Sunday, August 12, 2007


First published in The Jakarta Post, August 13, 2007


Alpha Amirrachman
, Contributor, Jakarta

Ali "Alex" Alatas' tenure as Indonesian Foreign Minister may have ended in 1999 after the country's brutal exit from East Timor -- an event that deeply saddened him -- but this does not mean that he has retired entirely from diplomatic activities.

Through the transitional governments that led the country from authoritarianism to democracy, Alex, who graduated in 1956 from the Faculty of Law at the University of Indonesia, continued to play important roles in helping manage diplomatic affairs.

When Alwi Shihab was appointed Foreign Minister during Abdurrahman Wahid's presidency (1999-2001), Alex was assigned as special advisor to the minister. After the collapse of Wahid's government due to his erratic style, Alex was appointed foreign affairs advisor to President Megawati Soekarnoputri.

It was during Megawati's presidency (2001-2004) that Alex was sent to Sweden to discuss with that government the activities of the now defunct Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the leaders of which resided in that country.

Since May 2001, Alex has also been a member of the Experts and Eminent Persons Group of the ASEAN Regional Forum, which has recently succeeded in inserting a human rights clause in the would-be ASEAN charter, despite opposition from Myanmar.

In 2003, Indonesia dispatched Alex to the pariah state, which has been a source of ASEAN's embarrassment, to negotiate the release of Myanmarese pro-democracy leader and Noble Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Though the obstinate junta politely refused the release of the "iron lady", they painfully assured Alex of the safety and health of this brave woman, who has galvanized democracy movements around the world.

From 2005 to 2006, Alex was a member of the UN High Level Group of the Alliance of Civilization, and was a special advisor to the UN Secretary-General in 2006.

And since March 2007, he has been chairman of the Advisory Council to the President of the Republic of Indonesia.

Born on Nov. 4, 1932, in Jakarta, Alex initially aspired to become a lawyer, but he was destined to be a diplomat. Journalism once thrilled this veteran diplomat too -- he was a journalist for the Niewsgierf daily (1952) and editor for the Aneta News Portal (1953-54).

Immediately following marriage, Alex was assigned as Secretary II in Bangkok (1956-1960), after which he held the post of Information and Cultural Relations Director at the Foreign Ministry (1965-66), then as Counselor of the Indonesian Embassy in Washington D.C. (1966-70).

Upon his return to Indonesia, he was again appointed Information and Cultural Relations Director, a post he held from 1970-72. His diplomatic star continued to rise as he was appointed Secretary of the Foreign Ministry Directorate General (1972-75), then Special Staff and Head of the Private Secretary to the Foreign Minister (1975-76).

Alex became the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Indonesia to the UN in Geneva from 1976-78, and on his return, was Secretary to the Vice President for four years. He was reassigned as Indonesia Permanent Representative from 1983-87, this time in New York.

He was finally appointed Foreign Minister for four administrative terms spanning 1987-99, under presidents Soeharto and Habibie.

His impressive career in diplomatic posts saw a string of critical events in Indonesia's road toward respectable statehood.

As the country's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, he had to tackle unrelenting international criticism regarding Indonesia's invasion of East Timor and the subsequent allegations of human rights abuses, an issue he once dubbed as a "pebble in our shoes".

Without his diplomatic skills, Indonesia's reputation might have sunk even lower, particularly following the Santa Cruz incident of Nov. 12, 1991, during which many Timorese were killed. The image of Indonesian soldiers gunning down peaceful protesters was beamed around the world, and Alex was forced to calm the fuming international community.

"Diplomacy is like playing cards. Don't show them all, but drop them one by one," he once said.

He was thus bewildered when then president Habibie, apparently without first consulting him properly, announced that Indonesia would immediately grant East Timor a referendum.

While Alex was trying hard to leave behind the "diplomatic incident" of the loss of East Timor and the ensuing calamity, he was offered the aforementioned appointments that again demanded his diplomatic expertise and skills.

And Alex has no lack in words when commenting on pressing, contemporary international issues.

"Religion has been exploited in many of the world's conflicts," he told a group of journalists on the sidelines of a public lecture held last Wednesday in Jakarta, by the Center for Dialog and Cooperation among Civilizations (CDCC).

"There have been tensions and conflicts between the faithful of three monotheistic religions -- Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Nevertheless, the root of the problem is not religion or culture, but political and economic grievances," he said.

"We live in an increasingly complex and volatile world. Our societies are still afflicted by ethnic and religious strife, by intolerance and prejudice, by misunderstanding and miscommunication and by intra-state and interstate violence," he continued.

"Polarized perceptions, fueled by injustice and inequality, have often led to conflict, threatening international peace and stability. Events of recent years have exacerbated mutual suspicion and contention, especially between Muslim and Western societies. This environment has been exploited by extremists throughout the world. There can be no doubt that this has become one of the defining issues of our times."

There should not only be persistent dialog, he stressed, but also tangible collaboration between different civilizations, such as in the area of economy.

A number of recommendations of the UN High Level Group of the Alliance of Civilization -- of which Alex is a former member -- illustrate such an approach: the development of an objective and rational white paper on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; the reinvigoration of the stalled peace process; renewed commitment to multilateralism; consistent respect for international law; avoidance of double standards; combating poverty and economic inequalities through effective and concerted measures within the framework of the Millennium Development Goals.

"Unfortunately, the recent UN Secretary-General (Ban Ki-moon) has not moved swiftly enough to heed the Alliance's recommendations," he lamented, and stressed that persistent publication of the recommendations needed to be pursued.

Alex might not be Foreign Minister any longer -- and old age is inevitably snapping at his heels -- but his highly active mind is still filled with clear ideas on how to help resolve conflicts and mitigate tensions in world politics.

His high-profile performance and established stature as a senior diplomat is a model for aspiring young diplomats who are eager to push the world's third-largest democracy in playing a more strategic role at both regional and international levels.

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