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Building strategic trust for peace, cooperation and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region

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At the outset, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong our Singaporean host, Dr. John Chipman and the organisers of the 12th Shangri-La Dialogue for your kind invitation to me to attend and address this important forum. Since its inception 12 years ago, the Shangri-La Dialogue has truly become one of the most substantive and meaningful security dialogues in the region. I do believe that the full presence of government officials, military leaders, prestigious scholars and all distinguished delegates at this forum reflects the interest and the efforts to jointly preserve peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region in the context of a dynamically changing world.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
While languages and expressions might differ, I am sure we all agree that without trust, there would be no success and harder work asks for bigger trust. In Vietnam, there is a saying that ‘if trust is lost, all is lost.’ Trust is the beginning of all friendships and cooperation, the remedy that works to prevent calculations that could risk conflicts. Trust must be treasured and nurtured constantly by concrete, consistent actions in accordance with the common norms and with a sincere attitude.

In the 20th century, Southeast Asia in particular and the Asia-Pacific in general were fierce battlefields and deeply divided for decades. It might be said that the entire region always had a burning desire for peace. To have peace, development and prosperity, it is a must to build and consolidate strategic trust. In other words, we need to build strategic trust for peace, cooperation and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific. That is what I wish to share with you at this forum.

To begin with, Vietnam has a profound confidence in the bright future of development and cooperation in our region. Yet the trend of increased engagement and competition, particularly by big powers, not only offers positive elements but also involves negative risks that require us to take initiative and work together to prevent.
The Asia-Pacific region now enjoys dynamic development and is home to the world’s three biggest economies, and many emerging ones. Here, the trend of multi-layer, multi-sector cooperation and linkages is evolving vigorously and is becoming the prevailing one of the day. This is quite a promising prospect for us all.
However, looking back at the full picture of the region in the past years, we cannot fail to be concerned over the simmering risks and challenges to peace and security.

Competition and engagement are by themselves normal facts in the course of cooperation and development. Yet if such competition and engagement embrace calculations that are only in one’s own interest, without equality, respect of international law or transparency, then strategic trust could in no way be reinforced, and there could be a chance for the rise of division, suspicion and the risk of mutual containment, thus adversely affecting peace, cooperation and development.
The unpredictable developments in the Korean Peninsula; sovereignty and territorial disputes from the East China Sea to the East Sea (South China Sea) that are evolving with great complexity, threatening regional peace and security – firstly maritime security and safety as well as the freedom of navigation – have indeed caused deep concern to the international community. Somewhere in the region, there have emerged preferences for unilateral might, groundless claims, and actions that run counter to international law and stem from imposition and power politics.
I would like to draw your further attention to the fact that maritime transport and communications are growing in scale and acquiring a much greater significance. It is projected that three quarters of global trade will be made via maritime routes and two thirds of that will be shipped across the East Sea. A single irresponsible action or instigation of conflict could well lead to the interruption of these huge trade flows, with unforeseeable consequences not only to regional economies but also to the entire world.

In the meantime, the threats of religious and ethnic conflicts, egoistic nationalism, secessionism, violence, terrorism, cyber security, etc. are still very much present. Global challenges like climate change, the rise of sea levels, pandemics or water resources and the interests of upstream and downstream riparian countries with shared rivers, etc. have become ever more acute.
We should realize that such challenges and risks of conflict are not to be underestimated. We all understand that if this region falls into instability and especially, armed conflicts, there will be neither winners nor losers. Rather, all will lose. Suffice it to say, therefore, that working together to build and reinforce strategic trust for peace, cooperation and prosperity in the region is in the shared interest of us all. For Vietnam, strategic trust is perceived, above all, as honesty and sincerity.

