Home The Washington Diplomat November 2011

Indonesia’s Ambassador Embodies Ambitions of His Emerging Nation

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The business cards of most ambassadors in Washington generally contain the bare, boring minimum: name, title and phone number, and usually an email address or two.

Dino Patti Djalal's card is almost a case of TMI — too much information.

The entire front consists of a color photo of Jakarta's envoy to the United States standing against a stylized red-and-white Indonesian flag; the back is embossed with a gold map showing the largest of Indonesia's 17,508 islands. The fancy little card then opens up to reveal not only Djalal's cell phone number, fax, email addresses, website and Twitter account — but also a bulleted list of highlights about the country he represents: Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation and its third largest democracy, it's the leading economic power of Southeast Asia, it contains 30 percent of the world's tropical rainforest, and it's a member of the G-20 as well as a founding member of ASEAN and the Non-Aligned Movement.

One gets the feeling that Djalal would have crammed even more on his business card, if only there were room.

Thankfully, he'll get plenty of opportunities to talk up his beloved Indonesia later this month when, as president of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, it hosts the 19th ASEAN Summit as well as the Sixth East Asia Summit. That latter event, set for Nov. 17-19 in Bali, will be attended by President Barack Obama, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the heads of state of Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, as well as those of the 10 nations that comprise ASEAN.

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Photo: Embassy of Indonesia
Indonesia's ambassador to the
United States Dino Patti Djalal

Djalal is justifiably proud that the global spotlight will finally shine on Indonesia, a country of 235 million people that up until just 1999 was a typical Asian dictatorship.

"We used to be called part of the Third World, and we never liked that," said the 46-year-old ambassador, who first came to Washington as a teenager in 1979, when his father, Hasjim Djalal, was the embassy's deputy chief of mission. "Today, we are a confident, emerging economy. Our democracy is strong, our civil society is vibrant, and on a microeconomic level, things are also looking good. We're a member of the G-20, so that puts us on the global stage. We don't see ourselves as just a regional power, but also as a global player."

Djalal spoke to us for nearly an hour at his secluded residence on Tilden Street. As the ambassador discussed Indonesian history and the country's transition to democracy, his 5-year-old son Keanu clamored for attention. Djalal (who with his glamorous wife Rosa, a dentist, also has two daughters, Alexa and Chloe) sent the little boy on an urgent mission to find paper and colored pencils.

"I've always believed that the Indonesian ambassador to the U.S. has to understand the American mindset," he told The Diplomat. "Having lived here, I understand Americans well."

Born in Belgrade, capital of what was then Yugoslavia, Djalal learned all about life in the United States while attending McLean High School in suburban Fairfax, Va. He graduated in 1981 at the age of 15, and got on-the-job training in his first official embassy function: dishwasher.

When Djalal's father later became ambassador to Canada, the younger Djalal stayed behind to attend Queensborough College while living with an American family (his roommate, Mike Carlo, went on to become a New York City firefighter who died trying to save lives during 9/11).

Djalal then obtained his bachelor's degree from Carleton University and his master's in political science from Simon Fraser University, both in Canada. In 2000, he received a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, with a thesis on preventive diplomacy.

He joined Indonesia's Department of Foreign Affairs in 1987 and was posted to Dili, London and Washington before being named to head the North American unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he served from 2002 to 2004. In October 2004, he became the spokesman for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono — a position he held right up to his current appointment as ambassador in September 2010.

"My father trained me to be a diplomat, so I get on very easily with other cultures," Djalal told us. "Nothing really surprises me anymore."

The ambassador, who's written five books including a bestseller on leadership that became a TV show, says his job is helped by the fact that "Indonesia is an easy sell in Washington." That's the result of profound changes in the bilateral relationship in the last 20 years — but especially in the nearly three years since Obama's inauguration.

"Before, the relationship was just walking. Now it's running," Djalal said. "And it's not driven by crisis but by opportunity. A key part of that partnership is people-to-people contacts. Unlike 40 years ago, when most of the contacts were between government officials, today the contacts between our two nations are mostly between individuals through Facebook and Twitter. We've got to make sure these people-to-people contacts bring positive and mutual benefits to both sides."

It also helps that Obama spent much of the late 1960s as a boy in the upscale Jakarta suburb of Menteng. At Besuki Elementary School, the future politician learned about Islam, the religion professed by 88 percent of Indonesians. When he returned as president one year ago this month, Obama paid his respects at Istiqlal Mosque, one of the largest Islamic houses of worship in Southeast Asia.

