Indonesian President Furious to Learn That His Own Spying Tactics Were Used Against Him

On Wednesday, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono suspended a range of bilateral initiatives with Australia amid allegations of spying. According to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, Australian intelligence officials tapped the phones of the Indonesian president, his wife, and various ministers in 2009. In response, Indonesia temporarily cut off cooperation on initiatives to combat people-smuggling, ...

ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images
ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono suspended a range of bilateral initiatives with Australia amid allegations of spying. According to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, Australian intelligence officials tapped the phones of the Indonesian president, his wife, and various ministers in 2009. In response, Indonesia temporarily cut off cooperation on initiatives to combat people-smuggling, as well as military exercises and intelligence exchanges. "For me personally, and for Indonesia, the wiretapping by Australia ... is difficult to comprehend," Yudhoyono said Wednesday. "This is not the Cold War era."

But Yudhoyono's righteous dismay over Cold War surveillance tactics omits one important detail -- he has been doing the same thing for years.

In 2011, Human Rights Watch disclosed internal military documents that revealed a massive spying operation in the province of Papua from 2006 to 2009. The Indonesian military is currently engaged in a low-level conflict with armed separatists in Papua -- operations that have often been used to justify abuses against individuals engaged in peaceful political activities. According to the leaked documents, the government's surveillance efforts targeted political leaders, civil society groups, and clergy. One of the memos outlined the danger of "political activities such as demonstrations, press conferences, and secret meetings." 

On Wednesday, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono suspended a range of bilateral initiatives with Australia amid allegations of spying. According to documents leaked by Edward Snowden, Australian intelligence officials tapped the phones of the Indonesian president, his wife, and various ministers in 2009. In response, Indonesia temporarily cut off cooperation on initiatives to combat people-smuggling, as well as military exercises and intelligence exchanges. "For me personally, and for Indonesia, the wiretapping by Australia … is difficult to comprehend," Yudhoyono said Wednesday. "This is not the Cold War era."

But Yudhoyono’s righteous dismay over Cold War surveillance tactics omits one important detail — he has been doing the same thing for years.

In 2011, Human Rights Watch disclosed internal military documents that revealed a massive spying operation in the province of Papua from 2006 to 2009. The Indonesian military is currently engaged in a low-level conflict with armed separatists in Papua — operations that have often been used to justify abuses against individuals engaged in peaceful political activities. According to the leaked documents, the government’s surveillance efforts targeted political leaders, civil society groups, and clergy. One of the memos outlined the danger of "political activities such as demonstrations, press conferences, and secret meetings." 

The spying program stems from the Indonesian government’s deep-seated paranoia about the disintegration of the state. The largest archipelago in the world, Indonesia is comprised of over 17,000 islands spread across 3,000 miles. Its disparate geography (and the government’s often brutal counter-insurgency tactics) have fueled a number of seperatists movements, including the Free Papua Movement, since the country’s independence. 

For now, the Indonesian state endures, but Papua remains a de facto surveillance state. In an op-ed published last month, Elaine Pearson, the Australia director for Human Rights Watch writes, "[Papuans] who criticize the authorities or investigate human rights abuses are often subjected to surveillance, harassment, and are prone to being labelled separatists."

But Yudhoyono’s wiretapping is not limited to Papua. In 2011, U.S. diplomatic cables, obtained and made public in 2011 by WikiLeaks, revealed that Yudhoyono had used his own intelligence services to spy on political opponents and at least one of his cabinet ministers. Earlier this year, opposition party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri leveled similar accusations against the president, implying that Yudhoyono had directed intelligence officers to monitor her political activities. "He is assigned to spy, to listen to my speeches," Megawati said. "In just one minute, the leader of this republic already received my speeches."

While Yudhoyono continues to posture against Australia’s alleged wiretapping, he will in all likelihood quickly renew ties with his wealthy, more powerful neighbor. That posturing may result in more transparency between the two countries with regard to their surveillance activities, but the activists who have long been subjected to Indonesia’s internal government spying will continue to hear that same dull static on their phone lines.

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