Tue, 08 Mar 2005

Sunshine patriots stir sentiment in border dispute

Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, Jakarta

Malaysia is courting trouble by claiming Indonesian territory, but it is the "summer soldiers and sunshine patriots" who are stirring the pot by turning a spat into a potential melee.

Few Indonesians, or Malaysians, can point to the spot of the disputed territory. But the reaction in some Indonesia cities has been so feverish that is as though a limb had already been torn from Ibu Pertiwi's (the Motherland) body.

Much has to do with misplaced nationalism. Blind faith that attracts irrationalism and xenophobia.

"My country, right or wrong" is the rallying cry. Except that no true patriot would say that because -- to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton -- it is like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober!"

Timing is everything. The emergence of this dispute, coincidentally, comes at a time when protests against the fuel hikes were expected to gain momentum.

It is in this second week of post-fuel price hikes that the public will start to feel the pinch. When public transportation fares rise by up to 35 percent, and housewives suddenly realize -- after shopping at the local market -- that their grocery bags feel lighter than a fortnight ago, resentment starts to set in.

But the headlines on Monday morning did not reflect their quiet discontent. Instead, they spoke of warships, jet fighters and jingoism.

It seems unpatriotic to gripe when -- according to some sensational headlines -- "war" is imminent. The government did not stoke the fires but it did little to underline the underlying amiability between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Instead of saying that the country is readying its most seasoned diplomats and lawyers to rebuff the claims, it highlighted the deployment of its aging fleet to protect an empty sea.

Protests in some cities, especially Sulawesi, attempt to lend credence to the government's tough response. But what is often conveniently overlooked is that these demonstrations were orchestrated by associations of families linked to the military and police.

To some extent the Indonesian public has been conditioned to acquire a slight "distaste" for Malaysia over the past month. The skewed perception of problems faced by thousands of Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia -- disproportionate reports of Indonesians being hunted down by Malaysian authorities or swindled out of their salaries by errant employers -- has made Malaysia-bashing more tolerated.

The media is at fault for failing to put these "rifts" into context, nevertheless they are also being overwhelmed by sources whose quotes only simmer the dispute.

Over the past three days the diplomats who will ultimately be tasked to resolve the issue have rarely been heard as military statements dominate the headlines and airwaves. Almost every other sentence seems to end either with a "deployment of forces" or "ready to defend our sovereignty".

For an armed force so in need of a raison d'etre, the territorial dispute is the perfect panacea. The presence of a clear and present threat to territorial integrity, forces people to concede the need for a strong military.

As a President who seeks to tail public sentiment, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's visit on Monday to Sebatik Island near the disputed area was a calculated public relations move. Not surprisingly, politicians will emulate his visit in the coming days so that they too may bask in the spotlight.

However, this unduly raises political expectations. Such an unnecessary show of personal vigilance can make the President look weak when he must ultimately pursue protracted diplomacy to resolve the dispute. Already the hardened tones could well soften in the coming days with a meeting between the Indonesian and Malaysian foreign ministers expected.

How then will all that tough talk end?

As a soldier, Susilo knows full well that sunshine patriots eagerly talk about dying for their country. He should also ask them if they are willing to kill for their country?