Tue, 25 Feb 2003

Revitalizing NAM

As expected, the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) kicked off yesterday in Kuala Lumpur with the shadow of a possible war in Iraq hanging menacingly over the proceedings. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is taking over leadership of the group from South African President Thabo Mbeki, aptly described the prevailing mood of the majority of the movement's 114 member countries in his opening remarks, when he said war remained the most important threat facing the movement, which was established in 1955.

"War must be outlawed -- that will have to be our struggle for now. No single nation should be allowed to police the world," Mahathir said in obvious reference to the United States, which is reported to be continuing to build up its military strength in the Middle East in preparation for a possible war against Iraq.

Calling the current war stance of a number of Western nations a "revival of the old European trait of wanting to dominate the world", Mahathir warned that the "expression of this trait invariably involves injustice and oppression of people of other ethnic origins and colors. It is no longer just a war against terrorism. It is in fact a war in order to dominate the world, i.e. the chromatically different world".

Although Mahathir was only giving expression to his own thoughts and ideas, old-timers in this part of the world will undoubtedly hear echoes of Indonesian president Sukarno's tirades against what he used to refer to as the "neo-colonialists and imperialists" of the West during the Cold War standoff between the U.S. and the Socialist Block, led by the Soviet Union -- which was the raison d'etre for the NAM's coming into existence in 1955.

As for Indonesia, it seems, for now at least, that by giving the impression of concentrating on its possible mediative role in the U.S.-North Korea dispute over nuclear disarmament rather than taking a strong position regarding Iraq, a golden opportunity to regain something of its old prestige on the world political stage has slipped through its fingers. But then, Indonesia, in its current destitute condition, may not be in a position to be too critical of the United States and its allies.

For that matter, the same -- more or less -- could well be said of NAM as an organization of supposedly politically independent and non-partisan nations. Almost all the members of the movement, with only a very few exceptions, are poor and either depend on aid from the rich "North" or are beset with internal problems of their own. The very fact that a summit that was agreed upon in Durban, South Africa, as far back as 1998 could only be realized in 2003 indicates that more than a few things are not quite well in NAM.

Bangladesh, which would have hosted the post-Durban summit in 2001, was struggling toward stability after a change of government and its minister of finance declared the country too poor to host a summit of the non-aligned movement -- an organization the Bangladeshi government said was "irrelevant" anyway. The next candidate to host the summit, Jordan, declared itself unable to play host only a few months before the summit was to be held, offering the turbulent situation in the Middle East as an excuse.

Enter Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is not for nothing known as Southeast Asia's most senior and most articulate leader, to revive the old dream of establishing a block of politically non-aligned and independent nations strong enough to represent the interests of the poor nations of the world and thereby bring some kind of balance to world politics.

It must be said that Malaysia has played its role as summit host quite well. For Indonesia, too, the opportunity is still there for it to play a significant role in making this world a more peaceful place to live. This it can do, at the very least, by making every effort to increase the block's bargaining position vis-a-vis Iraq, and persuade that country to comply with UN Resolution 1441. The protests that have taken place in many countries around the world show that the current mood is one strongly opposed to war.