Au­gust: An Aus­pi­cious Month to Cel­e­brate In­done­sia and the Re­gion

Indonesia Expat - - NEWS - BY ERIN COOK

This month In­done­sia cel­e­brates its 72nd an­niver­sary of in­de­pen­dence. Mil­lions of chil­dren around the archipelago will spend Au­gust 17 play­ing games in the neigh­bour­hood, hosted by par­ents and older sib­lings, as a re­minder of how far In­done­sia has come in those 72 years and how much it has to cel­e­brate.

This Au­gust also sees an­other oc­ca­sion – the

50th an­niver­sary of the es­tab­lish­ment of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (ASEAN). In­done­sia has played a lead­ing role in the re­gional bloc for its en­tire ex­is­tence and this land­mark is a great time to as­sess the in­flu­ence In­done­sia has ex­erted, and its fu­ture role.

Look­ing back

With the Philip­pines act­ing as chair of ASEAN this year – a role which ro­tates each year – the Au­gust 8 an­niver­sary was marked at the end of a Min­is­te­rial Sum­mit. For­eign min­is­ters from all ten ASEAN states at­tended, as well as from 17 other coun­tries in­clud­ing China, the US and North Korea. In­done­sia is now joined by the Philip­pines, Sin­ga­pore, Malaysia, Brunei, Myan­mar, Vietnam, Cam­bo­dia, Laos and Thai­land in mak­ing up the bloc.

But on Au­gust 8, 1967, the mem­ber­ship list was far shorter. In­done­sia, Malaysia, Philip­pines, Sin­ga­pore, and Thai­land teamed up in Bangkok to sign a dec­la­ra­tion in sol­i­dar­ity against the com­mu­nist surge then grip­ping the re­gion. That fifty years later the ten mem­ber bloc would hap­pily in­clude com­mu­nist Laos and Vietnam is a strong in­di­ca­tor of the over­ar­ch­ing be­lief in re­gional unity over po­lit­i­cal and eth­nic di­vides which marked much of the 20th cen­tury. In­done­sia’s then for­eign min­is­ter, Adam Ma­lik, serv­ing from 1967 to 1977, was in­te­gral to the for­ma­tion of the bloc. Born in North Su­ma­tra in 1917, Ma­lik was heav­ily in­volved in the in­de­pen­dence move­ment dur­ing the Dutch oc­cu­pa­tion. He boasts an im­pres­sive CV, in­clud­ing the found­ing of news agency An­tara and mem­ber­ship of a group which kid­napped fu­ture pres­i­dent Sukarno and vice pres­i­dent Mo­ham­mad Hatta to force them to de­clare in­de­pen­dence.

The bizarre plot ev­i­dently worked and he was asked to serve as for­eign min­is­ter un­der Sukarno. Dur­ing the ini­tial meet­ing, he de­scribed In­done­sia’s for­eign pol­icy pri­or­i­ties as be­ing: “a re­gion which can stand on its own feet, strong enough to de­fend it­self against any neg­a­tive in­flu­ence from out­side the re­gion.”

He was joined at the ini­tial sum­mit with the Philip­pines’ Nar­ciso R. Ramos, Malaysia's

Tun Ab­dul Razak, Sin­nathamby Ra­jarat­nam from Sin­ga­pore and Thai­land's Thanat Khoman.

The group re­placed the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asia (ASA), which had formed in 1961 and in­cluded just the Philip­pines, Thai­land and Malaysia. ASEAN has steadily ex­panded its mem­ber­ship list over the last 50 years to in­clude Brunei in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, both Laos and Myan­mar in 1997 and Cam­bo­dia in 1999. Ti­mor- Leste has long been touted as the 11th mem­ber and a cam­paign, spear­headed by sup­porter In­done­sia, is un­der­way, de­spite the ar­du­ous process.

Sin­ga­pore’s Sin­nathamby Ra­jarat­nam, who co­founded the Peo­ple’s Ac­tion Party along­side late prime min­is­ter and re­gional heavy­weight Lee Kuan Yew, best summed up the ini­tial goals of the es­tab­lish­ment of the bloc: “We must think not only of our na­tional in­ter­ests but posit them against re­gional in­ter­ests: that is a new way of think­ing about our prob­lems. And these are two dif­fer­ent things and some­times they can con­flict. Se­condly, we must also ac­cept the fact, if we are re­ally se­ri­ous about it, that re­gional ex­is­tence means painful ad­just­ments to those prac­tices and think­ing in our re­spec­tive coun­tries. We must make these painful and dif­fi­cult ad­just­ments. If we are not go­ing to do that, then re­gion­al­ism re­mains a utopia.”

