A Million Friends? National Interest Trumps Friendship

When I first heard the phrase, “A million friends, zero enemies,” I thought it was just another sound byte, probably fashioned by some advertising copywriter, and not a policy.

The phrase is, of course, a hyperbole, a case of runaway inflation of language. How can you have a million friends? That’s hardly possible even on Facebook. So what are you talking about when you invoke the phrase?

I was soon assured that it was indeed a sound byte that served as the chapeau of a policy statement in an inaugural speech of then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. I haven’t been able to find the text of that speech. I have had to speculate on the context behind “a million friends and zero enemies.”

Thus it occurred to me that this may be just a reaction to the Cold War mindset, which compels middle and small-sized nations to take sides when the big boys square off in the geopolitical ring. Rejecting that mindset, Indonesia can tell the United States: “OK, I’m your friend. I think you’re no friend to China, Iran and Russia. That doesn’t mean they can’t also be my friends. They are.

“You are all my friends if there are a million of you.”

Given that kind of interpretation, a policy of “a million friends, zero enemies,” looks like a fairly reasonable one. But I’m not quite comfortable with it. Maybe it’s because it gives government human qualities that they don’t really have. And makes no distinction between governments and people, between governments and the human beings who serve them.

When diplomats talk with each other, they sound as if the only thing in the world that matters is the friendship abloom between them. The friendship may indeed be genuine—I have witnessed what I think is genuine friendship between diplomats who serve governments that are at odds with each other.

But friendship is never the end of diplomacy. At best it’s a means.

To governments, what matters first and ultimately is the national interest—understood as the sum of what’s good for a national society. This is the first and last business of government and therefore also the first and last business of makers and implementors of national policy, including foreign policy.

People may—and should—have friendships. But governments have only national interests or raison d’état. A foreign government may be described metaphorically as “friendly” if its pursuit of its national interest is in harmony with that of your government. But only metaphorically.

It helps if the leaders of governments personally like each other. Personal friendships ease negotiations: each side doesn’t have to agonize to appreciate and reconcile with the position of the other.

And it helps if the constituencies of governments—their peoples—have positive historical and cultural affinities with each other. Conversely, wounds inflicted or sustained in the historical past have to be healed to smooth the diplomatic process.

But in the end, diplomacy is not about making friends. It’s about governments adjusting to each other’s pursuit of national interest in a spirit of pragmatic give-and-take. It’s about governments seeing to it that their aspirations don’t clash with each other, and if possible complement or support each other.

Whether it involves a million friends or just a few selected ones, a policy that’s based on friendship and not on the national interest can’t possibly work. Conversely, a foreign policy driven by personal dislike of a national leader is just as useless, and could be pernicious.

You wouldn’t be wise to reject Russian gas and oil just because you don’t like the smirk on Putin’s face.

Friendships are precious, useful and enjoyable. But they’re not the beef in the sandwich of foreign policy. They may only be the ketchup.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

To Suu Kyi: Please Break Your Silence

There are all sorts of silence. I remember the silence at night in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul when I was there a few years ago. The silence of holy places, the silence of contemplation, it was sublime.

There’s the comforting silence that binds one to a beloved because all the loving words have been said and there’s no need for more. In a world that can’t stop its chatter, this silence is precious, golden.

There’s the stony silence of the tyrant that says: I’m above dialogue. Just obey. There’s the practical silence of the timid that says: OK, I know when to shut up.

Then there’s the silence of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s a burden that she bears like an albatross on her neck. It consists of her inability to say one word, “Rohingya.”

For in all of Myanmar that word is taboo. All but a few brave ones observe the embargo. This is a way members of the Buddhist majority show contempt for a Muslim ethnic minority group in western Rakhine State that self-identifies as Rohingya.

There are as many as 1.1 million Rohingya. Scores have died in recent spates of ethno-religious violence. Some 100,000 have fled the country to escape persecution and deprivation of their rights to social services, health care, education and livelihood. As many as six generations of Rohingya have lived in Myanmar, yet they’re denied citizenship.

Instead of Rohingya, they’re called Bengali to pass them off as recent runaways from Bangladesh. They’re not welcome in Bangladesh. Nor anywhere else. They’re most unwelcome in the only country they’ve known, the country where they and their fathers were born.

Thus the taboo. It’s a way of telling the Rohingya: You don’t exist. You’ve no right to exist. And if you don’t conveniently disappear, we will make you cease to exist.

It takes courage to defy this taboo. No doubt, Aung San Suu Kyi is a courageous woman. For years she defied the repressive junta that once ruled Myanmar and she suffered stoically for her defiance. But strangely she doesn’t stand up to this taboo, this hoax of religious and ethnic prejudice, this sneaky execution of cold-blooded injustice. Nor does she meekly endure it. She embraces it.