Secondly, to build strategic trust, we ourselves need to abide by international law, to uphold the responsibilities of nations, especially of major powers, and work to improve the efficiency of multilateral security cooperation mechanisms.
In global history, many nations have suffered from irreparable losses when they fell victim to power politics, conflict and wars. In today’s civilised world, the UN Charter, international law and the universal principles and norms serve as the common values of all humanity and must be respected. This also represents the precondition for the building of strategic trust.
Each state should always be a responsible stakeholder in the pursuit of common peace and security. Countries, both big and small, must build their relations on the basis of equality and mutual respect and, at a higher level, on mutual strategic trust. Big states have a greater role to play and can contribute more, but they should also shoulder bigger responsibilities in the cultivation and consolidation of such strategic trust. Besides, when it comes to the right voice or beneficial initiatives, it does not matter whether they come from big or small countries. The principles of cooperation and equal, open dialogue in ASEAN and other forums advocated by ASEAN, as well as this Shangri-La Dialogue, are born from and maintained by such a mindset.

I fully share the views of H.E. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia who said last year at this forum that small and medium countries could help lock major powers into a durable regional architecture. I also agree with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on what he said in a speech in Beijing last September: that a reliable and responsible cooperation between the United States and China would positively contribute to the common interest of the region. We all understand that the Asia-Pacific has sufficient room for all intra- and extra-regional countries to work together and share their interests. The future of the Asia-Pacific has been and will continue to be, shaped by the roles and interactions by all countries in the region and the world, particularly by the major powers and certainly, by the indispensable role of ASEAN.
I believe that no regional country would oppose the strategic engagement of extra-regional powers if such engagement aims to enhance cooperation for peace, stability and development. We should expect more of the roles played by major powers, particularly the United States and China – the two powers having the biggest roles in and responsibilities to the future of the region and the world. What is important is that such expectation should be reinforced by strategic trust and such strategic trust must be reflected in concrete and constructive actions of these nations.
We attach special importance to the roles played by a vigorously rising China and by the United States – a Pacific power. We would expect and support the roles of the United States and China, once their strategies and actions conform to international law and respect the independence and sovereignty of nations, to not only bring about benefits to them, but also to contribute genuinely to our common peace, cooperation and prosperity.

What I want to further underline is that the existing regional cooperation mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meetings Plus (ADMM+) as well as the Shangri-La Dialogue offer opportunities to foster multilateral security cooperation and find solutions to the challenges that arise. Yet it could be said that what is still missing, or at least still insufficient, is the strategic trust in the implementation of those arrangements. The first and foremost thing is to build a mutual trust when confronting challenges; taking account of the impacts of interactions, and enhancing practical cooperation in various areas, and at different levels and layers – both bilateral and multilateral. Once there is sufficient strategic trust, we could advance and expand cooperation and find solutions to any problem, even the most sensitive and difficult one.
Thirdly, when talking about peace, stability, cooperation and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific, we cannot help but mention an ASEAN of unity and consensus, playing its central role in many multilateral cooperation forums.
It was hard to believe that a South East Asia once divided and embedded in conflicts during the Cold War could become a community of nations united in diversity and playing a central role in an evolving regional architecture like ASEAN today. The participation of Vietnam in ASEAN in 1995 marked a new era of development in ASEAN towards building a common house for all South East Asian nations true to its name. The success of ASEAN is the fruit of a long persevering process to build trust, nurture the culture of dialogue and cooperation, and cultivate the sense of responsibility to the shared destiny of South East Asian nations.

ASEAN is proud to be an example of the principle of consensus and mutual trust in the making of its own decisions. That principle is the foundation for equality among the member states, whether it is Indonesia with nearly a quarter of a billion people or Brunei Darussalam with less than half a million. That principle also constitutes the foundation for extra-regional countries to place their trust in ASEAN as an ‘honest broker’ in guiding the numerous regional cooperation mechanisms.
With a mindset of shared interests rather than one of win-lose, the enlargement of the East Asia Summit (EAS) to include Russia and the United States, the ADMM+ process that was put into reality in Vietnam in 2010, and the success of EAS, ARF and ADMM in the years that followed, have further consolidated the ground for a regional architecture in which ASEAN plays the central role, bringing about trust in multilateral security cooperation in the region.

