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Competitiveness Affects Indonesia Ties

27 June 2023

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By Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Senior Communications Advisor: Just two years ago, Thailand and Indonesia commemorated the 70th anniversary of relations, with both sides holding events to celebrate. Over the year, they mapped out various plans that would boost bilateral ties with the aim of establishing and hastening a "strategic partnership". These included strengthening political and economic relations, investment, as well as people-to-people exchanges. In particular, both countries would establish "High-Level Committees" in their law enforcement agencies, including the police and military, to counter common challenges such as narcotics, human trafficking and call centre scams. Then a month later came the Myanmar quagmire.

The dynamics of Thai-Indonesian ties changed drastically after the Myanmar military seized power on Feb 1, 2021. The full bloom of democracy that spanned a decade -- from 2011 to 2021 -- was upended. Indonesia, as the world's third-largest democracy, stood up and suddenly became the most outspoken ASEAN member against the Myanmar military regime in a move that resonated both in the region and around the world. Meanwhile, Thailand has been portrayed as a supporter of the Nay Pyi Taw junta. Bangkok's mild manner and discreet diplomacy have been harshly criticised by various sectors as a result.

It should not surprise any avid ASEAN watchers that sooner or later, the different perceptions and approaches towards regional issues between Indonesia and Thailand would resurface. As widely reported by the media, the recent Pattaya meeting is an object of a lesson. The two countries have the same objective of finding a solution to the Myanmar crisis that would fulfil the aspirations of Myanmar's people. But they were different in their approaches.

It is not the first time, either. More than other ASEAN members, Indonesia and Thailand have closely collaborated, engaged or even enraged each other since the Bandung Conference in 1955. Thailand took part in the historical meeting to show solidarity with newly independent nations and chart a pathway for a non-aligned future. However, with developments near home, Thailand decided to take a different tack and align with the West, while Indonesia remained fiercely non-aligned.

As leading members of ASEAN, Jakarta and Bangkok have contributed greatly, in their own ways, to the strengthening of ASEAN solidarity. For instance, their joint experience, as well as with other ASEAN and international colleagues in ushering in a new era in Timor Leste and Cambodia, was something both countries were very proud of. These achievements have earned the bloc worldwide respect and recognition. Without their initiatives and action, ASEAN's political fabric would be different from what it is today.

During the years of the Cambodian conflict, Indonesia was not satisfied with the way ASEAN conducted its policy towards Indochinese countries and sought to alter it. Jakarta tried to find innovative ways, such as a "Cocktail Party", to end the turbulence. Indonesia was concerned because the conflict impacted regional and international conditions. It succeeded in getting all the rival parties to agree to meet at the "Jakarta Informal Meeting" in Bandung in 1988–89. The so-called JIM process contributed to the peace process that ended the Cambodian conflict in 1991. ASEAN members lauded Jakarta's diplomatic efforts and success.

In a similar vein, back in 2019, through the joint efforts of Indonesia and the Thai chair, the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific was brought back to life and subsequently supported by ASEAN. AOIP has now served as the guideline for dialogue partners and others to forge cooperation with ASEAN under various Indo-Pacific frameworks. At the upcoming summit in September in Jakarta, there will be a flagship event, the ASEAN Indo-Pacific Forum, to highlight the AOIP.

The Myanmar crisis this time is no exception. From 1988 to 2011, ASEAN pursued its own constructive engagement with Myanmar, much to the chagrin of Western allies and friends. Their responses and sanctions against Myanmar at that time were harsh and longstanding. But they did not work very well as the UN did not impose any sanctions directly. ASEAN continued to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Myanmar.

Thailand's engagement with the previous Myanmar military regime was similar to the current modus operandi, with the exception of the Surayud Chulanont administration (2006–2008), which adopted a tougher stance. It must also be noted here that Cyclone Nargis in 2008 allowed Myanmar to experience firsthand an outpouring of international aid and cooperation. Myanmar was overwhelmed by an influx of foreign aid workers, so much so that local authorities were concerned about their behaviour. The Cyclone Nargis experience was a double-edged sword: while the foreign aid workers provided help, some of them created mistrust among local people. When Cyclone Mocha hit Rakhine last month, Nay Pyi Taw was reluctant to receive foreign assistance, which attracted criticism all around. This week, Nay Pyi Taw has begun to register international non-government organisations which want to come in and provide humanitarian assistance.

