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SBY’s tears: from managing crisis to managing process in Australia-Indonesia relations since the fall of Suharto

By David Engel and Hillary Mansour

On 21 May 1998, Suharto resigned as president of Indonesia, ending the authoritarian New Order regime he had led since 1966.

In the 23 years since, Indonesia has had five presidents. It became the world’s third largest democracy. It granted wider powers to its regions while losing one province, East Timor, to independence. It emerged as one of the world’s top ten economies (in PPP terms) and a member of the G20, which it will chair in 2022.

At the same time, Indonesia has suffered grievously from terrorism and the greatest natural disaster in recorded history. Its democracy is now taking an illiberal turn. Corruption is rife and inequality is worsening. Separatism remains an issue.

This series plots this history and Australia’s part in it through the eyes and experience of six of its ambassadors to Jakarta over this period. It reveals a fundamental shift from a relationship defined by crisis management to one that’s now more about process management, and offers advice on how Canberra should build our ties at a time of greater geopolitical challenges.


Episode 1 – John McCarthy AO

In this episode, David Engel, Head of ASPI’s Indonesia program, and former ASPI Research Intern Hillary Mansour speak to John McCarthy AO, who was Ambassador to Indonesia from 1997 to 2001. They discuss some of the major developments during his time in the post, including the fall of Suharto, President Habibie and the Reformasi, East Timor, the election of Gus Dur and former prime minister John Howard’s relationship with the country’s leaders.


Episode 2 – Ric Smith AO

In this episode, Dr David Engel and Hillary Mansour speak to Ric Smith AO, PSM, who was Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia from 2001 until 2002. The conversation explores economic reform after the Asian Financial Crisis, the end of Gus Dur’s presidency and the beginning of Megawati’s presidency, and the state of Australia’s relationship with Indonesia during Smith’s tenure. They also discuss the Tampa affair and the 2002 Bali bombings, and how Australia should engage with its northern neighbour.