I also wish to refer to Myanmar as a vivid example of the success of persevering with dialogue on the basis of building and reinforcing trust, respecting the legitimate interests of each other, which has helped open up a bright future not only for Myanmar but also for our whole region.
There have been profound lessons learned about the fundamental value of ASEAN’s consensus and unity in maintaining equal and mutually beneficial relations with partner countries and maximising its proactive role in handling strategic issues of the region. ASEAN could only be strong and able to build on its role when it is united as one. An ASEAN lacking unity will by itself, lose its place and will not act in the interest of any country, even ASEAN member states or partners. We need an ASEAN united and strong, cooperating effectively with all countries to nurture peace and prosperity in the region, not an ASEAN in which member states are forced to take sides with one country or the other for the benefit of their own relationships with big powers. We have a responsibility to multiply trust in the settlement of problems, enhance cooperation for mutual benefit, and to combine our national interest harmoniously with that of other nations and of the whole region.
Vietnam and other ASEAN members always desire that other countries, particularly the major powers, support the ASEAN Community’s central role, its principle of consensus and unity.

To return to the issue of the East Sea, ASEAN and China have travelled a long way with great difficulty to come to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) adopted during the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh in 2002. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the DOC, ASEAN and China have agreed to work towards a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). ASEAN and China need to uphold their responsibilities and  mutually reinforce strategic trust, first and foremost by strictly implementing the DOC, and then redoubling efforts to formulate a COC that conforms to international law and in particular, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

We believe that ASEAN and its partners can work together to develop a feasible mechanism that could guarantee maritime security and safety and freedom of navigation in the region. In so doing, we will not only help ensure maritime security and safety, and freedom of navigation, and create conditions for the settlement of disputes but will also assert the fundamental principles of maintaining peace, and enhancing development cooperation in the modern world.

As for non-traditional security challenges such as the security of water resources on common rivers, by building strategic trust, enhancing cooperation and harmonizing national interests with common interests, I believe that we will able to achieve successes, thus making practical contributions to peace, cooperation and development in the region.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear friends,
Throughout her thousands of years of history, Vietnam has suffered numerous pains and losses due to wars. Vietnam always aspires to peace and desires to contribute to the consolidation of peace and enhancement of friendship and development cooperation in the region and the world. To have a genuine and lasting peace, the independence and sovereignty of any country, whether large or small, must be respected; and differences in interests, culture, etc. must be subject to open and constructive dialogues of mutual understanding and mutual respect.
We do not forget the past but need to put it behind us and look forward to the future. With the tradition of offering peace and friendship, Vietnam always desires to work with its partners to build and reinforce strategic trust for peace, cooperation and development on the basis of the principle of respect for independence, sovereignty, equality and mutual benefit.

Vietnam consistently persists with a foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, multilateralisation and diversification of external relations, being a friend and reliable partner to all nations, and a responsible member of the international community. Vietnam wishes, and has spared no efforts to build and deepen, strategic partnerships and mutually beneficial cooperative partnerships with other countries. It is also our desire to establish strategic partnerships with all the permanent members of the UN Security Council once the principles of independence, sovereignty, non-interference in the internal affairs of each other, mutual respect, equal and mutually beneficial cooperation are committed to and seriously implemented.
At this prestigious forum, I have the honour to announce that Vietnam has decided to participate in UN peacekeeping operations, first in such areas as military engineering, military medicine and military observation.

Vietnam’s defence policy is that of peace and self-defence. Vietnam will not be a military ally to any country and will not allow any country to set up military bases on Vietnamese territory. Vietnam will not ally itself with any country to counter another.
In past years, sustained high economic growth has enabled Vietnam to increase its national defence budget at a reasonable level but lower than that of economic growth. Vietnam’s army modernisation is only for self-defence and the safeguard of our legitimate interests. It does not, in any way target any other country.

With regard to the present threats and challenges to regional security such as the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea and the East Sea, etc, Vietnam adheres to the principle of peaceful dispute settlement on the basis of international law, respecting the independence, sovereignty and the legitimate interests of each other. All parties concerned need to exercise self-restraint and must not resort to force or threat to use force.
Once again, Vietnam reiterates its consistent compliance with the ASEAN Six-point Statement on the South China Sea and will do its utmost to work together with ASEAN and China to observe the DOC seriously and soon arrive at the COC. As a coastal State, Vietnam reaffirms and defends its legitimate rights and interests in accordance with international law, especially the 1982 UNCLOS.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear friends,
Peace, cooperation and development represent the interest, the ardent aspirations and the common future of all countries and peoples. In the open spirit of the Shangri-La Dialogue, I would call upon you all to join hands and take concrete actions to build and reinforce strategic trust for an Asia-Pacific region of peace, cooperation and prosperity.

