Mon, 23 Dec 2002

Indonesia and ASEAN must move on together

Philips J Vermonte CSIS

In the past three decades, ASEAN has been the corner stone of Indonesia's foreign policy. But, things have changed rapidly, triggered by the economic crisis and its severe consequences starting from 1997. To a large extent, Indonesia has lost its credibility within ASEAN, shifting from "a country that could assert the leadership role" into a country that is widely seen as "source of the problems" in the region. The shift is partly caused by the political change started in 1998, following the resignation of Soeharto from the presidency. Since then, the Indonesian authoritarian system has been, to some extent, altered with a more democratic one. New political parties and interest groups have emerged. In addition, print and electronic media are now able to publish people's opinions, apart from the state's view.

After the financial crisis hit the region, several members of ASEAN have also experienced profound political change. In the Philippines, a country that is considered to be having the strongest people-power movement in the region, the demand for a more transparent government is apparently high. The democratization process is also underway in Thailand. The new Constitution enacted in 1997 introduces significant political reform in that country. In Malaysia, the opposition movement has also become more discernible. Suffice it to say, some ASEAN members are gradually becoming more open and democratic than others.

Meanwhile, ASEAN now has a larger agenda as a consequence of its decision to incorporate all ten countries in the region. The economic gap between the old and new members, the competing interests amongst the members, the emergence of non-traditional security issues and the desire to create "One Southeast Asia" through economic and political integration must all be dealt with at once.

It must be noted that Indonesia has been known as the strongest proponent of the core ASEAN principle, the non- interference principle. It dates back to the early days of the Soeharto administration in 1967. After putting an end to Sukarno's Confrontation policy towards Malaysia, Soeharto's New Order government actively took part in initial attempts to establish ASEAN. The reason for this, as Michael Leifer (1999) puts it, was that Soeharto needed ASEAN to rebuild Indonesia's reputation. Indonesia under Sukarno was widely known as an anti- Western country.

For Indonesia at that time there was a need to achieve regional stability for economic development as well as domestic political stability. It was not surprising that the Bangkok Declaration in 1967, which serves as a fundamental treaty for ASEAN, emphasizes these two political and economic considerations. In the first ASEAN summit in 1976, it was Soeharto who made it clear that "each member resolves to eliminate threats posed by subversion to its stability, thus strengthening national and ASEAN resilience." Since then, the concepts underpinning ASEAN's effort to attain its goal are regional resilience together with economic growth, which was very much the same as Soeharto's domestic political jargon. The point that needs to be highlighted here is that Indonesia played a very significant role in shaping ASEAN's early political agenda.

We could draw similarities between the period when Indonesia decided to support the establishment of ASEAN and now. Indonesia's regional reputation has been seriously damaged. Among the famous four problems that have been faced by ASEAN since 1997, three originate or at least take place in Indonesia: The economic crisis, the environmental disaster of the haze and the humanitarian emergency of East Timor. The issue of illegal workers has also become a contentious diplomatic thorn between Indonesia and Malaysia, which reached its peak with the expulsion of illegal Indonesian workers from Malaysia in August this year. In addition, before the Bali bombings a few months ago, Indonesia received heavy criticism from the neighboring countries for we were seen as doing very little in the fight against terrorism.

At this point, Indonesia could actually play an important role in shaping ASEAN's determination again. Indonesia has an opportunity to do so as we will host the ASEAN Summit in 2003.

There are several broad issues that can be advocated by Indonesia.

First, it must be acknowledged that ASEAN is not unified over some important issues, managing its relations with external powers for instance. Unlike in the past when ASEAN was always seen as an entity and treated as equal, ASEAN's external partners now enjoy better leverage as ASEAN's new members have their own agenda for harvesting development aid from the partners. These two challenges, external powers' interference and growing internal differences, must be given particular attention. Indonesia can play a role in unifying the competing interests of ASEAN member countries.

Second, for ASEAN to move more progressively, the consensus principle needs to be examined. Third, ASEAN must also address the issue of institutional building. More than just trying to reach a consensus on one particular issue, ASEAN must strengthen its institution so that they can be utilized for making a more rational decision. It can be achieved, for example, by enhancing the role of the ASEAN Secretariat. Fourth, ASEAN needs to incorporate participation of non-state actors from ASEAN member countries. ASEAN must find a way to give more room to the people of ASEAN to participate in the regional cooperation process. By doing so, we will not only nurture the idea of an "ASEAN-ness", but also we protect our own democratization process by creating a regional environment conducive for democracy.