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interview with Ali Alatas

The IndonesiaCIA The World Factbook

YI: One of ASEAN's stumbling blocks has been the problem of Burma or Myanmar. After years of making excuses for Burma, ASEAN is now waking up to the fact that the current regime in Yangon is unlikely to institute reforms without forceful pressure. They issued the strongest ultimatum yet in Kuala Lumpur, demanding to meet with political leaders other than the ones in power. Can Burma be expelled from ASEAN should they refuse to change?

Alatas: You are right in the sense that other ASEAN members are now getting impatient with the progress of Myanmar's so-called move towards democratization and national reconciliation. For many years, we had hoped that through persuasion alone, we could convince Myanmar of the need to change, of the need to implement its own program, actually of the 7-point program that they have themselves announced. Now, however, I think other ASEAN members are beginning to be unanimous in the view that the lack of progress in Myanmar is also affecting ASEAN as a whole, in the sense that we, ASEAN, are getting a very negative view from the outside world. And this impatience can be seen, has been reflected among others, in the latest statement by the heads of state of ASEAN at the Kuala Lumpur meeting, and by their foreign ministers, in which we have urged publicly, for Myanmar to expedite its process of democratization. And also to release those in detention. But I understand that in private discussions that we have had with Myanmar, the talks were much more blunt and much more open and critical than the statement that was made public. And for the first time, I think Myanmar has agreed to receive an ASEAN special envoy, in the person of foreign minister Said Hamid Albar of Malaysia, the current chair of ASEAN. So, that is an advancement. But we still have to see what this will bring.

Yes, we are hoping very much that Myanmar will see that it is in their own interest to change and make tangible progress and the stress is on 'tangible progress' and not only words. Tangible progress. But I don't think ASEAN is ready to expel a member state. We are not thinking along those terms and we still believe that as a fellow member of ASEAN, we should continue our efforts to quietly, not through megaphone diplomacy but quietly, to convince them that change must come, otherwise change will overtake them and force on them certain things that they themselves do not want. So, this is at present the situation, but it's getting to become a rather embarrassing problem for us.

YI: What will change them?

Alatas: I don't know what will actually change them but perhaps gradually the leadership will realize that change is so manifest in their neighborhood, change is manifesting itself even in societies as closed before as China. And China is a very close friend of them. And I personally think that China could play a very important role in trying to convince them also that they have to change. What the problem with Myanmar is, however, that in the past, the west, also certain leaders in Myanmar itself, that change should come quickly and in a fundamental way, immediately. This is not possible for a society like Myanmar. I think, for a society like Myanmar, we must think on in terms of change that is progressive, that is gradual, and take into account that their own experience, their own situation, their security situation and political situation and the economic situation which they inherited from the colonial times, the actual facts of life pertaining to Myanmar and only then, thinking realistically like that we can hope to see change gradually come to Myanmar. It would not be an immediate, a 180 degree change. I don't think that is possible, unless it's by force. But peaceful change will come gradually.

YI: What is the East Asia Summit and is there any danger of it overshadowing ASEAN, or making it irrelevant?

Alatas: Well, to answer the last part of your question first, I don't think that ASEAN will be overshadowed by the East Asia Summit. In fact, ASEAN initiated it. And ASEAN been successful in getting the concurrence of the other participants in the East Asian Society for its role as driving force, or in the drivers seat of this new summit. Its not merely words but I think it is also translated into some of the organizational set ups, at least for now. Because the East Asian Summit will meet every year under the chairmanship of ASEAN not under the chairmanship of the bigger and powerfully economically, participants. Secondly, there won't be a separate secretariat, but ASEAN secretariat will service the EAS. So, in many ways, being an ASEAN creation, it will depend now on ASEAN on where and how, in what direction and how the East Asian Summit will evolve. This is the big question now, because there are still some controversial issues among us. There is some controversy about future membership, who else would have to be a member, who else could be a member or participant and how fast they should become member. How fast expansion should go. There is even some uncertainty on what exactly the role of the East Asian Summit should be vis-à-vis the ASEAN plus three organization or summit, it was established 10 years ago, especially in terms of moving towards an East Asia Community. So there are still some things that we shall have to see but for the time being, I think we have now a wider forum, involving other countries other than the ASEAN plus three, that will be a forum to have very frank discussions, dialogue on all issues of politics, economics and security that are of common concern to all of us. This is my personal view, depending on the wisdom of the East Asian participants, not to go too fast, or too quickly but also not to deteriorate into a mere talk show, dependent on their wisdom, on how to move, which problem to tackle, which problems to discuss, that the East Asian Summit will have a good role to play in this larger framework of East Asia, broadly defined.

YI: The East Asia Summit is now quite large, involving India, Australia, New Zealand and Russia as observers.

Alatas: That's true. We are trying not to think in terms of geographic limits, not even in terms of ethnic limits. We're trying to think in terms of political, economic and security interests that we share and that has been the driving force of the East Asian Summit.

YI: But this is not an auspicious beginning, given that two countries are already in conflict -- Japan and China.

Alatas: They have been on a 'collision course' for a long time, and lately it has become sharper because of the question of Japan's role during Second World War. It was sharpened because of Japan's efforts to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We're all concerned about this in East Asia. We hope that the two giants of East Asia really come together and find a way out peacefully to overcome their differences, because as long as they are at loggerheads with one another it will be a stumbling block.

YI: Indonesia used to be regional leader. Now critics say it practices a hesitant foreign policy. Do you agree?

Alatas: Well I have to admit that immediately after 1999, we were very much inward looking. We had President Habibie, then President Abdurrahman Wahid, and then President Megawati in short order, each only one and a half years at the most. Only now we have a president elected by the people for five years. So I have to admit that there was some confusion on Indonesia's position on ASEAN, caused by our inward-lookingness; the fact that we had to face such great problems after the so-called Asian financial crisis, etc. but also caused by some confusing statements from our leaders at that time about ASEAN and about members of ASEAN. Now, however, I can say that in the last years of President Megawati's presidency, we have returned to the correct path, I mean to the same path with regard to ASEAN as we always had before consistently, namely that ASEAN is indeed one of our pillars of foreign policy, and that we should indeed play our rightful role there, our appropriate role there. I'm always hesitant when people say Indonesia was a leader of ASEAN, because the last thing we would want is for the other members of ASEAN to think that Indonesia wants to play a leadership role. That Indonesia just because it's big has to be the leader. We try to play a role that is conducive for ASEAN's road, one that is appropriate to our size. So we felt that we had a greater duty to contribute constructively to ASEAN than the others. Sometimes it was leading ASEAN in the sense not only with concepts but with other people's concepts, but giving our full support to other people's concepts and in this way, moving ASEAN as a body. We are now back in that role, we hope, as can be seen, for example, that we have started with this security community - that was Indonesia's proposal - and together with the economic community and the socio-cultural community, now ASEAN is purposefully moving towards a higher plane of cooperation. So we are going to play that role again. But again, personally I would say it would be not so good if it is called a leadership role.

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