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.

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By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

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