She has been quoted as explaining: “I am not silent because of political calculation. I am silent because, whoever’s side I stand on, there will be more blood. If I speak up for human rights, (the Rohingya) will only suffer. There will be more blood.”

Lady, the surest guarantee that there will be more blood is your silence. For in cases like this, common sense interprets silence as consent. Acquiescence. The message you’re inadvertently sending is: It’s OK to exterminate the Rohingya.

Granted, if you do break your silence, there may still be more blood. But with the immense prestige of your Nobel Peace Prize, your heroic past and your illustrious bloodline, there’s a chance that breaking your silence will staunch the blood flow. Perhaps a small chance but real. If only for that, you’re under moral obligation to scream.

And, Lady, nobody is asking you to take new sides. As democracy icon, you’re supposed to be on the side of justice and human rights. You’re only being asked to stand where you’re supposed to have always been from the very beginning.

Your many new critics—some of them your admirers—say you’ve thrown away statesmanship to become a common politician. They have a point.

But your true supporters mustn’t give up on you. We must keep challenging your silence until one day soon, weary of its weight, you break it. Then you retrieve the moral compass you lost in the rough and tumble of local politics.

And maybe in all Myanmar the taboo will dissipate.

But your true supporters mustn’t give up on you. We must keep challenging your silence until one day soon, weary of its weight, you break it. Then you retrieve the moral compass you lost in the rough and tumble of local politics.

And maybe in all Myanmar the taboo will dissipate.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

The Intermestics of the Jokowi Presidency And How Local Politics is Always Global

Early during the past decade, when Megawati Soekarnoputri was president, then Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda spoke frequently of “intermestic” issues that demanded the attention of all who cared about the national interest.

Intermestic? That didn’t ring a bell to most people. Not even to diplomats. They thought that Minister Hassan had just coined the word, an amalgam of “international” and “domestic.” Its mintage, however, turned out to be not so recent. It was first used by Bayless Manning, the first president of the American Council on Foreign Relations, in an article he published in Foreign Policy Magazine in 1977.

What Minister Hassan did was to rescue the term from bookshelves and bring it into the consciousness of Indonesian diplomacy. He stressed that there are issues that are both domestic and international. These issues are, in the words of Manning, “simultaneously, profoundly and inseparably both domestic and international.”

Among the intermestic issues of that time were terrorism, human rights, trade liberalization, ill-gotten wealth stashed abroad, the separatist rebellion in Aceh, the separatist movement in Papua, the social problems caused by irregular migrants using Indonesia as a country of transit, the unreported and unregulated fishing by foreigners in Indonesian waters and, notably, and the transboundary haze episodes.

Another resurrection

The separatist rebellion in Aceh has been peacefully resolved but the others are still very much around. But they’re often treated as merely local issues. Perhaps it’s time for another resurrection of the term.

The country today is led by a president who has taken some audacious national initiatives like the lifting of the fuel subsidy and some drastic cut-downs in budget spending. But President Joko Widodo is also accused by various commentators of turning foreign policy into domestic policy.

They say that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led by a woman for the first time in history, has been overly focused on the protection and promotion of the welfare of Indonesian workers abroad to the neglect of Indonesia’s role in regional and international affairs. The agenda of Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, they say, seems to be exclusively about the plight of Indonesian overseas workers. This is probably an exaggeration.

There’s indeed a great deal more to be done for the Indonesian overseas worker. They have to be protected not only from abusive employers abroad but also from corrupt officials who extort money from them before they go abroad and when they come home.

President Widodo himself recently felt called upon to hold a teleconference with representatives of Indonesian overseas workers in several countries. He listened to their complaints and promised to deliver help.

When President Widodo and Foreign Minister Retno went to Busan, South Korea last mid-December for an Asean summit, she found time to ensure prompt evacuation of Indonesian survivors and the remains of Indonesians who died in the sinking of the South Korean fishing vessel MV Oryong 501 in the Bering Sea. And she sought and obtained a briefing from her South Korean counterpart on the progress of search and rescue operations.

A great burden

Earlier she reached an agreement with the Ministry of Manpower and the Agency for the Placement and Protection of Indonesian Migrant Workers that while these two agencies would take responsibility for the welfare of migrant workers during the time that they were in Indonesia and after they had returned from abroad, the Foreign Ministry would look after them while they were overseas.

That’s quite a burden that she accepted for the foreign ministry. In contrast, the Philippines has a program for overseas workers that is widely acknowledged as successful. Yet it is the Department of Labor its specialized agencies assume responsibility for the welfare and protection of these workers while in the Philippines and abroad—with the support and cooperation of the Department of Foreign Affairs, of course.

