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.