Turnbacks abandoned, says Jakarta

Indonesia's top military commander says Australia has agreed to stop turning back asylum boats to Indonesia, but Australian minister Scott Morrison insists the Government’s policy remains unchanged.

Military Commander General Moeldoko said on Wednesday that his Australian military counterpart, presumably chief of defence David Hurley, had told him that no more boats would be returned to Indonesia.

Of the orange lifeboats used to return three boatloads of asylum seekers since January, General Moeldoko said: “The Australian military commander has promised not to do it again.”

Asked later to confirm the quotes, the General’s spokesman went further.

“When the commanders talked to each other, the Australian military commander said that if another asylum seeker boat arrived in Australia, then Australia would deal with the problem internally,” the spokesman said.

General Moeldoko was quoted on news portal Detik.com saying the change in policy came out of “mutual respect for each country’s territory”.

If the returns started again after the promise from the Australian military leadership: “I will protest against them even more strongly,” General Moeldoko said, though he refused to elaborate what form that protest might take.

But Mr Morrison denied any such promises had been made between the two military commanders insisting: “There is no change to policy in relation to Operation Sovereign Borders.”

A Defence spokesperson said in response to questions from Fairfax Media: ''The Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Navy met with General Moeldoko during the recent Jakarta International Defence Dialogue. However, the details of this conversation have been misreported.''

If General Moeldoko's understanding is correct, people smugglers may see it as an opportunity to once again test Australia's policy.

Seven groups of asylum seekers have been returned to Indonesia — the last three of them on the $200,000 orange lifeboats — since last December under Operation Sovereign Borders.

Australia recently boosted its budget for the unsinkable, $200,000 orange vessels to $7.5 million, suggesting it may now have a fleet of 37 boats.

The turn-back policy has successfully deterred people smugglers in Indonesia from sending their cargo to Australia but the policy been immensely controversial in Indonesia.

Foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has accused Australia of disturbing Indonesia’s sovereignty, and said the orange lifeboats were a “slippery slope” and “not really helpful” to relations between the two countries.

The Abbott Government has taken advantage of the breakdown in co-operation between the two countries over spying revelations to bypass these objections.

But in recent weeks the Indonesians appear to have tried to smooth relations. Dr Natalegawa said recently that talks with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop had taken a “positive trajectory”, particularly in a recent meeting in the Hague.

However, he would not set a deadline on normalising relations, indicating it might not happen before president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono leaves office in October.

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The story Turnbacks abandoned, says Jakarta first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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