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Regional giant needs to assert itself more within ASEAN

AT the start of the year, in the wintery Swiss town of Davos, a usurper boldly claimed that his Southeast Asian country would soon become a global powerhouse.

That assertion, at the World Economic Forum, came from Indonesia’s President Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono, universally known as SBY.

Referring to the region’s current big boys, SBY said: “Asia is, of course, more than China, Japan and India.”

As head of the world’s fourth-most populous country and third-largest democracy with an economy twice the size of this region’s next largest, he has a point.

However, before Indonesia can stand with the world’s superpowers, it must first cement its leadership in Southeast Asia.

Of course, in theory, all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have equal stature in regional affairs.

As Indonesia’s late great foreign minister Ali Alatas once told me: “We are not ‘Big Brother’ in ASEAN.”

Well, perhaps not formally, but Indonesia is, always has been, and always will be, first among equals in the regional grouping.

And SBY’s Davos declaration coincided with Indonesia becoming this year’s ASEAN chairman and thus having a golden opportunity to exert its regional clout and prove the mettle of its president’s words.

Regrettably, as the year’s halfway mark approaches, its performance must be marked down as a failure.

Indeed, observing a sense of drift and lack of steel, both domestically and regionally, some suggest that under SBY’s rule Indonesia is turning out to be a paper tiger.

They cite, among the more disturbing signs, its mushy attempt to mediate the border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand.

Basically, Jakarta said that if the shooting stopped, it would send observers to monitor the ceasefire while seeking to formulate a diplomatic solution.

After agreeing to this in principle, both sides went home and with audacious truculence broke their promise, repeatedly.

To his credit, Indonesia’s foreign minister Marty Natalegawa persevered and earlier this month proposed a “roadmap” for reconciliation between Bangkok and Phnom Penh.

Whether it will be formally accepted, and if it is, whether it will be honoured, remains to be seen.

The fact remains that the episode has made Indonesia look rather impotent.

If the region’s giant cannot crack heads and resolve this squabble, what can it do?

But that was not all. At this month’s summit in Jakarta, East Timor’s bid to join ASEAN again came up for appraisal.

Indonesia, which once incorporated the former Portuguese enclave, strongly backed its admission. So did Thailand and others.

But a little red dot said no.

Singapore argued that East Timor’s lack of institutions and capacity would jeopardise the 2015 goal of an ASEAN Economic Community.

It roped in woolgathers from Cambodia and Laos to echo this same line – as if either of them would ever have become ASEAN members had such concerns been voiced about their admission.

Then, displaying a resolve Indonesia sadly lacked, Singapore said it would veto East Timor’s inclusion for at least several years.

Instead of countering that this stance was totally unacceptable, SBY’s men caved.

So East Timor is excluded, along with Papua New Guinea.

In a final embarrassment, Jakarta’s support for Myanmar’s bid to host the group’s 2014 summit failed to be persuasive and a decision was deferred till a later date.

Some members mysteriously voiced concern that Myanmar’s relative lack of democracy and its jailing of political prisoners would reflect badly on ASEAN.

They appeared to forget that Vietnam, with its vibrant Communist dictatorship and prisons full of political detainees, hosted last year’s summit without any complaints.

Indonesia, if it is ever to be a truly global heavyweight, must call out this kind of shameful hypocrisy, just as it should have insisted on East Timor’s admission and on a lasting armistice at Preah Vihear.

Otherwise, SBY’s January pledge will be consigned to the ashtray of history, if it has not been dumped there already.

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