Thu, 30 Aug 2001

Strengthening ASEAN

Two days after President Megawati Soekarnoputri has returned home from her first tour of ASEAN, observers and analysts, as well as the common person-in-the-street in Jakarta, are still wondering what benefits her trip will bring, both to Indonesia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

To be honest, many Indonesians may have doubts about the good that spending public money on costly presidential trips could have for the nation, given the current crisis conditions. This is especially true, as the numerous overseas trips that her immediate predecessor, former president Abdurrahman Wahid, made during the brief 20 months that he was in office, are still fresh in their minds.

As far as the public is concerned, possibly the only redeeming factor in Megawati's case is that it is quite within the Asian tradition for a newly installed head of government to pay courtesy calls on his or her closest neighbors in order to get acquainted. Yet, it would be reasonable to ask whether it is true that Megawati's just-concluded ASEAN tour is a complete waste of money.

In her talks on her first stop in Manila with Philippines president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the Indonesian President set the general tone for her discussions with other leaders in the region by pledging that in the years ahead Indonesia would work closely with the governments of ASEAN, "to contribute to the stability and well-being of ASEAN," and to "ensure that ASEAN played an important role in the region and in international forums such as APEC, ASEM and the WTO."

While in Manila, Megawati broached the subject of dealing with terrorism, and reached an agreement with president Arroyo regarding cooperation. This is an issue of the greatest concern to Indonesia, and probably for other ASEAN member states as well, where armed insurgency and the threat of terrorism exist or are beginning to rear their ugly head.

In Thailand, Megawati reportedly surprised both Thai and Indonesian officials by bringing up the arrest in May of two Thai army personnel in Songkhla on charges of preparing to ship arms, including grenades, ammunition and land mines, to insurgents in Aceh.

Cross-border security issues such as closer intelligence cooperation, gun-running and terrorism across the Straits of Malacca, quite naturally received the President's special attention in her talks with the leaders of Malaysia and Singapore, the two ASEAN countries located closest to Aceh.

Given the emphasis that has been given in the press to these issues, one might conclude that the President did not devote much attention to Indonesia's burning economic issues. Aside from the deal to import 500,000 tons of rice this year, concluded with Vietnam, the presence of the three coordinating ministers plus State Minister of State Enterprises Laksamana Sukardi during Megawati's visit to Singapore, however, seems to refute this view.

On the whole, it can be argued that under current circumstances there is nothing wrong in putting the emphasis on safeguarding the country against security threats. Apart from the fact that none of the ASEAN countries, with the exception of Singapore and possibly Malaysia, are currently in a position to play a significant economic role in this part of the world, economic growth and public security go hand-in-hand.

It could therefore be said that the greatest contribution that Indonesia could make to ASEAN's strength would be by maintaining order and security throughout this vast archipelagic state, as well as by sustained economic growth. This, however, is a reciprocal process. For Indonesia to become politically stable and economically healthy, the country's internal security must be ensured, which means that a conducive environment is needed.

In turn, a politically stable and economically healthy Indonesia will have an invigorating effect on the region as a whole. That is why it is in Indonesia's interests to see ASEAN re-emerge as a strong and well-respected regional organization in the world.