I’m sure the Indonesian foreign ministry will have its own way of successfully bearing this burden. I am also sure it won’t be easy. The budget of the ministry will be strained. Diplomats will be under great pressure.

Apart from the plight of migrant workers, there is an array of other intermestic issues that the foreign office is addressing now. Foremost among them is the need for a sufficient system of maritime infrastructures.

At the East Asia Summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar last November, President Joko Widodo announced a new role that Indonesia would assume: that of a maritime fulcrum between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. For this purpose, Indonesia would hugely bolster its naval strength by hiking military expenditures from less than one percent of GDP to 1.5 percent, with the navy benefiting most from the increase.

Where’s the money?

At the same time, Indonesia would refurbish its ports and shipping infrastructures so it can preside over trade between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Such a program, covering the distance between Sabang in Aceh to Merauke in Papua, will cost a total of US$420 billion in five years. Where will President Joko Widodo get the money?

Good question. The state budget can provide only 22 percent of that amount. International loans and grants must come in, but from where? Japan will always be there but what it can provide won’t be enough. Europe, Australia, Singapore and the United States, according to informed observers, are not that eager to come in. Then there’s China.

The two China-led multilateral banks, the New Development Bank also known as the BRICS Bank, with an initial capital of $100 billion, and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), with an initial capital of US$50 billion, might just be the solution to this problem when they start operating some time next year. Everything, however, depends on the quality of the services that they will provide and the acceptability of their terms and conditions for lending.

That’s the infrastructure part of the Joko Widodo maritime doctrine. One of its most important other aspects is the crackdown on illegal fishing in Indonesian waters. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing inflicts a loss of as much as US$5 billion on the Indonesian economy every year. It also wreaks extensive damage to the country’s mangrove forests and coral reefs. Hence, the government has resorted to the sinking and burning of the boats used by illegal fishers.

That sinking feeling

Early last month Indonesian authorities sank three Vietnamese boats and six Filipino boats that had been used in illegal fishing on Indonesian maritime territory. The complication here is that the six Filipino boats were owned by indigenous Bajau tribesmen who lived in them as their houses mid-sea. You sink one Bajau boat and you’ve sunk a home. Sink six of them and you’ve sunk a housing complex.

Like all indigenous people, the impoverished Bajau have rights, including rights to a livelihood, under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Indonesia and all Asean states are signatory to the Declaration and are therefore politically committed to, although not legally bound by its provisions.

There could be some one million Bajau living in boats in the maritime territories of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. In the spirit of Asian solidarity and by virtue of their commitment to the Declaration, these countries should get together and address in concert the plight of the Bajau.

For that matter, Asean countries, as a putative Community, should harmonize their policies and law enforcement practices with regard to illegal fishing in their respective maritime territories. If they cannot do that, what is the Asean Maritime Forum for?

A hazy future

Yet another intermestic issue to which the government has given attention, but to which a solution has yet to be found is that of the haze episodes that have strained Indonesia’s relations with Malaysia and Singapore.

A Singaporean study indicates that in the future, haze episodes will not be confined to years of low rainfall but will also occur during years of normal rainfall. This is because the drying of peatlands in Sumatra continues unabated as these areas are farmed or converted into plantations.

Peatlands are wetland ecosystems. Remove their water content for plantation purposes and you convert them into flammable tinder. When that tinder burns, the result is transboundary haze that poisons the atmosphere and Indonesia’s relations with neighbors.

President Joko Widodo showed great concern at this problem by recently going to Riau province where most haze episodes originate. There he demonstrated how to block a canal that had been built to drain the peatland of water. But these sophisticated canals were built with huge bundles of corporate money and therein lies the main problem: irresponsible corporate behavior. He was not able to demonstrate a long-term solution.

Raman Letchumanan, an expert on haze issues, points out that “even the seemingly simple task of blocking canals raises many systemic issues that can only be resolved through sustained political leadership and government stewardship working closely with all stakeholders.”

Among those stakeholders are other Asean countries. So it helps that last September, after years of delay, Indonesian Parliament finally ratified the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution—because the solution to this intermestic problem can only be a regional solution. One thing that Malaysia and Singapore can do about this problem is to stop importing products of peatland destroyers.

A lingering issue

Meanwhile, human rights as an intermestic issue have not gone away. Last month, five Papuans were shot dead allegedly by policemen who had been trying to disperse a crowd protesting against police brutality.

President Joko Widodo vowed to have the incident thoroughly investigated, and well he should because human rights violations anywhere would infuriate human rights advocates everywhere. And that could impact on Indonesia’s relations with countries and entities where these advocates wield influence.

