Shoeb K. Zainuddin
British ambassador to Indonesia Mark Canning is no stranger to Asia or to Indonesia. He is not only a seasoned diplomat, having served in some of the most hostile nations on the planet, he is also a keen observer of human society.
In his 30-year career as a diplomat, Mark Canning has served on just about every continent on the planet. His work has taken him to countries such as Zimbabwe, where he saw hyper-inflation destroy the country, and to Myanmar where isolation and grinding poverty browbeat the people into submission to a military junta.
The British Ambassador to Indonesia, however, has come away from those trying times with hope and his faith in the human spirit intact. He also learned a great deal about the art of diplomacy during those difficult postings.
“You are tested as a diplomat and you feel like you are making a difference,” he said during a recent interview at his residence. “They are challenging postings but you have experience that you always remember.”
His time in Myanmar coincided with the Saffron revolution when Buddhist monks took to the streets to protest against the ruling military junta in 2007. He was also in the country when cyclone Nargis caused the worst natural disaster in the history of Myanmar, causing catastrophic destruction and claiming 138,000 lives.
“We had a real challenge to get assistance into the country at that time but that was a different time and it has been great to see the country evolve in the last few months,” Canning notes.
Another challenging posting was in Zimbabwe, which was in the grip of hyper-inflation when he arrived in 2009. “It was the second highest hyper-inflation in human economic history but by the time I left, the country was finding its feet and it was growing for the first time in 12 years.”
Asked about his impression of President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s long-standing president who has clung on to power through violence and intimidation, Canning replied: “He is not what you would expect. He is a fervent anglophile and loves England. He walks and speaks softly but he carries a big stick.”
But meeting such larger-than-life characters is what diplomats yearn for. “Meeting nasty people can sometimes be more interesting than meeting nice ones,” he says with a smile.
With the rise of emerging nations to the forefront of the global economy, there is both a realization and a push in London to forge closer ties with these fast-growing economies. So when the current British Prime Minister David Cameron came to power, the government took a long hard look at the world and the countries that are on the rise.
“Indonesia came out tops so we are scaling up our presence here,” says Canning. “We are building a new embassy that will open next March and expanding the number of staff significantly.”
He has also had to welcome and host a rising number of visits by senior British government leaders who want a first-hand look at Indonesia. As such, he expects to see an expansion of trade, investments and cooperation on climate change between Britain and Indonesia.
“Interest in Indonesia is strong,” Canning notes. “The level of awareness has definitely increased.”
He adds that people need to understand how fantastic Indonesia’s story is. This is under-appreciated in London and other European capitals as not many countries have managed the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy as smoothly as Indonesia.
Indonesia, however, does have its challenges in infrastructure, reforming institutions and making sure the devolution of power is carried out as it is intended to.
“People expect a country to fit into a neat box but it does not work that way,” he notes. “The transition will take generations to play out but we cannot ignore the amazing distance that has been traveled.”
When he last served as a diplomat in Indonesia in the 1990s, it was a vastly different country. Former President Suharto ruled with an iron fist while the media and opposition to the government were muzzled.
Having returned some two decades later, what does he find different this time around?
“I am amazed by the willingness of the people to express their views,” notes Canning. “In East Kalimantan, a few weeks ago I was at a local meeting where a local villager stood up and told the minister how the forest should be managed. Today, people feel empowered.”
Secondly, there is a mushrooming of democratic institutions such as the anti-corruption commission, the media and others. “Is it the finished article? No, but the progress has been impressive.”
Lastly, Canning feels that the country is less Java-centric, which has changed the way he goes about his work. “As a diplomat, I can’t expect to sit in Jakarta and think I know the country as in the past.”
The changing art of diplomacy
When he started out in his career 30 years ago, diplomacy was very much about gathering information by meeting people and working the ground. Today, however, too many diplomats are tied to their desks and rely on email communications.
“One of my role models was an ambassador when I first served in Indonesia,” he notes. “He was under the skin of the country and knew a wide cross section of society. Today we are not out talking to people enough.”
The internet and how diplomats interact with the media has also changed the rules of the game significantly. Diplomats are now much more conscious about how they convey their message and must learn to live with the media, in particular the new media.
“It forces us to adopt a range of guises depending on the circumstances,” says Canning. “A lot of my time is focused on supporting British companies and British nationals in Indonesia.”
The job he says, has different sides to it. “I regret that the nature of technology has not liberated us and there is a lot of pressure on governments to measure output. But a lot of what diplomats do cannot be measured and we should not drive this process too far.” GA