Djalal said Obama's was the most successful visit of any foreign head of state in Indonesian history.

"His speech was televised live throughout Indonesia. Everybody stopped what they were doing to listen. And that speech was repeated over and over again. The president reminded Indonesians how we have changed since the days when he lived there, and how we should not take that change for granted," said Djalal.

"Since that visit, the image Indonesians have of the United States has rebounded significantly. Indonesia sees itself as one center of gravity within the Islamic world, economically, politically and diplomatically — even though the religious center will always be Mecca — and Indonesians like President Obama."

That goodwill toward the 44th president has translated into bonus points for Djalal, a well-known fixture on the Washington diplomatic circuit. At an after-dinner speech a year ago, the new ambassador jokingly told his guests how he'd managed to stop his little boy Keanu from blowing his runny nose on Obama's suit during a White House ceremony, thereby preventing a potentially nasty diplomatic incident.

Sniffly snafus aside, he said, "The hardest thing to do in Washington is get the president to notice your country. Every ambassador competes for that, so having a president who knows Indonesian food, culture and language, and understands what we're all about, is very important. Every time I see him, he speaks to me in Bahasa Indonesia."

Yet Djalal — who's met with Obama at least half a dozen times — says bilateral relations aren't built around personal sentiments, but rather shared ideals. That, in fact, is the basis for the strategic partnership announced in November 2010 between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa.

"Before, our relations weren't based on democracy, because Indonesia wasn't a democracy," the ambassador said. "In 1999, we had our first free elections since 1955. Before that, we had many decades of authoritarianism, so our relationship was distant and defensive, I think, on both sides. For many years, the preoccupation was on human rights issues. That's what we want to leave behind. Our comprehensive partnership is now forward looking and not based on a single issue, but on a wide range of sectors for cooperation."

One of those issues is the international struggle against terrorism — a fact driven home by the latest incident, the Sept. 25 suicide bombing of a church in Java by an Islamic fanatic with ties to two previous attacks: a 2004 blast outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta that killed 11 people, and the 2002 hotel bombings in Bali that left 202 dead, including 88 Australians and 38 Indonesians.

Recently, Indonesia's Ministry of Information and Communication announced it would close down 900 websites containing messages or images of extremist violence, though so far, only 300 such sites have actually been blocked.

"There are only a few small groups of extremists in Indonesia, but in a country of 235 million, that small group can create problems," said Djalal. "We are realistic enough to admit that perhaps we will never get rid of terrorism permanently. So we have a de-radicalization program, whereby Islamic clerics befriend the terrorists we have detained and engage them in spiritual debate. A lot of them have been manipulated to believe that violence is necessary. Some of them were trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, others in the Philippines. In fact, a week before Osama bin Laden was killed [in Abbottabad, Pakistan], an Indonesian terrorist, Umar Patek — wanted in the Bali hotel bombings — was caught in the same town."

Djalal says Indonesia categorically rejects fanatical Islam, whether it's spread by Wahabi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia or Shiite zealots in Iran.

"To restore Islam to its glory, we do not have to bring Muslims back to the 13th century. Muslims must be forward looking and must not be afraid of globalization. The problem is we've always seen Islam's glory in terms of nostalgia." Instead, Djalal says Muslims should learn from other civilizations and religions. "By sharing experiences and learning from one another, Muslims will become stronger and better. We passionately believe not in an exclusive approach but in an inclusive one."

That approach appears to be lost on the government of Saudi Arabia, which in June ordered the beheading of a 54-year-old Indonesian woman, Ruyati binti Sapubi. The maid — one of about 1.2 million Indonesian guest workers in the oil-rich Gulf kingdom — had confessed to killing her boss with a kitchen knife after suffering years of abuse and, according to officials in Jakarta, after she was denied permission to return home to her family in Indonesia (the exploitation of domestic workers is a widespread problem in Gulf states).

Indonesians were horrified by the maid's punishment. The Foreign Ministry, expressing "deep sorrow" over the beheading, ordered an immediate moratorium on sending migrant workers to Saudi Arabia, though it's unclear if the ban is still in effect. Saudi officials later apologized to their Indonesian counterparts — not for executing the woman, but for failing to inform Jakarta that it had been carried out.

"That case rallied the whole country together, because the protection of Indonesian workers abroad is a very big political issue," said Djalal, discussing the future of ties between the world's largest Muslim country and the nation where Islam was born.

