The Jakarta Post
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should not hesitate in helping the Cambodian people restore democracy despite objections and possible threats from Prime Minister Hun Sen against dissidents. Two decades ago, Indonesia was in the front line of rescuing Cambodia from a prolonged, brutal civil war. Now it is time to act as a sincere friend once again.
Hun Sen and the Cambodians surely still remember Indonesia’s pivotal role in brokering effective peace for Cambodia two decades ago. However France, as the permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), hosted the Paris Peace Conference on Cambodia at the last moment on Oct. 23, 1991.
PM Hun Sen, the world’s longest-serving prime minister and head of government, heavily owes Indonesia because of the tireless and honest efforts by then-president Soeharto and his foreign ministers, Mochtar Kusumaatmadja and then Ali Alatas, had directly or indirectly helped him become the de facto and de jure prime minister of Cambodia in 1985. Hun Sen turned himself from a leader of Vietnam’s surrogate government to one who was elected, as he claimed, through fair general elections.
Indonesia hosted many meetings to bring Cambodia’s warring parties to negotiation tables in Jakarta, Bogor in West Java and other places. The Cambodian leader likely still remembers the Jakarta Informal Meeting (JIM) I and II in 1988 and 1989, respectively, and the earlier “cocktail party”. Other countries also tried to help the Cambodian people such as Australia and Japan.
Vietnam invaded Cambodia on Dec. 25, 1978, to topple the Chinese-backed brutal Khmer Rouge regime and put Hun Sen in charge of its surrogate government in Pnom Penh. Hun Sen himself, a former Khmer Rouge officer who fled to Vietnam after internal conflict, became the enemy of the Pol Pot regime, which had butchered hundreds of thousands of people in a time often remembered as the Killing Fields.
The Paris Peace Conference was cohosted by Indonesia and France, officially ending the Cambodia-Vietnam war. To ensure the implementation of the agreement, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was established in 1992.
Right now, there is the same call for Indonesia to act as an honest peace and democracy broker for the country. President Jokowi should be firm in Indonesia’s fundamental, consistent commitment to the people of Cambodia, though he can be flexible regarding technicalities.
The self-exiled Cambodian opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, reportedly arrived in Jakarta on Thursday after staying in Kuala Lumpur for a few days, where he met with lawmakers from both the ruling and opposition parties on Tuesday. The president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party fled to France in 2017 to avoid house arrest by the government.
Another opposition figure, Mu Sochua, also accompanied Sam Rainsy in Malaysia. On Nov. 6, Cambodia’s Ambassador to Indonesia Hor Nambora failed to physically prevent Mu Sochua from addressing a press conference in Jakarta.
“As a criminal and fugitive, I will not allow her to speak and damage my government’s policy,” the ambassador insisted, but to no avail.
It would be extremely scandalous if Jokowi, as a friendly neighbor of Cambodia, bowed to its government’s threats and pressure. Hun Sen should remember that Indonesia has a proven track record of affection for his country. It is understandable that in his place, no rival or opposition would be tolerated, just like our previous authoritarian ruler. But should a more democratic Indonesia bow to such a dictator-like attitude?
The Cambodian leader, who once expressed his wish to rule his country until his death, has repeatedly warned other ASEAN leaders of the noninterference principles of the regional grouping. Less democratic members of ASEAN will always stick to this rigid principle. When we know of the massive detention of dissidents next door, just because of different political views, should we keep feigning ignorance?
Kompas daily quoted Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan as reminding ASEAN members of the noninterference rule. When asked by the newspaper’s reporter in Singapore on Wednesday over the return of Cambodia’s opposition leader, the minister cited the old mantra.
“Be careful. Each state has its own system that is different from [others],” Balakrishnan said.
Jokowi did not raise any objections when Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met with presidential contender Prabowo Subianto in Singapore on Nov. 26 last year. Prabowo was in Singapore to address The Economist's The World in 2019 Gala dinner during Indonesia’s presidential campaign period. Jokowi also met with Lee separately.
Under Soeharto’s era, such a meeting would have raised a diplomatic row. But Indonesia is now a democracy, despite its flaws. Another extreme example is the Rohingyas’ fate in Myanmar, which is no longer a domestic problem. We cannot tolerate genocidal practices against minority Muslims.
Noninterference does not mean we have no right to help neighbors in trouble. The obsolete, rigid adherence to the principle is tantamount to accepting violence and human rights abuses by our neighbors
So, should Indonesia treat Hun Sen’s enemies as our enemies, too? As long as his opponents use peaceful and orderly ways in expressing political aspirations, Indonesia, as ASEAN’s largest and most democratic member, should always seek constructive engagements to promoting democracy and basic human rights. It does not mean we are perfect.
Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi should convey to the Cambodian people, preferably in front of President Jokowi, that Indonesia is ready to offer our help once more to ensure democracy will prevail in Cambodia — while also respecting its sovereignty.