Tue, 08 Mar 2005

Cracked war drums

What began as a neighborly spat has degenerated into an ignoble quarrel. The dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia over a patch of water in the Sulawesi Sea has taken an ugly direction over the past week.

Instead of quiet diplomacy, both countries have arrogantly deployed military might to emphasize their claims.

Military briefings boast of scrambling F-16s, gunship confrontations and military standoffs, leading to sensational news stories that fraudulently stirs up latent xenophobia and exaggerated nationalism. Suddenly, long forgotten slogans from Sukarno's 'Old Order' regime -- "konfrontasi", "ganyang Malaysia" (crush Malaysia) -- are regurgitated in cities throughout the archipelago by groups of ignorant crowds feeding on jingoism.

Does anyone in their right mind really believe that Indonesia could even be remotely close to waging a military confrontation with its brethren neighbor?

Those who do believe this have obviously fallen victim to two common curses of mankind: folly and ignorance.

We wholly support Indonesia's claim to the disputed territory. It has been, and hopefully will always be, an integral part of the nation. Kuala Lumpur has no right to claim territorial or exclusive economic rights to the particular area. Malaysia is not an archipelagic state and therefore, based on the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, has no right to invoke a claim based on the archipelagic concept.

The Indonesian government must pursue every available diplomatic measure to affirm its sovereignty over the maritime area in question.

Should the Malaysian government, or any other foreign actor for that matter, seek to partition any territorial part of this republic, then the nation would rightfully respond voraciously.

Yet we are far from such a juncture. This is not a case of a dwarf stirring up trouble with a tired giant. Nor are the two nations ever likely to reach that most horrible of predicaments.

Those who now so eagerly bang the war drums -- on both sides of the border -- are not patriots; they are either conniving political hustlers, or the obtuse poisoned by nationalistic vanity.

These unnecessary, tempestuous actions can create long-term rifts between two nations of common heritage.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's visit on Monday to East Kalimantan was acquiescence to the forces of nationalistic fervor. His visit did little to either reinforce Indonesia's territorial right to the area, or to defuse an overheated situation with a neighbor; a neighbor that so amicably received him less than a month ago.

We can only hope that his defense of Indonesia's claim will be firm but prudent. Tactful diplomacy is, ultimately, the only sensible way to resolve this dispute.

Top officials from both countries must convene in the near future. Apart from initiating what will certainly become lengthy negotiations, it will serve the more immediate purpose of cooling the atmosphere. A sincere handshake between top representatives will resonate friendship between our peoples.

Once bilateral channels have been exhausted, and the nations cannot resolve the matter, then Indonesia and Malaysia, as founders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), should engage the diplomatic mechanisms available within the grouping.

If Malaysia truly believes that it has a legitimate claim to the territory in question, then we call on them to have the courage to submit the dispute to the ASEAN High Council.

ASEAN leaders proudly boast about an ASEAN Community. This is an opportunity to put the boast to the test.

In the meantime, Malaysians and Indonesians should keep things in perspective. They must not aggravate the situation with unnecessarily provocative actions or purposeless fiery rhetoric. Politicians must stop fanning the fires in a cynical attempt to boost their own popularity, and the military must cease their combative rhetoric.

Both nations have bigger enemies to fight -- poverty, hunger, natural disasters, just to name a few. And even with the differences between us, we have too much in common to turn each other into bogeymen. True friends should bear the other's infirmities.





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