These are but a few of the intermestic issues that the new administration in Indonesia must deal with. And there are quite a number of them because what appears to be a purely international issue can actually have domestic repercussions.

A case in point is the Asean Economic Community (AEC), which will be formally established at the end of this year. It is, of course, by nature a regional matter but it is also obvious that it has a profound impact on the Indonesian national economy. Whether, on the whole, the impact is negative or positive is not clear to the Indonesian business sector.

The fact is that much of the trade liberalization aspects of the AEC are already being carried out and no great damage on the Indonesian economy is being felt. And fears of the adverse effect of liberalization of the trade in services are greatly exaggerated because, as envisioned in the AEC, such liberalization is so limited. Clearly there is need for an extensive and sustained social education campaign, at least in Indonesia, on what the Asean Community is all about.

Even the envisioned Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, originally proposed by Indonesia and now supported, with modifications, by other participating countries to the East Asia Summit, will eventually impact on the domestic affairs of Indonesia.

For in the years ahead, the shape of the environment in which Indonesia will pursue its national development and ensure its national security will be determined by whether there’s such a treaty or not. And if there is no such treaty, what kind of political vacuum will take its place?

Restating foreign policy

For now it would seem as if Indonesia’s foreign policy is focused on the plight of migrant workers and nothing else. But that impression, to my mind, is just the effect of a spate of publicity meant to assure the Indonesian people that the government cares for the wong cilik, the common people.

As a close observer, I do know for a fact that there are diplomats of various ranks in the ministry today who are toiling at policy studies on global and regional issues. They realize that Indonesia’s positions on these issues may have to be restated in the context of the concrete benefits that the new government wishes to gain from its relations and interaction with other nations and international entities. In the process, stakeholders are being consulted.

As I write it has not been three months that President Joko Widodo and Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi are in office. It’s too early to conclude, as some observers have done, that the new administration will turn foreign policy into domestic policy, and look nowhere else but inward.

Give them time. Say eight months to a year. By then observers and commentators should see more of what the government is doing to fulfill the constitutional mandate to contribute to the shaping of a better world of justice and peace.

As I write it has not been three months that President Joko Widodo and Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi are in office. It’s too early to conclude, as some observers have done, that the new administration will turn foreign policy into domestic policy, and look nowhere else but inward.

Give them time. Say eight months to a year. By then observers and commentators should see more of what the government is doing to fulfill the constitutional mandate to contribute to the shaping of a better world of justice and peace.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

A Tale of Two Archipelagos: The Philippines and Indonesia

Years ago, the then deputy chief of mission of the Indonesian embassy in Manila, Wayan Wirna, told me over cups of coffee of some of the fondest memories of his Balinese boyhood. He said he was never more exhilarated than when he listened to a speech by President Sukarno over the radio.

He didn’t understand much of what Sukarno said but the passion and the authority in the voice lifted Wayan to heights of patriotic bliss.

And strangely, he said, Sukarno would sometimes invoke exotic names like Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo. In his young boy’s mind, he wondered: who are those people? What do they have to do with Indonesia?

Years later, as a diplomat, Wayan would learn more of the history of Asia. And he would find out who were Rizal, Bonifacio, Aguinaldo and others in the pantheon of Philippine nationalism. And he would have agreed with what the late Indonesian statesman Ali Alatas had to say about them.

In August 1997, speaking before the International Conference in Jakarta that marked the centenary of the Philippine revolution and the first Philippine Republic, Alatas said, “..the intellectual articulation of the nationalist movement in Indonesia throughout the first five decades of the century bore glowing references to the words and deeds of such Filipino patriots as Dr. Rizal and Andres Bonifacio, the founder of the secret revolutionary society, the Katipunan.”

In fact, the Philippines served as more than just an inspiration for the Indonesian revolutionary struggle. It had a modest but real part in the diplomatic aspect of that struggle.

Romulo to the rescue

General Carlos P. Romulo, former Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs and at that time president of the 4th United Nations General Assembly, managed to table the issue of Indonesian independence in the debates of the UN Security Council. And although the Philippines wasn’t a member on the Council at that time, Romulo secured the consent of the members to participate in the debates. He then seized the opportunity to argue in favor of the aspiration of the Indonesian people for independence.

Still unrecognized as a state, Indonesia had no voice in the UN at that time, least of all on the UN Security Council. It was spoken for by the Dutch delegation, which, of course, dutifully undermined Indonesia’s bid for independence. But Indonesia found an eloquent and persuasive advocate in Gen. Romulo. In those days, there was no voice more persuasive in international circles than Romulo’s.

