Australia denies trying to recruit Indonesian soldiers as potential agents

Australian and Indonesian Army soldiers prepare for a charge on the bayonet assault course conducted by the Australian Army's Combat Training Centre in Tully, Australia on Oct 10, 2014.
Australian and Indonesian Army soldiers prepare for a charge on the bayonet assault course conducted by the Australian Army's Combat Training Centre in Tully, Australia on Oct 10, 2014. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia on Thursday (Jan 5) rejected claims that it tried to "recruit" Indonesia's best soldiers as it worked to mend relations with Jakarta after military ties were suspended.

The two neighbours revealed on Wednesday that 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 as well as education and exchange programmes were halted after a visiting Indonesian officer raised concerns about the materials.

Authorities did not say what caused offence but the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) 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 on Thursday of Indonesia's military chief General Gatot Nurmantyo giving a lecture in November, voicing fears that Canberra was trying to recruit soldiers sent to Australia for training.

"Every time there is a training programme - 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 did not happen again. They will certainly be recruited. They will certainly be recruited."

Australian Defence 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.

Ms Payne told the ABC that an investigation into the teaching materials that sparked the bilateral row was almost complete and Canberra 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.

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.

It is the latest falling out between the key allies and neighbours, 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.

Ms 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 Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).