Australia and Indonesia should share the burden of asylum seekers

Broadcast: 18/09/2013

Reporter: Tony Jones

Tantowi Yahya from the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Commission discusses the government's policy on turning back boats asylum seekers, 'Operation Sovereign Borders' saying, Indonesia find the policy of turning back the boats offensive and won't accept it. He says the two countries need to co-operate and work together in order to find a solution.

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: One of the first foreign visits for Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be to Indonesia for a meeting with Prime Minister - that is, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, where they'll discuss the Coalition's border protection plans. Those talks are likely to take place ahead of next month's APEC meeting in Bali, but in the meantime other members of the Indonesian Parliament have expressed concerns about the new Australian Government's policy.

Indonesian MP Tantowi Yahya is a prominent member of his parliament's Foreign Affairs Commission and I spoke to him just a short time ago from Jakarta.

Tantowi Yahya, thanks for joining us. Are there any circumstances under which Indonesia will agree to the new Australian government's policy of turning back boats full of asylum seekers to Indonesia?

TANTOWI YAHYA, INDONESIAN FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMISSION: No, we don't agree with that. This is, I can say, something like a consensus between the Government and the Parliament not to agree with the plan which is now being projected by the new Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott.

TONY JONES: Does the Foreign Affairs Commission that you're on as an MP have major concerns about the policy and about the way it'll be implemented?

TANTOWI YAHYA: We have major concerns and it has been discussed and talk about in our meetings in the commissions. It becomes our concerns because first, it might potentially jeopardise our already good relationships in the past, and second, the policy which is going to be implemented by Mr Abbott clearly - what do you call it? - annoys our sovereignty as independent country.

TONY JONES: Are you saying it affects your sovereignty as an independent country?

TANTOWI YAHYA: Yes, it does, obviously.

TONY JONES: In what way? What are your concerns there?

TANTOWI YAHYA: What Australia should do right now in relations with the asylum seekers is sitting together with any countries that will be involve in this issue. So the country of origins, the country of transfer and the country of destination should be sitting together and we have to fight against it in a spirit of friend, in a spirit of togetherness. I would like to quote what was said by our prime ministers: in overcoming this issue, the concept is sharing the burdens, not one country is becoming the police or one country is becoming the site which has the absolute right in doing what is gonna happen. So what Australia should do right now is again sitting with us and instead of giving money to pay our police to do on your behalf, why don't you - we sit together and thinking about capacity building.

TONY JONES: Well the new government has been sworn in in Australia today, so Tony Abbott is now the new Prime Minister. He's already appointed a military officer to take charge of the "turn back the boats" policy and it will begin very soon. So are you prepared for that and do you worry it will hurt relations between our two countries?

TANTOWI YAHYA: I think the policy will be very offensive and we in the parliaments fully support what was said by our foreign ministers, that we will fully reject the policy.

TONY JONES: Do you believe that the Foreign Minister and the President will also reject the policy or just the Parliament?

TANTOWI YAHYA: Our President hasn't said anything on this issue, but I think our Foreign Minister speaks on his behalf, on behalf of the people of Indonesia.

TONY JONES: Is there any chance at all that the Indonesian Navy might be willing to assist the Australian Navy in returning asylum seekers safely back to Indonesia?

TANTOWI YAHYA: We are open for any cooperations that might be possible in making this issue and in a very peaceful way. So I would like to say it again that the spirit is sharing the burdens.

TONY JONES: Well if the Australian Navy does begin to intercept these boats in international waters and send them back in the direction of Indonesia, do you regard that as being legal?

TANTOWI YAHYA: It might be legal in your perspective, but in our perspective it might be different story. So, I do hope that this policy will not be implemented until the Prime Minister Abbott talks about this issue with our Foreign Minister prior to the APEC conference in Bali.

TONY JONES: Well when you talk about "from our perspective", do you believe the policy of turning back these boats in international waters is legal or illegal under international law?

TANTOWI YAHYA: It's illegal.

TONY JONES: Illegal, did you say?


TONY JONES: Do you believe there's any chance this policy could lead to confrontation between our two countries?

TANTOWI YAHYA: We don't want it to happen, knowing that we already have fruitful relationships with Australia and I think there are still room for us to open up discussions in order to find a very respectful and a very peaceful result out of this issue.

TONY JONES: So are you saying that the Australian Government should not go ahead with this policy until it has the complete agreement of the Indonesian Government?

TANTOWI YAHYA: Very true. That's what we hope. We have to sit together and find a great way out that might be useful for each and every one.

