Indonesian-Dutch relations took a damaging hit last week when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono cancelled a planned visit to Holland just moments before his planned departure.
The presidential visit, at the invitation of the Queen and Prime Minister of the Netherlands, was called off when a court in Den Haag agreed to hear a request from the dissident South Maluku Republican Movement (RMS) accusing the Indonesian president of human rights violations and demanding his arrest.
While Dutch officials point to the "rule of law" and the inability of the Dutch government to intercede in preventing citizens from making criminal and civil complaints, President Yudhoyono sees more sinister motives in the timing of the court action. Quoted in Jakarta Globe, the Indonesian president was not amused by legal maneuvers timed to coincide with the eve of his departure for Holland. Said the President: "It is strange. The lawsuit was filed on October 4 and the court decided to open the first session on October 5. It is the fastest court hearing delay ever in the world."
Although generally perceived by legal experts to be immune from arrest as a national head of State on an official visit, President Yudhoyono was unprepared to place himself or the dignity of his office in a potentially embarrassing legal impasse. The President therefore cancelled his visit via an impromptu press conference held at Jakarta Halim Perdana Kusuma Airport while the Presidential aircraft, full of members of the press waiting to depart for Holland, was preparing to depart.
President Yudhoyono acknowledged that the Dutch are entitled to operate their own system of justice, but said the decision to hold a hearing in which he was named a defendant on the very day he was scheduled to be officially welcomed "sent the wrong signals" and violated both ethics and the positive bilateral relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia.
The legal action filed by RMS accused Yudhoyono of violating the human rights of political activists in Maluku who have been arrested and allegedly tortured after trying to stage separatist demonstrations. Comprised of Moluccan refugees and their descendants from the Indonesian struggle of independence, the RMS is linked to at two train hijackings and a hostage attack on an elementary school in the Netherlands in 1975 and 1977. The 1977 train hijacking lasted for 20 days and cost the lives of two hostages and six hijackers.
The court session convened in Holland on the day the President originally planned to land was quickly rejected by the Dutch courts. Undeterred, the RMS lawyers have announced their intention to file an appeal whenever the President announces plans to reschedule his visit.
President Yudhoyono has declared his commitment to maintain positive relations with the Netherlands, saying he would correspond with the Dutch Foreign Minister to clarify his decision to cancel the trip.
But, clearly, old wounds were re-opened by the incident involving former colonial masters who only recently grudgingly acknowledge 1945 as the correct date of Indonesia's independence. The vice-chairman of the House of Representatives (DPR), Priyo Budi Santoso, labeled the incident as the "worst" event in the history on Indonesian diplomacy with the potential of damaging relations between the two countries. Priyo also questioned how the Dutch government can continue to accommodate the actions of the RMS on their soil. He said the incident showed how there was still a group of Dutch people unable to accept the existence of Indonesia as a free and independent nation. Underlining his point, Priyo said: "I really regret the mindless acts of a group of Dutch citizens who still see themselves as 'big bosses' in dealing with the people of Indonesia."
What effect, if any, the current tensions between Den Haag and Jakarta will have on the booming tourist numbers from Holland to Bali remains to be seen.
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