 

Posting granted exclusively for the Modern Diplomacy

(*)Keynote Address at the 12th Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, May 31st, 2013

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Southeast Asia

In the midst of a pandemic, the EU must suspend its proposed palm oil ban

Nik Nazmi

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The world is finally waking up to the realization that the Coronavirus pandemic could result in a global death toll in the millions – if not higher. Hopefully, that won’t be the case, and a cure or at least a prophylactic medicine can be found soon to end “World War V” (as many are calling the Coronavirus pandemic, with the V standing for Virus)

COVID-19 is already projected to cost the global economy up to $2 trillion according to UNCTAD. Indeed, even before the crisis, the status of the global economy was pretty dire. UNCTAD issued a similar warning in September of last year that 2020 would likely see a global recession.

Contributing to UNCTAD’s outlook in 2019 were a plethora of trade wars around the world. Most notably between China and the United States and of course, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union is also tied to similar concerns. 

Those issues may have stolen the headlines but, plenty of minor skirmishes also involved the EU and the United States and even the United States and Turkey have played out of the past view years. Thus, prior to “World War V” the world had seen a plethora of protectionist battles being rage. And now, protectionist tensions are already beginning to impact “World War V” too – with the US recently hitting out at Germany, Russia and Turkey for introducing emergency export controls on medical supplies. 

Though it is not a headline stealer, the plight of my own country Malaysia is worth reviewing. A similar trade war is brewing between the EU and ASEAN. One that will impact millions of lives in a global economy that is already on the ropes given the impact of the Coronavirus. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The European Union’s 2016 Global Europe Strategy hinted that an EU-ASEAN free trade deal was around the corner.

Yet, nearly four years later (despite some progress such as the recently signed EU-Singapore trade deal) such an historic agreement seems farther than ever. This year an EU blanket ban on palm oil importation is to be implemented. This will adversely impact Malaysia and many countries in the Global South. The ban comes over deforestation concerns. Yet, Malaysia has passed several landmark bills to ensure the sustainability of Palm Oil in recent years. The globe’s first government-backed mandatory certification standards for making palm oil sustainable were passed in Malaysia in November 2018. We need no push from the European Union for that to happen -it was something the government had long been working on in line with demand from consumers.

More importantly, an authoritative study from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found that if done correctly, palm oil uses fewer resources (in this case land, fertilizer, and other chemicals) than a similar amount of oil produced from rapeseed, soy beans or other conventional equivalents. The overall findings of that report were verified in a second scientific study published in Nature this month by researchers at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.

The current EU ban on palm oil makes no exemption for sustainable palm oil and has been a veritable economic death sentence in the current climate. Malaysia’s agriculture sector, of which palm oil is the biggest cash crop, employs over 1.5 million workers in Malaysia or 10 percent of our overall work force.

Since 40% of palm oil is grown by small holder farmers (farmers who have already been hard hit by the Corona onslaught), this regulation will hurt the most vulnerable communities in our nation hardest.

Malaysia, with over 1600 cases now has the worst Corona virus problem in Asia after South Korea and of course, China. Four people have died it what is already the worst outbreak of the virus in all of South East Asia. The economic impact of this is hard to foresee but, already the government of Malaysia has already issued a stimulus package for the economy, and we are set to see a spike in unemployment in our country over the Coronavirus. After all, the Palm oil industry was one of the first in Malaysia (the largest producer of the crop in the world) to respond to the crisis by telling members to go into a lockdown mode over concerns of spreading the virus.

However, coronavirus may ironically, be the trigger that finally compels both parties’ to compromise and agree on an historic trade deal that takes into consideration the needs of both the EU and ASEAN. After all, the EU also cannot afford to persist in a trade stand-off with ASEAN at a time of potential economic catastrophe.

For a trade deal to become a reality, steps must be taken by both parties. Malaysia must renew its commitment towards sustainable palm oil cultivation, something it has already shown a tangible commitment towards. And the EU must accept a longer implementation timeframe given the current global turmoil brought on by Covid-19. Such a deal can be a win-win for both trading blocs as sustainable palm oil could help power the EU’s push for a “Green New Deal” to power a 21st century infrastructure grid.

