Thu, 30 Aug 2001

President Megawati needn't mess around with foreign policy

By J. Soedjati Djiwandono

JAKARTA (JP): President Megawati Soekarnoputri's choice to visit the ASEAN capitals was right as a reaffirmation of her pledge to make ASEAN once again the cornerstone of Indonesia's foreign policy. It was a necessary first step to rectify her predecessor's virtual neglect and even, in some cases, snub of Indonesia's neighbors.

She was also right in saying before the Indonesian community in Bangkok during her visit there that Indonesia must put its own house in order before it can resume its role in ASEAN. Indonesia's role in the region as well as in the wider international arena needs to be sustained by its domestic stability and credibility.

It seems doubtful, however, if there has been "a consensus within ASEAN that Indonesia takes most of the initiatives and leadership within the organization simply because it is the largest member". She said, "Indonesia must live up to its title as the 'big brother' of the region." And she wished people would stop putting quotation marks around the words "big brother" whenever referring to the role that Indonesia should play in ASEAN.

Well, I, for one, will continue to put quotation marks around those words, unless I feel assured that the title "big brother" is willingly conferred upon Indonesia by the rest of ASEAN rather than self-proclaimed by Indonesian leaders. And only then will I stop using the term in a positive sense.

Indeed, I may be out of date and out of touch with current foreign affairs, but my understanding is that the term "big brother" -- in reference to "big-brother attitude" or "big- brother policy" in international affairs -- normally indicates a feeling of resentment on the part of target countries against the bullying tactics of bigger and more powerful neighbors.

Indeed, Indonesians referred to the Japanese as a "big brother", a term imposed as a propaganda tool by the Japanese during the three and a half years of occupation. Many Indonesians might have done it out of fear or ignorance, or both, and a few leaders were perhaps innocently convinced of the Japanese goodwill and intention.

Would, however, Indonesians today accept or tolerate a bullying behavior toward them by China, Japan, India or the USA and still regard any of them as a "big brother"? I very much doubt it.

Terms and concepts die hard in international politics. The most that our neighbors in ASEAN could tolerate, if not necessarily publicly and explicitly expressed, is probably Indonesia's status within ASEAN as primus inter pares (first among equals). Indonesia should strive for no higher status than that. The power of a state is not simply measured by the number of its population, the size of its territory, and the wealth of its natural resources and its cultural richness, but also its human resources, its advancement in technology, its economic power, its military strength, its democracy and stability, and thus its political influence.

However, Indonesia does occupy a special place in Southeast Asia. That is to say, in the past, it was perceived by its neighbors as a potential threat to their security, and thus to the security of the region in military or expansionist terms. Indonesia's success in recovering West Irian in the 1960s, its policy of confrontation against Malaysia, and its annexation of East Timor were seen as historical evidence of Indonesia's expansionist ambition.

Even today, Indonesia remains a potential threat to the security of its neighbors. Now, however, that threat is not to be understood in military or expansionist terms, but rather in social, political and economic terms because of the multidimensional crisis that has beset the country for the past few years.

The flow of "boat people" from Indonesia seeking a better life in the neighboring countries is not to be underestimated. This would be a "spillover" of Indonesia's domestic troubles into its neighbors.

ASEAN would tend to render Indonesia "less menacing". Indonesia would, as it were, tend to be "domesticated" rather than outside the association.

I recall cases when there were complaints by Singaporeans, Filipinos (in reference to their dispute with Malaysia over Sabah, for instance), and Malaysians about "big brother" behavior on the part of Indonesians (particularly diplomats and other high-ranking officials) for some signs of what they perceived, rightly or wrongly, as interference in their domestic affairs. One Indonesian diplomat was even declared persona non grata by the Philippine government.

In her speech, the President also called on her compatriots everywhere to build up their self-confidence, For Indonesia to be able to take a leadership position, she said, "the recipe is to build a strong national identity, self-respect and self- confidence". That's fine. But with what, Ma'am, just slogans?

Indonesians abroad, she said, "must never shy away from publicly identifying their nationality no matter how appalling conditions in their home country are and no matter what other people think of Indonesia. I have met many people who said they were ashamed to be Indonesians." Who has made them ashamed? Is it their fault?

People can only be proud, at least not ashamed, of their national identity only if their state delivers the goods it has promised. After all, most Indonesians are citizens of this republic not out of choice. The state must give them good reasons to be proud of their membership. Or else, they have the right (one of the human rights) to leave their country -- provided, of course, there is some country that would accept them!

Former president Abdurrahman Wahid acted as his own foreign minister and bungled. President Megawati need not do that. Though most probably not well-versed in foreign affairs, she now has an experienced diplomat as her foreign minister. Foreign affairs do not seem to be where she needs to prove herself, if she really feels the need to prove herself, that is. For the outcome may be precisely the opposite.

Conducting foreign policy the way president Sukarno did in his era almost four decades ago is no longer relevant to the rapidly changing world of today. In fact, it is questionable if it was ever effective at all in the last few years of his presidency from the point of view of Indonesia's national interest.

We must move forward with the fast progress of the world, not back to the past. Or else we may end up the laughing stock in the international community for being so outrageously out of tune and wide of the mark.

The writer is a political analyst in Jakarta.