Much of this is news to me. I have read various accounts of Indonesia’s diplomatic struggle to preserve its fledgling republic in the 1940s. Well acknowledged are the roles played by the United States, Australia, India, Egypt and others in that struggle. But there’s no mention of either the Philippines or Romulo. With this, I rectify the omission on the basis of information supplied by Robert Manalo, chargé d’affaires of the Philippine embassy in Jakarta.

Quick recognition

Indonesia and the Philippines took to each other early on the post-World War II international landscape. On the very day that the Netherlands transferred sovereignty over the former Dutch East Indies (except Papua, then known as The Netherlands New Guinea) to the Republic of the United States of Indonesia, on 27 December 1949, the Philippines formally recognized the new state.

And even well before that, on 24 November 1949, a Philippine consulate was established on Jalan Imam Bonjol in Jakarta on the site where today the new Philippine embassy premises are being built. Hence, it was on that date last month, 24 November 2014, that both countries observed the 65th anniversary of their diplomatic relations with appropriate rites and activities, including a photo exhibit and a special forum on the trade and investment relations.

The commemorative activities took place at a time when Philippine ambassador Rosario “Cherry” Aguinaldo, who completed her tenure in October, had just made her exit, while the new ambassador, Maria Lumen B. Isleta, had yet to arrive.

The honors had to be done under the leadership of the chargé d’affaires, Robert Manalo, complemented by the yeomanly initiatives of commercial attaché Alma Argayoso: the major activities of the day, after all, have to do with the trade and investment relations of the two countries.

On the counterpart activities in the Philippines, it’s fair to assume that similar activities were carried out in Manila—in consonance with the diplomatic principle of symmetry. Former ambassador to the Philippines Kristiarto Legowo, now secretary-general of the ministry of foreign affairs, left a hard act to follow when he completed his tenure as ambassador earlier this year.

He is arguably the most active, the most enterprising and the most popular Indonesian diplomat who ever served in Manila, but his successor, retired Lt. Gen. Johny Josephus Lumintang, is no slouch either. Lumintang’s deputy chief of mission, Ade Petranto, is a veteran of Indonesian initiatives in Asean and in the United Nations. It’s not difficult to get the impression that Indonesia has a policy of sending its best diplomats to Manila.

At any rate the observance of the anniversary was an occasion for summoning memories of the two countries’ journey together over six and half decades. One of the first things to be remembered about this relationship was the frequent exchange of visits of the heads of the two governments.

The sexy Indonesian

The closeness of Indonesia’s founding president to his Filipino counterparts didn’t escape the notice of the Jakarta diplomatic community. At one diplomatic event, an ambassador asked President Sukarno this lighthearted question: who are more handsome, Filipino men or Indonesians? To which Sukarno replied, “Filipino men are more handsome.”

Then he added a catch that provoked laughter among the diplomats, “But Indonesian men are more sexy.” By then he had gone to great lengths to cultivate a public image of himself as the sexy male Indonesian.

In 1963, Sukarno persuaded the Philippine president, Diosdado Macapagal to organize and host a summit with Malaysia as the third participant to form a regional association of Malay nations that would tackle issues of common concern.

Called Maphilindo, the proposed association was regarded in international circles as a thinly veiled attempt to frustrate the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. The establishment of the federation could nullify the Philippine claim to Sabah, while Sukarno regarded the federation as a British imperialist ploy.

It was at that time that the Indonesian foreign ministry sent to Manila a young, energetic and articulate diplomat named Ali Abdullah Alatas to promote the Maphilindo idea. Alatas would one day be Indonesia’s longest-serving foreign minister and a world-renowned diplomat-statesman.

Gun-toting journalists

During that sojourn in Manila, Alatas regularly entertained media people. That’s when he was exposed to a peculiarity of Filipino journalists: they believed that while the pen was mightier than the sword, it was even better to tote a gun. Years later Alatas would remember how in some night club he was left in consternation when Ernie Granada, editor of the Manila Chronicle, proudly showed him a prized possession: a snubbed-nosed revolver.

The Maphilindo summit was held amidst fanfare in July 1963. The following month, Sukarno declared “Konfrontasi” against Malaysia. So much for a united Malay race.

But the Philippines was not yet through with Alatas. Decades later, on 9 August 1999, the Philippine government conferred on him the Order of Sikatuna with the rank of rajah, a distinction usually accorded only to heads of state or government.

He was honored for mediating the negotiations in the early to middle 1990s toward the peace agreement between the government of the Philippines and the Moro National Liberation Front (MILF). This was an archetype of the agreement signed last year between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The new agreement now promises but is not assured to be a decisive factor in the quest for peace in southern Philippines.

