relationship is fine’
Indonesian newspaper Kompas said the row erupted after a visiting special forces instructor found teaching materials he deemed disrespectful towards his country’s armed forces, as well as materials he thought insulted Indonesia’s founding philosophy of “Pancasila”.
The ABC reported that the instructor had complained about training posters of West Papua displayed at the Australian Special Forces base in the western city of Perth last November.
Papua’s independence movement enjoys support among activists abroad, including in Australia. Indonesia keeps tight control over the area and is sensitive about any perceived attempts by foreign governments or NGOs to intervene.
Payne underlined Australia’s position on West Papua.
“We of course, in accordance with the Lombok Treaty, which is the treaty between Australia and Indonesia, recognize Indonesia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and that is our firm and stated position,” she said.
Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu appeared to play down the row.
“Our relationship is fine, let’s not be reckless,” he told reporters late Wednesday.
“The point is we must maintain good relations between our countries — don’t let the rats make the relationship turn sour.”
It is the latest tiff between the key allies and neighbors, whose relationship has been beset in recent years by disputes over Jakarta’s execution of Australian drug smugglers and Canberra’s hardline policy of turning migrant boats back to Indonesia.
Payne said the row had not impacted Indonesia’s cooperation on Australia’s policy on boatpeople or their joint work tackling extremists linked to the so-called Islamic State group.