Works for the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s policy analysis and development division
Borobudur is known for a lot of things, but holding a secret to Indonesia’s maritime adventures in the past is probably not one of them.
Philip Beale, from the UK, visited the Buddhist temple in 1982 and saw a carved stone relief of a ship with two outriggings, which he believed to be the proof of voyages across the Indian Ocean.
He was so convinced that 20 years later he initiated the construction of the ship’s replica, named Samudra Raksa (guardian of the ocean), and sailed with it in a seven-month expedition from Indonesia to Ghana to show that the ancient voyage using the ship was indeed possible.
The finding further reaffirms Indonesia’s maritime identity and its presence in the Indian Ocean, but more than that it also reinforces the notion that since immemorial times the Indian Ocean has always been a bridge that connects people across kingdoms and even continents.
Other oceans do that too, but the Indian Ocean’s history is somewhat exceptional. It has enabled relatively benign cross-border relations, and that is partly attributed to the fact that the relations were people driven.
Indonesia is a perfect example. Its immensely rich identity is shaped by external influences but it did not occur with the use of force. Our religious traditions from Hinduism to Islam were not imposed by malevolent invasion from kingdoms or sultanates outside the archipelago.
They were brought by traders, monks, scholars and ulema. While the ancient kings did have ties, it is clear that the people were the driving force behind the dynamic relations in the region.
Reflecting from that history, one of the most pivotal tasks for IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) is to nurture that people-to-people connectivity and to eventually make its cooperation more people driven.
That is essential for IORA to truly thrive. IORA members already enjoy solid political and official relations, they manage to stave off conflicts and they do an excellent job in maintaining regional peace and stability.
In order to elevate it to the next height, IORA needs to engage the people more, so that they can take part, own and advocate for a more vibrant IORA. If the people believe that a stronger IORA is in their interests, then they will encourage or even put pressure on their own government to pave the way for a stronger IORA.
Regrettably too many people in the region, including Indonesia, are in complete darkness as to what IORA does for them or even what IORA is. The fact of the matter is, IORA has made important headways in this area.
Some of IORA’s priorities are aimed to strengthening people-to-people connectivity such as in academic, scientific and technological cooperation. Most importantly IORA has also established platforms for non-governmental parties including the IORA Academic Group and IORA Business Forum, which are commendable steps in the right direction.
Notwithstanding IORA’s hard work, the severely lacking awareness toward IORA among the people means much more needs to be done.
As the current chair of IORA, Indonesia also seeks to promote the people-to-people connectivity. Indonesia is known for its efforts to consolidate the IORA institution such as through the formulation of the IORA Concord and the plan to convene the IORA summit next year. Aside from that, engaging the people is also an integral element of Indonesia’s IORA chairmanship.
This among others manifests through the convening of an international symposium under the theme of “20th Anniversary of IORA: Learning from the Past and Charting the Future” now being held in Yogyakarta.
The symposium is an important initiative; it engages various stakeholders that include the private sector, scholars and officials both from IORA member states as well as dialogue partners.
The symposium provides a rare opportunity to various stakeholders to get their voices heard in helping IORA chart its future direction.
Some often criticizes IORA for being ineffective and lackluster. The symposium is their time to share their ideas on how to turn it around.
The outcome documents will also be disseminated to IORA officials, so that it will contribute to their deliberation in strengthening the association. The Indian Ocean is an incredibly strategic waterway as it carries half of world’s container ships and two thirds of the world’s oil shipments.
Furthermore, the Indian Ocean region also host a third of the global population. With its paramount importance, it is perplexing to witness how regionalism across the Indian Ocean still lags behind its peers in other oceans such as the Pacific.
Engaging the people and making IORA more people driven is one of the keys to help the association live up to its tremendous potential.
Indonesia is determined to work together with other IORA members and dialogue partners to enable the people taking part in the journey of IORA, owning its process and cultivating their sense of belonging to IORA. If the spirit of IORA goes beyond conference halls and become the household name among the people, then the people will finally be the engine that propels regional partnership forward, just like they once were.
The writer works for the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s policy analysis and development division, which hosted the IORA symposium from Sept. 13 to 14 in Yogyakarta.
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