Advocacy for democracy

Noer Hassan Wirajuda, Indonesia’s foreign minister from August 2001 to October 2009, was also awarded the Order of Sikatuna, rank of datu, for his role in the hammering out of the details of the GRP-MNLF Peace Agreement in 1996 and in the subsequent monitoring of its implementation. Later, as foreign minister he enjoyed the robust support of the Philippines in his relentless advocacy of democratic values and human rights within the Asean framework.

This advocacy was instrumental to Asean adopting a Charter, which came into force in December 2008, and to the establishment of the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in October 2009, as mandated by the Asean Charter.

Carrying his pro-democracy activism well beyond the borders of Asean, Hassan worked for the establishment of the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF) in 2008. The only intergovernmental forum for exchange of views and cooperation on political development, the BDF has since become an annual affair attended regularly by heads of state and government, although it is essentially a ministerial meeting.

The seventh and latest session of the Forum was co-chaired by Philippine president Benigno S. Aquino III and Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. In his remarks at the Forum, President Aquino slammed authoritarianism as a system that’s bound to fail and extolled how a regime of freedom empowers the citizenry.

On the sidelines of the Forum, President Yudhoyono conferred on the Philippine president the “Bintang Republik Indonesia Adipurna” award, the most prestigious decoration within the gift of the Indonesian government. Last 21 May, while the Indonesian president was on a state visit to Manila, Aquino conferred on him the Order of Sikatuna, rank of rajah.

This exchange of decorations has substantial basis: during that state visit last May, both countries made a historic breakthrough as the two presidents witnessed their respective foreign ministers, Albert del Rosario and Marty Natalegawa, sign an “Agreement.. Concerning the Delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone Boundary” between the two countries. The signing rites crowned 20 years of bilateral negotiations.

A win-win solution

It was worth the wait. Both governments are touting the agreement as a model of how two countries with a territorial dispute can peacefully and amicably reach a win-win solution. It helped that the two are archipelago states that spearheaded the multilateral negotiations toward the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, and that both firmly adhere to the Convention.

Their next job: negotiations toward delimitation of their respective continental shelves. This may take another 20 years to conclude. Just kidding. It should be much easier, faster the second time around.

I doubt, however, if other claimants to parts or all of the South China Sea will be rushing to follow the example of the Philippines and Indonesia. Certainly not China, which is claiming the whole area. That’s why there must be no relenting on the part of Indonesia, the Philippines and the rest of Asean in negotiations with China toward a Code of Conduct of parties in the South China Sea.

That’s also why the Philippines was among the first to respond favorably to the proposal of then Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa for an Indo-Pacific Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.

The first prevents a conflagration being triggered by a miscalculation in the South China Sea, while the second could provide the mechanism for conflict and dispute resolution.

Playing catch-up

On the whole Philippine-Indonesia cooperation at the multilateral level and in the politico-security field has been exceptional, which is worth celebrating as the two countries observe the 65th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. Bilateral cooperation in the economic field, however, is another matter. There is some catching up to do. On one occasion in 2012 then foreign minister Marty Natalegawa admitted as much—that both Indonesia and the Philippines had focused so much on multilateral issues that they sort of neglected the bilateral.

Since then, both sides have made efforts to increase total trade, which stood at $3.51 billion last year. Indonesia continued to enjoy a substantial favorable trade balance.

According to Philippine commercial attaché Alma Argayoso, in 2013 Indonesia ranked 11th out of 218 trading partners, 12th out of 212 export markets and 9th of 181 import providers. Philippine exports to Indonesia decreased by more than half a percent while imports increased by 0.82 percent, as a result of increased shipment of vehicles from Indonesia. The figures in the investment field are not so impressive either.

But all that may change with the recent liberalization of trade restrictions at Bitung Port in Eastern Indonesia, which houses the 512-hectare Tanjung Merah industrial complex. The port is within easy reach of Davao City in Mindanao. On top of that, there is now in effect a memorandum of agreement between the two governments for the development of the seaweed industry.

Fields of collaboration

Also being explored by the trade ministries of the two governments are new areas of collaboration such as in steel, geothermal energy, shipbuilding, chocolate and cacao production and trade promotion in general. Perhaps the best news of all is that the new Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, is determined to carry out a maritime-oriented infrastructures building program involving ten new airports, ten new seaports and 10 industrial estates.

One estimate is that the total infrastructure program of Indonesia could cost $500 billion, a lot of billions. That’s why Indonesia is joining the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (like the Philippines did), and why it is now welcoming China’s maritime Silk Road program, from which China spitefully left out the Philippines.

For its part the Philippines is called upon to do some infrastructure building—on a smaller scale, of course—on its side of the newly delineated maritime border with Indonesia.

