December 21, 2022
JAKARTA – My mind has flashbacks of former foreign minister Ali Alatas telling me about the real power of the Foreign Ministry many years ago when I read the speech of Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi during the first Indonesia-Pacific Forum for Development (IPFD) in Bali early this month.
Alatas’ experience in dealing with East Timor at the time can be a good reminder for Retno in negotiating the Papuan issue. Of course, she fully understands it as she was part of the Foreign Ministry under Alatas.
Retno chaired the first IPFD, which resulted in the Bali message statement. She said Indonesia had intensively cooperated in development projects with Pacific nations since 2019, during which the government granted 211 technical and development aid packages to Pacific nations.
To be honest, one of the main motives behind the Pacific approach is to “appease” the people in the region who have strong emotional and cultural bonds with the people in Papua. Vanuatu is one the most outspoken critics of Indonesia’s Papua policy, as well as Jakarta’s treatment of East Timor before it voted for independence in 1999.
The Bali meeting was attended by ministers, senior officials and representatives of Australia, New Zealand, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Delegations from the United States, China, France, Japan and South Korea also turned up for the event.
“We must maintain the Pacific as a peaceful, stable and prosperous region,” Retno said during the opening of the meeting on Dec. 7.
In dealing with Papua, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo seems to emulate the “divide and rule” tactic of the Dutch to maintain its colonialism in the Dutch East Indies for more than three centuries. Just recently, his administration formed four new provinces in Papua, in addition to the existing provinces of Papua and West Papua. The government believes it will be much easier to quell separatist aspirations in Papua if the people are not united.
Alatas’ experience in dealing with East Timor and Retno’s familiarity with the Papua issue have much in common.
I by no means doubt her ability to realize her vision on Indonesian diplomacy in the Pacific Islands. I even dare to suggest that she abandoned the ministry’s tendency to opt for ad hoc approaches toward the Pacific nations, including the assignment of four Indonesian embassies to cover Pacific nations. The current approach only leads Indonesia to the elites. Therefore, a well-planned and implemented strategy to reach out to grass roots should be prioritized.
However, the Foreign Ministry is not the sole government institution conducting diplomacy. Other ministries and state institutions are also involved in foreign affairs, but oftentimes there is no coordination among the agencies.
In an interview with The Jakarta Post after ending an 11-year tenure as foreign minister in 1999, Alatas said the developments in East Timor were beyond the control of the Foreign Ministry. In fact, Indonesia’s foreign diplomacy was mirroring the country’s domestic situation.
“I must admit that sometimes I became very frustrated at the slow pace in which we could move and the setbacks that sometimes happened, completely out of the control of the department of foreign affairs […] Being an issue that preceded the national context, other people decided what was happening in East Timor, not the foreign ministry,” Alatas told me.
Alatas left his post just three months after East Timor opted for separation from Indonesia in a United Nations-organized referendum in August 1999.
If I could interpret Alatas’ statement, no matter how perfect and genius he was in defending Indonesia’s sovereignty in East Timor, when the atrocities and human rights abuses persisted, his diplomatic efforts would be meaningless.
The Papua cause is completely different from East Timor’s. The UN, as well as most parts of the world, recognizes Papua as a legitimate part of Indonesia, but never East Timor. The problem, however, is the perception that Jakarta treats Papua the way it treated East Timor during its occupation in 1975-1999.
Retno needs to take more concerted measures in dealing with Pacific Islands nations, including ending the practice of assigning four Indonesian ambassadors to the region. It will be more practical for Indonesia to have only one embassy which covers the whole Pacific Islands.
The Foreign Ministry already has the Pacific and Ocean Directorate, which focuses on Pacific nations. It falls under the Directorate-General for Asia-Pacific and Africa. The directorate should be upgraded to reflect Indonesia’s rising interests in the Pacific.
Currently the Indonesian Embassy in Port Moresby in PNG is also accredited to the Solomon Islands. The embassy should just concentrate on Indonesia’s relations with PNG, because the country directly borders Indonesia.
The embassy in Canberra also covers Vanuatu, while the embassy in Wellington also covers Samoa, Tonga Kingdom, Cook Islands and Niue Islands. Our ambassadors there have been preoccupied with bilateral relations issues. The additional tasks will add burdens and it is impossible diplomats can spare enough time to deal with small nations in the Pacific.
In the meantime, the Embassy in Suva, Fiji, is also accredited to Kiribati, Nauru and Tuvalu.
Minister Retno needs to consider the embassy in Suva as the center for Indonesia’s diplomacy in the Pacific Islands, taking over additional tasks from embassies in Port Moresby, Canberra and Wellington. It means the embassy in Suva should get more staff and budget.
The roots of the Papua issue come from our own home, not overseas. The Pacific Islands nations are sensitive to the suffering of their Melanesian brethren in Papua, but cannot provide any solutions to us.
The words of Alatas about East Timor serve as a good reminder for us to address the Papua problem. Retno can do more to end the Papua conundrum, but referring to the remarks of the late Alatas, the Papua issue is simply beyond the Foreign Ministry’s control.
The writer is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.