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How to stop understanding

Published: Jul 15, 2007

Blanket travel warnings just don’t make sense

Michele Ford

Many of Inside Indonesia’s readers are Australian school teachers and university lecturers who struggle to encourage students to learn about Indonesia. It’s not an easy task in the face of the now seemingly ever-present threat of terrorism. It’s not enough anymore for educators to tell students what a wonderful place Indonesia is. They must convince them that it’s safe.

Their task is made harder by the travel advisories issued by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). After the first Bali bombings, DFAT issued blanket warnings that Australians should cancel all ‘non-essential’ travel to Indonesia. It’s an insurance system for the government, so no-one can accuse them of ‘putting Australian lives at risk’.

But the advisories are counterproductive. They don’t differentiate enough between ‘hot spots’ and the rest of Indonesia, and they never seem to change (unless of course they are upgraded). They certainly don’t make it clear that terrorist attacks remain a tiny risk. And they are simply not fair. New York or London is at least as much of a terrorist target as Jakarta or Kuta, but you won’t find DFAT slapping blanket travel warnings on the US or the UK.

The problem also lies in the way the travel advisories are interpreted. Throughout Australia, state education departments treat them as travel bans and refuse to allow students to go to Indonesia. Although private schools have more leeway, it’s a brave teacher anywhere who tries to convince a school principal (let alone parents) that it’s safe to take kids on a school trip. And while teachers of other languages get to upgrade their language skills in-country, Indonesian teachers have to stay at home.

Most universities are less constrained in their interpretation of the advisories than schools. Even so, on many Australian campuses students and even academics have to get special permission to go to Indonesia – permission that is too often refused. The good news is that twenty Australian universities remain members of the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS), which has continued to run a remarkable student placement program in Yogyakarta and Malang despite Australia’s hysteria about the security situation.

Since the mid-1990s, hundreds of Australian university students have (safely) completed a semester or more at Indonesian universities under the watchful eye of ACICIS. The greatest risk to their wellbeing has not been terrorism, but rather motorcycles, stomach upsets, or perhaps a broken heart. But ACICIS constantly struggles to convince university bureaucrats that students will be safe, even with its fulltime Resident Director and its sophisticated risk management strategy.

Again, the travel advisories are the major stumbling block. In the risk-averse university culture of the early twenty-first century, it’s extremely tempting for universities simply to say no to students who want to study in Indonesia. And from the university perspective, it’s much simpler to do so in the face of a DFAT warning against all non-essential travel than to recognise just how unlikely it is that students firmly embedded in a local community will be targets of a terrorist attack.

It’s not enough for the government to argue that universities and schools should just interpret the advisories differently. It needs to recognise the impact of blanket travel warnings and do something concrete about it.

There’s a great saying in Indonesian: the heart can’t love what it doesn’t know. What hope is there for the future of relations between Australia and Indonesia if even the keenest students can’t go and experience Indonesia for themselves? The Indonesian language program at the Australian Defence Force Academy may be booming, but fewer and fewer school students are studying the language to senior level, and university Indonesian programs are feeling the pinch. We have to ask ourselves: is a situation in which the only Australians studying Indonesian are soldiers and police officers really in the national interest? We all know that it’s not, but what are we going to do about it?

Michele Ford (michele.ford@arts.usyd.edu.au) teaches Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney.

Inside Indonesia 85: Jan-Mar 2006

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