There’s basis for optimism. The outlook is bright for these two archipelagos that are now just beginning to be maritime-oriented. They have done wonders together in the politico-security field. There’s no reason they can’t do as well in tandem in the socio-economic realm.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

Bajau Fishers: A Plea for Tempering Justice with Mercy

From a large boat, a wailing infant, glistening with birth fluid, is pitched into a churning sea. Two men dive after it. One rises triumphant from the water, the newborn in his hands, and presents it to the tribal chief on the boat. By virtue of this ritual, a Bajau is welcomed into this life.

This is the opening scene of a famed 1950s Filipino movie, “Badjao,” in which the character actor Tony Santos plays a Bajau prince and screen siren Rosa Rosal takes the role of a Tausog aristocrat. By the way, in her youth, Rose bore the title “Asia’s Best Actress.” She won it in a film festival hosted by a filmmaker named Norodom Sihanouk, then also a Cambodian monarch.

The plot of “Badjao” is old Romeo and Juliet against a backdrop of communal tensions between the Tausog and the Bajau in southern Philippines.

In the film as in real life, the Bajau are poor, persecuted, forbidden to bear arms, exploited and treated with contempt. Unlike the martial Tausog and the Bajau’s warlike cousins, the Samal, the Bajau respond to conflict by sailing away.

That’s why most of them have always lived mid-sea in boats. The land is crowded with persecutors of all stripes. The sea is wide as eternity and offers freedom from tormentors as well as a living. They come on land only to gather firewood, trade for necessities and build boats. On solid ground most Bajau walk with a peculiar gait on unsteady legs. Their spines have been warped from sitting in a boat day and night.

Like the Kurds of the Middle East, the Bajau form one nation but are scattered in several countries. The Bajau are in the maritime parts of Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.

I met some of them years ago during a sojourn in Simunul, Tawi-Tawi—including a pair of giggly teen-aged girls bathing fully clothed at an artesian well while their father nearby polished the hull of a boat he was building. He worked with the focus of a man building not just a boat but a home for his family.

I was therefore aghast when told several days ago that Indonesian authorities have sunk six boats owned by Filipino Bajau now under detention for illegal fishing. It doesn’t matter if the Bajau is Bruneian, Filipino, Indonesian or Malaysian. You sink his boat, you’ve sunk a home. Sink six and you’ve submerged a housing complex.

If it’s the law that a boat used in illegal fishing must be sunk, and if authorities have no discretion on the matter, so be it. Dura lex sed lex. A harsh law but the law.

But these Bajau must not be sacrificial lambs to tokenism in law enforcement. The law must also be fully applied to big ships that are illegally fishing on Indonesian waters. These must not be allowed to violate the law with impunity. Indonesia’s neighbors are therefore looking forward to such a firm demonstration of impartiality.

Moreover, all Asean states are signatories to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration affirms the rights of indigenous peoples like the Bajau to, among others, culture, identity, health care, and livelihood.

Ok, the Declaration isn’t legally binding. But among signatories, the spirit of the Declaration shouldn’t count for nothing. Let’s hope the states that are home to Bajau communities get together and do something creative so in the case of these unfortunate, justice is tempered with mercy.

For “in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.”

In the end, as human beings, we’re all in the same boat. Think before you sink.

unfortunate, justice is tempered with mercy.

For “in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.”

In the end, as human beings, we’re all in the same boat. Think before you sink.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

The Alatas Legacy Augurs Well for Indonesian Diplomacy

Six years ago this week, the diplomat-statesman Ali Alatas, 76, passed away in a Singapore hospital, laid low by a lingering heart ailment and an inability to slow down in the service of country and region.

On the second day of the first Bali Democracy Forum (BDF) I had slept late when the hotel phone rang. Umar Hadi, then director of public diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, broke the sad news to me. It was definitely one of the saddest days of my life. And although he was no longer foreign minister for all of eight years when he died, it was also a sad day for Indonesian diplomacy.

Widely regarded as the greatest diplomat that Indonesia ever produced, he had published in the previous year a memoir, “The Pebble in the Shoe: the Diplomatic Struggle for East Timor.”

He also wanted to write about the Cambodia peace process, the peace agreement of 1996 between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the workshop process on managing potential conflict in the South China Sea. He was going to jot down his recollections of the Cambodia process, but kept putting it off due to work commitments.

He once said that if he could write these stories, all important events during his watch would have been told. That was an understatement. A lot more happened that bears telling.

For instance, the message from the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) that President Suharto presented to Japan’s Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, then the chair of the G-7, on the eve of the Group’s economic summit in Tokyo in July 1993, was the handiwork of the foreign ministry.

