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Interview with PM Howard on Bali bombings

Transcript Of The Prime Minister The Hon John Howard MP Doorstop Interview, Kirribilli House, Sydney

Subject: Bali bombings

PRIME MINISTER

Last night I spoke to the President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. I expressed my condolences to him on the loss of Indonesian lives, he in turn expressed his sadness at the loss of Australian lives and the injuries that had been done. He assured me that no effort would be spared by Indonesia in tracking down those responsible. He expressed the belief that suicide bombers were involved and that seems to be strongly supported by the available evidence. We talked for a while about the ongoing challenge of terrorism and we both agreed at the conclusion of our discussion that tragic incidents such as this so far from driving apart the people the people of Australia and Indonesia would only bring us closer together. And we owe it to those who have lost their lives, in both countries, to ensure that the evil deeds of these evil people do not drive our two countries apart.

I can add not a lot more to the casualty status figures that Mr Downer mentioned this morning. I can report that all of the Australian injured have now been medically evacuated from Bali. There are five in Singapore, 12 have been brought to Darwin. The question of whether they will remain in Darwin or sent elsewhere in Australia will be a matter for on the spot medical assessments in Darwin. I can also report that four others have been brought to Australia – two Japanese and two Indonesians. This is in accordance with my offer to the Indonesian authorities that we would be willing to medically evacuate anybody in this incident, irrespective of their nationality. I’ve been told that after visiting the hospital this morning, early this morning, the Ambassador, the Australian Ambassador in Jakarta, David Ritchie, is of the view that no further medical evacuations are likely.

So that is the situation as I can report it at this stage. Clearly this incident has again shaken the Australian community but I don’t believe for a moment it’s going to pull apart the relationship between Australia and Indonesia. This struggle against terrorism will go on for some years and it’s a struggle that’s very important for our way of life and it’s very important for the future of this country in our part of the world. The terrorists, as I said yesterday, are targeting a stable democratic moderately Islamic Indonesia They have an interest in causing the maximum amount of instability and chaos in that country, in weakening its economy, of terrifying its citizens. They of course also target Westerners, including Australians because of who we are and the kind of values we represent, and nothing would suit terrorists more than to be able, in a situation like this, do damage to the Indonesian republic and also in the process kill and maim and injure Westerners.

I, like all Australians, was moved to read the press reports this morning of the way in which individual Australians were injured. To read of the death of a young man at the age of 16, somebody starting their life, it’s always particularly heartbreaking to see a young life taken like that. I of course extend my sympathy to all of those who’ve lost their lives and the people of the Newcastle area and the Hunter Valley of New South Wales which appear to have been very hard hit by this. They will be feeling this tragedy. I’ve spoken to my colleague Bob Baldwin who has been in touch with many of the families. He knows quite a number of them personally, and this is a particularly hard time for our fellow Australians in the Newcastle area.

Any questions?

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, we’re hearing reports that there were some informal warnings issued, one from a bouncer, another from a teacher, warnings to stay away from Kuta. Do you place any value in these reports. Is it people being wise after the events or is there some local intelligence that we’re that we’re not tapping in to?

PRIME MINISTER

I can only report what I know and what I know is that there have been general warnings for several years contained in our travel bulletin. And it is inevitable when you have warnings of that all sorts of rumours will circulate. That is inevitable. I can also report no specific intelligence was received by us and to my knowledge by any of the other Western embassies in Jakarta. That report of some intelligence from the Americans, I have been informed and I’ve actually read the warden’s report, as the Americans call it, which is in substance the same as the most recent travel advisory issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs. So we had no specific intelligence, but for several years now we have been warning people about the dangers of bomb attacks in Indonesia, including Bali. If you actually go and look at the travel advisory you will see those words. Now you can’t do more than that and if there are warnings like that it is inevitable in my view that you will get rumours, you will get people saying I’ve heard this, I’ve heard that and that is very understandable and I’m not being critical of it and I’m not necessarily saying that it’s people being wise after the event. I’m simply making the point that we have warned for several years now of the dangers of people going to Indonesia. We have in fact been criticised on occasions by some people in Indonesia and occasionally the odd person in Australia that our travel warnings have been damaging and harmful. But we are caught in a terrible dilemma. We don’t want to warn people in circumstances where those warnings are not justified. Sadly they have been justified. On the other hand if we don’t make those things plain, we don’t warn people, then obviously we’re open to criticism. But there can be no argument. We have regularly told people that it’s dangerous to go to Indonesia. We’ve regularly told people of the dangers of bomb attacks, we’ve used those words. Now beyond having specific intelligence that a particular attack is going to occur at a particular place there’s nothing more we can do.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, given the second wave of bombings, should the travel advisory actually advise against all travel as opposed to all non-essential travel, as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan?