"The damage is not permanent, but it did disrupt bilateral relations," he said. "The majority of our workers overseas are well-treated — we have about 2 million workers in Malaysia — but there are quite a number of cases that warrant our attention. These people are most vulnerable to abuse."

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Photo: Indonesian Ministry of Tourism
Istiqlal Mosque, one of the largest Islamic houses of worship in Southeast Asia, sits across from Jakarta Cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral completed in 1901, in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.

Djalal said that despite Indonesia's status as the world's largest predominantly Muslim country, Islamic extremism holds little appeal for his people.

"When we became independent, we did not opt for an Islamic state," he explained. "This was a pragmatic decision, because even though we're 88 percent Muslim, we have many Christians in central and eastern Indonesia and Hindus in Bali. We want Indonesia to be a home for all religions.

"What's surprised us in the last decade is how well democracy and Islam work together. There was an argument that if we became democratic, then Islamic parties would spring up and push for an Islamic state. But in fact, it's the opposite. The Islamic parties have become the strongest proponent of democracy."

Meanwhile, Indonesia has done surprisingly well on the economic front. The country's $1 trillion economy translates into annual per-capita GDP of $4,300, though today's growth doesn't come anywhere near the 545 percent explosion in per-capita GDP Indonesia enjoyed between 1970 and 1980, thanks to a sudden increase in oil exports.

Earlier this year, the Indonesian government revised its GDP growth projection downward from 6.7 percent to 6.4 percent — a growth rate the United States and European Union can only dream of these days. Corruption is still a big problem, though it's not nearly as bad as in the mid-1990s, when Transparency International named former dictator Suharto, who died in 2008, the world's most corrupt leader.

"We have a very strong domestic sector, so domestic demand is quite strong," Djalal explained. "Secondly, we've done very aggressive economic reforms since 1998. We learned our lessons from the [1997 Asian] financial crisis; that's why our banks are healthy. We've maintained a prudent fiscal policy, so our budget deficit is never more than 2 percent of GDP, and our debt-to-GDP ratio has gone down drastically, from 90 percent to 26 percent in the last 10 years."

At the same time, U.S.-Indonesia trade has grown to about $23 billion, with the United States now the number-two foreign investor in Indonesia, trailing only Singapore. But Indonesia's trade with China is about $30 billion, so there's room to grow.

There's also room to improve. The World Bank currently ranks Indonesia 121st out of 183 countries when it comes to ease of doing business. Asked recently by Forbes magazine what his government is doing to cut red tape, Djalal responded: "The time needed to start a business has been reduced significantly. Our rank in a World Economic Forum report jumped from 54 to 44 this year. The president has established a unit which tracks decisions being made, how they are implemented and whether ministries are working hard enough to reach the goals. We realize being pro-jobs means being pro-business [because] the government cannot provide all jobs — in fact, the government is very restricted in providing jobs. It has to be done by the private sector."

The world economic slowdown will be high on the agenda of the ASEAN Summit in Bali later this month, as will long-running regional tensions over the Spratly Islands, a chain of 750 barely inhabited reefs, islets and atolls that cover 425,000 square kilometers of ocean and are jointly claimed by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines. This May, Chinese naval vessels opened fire on four Vietnamese fishing boats operating off the coasts of several islands. Later that month, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III warned China's defense minister of a regional arms race if tensions worsened over the maritime disputes.

Since then, ongoing friction over the South China Sea — and fears by smaller Southeast Asian nations that Beijing is exhibiting an aggressive new posture in the region — has brought the United States back into the geostrategic fold. Washington has taken the opportunity to reassert its presence in Asian-Pacific affairs, much to China's ire.

The Asian giant prefers to settle the competing claims in bilateral discussions with the countries involved, although with skirmishes over shipping lanes and natural resources increasing, the United States — as well as nations such as the Philippines and Japan — has been leaning toward multilateral and regional settings such as ASEAN to resolve the claims.

Shortly before the ASEAN summit, China and Vietnam signed an agreement to work toward resolving the dispute, a sign that hostilities were dying down, but with the potential for vast oil and gas reserves in the 1.4 million-square-mile area, the issue is far from over.

"Oil hasn't been found in the South China Sea, but once it is, the stakes will get a lot higher, and the risks will increase. An outbreak of conflict would be destabilizing to the region," Djalal warned. "That's why we need a good code of conduct among the claimants. We need to find a way to manage potential conflicts and hopefully turn them into cooperation."