The alternative – curtailing global trade at a time when it will plunge the world into the most significant recession in living memory and jeopardize millions of lives – in Malaysia and beyond, is simply not an option.

In the aftermath of “World War V” hopefully we can bury protectionism and trade wars in the interest of global recovery. The sooner we act, hopefully, there will be much less to bury.

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Vietnam as ASEAN Chair and UNSC non-Permanent Member

Prof. Pankaj Jha

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Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc receives ASEAN President’s Hammer from his Thai counterpart Prayut Chan-o-cha on November 4, 2019. Source: vietnamup.com

Vietnam took the charge as ASEAN chair from its predecessor Thailand in November 2019, and the agenda for the year 2020 is diverse and challenging. The ASEAN as an organization accepted few geo-political changes and accepted that Indo-Pacific is a larger framework to which it needs to have a strategy. The result was the Indo-pacific outlook statement and this projected that ASEAN as an organization need to adjust to the evolving power configurations.

The developments in the context of Southeast Asia- be it the recurrent tensions in South China Sea because of assertive China; the Indonesian haze, and the tensions between Indonesia and China on illegal fishing in South China Sea are annual challenges for the ASEAN chair. The problem of Indonesian haze and other environmental problems needs cooperative approach. The ASEAN would have to prepare itself for the global recession which is looming large because of the Corona virus epidemic and the resultant slow down which is likely to affect not only Asia but the entire world. Another challenge this year would be for Vietnam to bring about the required understanding among ASEAN members who are party to the South China Sea dispute to come to a converging point so that the Code of conduct can become a legal document with compliance and penalty provisions. The Draft Code of Conduct (COC) is a large document encapsulating the aspirations and the legal position of each of the claimant parties. However, how to address all concerns and come to a common draft would be an arduous task. Vietnam would have to meander its way through deft diplomacy and skillful negotiations. Further, Vietnam is increasingly seen as an emerging economy and a strong nation which need to undertake a regional role. This needs few changes from the set template for consensus building and have to take measures to bring a common dialogue points. The foreign Ministers retreat which happens in the first quarter of each year would be the agenda maker for the number of meetings which would take place the whole year. Vietnam being the emerging economy as well as an APEC members, and also one of the stakeholder in RCEP process would have to make sure that RCEP is signed ‘with or without India’. However, if Vietnam by virtue of its comprehensive strategic partnership and excellent relations with India can bring the country back to the negotiating table, it would a shot in the arm for the ASEAN chair. India chose not to attend the Bali meeting to discuss RCEP with ASEAN members.

ASEAN chairmanship does have its own share of problems. However, taking cue from Vietnam chairmanship in 2011 when the same set of problems were existent, the country abided by the ASEAN way rather than proposing out of box thinking and solutions. The geo-political scene and the strategic compulsions do not give that easy comfort zone in decision making and it need strong adjustments both in terms of building a consensus and solving problems. At the international level, questions have been raised whether ASEAN centrality is a useful instrument in resolving maritime issues or it has diminishing returns. ASEAN community programme- Political-Security, Economic and Socio-Cultural Community would require midterm review in 2020 given the fact that the year 2025 is the deadline for its blueprint. Initiative for ASEAN Integration (IAI) Work Plan III (2016-2020), needs a strong effort as only 19 out of 26 actions (73.1%) have been achieved. 

One of the biggest challenge for the ASEAN nations would be to counter the spread of 2019-novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)in the region and work out a comprehensive plan of action to control its spread and work out a common collaborative programme in the region. This might include regional centre for public health emergencies, strengthening regional public health laboratories network, monitoring the working of risk communication centres, and draw lessons from China’s experience in fighting the epidemic. Vietnam would have to address it on priority as it might have political, economic and social impact.

In the wake of tensions in South China Sea, the utility of Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) is under duress, there is a need to review and redraw the obligations under TAC for all the major powers of the region. For that there is a need to adopt two pronged approach of building trust and confidence among the dialogue partners as well as protecting interests of the region. The converging point for the dialogue partners would be humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), counter-terrorism, and humanitarian mine action.