Look­ing for­ward

These 50 years have over­seen some of the most tu­mul­tuous decades in his­tory for both the world and the re­gion. War, author­i­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ships, vi­o­lence and eco­nomic chaos have touched nearly ev­ery cor­ner of South­east Asia since that first Bangkok meet­ing. But, with one of the youngest pop­u­la­tions in the world and a wealth of un­tapped po­ten­tial in re­sources and brain­power, many are con­fi­dent the next 50 years will be one of pros­per­ity. So what are the is­sues we should watch for?

The South China Sea has oc­cu­pied an in­creas­ingly vi­tal po­si­tion on the ASEAN agenda since a 1992 spat be­tween then fu­ture mem­ber Vietnam and China over the dis­puted Spratly Is­lands. Fol­low­ing last year’s Hague Tri­bunal rul­ing in favour of claimant the Philip­pines against China, a con­certed ef­fort by Bei­jing to ‘di­vide and con­quer’ ASEAN mem­ber states by us­ing much needed in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment to pres­sure the wa­ter­ing down of of­fi­cial state­ments ap­pears to have worked, with the most re­cent

Joint Com­mu­nique re­leased on Au­gust 7 a pale im­per­son­ation of what it could have been a year ear­lier. But, this isn’t to say it will stay this way.

These 50 years have over­seen some of the most tu­mul­tuous decades in his­tory for both the world and the re­gion. War, author­i­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ships, vi­o­lence and eco­nomic chaos have touched nearly ev­ery cor­ner of South­east Asia since that first Bangkok meet­ing.”

With a po­ten­tial re­source boom tied up in the dis­puted wa­ters, as well as er­ratic dis­plays of na­tion­al­ism from do­mes­tic gov­ern­ments, any ‘so­lu­tion’ should be viewed as tem­po­rary par­tic­u­larly with a code of con­duct still years away.

Labour rights, par­tic­u­larly for mi­grant and do­mes­tic work­ers, will only gain more trac­tion. In­tro­duc­ing a re­gional law on labour pro­tec­tions or pres­sure for greater en­force­ment of lo­cal laws has long been on the agenda for In­done­sia and the Philip­pines – the two coun­tries which send the most work­ers over­seas. But, ASEAN’s need for full sup­port and unity to back any state­ment means Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia, which pull work­ers from else­where in the re­gion and are re­sis­tant to ac­knowl­edg­ing mis­treat­ment, can sink any hard words. Cli­mate change has slipped off the agenda for West­ern lead­ers, but in ASEAN it’s be­com­ing more and more im­por­tant. With In­done­sia ex­pected to be­gin los­ing is­lands to ris­ing sea lev­els by mid­cen­tury and South Asia pre­dicted to ex­pe­ri­ence record heat-waves, po­ten­tially forc­ing pop­u­la­tions east­ward into Myan­mar, sen­si­ble sus­tain­abil­ity prac­tices and poli­cies must be in­tro­duced to stem what could be the big­gest natural dis­as­ter ever to hit the re­gion.

Vi­o­lence, con­flict and ter­ror­ism have been on the agenda since the in­cep­tion of the re­gional bloc. In the com­ing years, Is­lamic ex­trem­ism, par­tic­u­larly based around the Philip­pines, Malaysia and In­done­sia, will likely con­tinue to be dealt with in the straight­for­ward and di­rect man­ner ASEAN has be­come known for. Po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence and at­tacks on human rights, how­ever, will prob­a­bly not be treated so bluntly.

It is here, when the crit­i­cism of other mem­bers is nec­es­sary, that ASEAN fal­ters. Con­cerns about free elec­tions in Thai­land and Cam­bo­dia, an ev­er­ris­ing body count in the Philip­pines’ war on drugs, Myan­mar’s Ro­hingya cri­sis, Vietnam’s crack­down on po­lit­i­cal dis­senters and curbs on free­doms in Malaysia will likely con­tinue to be ig­nored for the next 50 years – in or­der to keep the peace.

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