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.

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By Jamil Maidan Flores Posted in El Indio

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