While Indonesia has no claim on the barely inhabited Spratlys, it does have continuing problems with secessionist movements from Aceh in the west to Papua in the east. The United States supports Indonesia's special autonomous status for Papua — a forested, California-size province of 2.9 million inhabitants, some of whom are demanding outright independence from Jakarta.

"I admit that this autonomous status hasn't been implemented in the most perfect way," the ambassador conceded. "There's still a lot that can be done, in terms of bureaucracy."

He added that Aceh — a special region on the northern tip of Sumatra that was ravaged in the December 2004 tsunami that killed some 170,000 Indonesians — "was where we had the strongest secessionist movement, but that was resolved peacefully, with negotiations. We still have a problem in Papua, and my government aims to address that with the same goodwill and good faith that we resolved the issue in Aceh, where the tsunami created a new opportunity for peace because everyone was desperate for peace."

It's definitely been a new dawn for Indonesia, and Djalal embodies that newfound energy. Two months into his job, the ambassador told Forbes how the Internet was helping to modernize politics back home.

"President Yudhoyono has established a P.O. box, SMS and email service where citizens can directly lodge complaints and report corruption and other things. That's a form of direct democracy," he said. "I announced I would be Indonesia's first Twitter ambassador. Now I have 23,000 followers."

Ten months later, Djalal is up to 59,417 followers (though he only follows 11 other people). On his Twitter account he calls himself a "public servant who combines realism with idealism." He also has 4,299 Facebook friends.

Ernest Z. Bower, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Southeast Asia Program, calls Djalal "an Indonesian rock star in Washington's hallowed diplomatic circle of trust."

Desi Anwar, writing in the Jakarta Globe, says she's proud that Djalal represents her country in the United States.

"It's not only because he is probably the youngest ambassador ever to fill such an important position, or because he writes eloquent speeches and is blessed with the gift of gab — those are useful tools in the world of diplomacy — but mainly because I think he and Rosa are the ideal faces to represent our country on the international stage," said Anwar, a popular TV commentator. "Modern, intelligent, open-minded and optimistic, the young couple is the embodiment of what Indonesia is, or at least should be, and I hope their presence in Washington, D.C., would reinforce America's view of this country as a modern, dynamic and moderate nation that could play a significant role in global politics that are increasingly marked by religious extremism and divisiveness."

Despite his charm, however, not everyone is enamored with Jakarta's man in Washington.

Two groups, the East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN) and the West Papua Advocacy Team (WPAT), last year urged the Obama administration to reject Djalal as Indonesia's ambassador, labeling him a "defender of the Suharto dictatorship" whose career involved him in a supposed 1999 act of repression that cost the lives of 1,500 East Timorese, displaced two-thirds of its population, and destroyed 75 percent of East Timor's infrastructure.

"While defending the Indonesian security forces in East Timor (now independent Timor-Leste), he would often attack human rights investigators and organizations," the two somewhat obscure groups claimed in a press release. "He sought to portray the violence there as civil conflict among East Timorese, rather than resulting from repression of resistance to Indonesia's illegal and brutal occupation."

ETAN and WPAT further argue that "Ambassador Djalal's past as an apologist for the worst behavior of the Indonesian military and its minions augurs poorly for international efforts, especially in the United States, to press for justice and accountability for past human rights crimes and genuine reform of Indonesia's security forces."

Yet Djalal says he counts one-time resistance leaders José Ramos-Horta and Xanana Gusmão — now the president and prime minister of Timor-Leste, respectively — as among his closest friends.

"Relations with Timor-Leste are excellent, beyond expectations, to be honest," he said. "Timor-Leste considers us the closest neighbor and partner in the region, and Indonesia is actively promoting Timor's efforts to become a member of ASEAN. In 1999, after the referendum, things were very tense. From there to where we are now, it's a tremendous leap."

Ramos-Horta, in congratulating Djalal on his appointment in Washington a year ago, noted that as a junior diplomat, his friend served in Timor-Leste with distinction and integrity back in 1999, when he publicly denounced the breakdown of law and order following the former Portuguese colony's referendum on independence.

"President Yudhoyono could not have chosen a better man to represent Indonesia in the U.S.," he said. "Dino is energetic and creative, and belongs to the new breed of young Indonesian reformers who will lead Indonesia into the future."


About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 17, 2014

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