Indonesians burned Australian flags on Thursday over reports that Australia’s spies tried to tap the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife, as relations between the neighbours plunged to their lowest point since the late 1990s.
About 200 people marched to the heavily fortified Australian embassy in Jakarta - the scene of a 2004 bombing that killed 10 people - to demand an apology over the alleged spying, which prompted Yudhoyono to downgrade diplomatic relations with Canberra on Wednesday.
Other protesters in the Central Javanese city of Yogyakarta burned Australian flags in a show of anger, but the demonstrations were peaceful and smaller than police had expected.
Australia earlier updated its travel advisory for Indonesia, the country’s second most popular tourist destination after New Zealand, urging citizens in the Southeast Asian archipelago to avoid protests and “maintain high levels of vigilance”.
Yudhoyono went on national television on Wednesday to announce that he was freezing military and intelligence cooperation, including over the issue of asylum seekers, that has long been an irritant in relations.
Indonesia’s military halted training with Australia as a decision to suspend co-operation over spying claims took effect, while angry demonstrators in Jakarta declared on Thursday they were “ready for war” with Canberra.
The reports that sparked the Indonesian outrage quoted documents leaked by former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, suggesting Australia had tried to monitor the phones of top Indonesian officials in 2009.
In the Australian capital, the scandal took an embarrassing twist for Prime Minister Tony Abbott when one of his party’s strategists described someone reported to be the Indonesian foreign minister as resembling “a 1970s Filipino porn star”.
The crisis – triggered by reports that Australian spies tried to tap the phones of the Indonesian president, his wife and ministers – has pushed ties between Jakarta and Canberra to their lowest level since the turn of the century.
Jakarta has recalled its ambassador from Canberra and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Wednesday ordered co-operation suspended in several areas, including on people-smuggling, military exercises and sharing intelligence.
Speaking just hours after Yudhoyono made his announcement, military chief Moeldoko said two current exercises with Australia were being halted.
“What’s the point of joint training when they don’t trust us?” said the head of the armed forces, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
He said a joint exercise in the northern Australian city of Darwin, which had been due to end on Sunday, was being halted and six F-16 fighter jets involved in it would return to Indonesia.
A joint training exercise with the Indonesian army’s special forces, Kopassus, in Lembang in West Java province, was also being suspended, he said.
The anger over the alleged spying spilled over to the public in Jakarta, where demonstrators wearing military-style uniforms protested outside the Australian embassy, pumping their fists in the air and waving the Indonesian flag.
“We’re ready for war with Australia,” read one of the banners waved by the crowd, who used red-spray paint to daub red graffiti on the Australian mission.
Indonesian hackers also vented their anger, claiming responsibility for a cyber attack on the websites of the Australian Federal Police and the Reserve Bank of Australia.
The growing row, sparked by reports in Australian media based on documents leaked by US intelligence fugitive Edward Snowden, has dealt a heavy blow to the government of the new Australian leader.
The decision to stop cooperation on people-smuggling is especially difficult for Prime Minister Abbott, as he desperately needs Jakarta’s help to stop the influx of asylum-seekers who head to Australia via Indonesia.
And on Thursday there was more embarrassment for Abbott, when a strategist from his Liberal party was forced to apologise over a tweet about someone reported to be Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
“Apology demanded from Australia by a bloke who looks like a 1970’s Pilipino (sic) porn star and has ethics to match,” said the tweet from Mark Textor, which has since been deleted.
Reports said he was referring to Natalegawa, who has demanded Canberra apologise over the scandal.
However, although Textor apologised, he said he was not referring to “anyone in particular” when the ABC cornered him at Parliament House in Canberra.
“Apologies to my Indonesian friends – frustrated by media-driven divisions – Twitter is indeed no place for diplomacy,” he later tweeted, adding, “Conduct unbecoming”.
Natalegawa did not respond to requests for a comment on the tweet. But Jakarta has already been infuriated by Australia’s refusal to apologise or offer what it sees as a clear explanation.
Yudhoyono on Wednesday sent a letter to Abbott demanding a clear explanation over the allegations, first reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and in The Guardian newspaper.
Abbott told parliament he had received the letter on Thursday morning and pledged the government would respond “swiftly, fully and courteously”.
The leaked documents from Snowden showed that Australia’s electronic intelligence agency tracked Yudhoyono’s activity on his mobile phone for 15 days in August 2009, when Labor’s Kevin Rudd was prime minister.