Except for the 1960s when the Vietnam War occured, Southeast Asia has rarely been in the U.S strategic radar. The November/December 2005 edition of Foreign Policy (FP) magazine informs me about how U.S strategic experts view the strategic importance of Southeast Asia. FP asked a number of U.S scholars who specialize in international relations and strategic studies: what is the most important region to the United States today? More than 50 percent points to the Middle East and North Africa. Only 0.2 percent thinks that Southeast Asia is the most important region to the U.S strategic interest. Further, only one percent thinks that Southeast Asia will be of the greatest U.S strategic importance 20 years from now, while 60 percent believes that East Asia (of course because of the China factor) will be the most important region by that time.
Southeast Asia, and hence Indonesia, is not that important, strategically speaking. Yet, we tend to speak high about ourselves. We can easily recall a rhetoric written in the high school text books that ‘ Indonesia occupies a very strategic position since it is located between two continents and two great oceans’. Also we remember very well the famous ‘bukan lautan, hanya kolam susu….tongkat kayu dan batu jadi tanaman’ lyric of a Koes Ploes’ song (with all due respect to Koes Ploes and many great songs they have created).
Only recently we fully understand that actually our country is situated right on the spot of the so-called ‘ring of fire’. It makes us vulnerable to almost all kinds of natural disaster. Earthquake, tsunami and do not forget that our part of the world also has the largest number of active volcanoes that can cause devastating impact once they erupt.
Within the period of less than five years, we have been experiencing many kinds of natural disaster: tsunami in Aceh and North Sumatera, big earthquakes in Nabire, Lampung, Nias, and recently Jogja. Since last week, several areas in the South Sulawesi province have been covered with water, flooded. More than two hundreds died. Add the worrying avian flu to complicate the unfortunate situations we are currently facing.
We all know that men can also cause disasters. A number of man-made disasters that occurred in our beloved country are still fresh in our mind. Who has forgotten the bloody conflicts between the Malays, Dayak and the Madurese in Sambas and Sampit between the period of 1997 and 1999? The devastating conflicts between Muslims and Christians in the Maluku province, and also in Poso, have taken the lives of thousands of people, and have not been fully resolved. Indonesia is the country with the largest number of IDPs (internally displaced persons) in this entire planet. According to UNHCR, we have more than one million IDPs (either caused by natural or man-made disasters). It is so sad to be a refugee within your own country for whatever reason. These conflicts have created wounds on our inter-ethnic and -religious relations, which surely will take a long time for us to heal.
Again, we still think that we are a very important nation. We may still hear some people continuously talk about ‘international conspiracy to tear Indonesia apart’. These people simply forget, or just too blind to see (or choose to ignore?), that the international community has been helping us in dealing with those natural and man-made disasters. In Maluku, Poso, Aceh, Nias, Jogja, and Nabire, various countries and international agencies have offered their hands and, as a matter of fact, have been well received by us.
In its modern sense, strategic leverage is not drawn from something given like the geographic location. A tiny country can be powerful, while a country with enormous physical size like ours can be very weak. The sources of strategic influence nowadays are coming more from things that can be smartly constructed or developed, such as human and intellectual resources or economic competitiveness. Having said all that, I believe the source of our many weaknesses is not the ‘international conspiracy’, which is a very vague notion. The source is from within. Our mindset. Do nothing to change such a mindset is a recipe for further disaster.