The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


The doctor of diplomacy keeps his cool Duncan Graham

Very soon, as the new government sets its tone for the next five years, Nur Hassan Wirajuda will get a call from the Presidential Palace outlining his future.

Will he continue as foreign minister, a position he’s held for the past eight years? Or will he be shelved in some Jakarta cubicle composing reports destined for compost, or sentenced to a dysfunctional outpost where the climate is as extreme as the politics?

By all accounts the cautious, slow-talking Dr Hassan has done a good job since he was promoted by former president Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2001 and retained when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office in 2004.

He’s certainly handled some awkward moments adroitly, like Australia accepting 43 Papuans who successfully claimed refugee status in 2006 a crisis that almost snapped the elastic links between the countries. Then there’s been the Bali bombings, the rise of Jemaah Islamiyah, Australian drug runners on death row and the 2004 tsunami.

The latest problem worrying Australia, and New Zealand in particular, is the classification of halal meat exported to Indonesia. The MUI (Majelis Ulama Indonesia – Indonesian Islamic Scholars’ Council) wants to handle this without government involvement.

“This is a mechanical issue,” Dr Hassan said. “The MUI can set the standards but administration is the government’s role. More time is needed and the deadline has been extended till next year.”

By now lesser men would have developed a nervous twitch every time an anxious aide approached with another crisis newsflash. But the 61-year old has retained his equanimity, and if his enviable head of jet-black hair didn’t come from a bottle it’s a sure sign of his unflappability.

“Internationally Indonesia is held in high regard, the best it has ever been,” he said during an Australasian tour that included the Pacific Islands Forum in Queensland. “Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy and has never been so free.” His Australian counterpart Stephen Smith agrees. Earlier this year he introduced Dr Hassan by saying:

“Indonesia (has) transformed to a modern, vibrant, tolerant democracy that is now quite rightfully taking its place in the world as a strong voice: a voice that reflects values and virtues and characteristics that we admire so much.”

Whether this glossy global image is due to the foreign minister or his urbane boss, or because Indonesia is rocketing into democracy without bloodshed, and pursuing terrorism with vigor are different questions.

In the arcane world of foreign affairs where acronyms rule (the minister is Menlu – Menteri Departemen Luar Negeri - the department Deplu) there are whispers that Dr Hassan’s time may be up. However he’ll only say that though he’d like to retain the job, every position has to run its course.

Unlike those who think ASEAN is a dead duck, an anti-communist mutual admiration club constructed by former president Soeharto 42 years ago and past its use-by date, Dr Hassan believes the grouping has relevance.

“No other forum exists that is able to do good and maintain the habits of dialogue,” he said. “It has more than symbolic importance. Many issues, such as territorial disputes in the South China Sea have been settled through ASEAN, which would otherwise have had to be handled on a bi-lateral basis.

“ASEAN helps exercise self-restraint, and good order. Others want to join. We are working to bring democracy to Myanmar.”

Does this mean Indonesia now has a role pushing democracy onto its reluctant neighbors, a South-East Asian version of the US?

“No, we take the subtle approach,” he said. “Rather than impose our model of democracy let’s sit down together. We are quite humble. We must do more to embed the roots of democracy in our own country and educate the populace about the benefits.

“For example, in the last election we had 38 parties because the threshold is 2.5 per cent support with many parties frantically searching for candidates. In Germany the threshold is five per cent.

“That doesn’t mean our democracy is immature. There is no conflict or contradiction between democracy and Islam. It is the duty of Muslims to take part in the political process.

“We don’t see democracy in quite the literal way (supremacy of the people) that it’s seen in the West, but more through the traditional concepts of musyawarah and mufakat (consultation and consensus).”

Dr Hassan started his professional life as a lawyer. He was born in Tangerang (best known for housing Jakarta’s international airport) and got his tertiary education in the US where he won a doctorate in international law.

He also went to Oxford University to study diplomacy, a skill he exercises with aplomb, forever wary of being misinterpreted. Like many diplomats he can use many words to say little, useful in a profession where calling a spade by its proper name may result in it digging your own grave.

“Well, you said that, I didn’t,” was his standard reply when invited to endorse contentious statements. When asked if Indonesia was the only true democracy among ASEAN’s ten members he replied: “I don’t say so.” On only one occasion during a one-on-one interview in Wellington, NZ, did he offer an unequivocal and immediate “No!”

This was to the suggestion that the issue of Papuan separatism was Indonesia’s ‘pebble in our shoe’ as the late Dr Ali Alatas, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister under Soeharto, once described East Timor.

Earlier this year Dr Hassan caused surprise by criticising Myanmar’s treatment of its Islamic Rohingya minority when refugees alleging persecution started arriving on the Sumatra coast. This broke the ASEAN tradition of not interfering in other nation’s internal affairs. So in the same spirit why not open Papua’s borders to foreign journalists?

“We’ve got nothing to hide but the people of Papua must be allowed to determine their own future without foreign visitors,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with demonstrations but the people need time to do things without disruption.

“Papua, like other provinces, now gets 70 per cent of royalties from its natural resources. If you want to go to Papua come and see me in Jakarta."

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 August 2009)