Panicked diplomats 'call in sick' to avoid speaking English

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday February 20, 2010

Tom Allard HERALD CORRESPONDENT

JAKARTA: The head of Indonesia's foreign affairs department has expressed concern that some of its diplomatic attaches have such a poor command of English they "freak out" and regularly cancel appointments.And while some envoys are calling in sick to dodge meetings, others have been lining their pockets by rorting the travel budget - part of a scam exposed this month.Addressing an Indonesian parliamentary committee this week, Imron Cotan, a senior diplomat, said there were problems with English fluency among attaches sent to overseas missions."Every time their counterparts from the home government want to meet them, they freak out and seek ways to avoid the meeting," he said.Taking sick leave was the favoured method of staff to avoid potentially embarrassing encounters, he said.The complaints regarding attaches at Indonesia's 119 overseas missions do not end with inadequate English, the language of international diplomacy. According to one politician on parliament's foreign affairs commission, they frequently plagiarised material in their annual reports submitted to Jakarta."The contents are awful," Tri Tamtomo told the Jakarta Post."Much of the information in these reports is taken from newspapers or the internet, which anyone could do."While Mr Cotan - a former ambassador to Canberra - was letting fly at some embassy staff this week, he was also battling allegations that he had benefited from widespread rorting of the foreign affairs travel budget.The former foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda was also named by Indonesian Corruption Watch - which exposed the scam - as a beneficiary. Mr Wirajuda and Mr Cotan denied the claims and an internal investigation exonerated them.The information from the watchdog, an anti-corruption citizens' group, was largely verified and led to the demotion of three foreign affairs officials.The scam involved diplomats conspiring with travel agencies to get fake receipts for their plane tickets, which quoted fares vastly in excess of what was paid.The diplomats would benefit when the higher amount was reimbursed and kickbacks would be paid to other officials.The practice was co-ordinated through the department's finance and budget arms and cost $3.5 million last year alone.The officials disciplined were the heads of the department's finance bureau, travel bureau and budget allocation office.While these officials named Mr Wirajuda and Mr Cotan as accomplices, the Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, said their names were used to cover up the crimes of the lower-ranking officials and were not backed by hard evidence.Indonesia Corruption Watch said the sanctions against the officers were light, administrative punishments only. "The measures taken by Marty Natalegawa will not provide a deterrent effect," said Agus Sunaryanto, the group's investigation co-ordinator.

© 2010 Sydney Morning Herald

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