There’s an interesting story behind the inclusion in that message of a strong appeal for debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries (HIPCs). I’ll tell it when there’s available time and space.

In a press conference after the summit, PM Miyazawa heartily cited the important role the NAM message played in the G-7 discussions. Word later came from Japan that the Group had endorsed the NAM position on debt relief to the Paris Club, a forum of IMF creditor nations.

In September 1996 the World Bank and the IMF launched a major initiative at reducing the debt burden of eligible HIPCs. Basis for eligibility was whether the HIPC carried out a strong macroeconomic adjustment and reform program. Base year for evaluation of eligibility was 1993, the year when the NAM, under Indonesian chairmanship, cast away its adversarial posture with the developed world, and boldly reached out to the G-7.

Of course there were other influential advocates of debt relief, but imagine how much weaker that cause would have been without the robust involvement of Indonesia as the then NAM chairman.

Looking back at those positive events when Ali Alatas was foreign minister, I’m not too worried about dire predictions by at least one foreign think-tank that under the administration of President Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s regional leadership could take a hit as a result of powerful politicians and government functionaries pushing foreign policy toward nationalist positions.

I say, if so much was achieved when Indonesian foreign policy was supposed to be under the thumb of the military, think how much more can be pulled off in an administration whose second foreign policy priority is “enhancing the global role of middle power diplomacy.”

In fact, the situation in the foreign ministry today tends to unleash the talents of individual diplomats. No longer do they hesitate to talk with media. There’s a new ferment for policy debate and studies among the units.

The late Ali Alatas, who loved policy debates, I’m sure would approve of what’s going on in the ministry he once led.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

The Judo Master and the Geopolitics of Eastern Europe

No, this is not about Stig Traavik, the Norweigian ambassador to Jakarta, who is an Olympian. It’s about that other judoka with the love handles, Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin, the Russian president who, in the eyes of the West, is the tsar of an empire struggling to be reborn.

Some “former Obama diplomat” has been quoted describing Putin as a judo master. “And judo masters,” he says, “are famous for standing on the mat for one hour, waiting for a one-second opportunity.” Let’s see how the metaphor works.

As a geopolitical judo player, what has Putin been doing? He hasn’t been just standing on the mat. Against the West he has scored a yuko, a fraction of a point, by annexing Crimea. He has been making a lot of probing feints on Ukraine, but he’s not attempting a shoulder throw, the big ippon seio nage that’ll win him the match.

He’s not going deep into Ukraine, or even marching in the general direction of the small Baltic states: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—the equivalent of taking down the contest to grappling on the mat. Ground play in judo is a beastly exhausting business, and Putin, cumbered by a wounded Russian economy, doesn’t have the stamina for that. In fact, on my scorecard, Putin is trailing.

The overall impact of the sanctions that the US and its allies have inflicted on Russia is the equivalent of a waza-ari or half point. Another strong round of sanctions, including a lock-out of Russia from the Society of World Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), compounded by sunken oil prices and the erosion of Russia’s foreign exchange reserves because of maturing debts, will constitute a second waza-ari that will probably crush the Russian economy.

This will be a hollow victory for which the Western economies—and even those not involved in the contest—will pay a heavy price in terms of concomitant damages they will themselves sustain. This is where geopolitical disputes differ from competitive judo: there are no clear winners. Either everybody wins to some extent or everybody loses something. The only way towards a win-win situation for all is through diplomacy.

It’s tough engaging Putin in diplomacy. Sometimes he looks erratic, sometimes inscrutably clever. It’s easy to portray him as, in the words of Germany’s Angela Merkel, “out of touch with reality.” Sure, he has been reckless and irresponsible with the Russian economy. But he’s no madman with an evil streak in his DNA.

In the end, he’s just like anyone driven by fears and grievances, and an anger born of what he feels to be cruel humiliation. He was a KGB operative in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. He must be nursing bitter memories of how Gorvachev was outmaneuvered and treated like a beggar by the West on the question of German unification and NATO expansion.

The world, including East Asia, is watching how wisely the West deals with Putin today. And how rationally Putin deals with the West, and with his truckloads of domestic problems.

A keen keeper of that vigil must be China, now a close friend to Russia. A China with imaginings that the South China Sea is its own version of Russia’s Crimea, would be interested to learn from unfolding events what Putin can get away with by chipping away at his western borders.

Putin will be well advised to suppress his hang-ups and become less adventurous at those borders. I think the US and its allies will welcome every good reason for lifting the sanctions that Putin can provide. The sanctions are also hurting them and creating risks.

It’s best for both sides, then, to engage in serious diplomacy. No matter how tough it may be, it beats competitive judo.

By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio