Christmas in Indonesia

FROM A DISTANCE - Carmen N. Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - December 15, 2019 - 12:00am

My family and I will be celebrating Christmas in a predominantly Muslim country to visit my “cousins” the Indonesians. I looked forward to meeting B.J. Habibie whom I interviewed as Asia editor of FIRST Magazine

I remember as I walked in to his office with a greeting I cannot forget. Hello, pinsan what can I do for you.

How could he be my pinsan when he is Indonesian and I am Filipino?

The interview touched on many things especially on making airplanes. But it was the greeting of pinsan that struck me and vowed to learn more about. How and why did we became pinsan with Indonesians? Habibie, the Indonesian leader, treasured the relations between Indonesians and Filipinos.

The relations between the two countries have a deeper meaning which I promised to look into. As Asia correspondent Richard C. Paddock wrote recently.

“Mr. Habibie was working for the aerospace manufacturer Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm in Germany in 1974 when Suharto persuaded him to return to Indonesia and develop the country’s technology.

He held several posts before Suharto named him to his cabinet as minister of research and technology in 1978. Twenty years later, he appointed him vice president and his successor.

Habibie called the first free elections in a generation, released political prisoners, protected freedom of the press and women’s rights, reduced the role of the military in politics, and moved to decentralize the government.

More importantly he  paved the way for the province of East Timor, an island that was once a Portuguese colony, to become independent. The move was highly unpopular with Indonesians who did not want to see their country lose territory,” writes Paddock.

That was the conversation I had with Habibie during the interview. I left immediately for London but not before he assembled the group of technicians he was taking with him to Germany that day.

In rolling back the Suharto dictatorship, Mr. Habibie freed the East Timor independence leader, Xanana Gusmao, who had served seven years in prison. Mr. Gusmao became East Timor’s first president in 2002 and later its prime minister for seven years.

What is this man made of who would enter politics to make Indonesia a maker of airplanes. Bacharudin Jusuf Habibie was born on June 25, 1936, on the island of Sulawesi in Eastern Indonesia. He went to Europe in 1955 to attend university and spent most of the next two decades earning a degree in engineering and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering in Germany and working in the aeronautics industry there.

Our trip in 2019 would be different from the a trip to interview Habibie. I did discover or more accurately rediscovered – Indonesia – that although miles away was like finding a long lost relative.

It happened because I met up with a good friend who was eager to chat me up on the election of Joko Widodo. Did I know Joko Widodo? Did I know that he won the elections in Indonesia after a last two-minute election brawl with the establishment figure, Prabowo Subianto, a former military general.  No, was my embarrassed answer.

He had taken for granted that I would know the Philippines being so close to Indonesia, historically and geographically. He had looked forward to hearing my views.

I remember that as a young newspaper reporter, the regional concept of Maphilindo was at the center of the region’s politics during the time of the late President Diosdado Macapagal in 1963.

But its historical basis has deeper and longer roots. How many know for example that the dream was first articulated by Dr. Jose Rizal? To him it was a dream to unite the Malay peoples who were divided by colonial frontiers.

But it was not until Diosdado Macapagal became president that he convened a summit in Manila for the three countries to sign agreements to make it a reality.

The region was plagued by border controversies over the former British colonies of North Borneo and Sarawak joining Malaysia. The Malay people or what Mahathir had also referred to once when speaking to Filipinos that we were all Bangsa Moro faced with insurmountable difficulties from colonial history. It is that but the concept that we must revive as a possibility in the minds of the peoples of the three nations of Malay origins.

Had we continued on this path of a tightly knit combination of our three countries, the fortunes of the Philippines would have been different – Malaya, Philippines and Indonesia, after all, came from the same stock of people, intrepid seafarers with skin browned by the sun for constant sailing, trading and more importantly, intermarrying and settling as if it were one country made  up of archipelagos with the sea as the unifying factor.

But the dream faded with the onset of Western imperialism to the point that we became strangers to each other.  We will have to relearn and relive that past.

In its place came Asean but circumstances frustrated Rizal’s dream. This would be a lengthy discourse and this column would not be the time or place to go through these.  At least for now.

The Asean regional unity sidelined the burgeoning Maphilindo ties. With the turn of events, the Philippines became isolated. Although a member of Asean, its influence was diluted with the impression that we were closer to American patronage than we were to our indigenous neighbors and their cultures. We may be loath to admit it but we are not considered as influential in mainstream Asean.

To get back the influence we had in Maphilindo, we can begin by working on our  pinsan relations with Indonesia as Minister Habibie called it. “Your are Filipino. Filipinos and Indonesians are long lost cousins.”

But seriously, a closer Indonesian-Philippine relation would be the key to getting back into mainstream Asean policymaking and decisions.

It is time that we resurrect the Maphilindo spirit, however impossible it may seem, because of the British-inspired creation of Malaysia with whom we have intractable problems on the Sabah claim. That can be laid aside for the time being but we can definitely strengthen our ties with Indonesia. I begin by spending my Christmas in Bali, Indonesia rather than going Paris or New York.


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