Jamil Maidan Flores: Neighborly Bonds
Jamil Maidan Flores
Bilateral summits between China and the United States always put the world on edge. That’s because they are nuclear powers polarized by ideology, economic interests and hegemonic ambitions. What they decide either makes waves or calms the waters.
But a ministerial-level meeting between two neighboring countries that have no quarrel with each other, agree on democratic norms and values and have nothing much to buy from or sell to each other can only be seen by international observers as a non-event. Such a non-event could take place on Tuesday and Wednesday, when Indonesia and the Philippines hold the fourth meeting of their Joint Committee on Bilateral Cooperation in Manila. For several reasons, though, I don’t think it will be a non-event.
There are a lot of positive sentiments to be expressed. The Indonesian bloodline of Filipinos is robust. Philippine schools teach that the country was populated largely by Indonesian migrations in the centuries before Western colonization. And there is some linkage in spirit between the nationalist movements of the two countries, although Indonesia’s came about some six decades after the Philippines’.
One of my first Indonesian friends, a diplomat named Wayan Wirna, often wondered as a boy listening to the speeches of Sukarno who those people were named Rizal, Bonifacio and Aguinaldo that his president cited with fierce pride. When Wayan was assigned to Manila, he found out that they had been some of the heroes of the first anti-colonial revolution in Asia. So much for history.
Of course there are boundary issues between the two. But according to a senior Indonesian diplomat, the Philippines abandoned the boundaries established by the Treaty of Paris when Spain ceded the country to the United States at the turn of the 19th century. So when two countries that eat, drink and swear by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 negotiate their maritime boundaries, how can there be tension?
There is an immigration issue. Over a thousand undocumented Indonesians are living in the Philippines. But they are not a social problem. They are probably of more interest to statisticians than to diplomats. The joke is that the entire Philippine population (except for those of Spanish, American or Chinese descent) is made up of overstaying Indonesians.
What both countries can do is to enable more young Indonesians to study in the Philippines. In spite of the added cost of airfare, board and lodging, in most cases it is still cheaper to get a good education in a Philippine university than it is in Indonesia.
A Filipino official says when Philippine Vice President Jojo Binay called on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently, Yudhoyono mentioned the need for the two countries to work together on the problems of terrorism and people smuggling.
They can start by taking a good hard look at the Philippines’ southern backdoor — the waters of the Sulu and Celebes (Sulawesi) seas. People there move freely by boat. When it is convenient, they claim to be Filipinos and when convenient they say they are Indonesians or Malaysians. That makes it easy for terrorists to commute between a fastness in eastern Indonesia and a jungle school for bomb making in central Mindanao.
They should also look into the economic field. It is an exaggeration, but when people say that bilateral trade is zero, there is a kernel of truth to it. Trade in modern times between the two countries began in 1946 when an American pilot landed in metro Manila with a few Indonesian freedom fighters on its manifest and a cargo of vanilla.
The small sum made from selling that first official export from Indonesia to the Philippines went to the coffers of the fledgling Indonesian republic, but there is some truth to the exaggeration that trade between the two countries has not improved much since then. The conventional explanation is that both countries produce the same products, so how can they trade? But that makes little sense. Why is the Philippines buying Indonesian coal from Australia?
The real problem is that both countries are looking to China, Japan, South Korea, the United States and Europe, but not next door. I say: Beautiful dreamers, wake unto each other. Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who leads the Indonesian delegation, is known for his “eureka moments” when he suddenly sees the solution to a foreign policy problem that has persisted for years. Let us hope that his creative intuition is working full time during this meeting.
That will surely make it an eventful one.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a poet, fiction writer, playwright and essayist who has worked as a speechwriter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1992.