Taking over as non-permanent member of UNSC, it is a unique opportunity for Vietnam to integrate developmental objectives of ASEAN and synergize it with UN initiatives. The convergence between ASEAN Community Vision 2025, and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Complementarities Initiative) need deep research and effort and in this regard to feasibility study can be commissioned by Vietnam. The challenges related to illicit drug production, trafficking (both human and drugs) needs to be highlighted both at ASEAN and in the UN. ASEAN has adopted the ‘Plan of Action to Prevent and Counter the Rise of Radicalization and Violent Extremism’ and this needs representation and support from the UN bodies. Vietnam position would be catalyst in this regard so that regional efforts should be promoted in this regard. Cyber security has been addressed in ASEAN also as well as in UN but in terms of regional monitoring mechanisms across the world there is a deficit. Taking cue from ASEAN initiatives such as ‘Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence (ASCCE), and the Cybersecurity Capacity Building initiatives’ undertaken with support from Singapore and Japan respectively ’, Vietnam an make a case in UN for strengthening such institutions. Within ASEAN the efforts needed to streamline and collaborate on Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), and digital connectivity are insufficient and therefore it requires better dialogue mechanisms on a regular basis among the ASEAN members.

Vietnam would also have to take cognizance of the possibility of Practical Arrangements (PA) between ASEAN and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This would need special attention at the UNSC so as to create a framework in Southeast Asia on nuclear safety, security, and safeguards. This will have a futuristic utility in terms of nuclear technologies and their applications. Within UN Vietnam will have to make special efforts to gain support for effective implementation of the SEANWFZ Treaty and submit it to the First Committee to the United Nations General Assembly.

ASEAN faces a number of cases related to Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing and this needs to be addressed at global level so that a convention on IUU can be adopted. Vietnam would have to make special mention in this regard under the UNSC discussion agenda. Vietnam must also address challenges related to education, promotion and protection of the Women and Children and their rights, skill development and vocational training. Marine pollution and climate change have always resonated in the discussions in UNSC and Vietnam must take these issues to reflect concerns in Southeast Asia and why there is a need for global efforts. Other issues such as peat land management, haze management through financial support and disaster management need careful articulation and proposals in this regard.

While the agenda for the ASEAN requires better efforts as many initiatives need review in the year 2020 and also a comprehensive roadmap for future. On the other hand, issues in the UNSC Vietnam must highlight commitment regarding duties of upper riparian and lower riparian states, water pollution, and disaster risk financing at international level. In fact, the issue of Mekong river pollution and construction of dams would gain attention in this year. Further, Vietnam despite all these challenges would be able to balance the commitments towards ASEAN while at the same time playing a constructive role in the UNSC as non-permanent member. The year 2020 would be a challenging year as well as a year for adopting regional and global commitments towards security, prosperity, development, trade and connectivity.

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Russia-Indonesia: 70 years of friendship

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Jauh di mata, dekat di hati [Out of sight, close to the heart].” This is how Lyudmila Georgievna Vorobieva, Russian ambassador to Indonesia, characterized the relationship between the two countries.

In fact, in the 70 years of the relationship, it has gone through different states of proximity. It was pretty “hot” even before and around independence in 1945 when being leftist was identical with an anti-imperialist stance — and certainly during Sukarno’s presidency (1945 to 1967).

Then, abruptly, with the annihilation of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965 after a now-largely discounted “coup” by the PKI, the relationship suffered a long cold period of over 30 years during Soeharto’s New Order (1967 to 1998). Keeping the communist scare alive was, after all, one of the ways the regime maintained its grip on society.

Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) in the 1980s, the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 and Indonesia’s Reformasi in 1998 paved the way for the restoration of warm, harmonious relations.

Mohammad Wahid Supriyadi, Indonesian ambassador to Russia since 2016, said we are now in the second golden age of Russia-Indonesia relations (the first being during Sukarno’s presidency). Wow! Who would have guessed?

For the lay person, these days Russia invariably draws our attention indirectly, e.g. for its alleged interference in presidential elections in the United States or for being the country where Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower, has been living in exile for over six years.

