Indonesia ‘downgrades’ relations with Australia over alleged snooping

AP

Indonesia has “downgraded” its relations with Australia and suspended cooperation on people smuggling following outrage over reported eavesdropping on senior Indonesian leaders’ phones, officials said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Australia’s parliament that he would do everything he “reasonably can” to repair relations with Indonesia.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. and The Guardian reported Monday that they had documents from National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden showing that the top-secret Australian Signals Directorate targeted Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s cellphone and the phones of first lady Kristiani Herawati and eight other government ministers and officials.

Indonesia’s intelligence agency chief, Norman Marciano, told reporters Wednesday that he had been assured by Australian intelligence officials that the wiretapping has stopped and will not resume.

A spokesman for Australia’s top spy agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, declined to comment on Marciano’s claim of such an assurance. The spokesman refused to be named, citing ASIO policy.

Marciano spoke before attending a meeting called by Yudhoyono to discuss the issue with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and Indonesia’s recalled ambassador to Australia.

Natalegawa said that Indonesia was reviewing bilateral cooperation on issues with its neighbor.

“We have downgraded the level of relations between Indonesia and Australia,” he said. “Like a faucet, it is turned down one by one.”

Yudhoyono told a news conference after the meeting that he expected a formal explanation if Australia wants to maintain good bilateral relations.

“Clearly, I asked for temporary termination of cooperation on intelligence exchanges and information sharing, either on army, navy, air force or a combination,” he said, adding that the snooping reminded him of the Cold War era.

The termination affects cooperation on the thorny issue of people smuggling between the two countries. Indonesia is a transit country for thousands of asylum seekers hoping to reach Australia’s Christmas Island by boat. Many people have died while attempting the dangerous journey, and the immigration issue remains a political hot potato in Australia.

Abbott won elections in September on a promise to stop the asylum seeker boats and is relying on Indonesia’s cooperation to achieve this goal. He has also ruled out an apology or explanation on the spying allegations.

On Tuesday, Yudhoyono criticized Abbott for not expressing regret over the spying, which reportedly took place in 2009 under a previous Australian government.

In the Australian capital of Canberra on Wednesday, Abbott told parliament that while he would try to repair relations with Indonesia, he did not “propose to overreact now” to anger over the issue.

Analysts describe the furor as the lowest point in an often volatile bilateral relationship since 1999, when Australia led a U.N. military force into the former Indonesian province of East Timor following a bloody independence ballot.