Indonesia has appeared to back down from a decision to suspend all military cooperation with Australia in a row over teaching materials, with a senior minister saying only language training had been put on hold.
The Indonesian military – apparently without consulting the civilian government – had on Wednesday moved to suspend all military cooperation after a special forces commander was offended by material he saw at a Perth military base which insulted Indonesia’s founding ideology and promoted independence for the Indonesian province West Papua.
But following the military’s announcement, leaders of both Australia and Indonesia publicly insisted ties were strong before Indonesian security minister Wiranto announced on Thursday he was giving a “clarification”.
The military “has temporarily suspended cooperation in language training,” Wiranto said, adding it was due to “a small incident that has offended our dignity as a nation”.
But he said Indonesia was not “completely stopping all cooperation”, contradicting the earlier military statement. Indonesian and Australian forces cooperate on a range of issues from border protection to counter-terrorism.
“The suspension is temporary and will be resumed after Australia clearly takes measures to resolve the matter,” he added.
Australia’s defence minister, Marise Payne, had earlier insisted the broader relationship remained healthy and that she expected to be able to resume full cooperation with Indonesia’s TNI.
“The Australian army has looked into the serious concerns that were raised and the investigation into the incident is being finalised,” she said earlier in the day.
“Australia is committed to building a strong defence relationship with Indonesia, including through cooperation in training. We will work with Indonesia to restore full cooperation as soon as possible.”
She said on ABC radio the rift had not threatened Indonesia’s cooperation with Australia’s policy of turning back asylum seeker boats.
Payne conceded her first attempt to contact Indonesia’s defence minister about the suspension of military ties was not made until this week, despite knowing about the dispute in November.
Indonesia’s defence minister, Ryamizard Ryacudu, also earlier played down the suspension saying the broader relationship with Australia was “fine” and that Indonesia “should not overreact”.
The suspension was a military, not a political, decision, he said, and the officer who initially raised the concerns had been reprimanded.
“It was all the doings of some lieutenants,” he said. “They have been reprimanded and punished. Don’t let actions of some low-ranking officers affect relations of two countries. That’s not good.”
A spokesman for the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, said: “This was not a decision of the president.”
Ryacudu was quoted as using the Indonesian word “curut” to describe the officers, the literal translation for which is shrew or mouse, but which is used to disparage a subordinate as insignificant.
Indonesia’s special forces group, Kopassus, trains with the Australia’s Special Air Service troops at the SAS base at Campbell barracks in Perth, and Guardian Australia understands an instructor from Kopassus felt insulted by material on display at the training base in November.
It is believed the Kopassus officer was initially offended by propaganda material about West Papua, a province of Indonesia in which a long-running campaign for independence, and allegations of systemic human rights abuses by the military, are of extreme sensitivity. Senior former military leaders were also insulted as murderers and criminals.
The officer also reportedly saw a laminated piece of paper that ridiculed Indonesia’s founding ideology “pancasila” – which translates as “five principles” – as “panca-gila”. Gila, in Bahasa Indonesia, means crazy.
But broader issues within the Australia-Indonesia relationship have been brought into the open by the spat, with Australia also been forced to deny it has tried to recruit Indonesian military personnel as spies, despite claims by Indonesia’s military chief, general Gatot Nurmantyo. .
In a speech in November and revealed by the ABC this week, Nurmantyo claimed Australia had sought to recruit Indonesia’s best and brightest as sources.
“Every time there is a training program – like recently – the best five or 10 students would be sent to Australia,” he said, according to a translation of his
“That happened before I was chief so I let that happen. Once I became chief commander of the national forces, it did not happen again … They will certainly be recruited, they will certainly be recruited.”
Again, the contentious issue of West Papuan independence was raised as a major concern.
Payne denied Australia has tried to influence or recruit Indonesian officers for intelligence activities or spying: “That is not the case and it is something which we would not countenance, of course.”
She told ABC radio she had communicated with Ryacudu on number of matters in December and the issue was not raised by him.
The Australian government is understood to have been surprised by the timing of the announcement of the military suspension, as it believed the issue was being managed and its investigation coming to a conclusion.
Indonesia and Australia’s military relationship has improved in recent years, after an at-times troubled history.
The Lombok treaty commits both countries to cooperating in defence, combating transnational crime, counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing. Australia has sold military hardware to Indonesia and defence and foreign ministers meet regularly.
But relations were shaken in 2013 – and military cooperation suspended – when it was revealed the Australian Signals Directorate attempted to monitor the phone calls of the then president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and senior officials.