I confess Russia hasn’t been that prominent on my screen lately either, until I heard about the Russia-Indonesia 70-year friendship exhibition at the National Gallery from Feb. 3 to 17 (see: “Snapshots: Indonesia, Russia exhibit 70 years of friendship”, The Jakarta Post, Feb. 5). I was keen to go because of my own “Russian connections”.

Yup! I was a sociology student in London (1976 to 1979), and took a course on Russia and China. The focus of my studies was Western industrial societies, so I wanted to know the other side of the Cold War (circa 1947 to 1991). It was also essential for writing my thesis on the People’s Cultural Institute (Lekra), the PKI’s cultural wing. Both Lekra and the PKI looked to these communist countries for guidance, especially the Soviet Union, to emulate their concept of “socialist realism” — art and literature that glorified communist values and supported the party line.

I was also connected to Russia by marriage. My late husband, Ami Priyono, was among the first seven Indonesian students sent to Moscow in 1956. Together with Sjumanjaya, they studied film at Lomonosov Moscow State University. Both eventually became prominent film directors in the 1970s and 1980s.

Ami’s father, Prijono, was culture minister in Sukarno’s first cabinet, serving for nine years (1957 to 1966). Prijono was a leading figure in the Murba Party (sometimes referred to as the second Indonesian communist party) and, like Sukarno, was pro-Soviet. In 1954, Prijono was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize.

So, the reason for my interest was partly a nostalgia trip and partly a desire to know more about our current relationship with the “Land of the Red Bear”, as Indonesians sometimes refer to Russia.

I was accompanied by Vladimir Anisimov, head of the artist collective Bureau of Creative Expeditions and curator of the Necklace of the Equator exhibition. A distinguished gentleman in his 70s, sporting a bushy silver-gray beard, a moustache and an artist’s ponytail, he was like a relic of the past, adding to the nostalgic atmosphere.

Vladimir explained in detail some of the 85 paintings on display. They were done by 10 Russian painters who over 20 years had travelled to Indonesia on various occasions, capturing scenes from Java, Sumatra, Madura, Bali, Lombok, Kalimantan and Sulawesi: landscapes, houses, ceremonies, local traditions — mainly focusing on the people. Mostly impressionistic, lots of bright colors and a touch of romanticism here and there, like the Madonna painting of a woman carrying a baby surrounded by flowers and a rainbow. No socialist realism here!

Exhibitions by Russian artists have been held before in Indonesia, in 2000, 2003 and 2005. Vladimir recalled that the opening day was usually full but after that, empty. The situation is completely different now, he said, with 200 to 300 people attending during work days and double that on the weekend.

Vladimir said they received only positive feedback. “People were impressed and spent a lot of time taking selfies with the paintings as backdrops. Maybe more time than just looking at them,” Vladimir smiled wryly.

Among the crowd were a young man and woman intently discussing something related to the exhibition. They were Indonesians but spoke in very fluent English. I approached them and asked them why they had come to the exhibition. “Oh, we are Marxists. We came because we wanted to know more.”

Wow, Marxists in our midst? So young and so brazenly declaring their ideological beliefs at a time when Indonesia’s communist phobia is still alive and well? They really piqued my curiosity, so I took their phone numbers and chatted with them by WhatsApp the following day.

Both were 25 and were members of a group of young Marxist-Leninists who, like them, were disillusioned with the state of the world. “In 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president, it was the moment where we started really realizing the evil of the US empire and imperialism,” they said.

“One of the things that really moved me,” the young woman said, “was reading DN Aidit’s [PKI chairman] speech for the

[party’s]

44th anniversary, when he said that one of the conditions of being a PKI member is ‘unmeasurable love for the people’.” For her, that’s what communism is: loving each other so fiercely that we fight for a world where no one has to suffer, a world free from exploitation.

Wow, talk about youthful idealism! Truth be told, any ideology, any political or economic system, as well as any religion, can be twisted to harm and oppress the people, however much our leaders wax lyrical about them, or about bilateral and international relations.

Maybe this is a time when our leaders should start listening to the younger generation to save the world. Greta Thunberg is trying hard to do that. Many more are joining her ranks, so all you politicians, bureaucrats and leaders out there, start listening!

Early version of the text published under: “Russia – Indonesia 70 years on: Some like it hot, cold or warm” in Jakarta Post

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