TONY JONES: I heard one Indonesian critic of the turn back the boats policy saying that Indonesia could simply turn the boats around again and head them back to Australia. Is that a serious option?

TANTOWI YAHYA: Well, I can say that expressions is on behalf of majority of Indonesians. So again, I really hope that Indonesia and Australia can sit together and put it on a table, say what is the best options, OK? There is always a way for us to get out from this issue, especially when we are consequent and discipline with the solution which has been forward by your foreign ministers and our foreign minister then that the basic concept, the spirit is sharing the burden. I mean, we have to settle this case together.

TONY JONES: In Australia, many people say that these are Indonesian boats with Indonesian crews working with people smugglers to ferry asylum seekers to Australia. Do you think Indonesia should take a greater responsibility for stopping these boats?

TANTOWI YAHYA: We have to work together, so the platform is cooperations. I mean, Indonesia accepts all possible solutions, all possible proposals from Australia. We are also concerned about it. We don't want it to happen in the future. This case should be settled in a very modest and a very peaceful way.

TONY JONES: Well Prime Minister Tony Abbott is due to meet President Yudhoyono soon. Do you think the President will take the same line as parliamentarians such as yourself or will he reach a compromise in the end with Tony Abbott?

TANTOWI YAHYA: As it has become a big issue here in Indonesia, not only in the parliaments, but also the people on the streets, I'm very, very sure the President will put this issue on the table and have it discussed with Mr Abbott when he visits Jakarta in the near future.

TONY JONES: Well you talk about this becoming a big issue for Indonesians on the streets, so would a compromise by the President cause him political problems?

TANTOWI YAHYA: President Indonesia, I'm very sure in this regard, he's very aware of it and he follows the news and he listens to what the Parliament has been saying about this. So I think what I said will be equal to what will the Government will be saying, either that will be said by the foreign ministers or will be said by the President himself.

TONY JONES: Well can I ask you about some of the other policies against people smuggling which were adopted by the new government during the election campaign such as paying rewards to Indonesians for information that stops people smuggling boats? Could that actually happen?

TANTOWI YAHYA: Again, again, it's again - it's something that annoys our sovereignty. Your government in this very case, again, should discuss it with our side and we are willing to help. I mean, we can employ our policemen, we can employ all the infrastructures to help you get over it.

TONY JONES: So what about the other policy announcement of buying boats, for the Australian Government to buy old boats from Indonesian fishermen so they don't sell them to smugglers? Would Indonesia ever agree to that?

TANTOWI YAHYA: If it is done through our cooperation, there would be no problem.

TONY JONES: So to your knowledge, were either of these policies discussed with the Indonesian Government or with your Foreign Affairs Commission before they were announced in Australia?

TANTOWI YAHYA: It's very offensive.

TONY JONES: So they were not discussed with you?

TANTOWI YAHYA: No. As far as I remember, no. We just know everything from the newspaper.

TONY JONES: Does the Foreign Affairs Commission regard people smuggling to Australia as a big issue?

TANTOWI YAHYA: It's a big issue, indeed. We have been discussing about this issue from time to time, especially when we met with the foreign ministers. But again, this issue should be settled by three parties: Indonesia as a transit country and also the country of origin - country of origin, transit country and you as the country of destinations.

TONY JONES: So what do you think of the former Rudd Government's policy that's already happening of sending asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea in a special deal with the Government in Port Moresby? Should that continue?

TANTOWI YAHYA: That will not become any problem if the asylum seekers are happy with Papua New Guinea and they will stay and settle down there. But the problem will come up if they're not happy there and they start selling again and end up in our territory.

TONY JONES: Ok, before we go, is there anything else you particularly wanted to say?

TANTOWI YAHYA: OK, we do hope that our conducive relationship with Australia this time can be continued under the government of Mr Abbott. Indonesia and Australia are very good neighbours, despite our up-and-down relationship, but then I think we have homeworks to deal with, we have homeworks that we have to solve together. And I do believe that the new administrations will be a good partner of Indonesia in overcoming all issues that come up in this regions. We are friends.

TONY JONES: Well finally, in that case, do you worry that this policy, if implemented, could damage that relationship?

TANTOWI YAHYA: It will obviously damage our relationship. That's why we really hope that both sides, Mr Abbott and our presidents or our foreign ministers, could sit together and put it on the table and find a very good solutions.

TONY JONES: Tantowi Yahya, we thank you very much for taking the time to join us tonight.

TANTOWI YAHYA: Thank you very much, Tony. Thank you.


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