Monday, August 2, 2010

Indonesia and Thailand: An emerging natural alliance

WHEN THE DISPUTE over a Hindu Temple, known as Praviharn/ Preahvihear, along Thai-Cambodian border nearly reached the point of no-return at the end of last year, the Thai government asked the Indonesian government for help. If there was a temporary closure of the Thai Embassy and evacuation of its staffers due to the extreme conflict situation, the Indonesian Embassy in Phnom Penh would look after Thai interests inside Cambodia. This little known request shows the emerging mutual trust and new friendship between the two countries with a historical link dating back to the Majapahit Empire in 1350.

Last November, on the sideline of Singapore's Apec meeting, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva briefed Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the Thai-Cambodian conflict. At that meeting, Thailand also placed full confidence in Indonesia serving as a facilitator to find ways to reduce tension. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa was recently in Thailand to brief his counterpart Kasit Piromya on the progress of this task.

When the Thai political crisis during April-May 2010 was impacting on the solidarity and cooperation of Asean, Yudhoyono discreetly suggested that the Asean leaders should meet and discuss the turmoil in Thailand. After close consultations in Kuala Lumpur with Yudhoyono, Prime Minister Najib Razak, senior officials from Brunei and Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of Asean, they agreed that the Asean Chair, Vietnam, should issue a joint statement reflecting the concern of Asean and expressing support for a peaceful solution to the political conflict in Thailand.

Such cooperation would be unimaginable prior to the democratisation in the world's fourth largest country in 1998. After 12 years of effort, Indonesia has further consolidated its nascent democracy and has reached out to the region and beyond. With similar democratic values and a shared international outlook, Kasit told The Nation on the eve of the 60th anniversary of their relations that Thailand looks to Indonesia as a natural alliance.

Among the newest cooperation between the two countries is in the area of global diplomacy and effort. This may sound like deeds of superpowers, but it is not. Thailand and Indonesia share a similar aspiration to be good members of the international community. For example, Indonesia, along with Thailand, has cited the principle of responsibility to protect as one of its diplomatic norms. They have also urged Asean to take up this challenge. Former Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda was succinct when he told the Asean ministerial meeting in Singapore in May 2008 that Burma must be more responsible in protecting its citizens suffering from Cyclone Nargis and allowing Asean and international humanitarian organisations to help.

International peacekeeping is another area in which Indonesia and Thailand see eye to eye. Both want to promote and highlight Asean cooperation at UN level. Each Asean member has contributed--one way or another - to UN peacekeeping operations during the past six decades. However, the Asean members have never cooperated with one another to form common positions and plans. Exchange of information and merging programmes and cooperation among Asean countries on this issue would help to boost relations with the UN. Another Asean-UN summit has been scheduled for the end of October in Hanoi.

When Indonesia proposed the drafting of the Asean Charter and security community, Thailand was among the first to back such an endeavour. During the drafting period, the two countries held common positions on human rights, civil society organisations, media freedom and collective responsibility. They wanted to see the Asean human rights body, the Asean Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights, protect human rights abuse as a top priority - not just to promote it. In addition, they have encouraged civil society organisations to take part in the decision-making inside Asean.

These were the crux of the new Asean norms and values after the Asean leaders signed the Bali Concord II in 2003 that would propel the grouping up to the next level. Unfortunately, their common stand was not able to trump the more consolidated conservative positions of other Asean members. Obviously, in the past under former president Suharto, such cooperation and common views would have been extremely difficult. However, as Indonesian democracy grows from strength to strength, its role within Asean would augment others, especially those related to openness, democracy and governance. It was a far cry from the past when Jakarta was regularly ridiculed as the lowest denominator - now nothing proceeds in Asean without its consent. Indonesia's regional and international profile will expand further when it assumes the chair of Asean next year.

On human rights issues, both countries would serve as the pillar of Asean in promoting broader public participation and scrutiny. Both officials and representatives in their countries are working hand in hand to ensure that the implement of the Asean Charter and compliance with all agreements and protocols would be carried out in full. This is an encouraging sign as it would encourage other Asean countries to follow suit.

Thai and Indonesian media are a closely knit community. They enjoy freedom of information and expression. Indonesia has become the second country in Asean after Thailand to enact a public information law, which allows the public to have access to government-held information and data. Thailand, which came out with the same law in 1997, was able to exchange views and experience with the Indonesian lawmakers as well as representatives of non-government organisations. Thai journalists also help train Indonesian colleagues in investigative journalism and ethics. Vice versa, they also share their experience in covering situations in Aceh and East Timor.

Journalists from both countries have reported regularly on each country's developments. Of late, the Indonesian media has paid lots of attention to the political crisis in Thailand. They were able to give a comparative perspective more than other countries because their countries also went through such turbulence back in 1998. What has made the reports and analysis in the Indonesian media different from the rest of the world was quite simply - they did not patronise Thai democracy. While they agreed that Thai democracy has problems, they also expressed confidence that in the end Thai people would overcome these fundamental problems and become a matured democracy.

Indonesian journalist associations also have good relations with their Thai counterparts. By Kavi Chongkittavorn forThe Nation, Bangkok

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