INDONESIA’S eloquent new Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has made a big impression in Australia within days of taking office, with his calm, reasoned explanation to ABC television viewers of his country’s approach to the stand-off over the Sri Lankan refugees aboard Oceanic Viking.
“We have done our level best in terms of trying to facilitate our humanitarian concerns and interests for these people,” he said. “But in the final analysis, if they refuse to leave the boat, then this is a fact the Australian government must take into account. As far as we are concerned, we have an abundance of patience to deal with this issue.”
He gave the clear impression that his own patience could comfortably survive quite a few news cycles and exhortatory phone calls from Canberra.
Natalegawa’s suave, English-toned voice first became familiar to Australians during the Bali bombings and the Schapelle Corby case, when he was spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, and then chief of staff to his predecessor as minister, Hassan Wirayuda. He said at the time of the Corby trial: “We hope that the Australian people do not make an enemy of the Indonesian people.”
His educational qualifications are impressive. Natalegawa gained a BSc at the London School of Economics in 1984, a masters in philosophy at Cambridge University the following year and a PhD in international studies in 1993 from the Australian National University in Canberra, where he studied for three years, with Pacific Islands specialist Greg Fry as his superviser.
His full name is Raden Mohammad Marty Muliana Natalegawa, but he is becoming widely known in Indonesia simply as Marty, which somehow fails to reflect, to English speakers, his credentials or his gravitas.
He is part of that half of the cabinet of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, re-elected in a landslide this year with 61 per cent of the vote, comprising impressive technocrats. The other half consists of professional politicians, of more variable quality, some choices considered eccentric.
Natalegawa, 46, was groomed by Hassan, 61, also a professional diplomat and foreign minister for eight years, to succeed him.
Tim Lindsey, director of the Asian Law Centre at the University of Melbourne and a leading Indonesia expert, says Hassan – who helped shape the transition from former president Suharto’s New Order autocracy – “reinvented Indonesia internationally as a proponent of democracy and human rights”.
He says Hassan was “very hard on Burma, pushing the rest of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries back into line about the regime there”. Indonesia began implementing UN covenants, including on human rights, more meticulously than many other countries, Lindsey says. “Indonesia shifted from being an outsider internationally to an insider.”
The country’s diplomacy changed from “the sometimes strident, defensive approach under Suharto” to a more careful and collegiate tone.
Steering Indonesia’s position, as the world’s most populous Muslim nation and also a country that prizes its strong relationships with the West, on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a particular success for Hassan, Lindsey says.
Natalegawa has played a key role in this meticulous transformation of Indonesian foreign policy and can be expected to maintain continuity. But there are, as ever in international affairs, fresh challenges.
Chris Manning, one of the ANU’s leading Indonesia scholars, says developing Indonesia’s role in the Group of 20 will probably top Natalegawa’s initial agenda as that grouping takes centre stage in world summitry. “He’s certainly articulate, thoughtful and a forceful champion of Indonesia’s interests. Not a shrinking violet,” Manning says.
“Bilateral relations can be tricky in South-East Asia despite the umbrella of ASEAN, especially for Indonesia with its neighbour Malaysia,” Manning says.
The Afghan conflict is likely to remain a complex challenge for years to come, for Indonesia as for Australia, as is the continuing surge of refugees from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Natalegawa has already ruled out military participation in Afghanistan, even though the troops are operating with UN Security Council authorisation. He says Indonesia will contribute only to a formal UN peacekeeping mission.
Natalegawa has had substantial experience of dealing with ASEAN, whose headquarters is in Jakarta, as a former director-general for ASEAN co-operation at the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Asked earlier this week by the Bangkok Post whether Indonesia might become “so obsessed with its grand agenda”, including the G20, that “ASEAN could be belittled”, he responded: “We don’t see it as a zero-sum game. Our diplomacy is able enough to do these multipronged efforts. For us, ASEAN is not an option, it’s a fact of life.”
Natalegawa comes from the Sunda ethnic group of about 30 million people who live in west Java. He was born there, in Bandung, and is the youngest son of a former director of a state-owned bank. He attended high school in Britain before graduating from LSE and Cambridge. At 23 he started work at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Jakarta, where his prodigious abilities were noticed at senior levels. He is married to Sranya Bamrungphong, who comes from Thailand, and they have three children.
He became ambassador to Britain before turning 40, then permanent representative to the UN in New York, from where Yudhoyono brought him back, with Hassan’s strong support, to become Foreign Minister in the first cabinet, of 37 ministers, of the government’s new five-year term. Now he is re-familiarising himself with the dynamics of the department, having been away from head office for almost seven years.
Ikrar Nusa Bhakti, a foreign relations analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, says crafting foreign policy is not enough, that dealing with the politics inside the Indonesian bureaucracy will also comprise a constant challenge for Natalegawa.
His challenges in Britain included chasing down E36 million ($58m) allegedly hidden in a tax-minimising Channel Islands account by Tommy Suharto, son of the former Indonesian autocrat.
In early remarks, Natalegawa has partly focused on improving his own department’s standards, explaining: “It is important for diplomats to improve their skills, knowledge and integrity.” He also highlights the need “to determine the role Indonesia will play in the G20 and the climate change summit in Copenhagen in December”.
Yudhoyono has already set Natalegawa an apparently impossibly tough goal to create for Indonesia “a million friends and zero enemies”. But Bantarto Bandoro, a researcher at the Indonesian Institute for Strategic Studies, says he is confident Natalegawa will succeed in developing Hassan’s “message to the world community, that democracy, Islam and modernity will coexist peacefully in Indonesia”.
And Natalegawa said this week, echoing those words: “We pride ourselves on our capacity to build bridges.”
Messages that neighbours such as Australia like to hear.
Rowan Callick is Asia-Pacific editor.
Thanks Ed for sharing this!
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