For the first two years after the coup, the role of ASEAN and its special envoy was limited. Both Brunei Darussalam and Cambodia tried their best to implement ASEAN's five-point consensus but made little progress. Thailand, which shares a 2,400-plus kilometre porous border with Myanmar, has been helping ASEAN to maintain channels of communication as the Myanmar leaders have been banned from ASEAN-related meetings. Indeed, Bangkok has already organised four bilateral meetings with Myanmar over the past two years with participation from some ASEAN members, China, and Japan, as well as neighbouring countries that share borders like Bangladesh and India. When Indonesia took over as the ASEAN chair, Jakarta decided to do things differently on its own, setting up the Office of the ASEAN Special Envoy rather than just appointing an envoy. The chair said it would pursue quiet diplomacy and would hold dialogue with all stakeholders, in particular with Myanmar's National Unity Government.

At the upcoming ASEAN annual meeting, bloc ministers will be able to exchange information and put together what they have in order to come up with a new decision. Truth be told, at the 42nd summit in Bajo Labuan last month, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai held informal discussions with Lao Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith, Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and Brunei Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof on the Myanmar issue. They agreed that re-engagement with Myanmar was imperative. To maintain the momentum, Bangkok agreed to host the Pattaya meeting after learning that Vientiane was unable to convene the third round of the 1.5 track meetings.

Apparently, ASEAN members have different views concerning the situation in Myanmar at this juncture. As in the past, ASEAN members always helped each other and complemented each other's efforts to find a workable solution. The ASEAN success in Timor Leste and the first Myanmar crisis were testimony to ASEAN's resilience and capacity to resolve regional crises.

Concerning Thai-Indonesian ties, it must be said that under the leadership of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, it has not been as good as it should be. Jokowi become a new icon of democracy in Southeast Asia when he was elected president in 2014, while the same year, Gen Prayut launched a coup that ousted a civilian-elected government. It was an unfortunate coincidence that has impacted their personal relationship and subsequently their countries' bilateral relations, not to mention the Myanmar crisis.

It is noteworthy that Jokowi -- despite attending regional meetings in Bangkok a few times -- never made an official state visit to Thailand during his eight-year tenure -- the only ASEAN leader who has not done so, with the exception of the leader of the Philippines, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr, who just got elected last year.

Moreover, Thailand, as the chair of Apec 2022, was not invited to take part in the G20 meeting in Bali. Worse still, Jokowi has never given an interview to the Thai media. The Presidential Office has already assigned a public relations company to contact a vernacular language press outlet in Bangkok for a possible one-on-one interview in Jakarta soon before Jokowi leaves his position early next year. It needs to be said that former Indonesian presidents Abdurrahman Wahid, BJ Habibie, and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono were all accessible to the Thai media.

Lest we forget, Thailand was indebted to Indonesia as a young King Rama V visited Java in 1871, one of the first two countries for lessons and experiences accumulated through travel, and stayed abroad to know more about the art of governance as well as to observe how colonisers rule. The young monarch at that time presented a bronze elephant statue to Indonesia as a gift. One precious lesson that he learned was that in order for Siam to stay independent, it must be able to maintain dialogue with all colonial powers to create counterweights against those seeking to take advantage of the country. That tradition continues today.

Fast forward to the present day. Thailand has healthy trade and investment ties with Indonesia. Indonesia is Thailand's third-largest trading partner after Malaysia and Vietnam. Thai food and products are popular in Indonesia. Major Thai conglomerates, such as Mitr Phol, Charoen Pokphand, Central Group and PTT, have invested a total of US$210 million (7.3 billion baht) in energy, agriculture, retail and poultry. So far, Thailand has enjoyed a trade surplus over Indonesia. One of the urgent bilateral challenges has been the issue of illegal fishing, which both countries are trying to solve. Both countries share a maritime boundary of more than 10,000 nautical miles. Indeed, Bangkok and Jakarta are currently working on a joint agreement on Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing to promote sustainable fishing in the region. Regardless of all differences, the unique engagement that reflects the independent spirits of Bangkok and Jakarta will continue to add diversity and development of ASEAN in the long run.

This opinion piece was written by ERIA's Senior Communications Advisor, Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, and has been published in Bangkok Post. Click here to subscribe to the monthly newsletter.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are purely those of the authors and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

(Photo credit: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

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