PRIME MINISTER

Well we advise people to defer non-essential travel but in the end you can’t stop people going. This is a democracy; we have no right to say to people we will not allow you to leave Australia. And you have to try and strike a balance. It’s a dilemma. If we did that people might then argue well you shouldn’t travel on the London underground, you shouldn’t visit tall buildings in the United States. It’s a terrible dilemma that we now have. I mean all we can do is to advise the known facts, give our assessment and we leave it to the individuals concerned to make a judgement. Now there are a lot of places that are, on the basis of past experience, very dangerous to visit. Clearly and sadly, and I know many Australians will share this view because they love Bali and the love the Balinese, Bali has become one of those and I am concerned, amongst all the other things that will come out of this, I am concerned about the terrible damage that it’s going to do to the Balinese economy and the poverty it will inflict on the Balinese people. The terrorists know this and they don’t care.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, do you know how many of the injured Australians are critical and is there a possibility the Australian death toll could rise?

PRIME MINISTER

My information is probably not beyond the likely four that Mr Downer spoke of this morning. My information is that although a number of 17 have very serious injuries, including as is apparent from the press reports this morning the father of the young boy who lost his life, I further understand that none of them are critical.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, can you comment on whether a splinter group of JI was involved in this bombing?

PRIME MINISTER

We don’t have any hard information on that. When I said yesterday that, and I repeat this morning, that this bears the hallmarks of JI or some splinter group or outrider or fellow travelling group I based that on the pattern of there being four bombs, there being suicide bombers. Now it’ll take a few days, perhaps a bit longer, to verify that belief but I’d be surprised if I’m wrong.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, the Government advice (inaudible)any travel at all to Iraq, Afghanistan, (inaudible), should that be extended to Indonesia?

PRIME MINISTER

Well what we will do, as we always do in the light of events such as this, is we will make a judgement as to whether there should be any further changes to the travel advisories. But in the end no matter we have in the travel advisories people are going to make their own judgement. And plainly despite everything that’s happened there are still gradations of danger and visiting certain parts of Iraq and Afghanistan are still more dangerous than visiting many other places, although there are many parts of Iraq and Afghanistan which are relatively speaking not dangerous.

JOURNALIST:

Are you concerned that people do seem to be ignoring the travel advice, your own Health Minister seemed to think that it was safe enough.

PRIME MINISTER

Well he made a judgement as an individual and that was for him to make. And what you have to do in these situations is to put the facts on the table and then people make a judgement. I’m not criticising Australians who go to Bali on holidays, that would be the last thing I would do. What we have to do is to explain the facts and that’s what we’ve done. When we get information we make an assessment, if the travel advisory needs to be changed then you do so. But you must understand the dilemma a government has – if last week we had said well we’re going to try and actively stop people from going to Bali, a lot of people, I think a majority of Australians would have said this is an overreaction by the Government. It’s three years almost since the last attack, shouldn’t we be extending the hand of friendship to the people of Bali, shouldn’t we be supporting their economy? This is the great dilemma we all have and one has to make an assessment and that’s what we’ve tried to do.

JOURNALIST:

(inaudible)regional association to take the fight to the terrorists, I mean are we doing enough to try and pick up the intelligence and infiltrate their groups perhaps in a bid to work out where the bombs are going off instead of always mopping up afterwards?

PRIME MINISTER

Well you’ve got to remember that this attack took place in a foreign country. And we should, close though we are to Indonesia, both at a political level and also geographically, we have to remember that it’s a vastly different society from ours. And the potential terror groups are much greater, they’re much more organised, they’re much more lethal than they are in Australia. It would be wrong to say that this event in Bali has heightened the likelihood of a terrorist attack in Australia. There is no automatic link between the two. We do not have the same home-grown challenges. We are a different society. I believe in relation to potential terrorist attacks we are a much safer society, but I have never ruled out the possibility of a terrorist attack. So getting back to your question about further intelligence cooperation, our willingness to cooperate in gathering intelligence is unlimited but human intelligence in these situations is the best intelligence. Human intelligence in Indonesia is best gathered in Indonesia by Indonesians.

JOURNALIST:

Are you satisfied they’re energetic enough in doing that…

PRIME MINISTER

Well whenever an attack occurs it’s always possible to say that more can be done. But that can apply in Great Britain – a country recognised as having very good intelligence services, but also a country, like ours, has a long tradition of liberal democratic principles and respecting civil rights. These are very difficult balances to achieve and very difficult judgements to make It’s one of the hardest challenges I’ve found in Government – striking the right balance because I feel a great obligation to protect the safety of the Australian people, I also feel a great obligation to protect the traditional liberties of this country.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, JI remain a legal group in Indonesia capable of fundraising, spreading propaganda, are you going to be doing anything more to put pressure on Indonesia to outlaw that group and break up its operations?

PRIME MINISTER

We will pursue that issue further. The time to do that is in the immediate future, not right now. But we will pursue the issue further. But we shouldn’t assume that if it’s outlawed it will automatically curtail its operations . I think that is misunderstanding the shadowy nature of this organisation and it’s not like a village tennis club, Mr Downer has used the examples of the two major political parties in Australia, it’s not like the belonging to a football club. You don’t pay an annual membership fee or something like that. It’s a different consideration and just formally declaring it illegal does not stop people from organising to do bad things and organising to kill and to maim people. But nonetheless we will continue to pursue that issue.

Thank you.

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