Written by Linda Quayle.

Indonesia and the Philippines share much more than a convoluted archipelagic geography.

In the context of the community-building plans put forward by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), both have distinguished themselves by speaking out for democratic values, greater dialogue with civil society, and human rights. That reputation also means that liberal strands within both countries worry about the erosion of those credentials whenever controversial issues hit the international headlines.

Currently, however, Indonesia and the Philippines are diverging, but also converging, in interesting ways on two controversial topics that form part of ASEAN’s capacious remit. These are the protection of migrant workers’ rights, and the pursuit of a ‘drug-free’ Southeast Asia.

Protecting Migrant Workers

Indonesia and the Philippines, as ‘sending’ countries, have both loudly championed the rights of migrant workers, and pushed for the long-overdue translation of ASEAN’s 2007 Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers into the more demanding ‘instrument’ envisaged in its Paragraph 22.

Recently, however, a gap seems to have opened up between their positions.

As of May 2016, the Philippine Information Agency (PIA) announced that the ‘instrument’ was 85 percent complete, projecting a finalization date of April 2017 at the latest, and noting that ‘the Philippines has expressed a level of openness to a non-legally binding instrument’, providing certain conditions were met.

In September 2016, an article on migrant workers in the Indonesian Foreign Ministry’s magazine ASEAN Community pointed out: ‘Indonesia’s position is in line with the Philippines, but because of pressure from the domestic public, the Philippines is inclined to compromise by supporting a non-legally binding instrument.’  At a meeting of labour officials in September 2016, the article goes on, Indonesia signalled no willingness to compromise on its three core demands (legally binding character, inclusion of migrants’ families, and coverage for undocumented workers). It concludes: ‘For Indonesia, it would be better for ASEAN to have no document rather than produce a document that does not provide comprehensive protection for Indonesian workers.’

The ASEAN Summit and associated meetings in April 2017 would have offered the perfect venue for a big announcement on migrant workers. Indeed, a spokesperson for the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs was quoted as predicting precisely this. However, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, reportedly denied this, on the grounds that the ‘binding’ aspects of the deal had still not been agreed. ‘We want other Southeast Asian countries to realize that the weak should be given the greatest protection,’ she was quoted as saying, adding, ‘If we talk about the benefits of ASEAN for the community, then the issue of labour is the biggest part. It is protection for them that Indonesia is striving for.’

No agreement has yet been forthcoming, and Indonesia is no doubt asking itself some difficult questions.

The ‘Indonesia alone‘ theme might secure the moral high ground and ensure temporary domestic approval. But the Foreign Ministry’s director general for ASEAN affairs also noted that ‘Indonesia would need to rethink its strategy on pursuing an enforceable instrument’.

In June the PIA quoted a Filipina official as saying ‘a key document’ on migrant workers was ‘set for endorsement’. Time will tell whether this optimism will again prove to be premature, and if not, how the political repercussions of compromise will be handled by ASEAN’s member states.

Dealing With Narcotics

This second topic shows not so much a divergence between the countries but an internal divergence within both countries.

ASEAN’s concern about drugs substantially predates its community ambitions, and the ASEAN Declaration of Principles to Combat the Abuse of Narcotic Drugs goes back as far as 1976. The vision of ‘a drug-free ASEAN’ was incorporated into both the first and second of the ‘Roadmaps’ (the detailed documents itemizing the steps required to reach the goals of the ASEAN Community), although clearly the original time-line – ‘a drug-free ASEAN by 2015’ – proved too ambitious.

This is the context in which Philippines President Duterte’s muscular campaign against drugs is playing out.

A brief from The Habibie Center in Jakarta argued at the end of 2016 that a new approach to drugs was needed in Southeast Asia. Nationally, policy is ‘dominated by punitive and repressive drug laws’ (with both Indonesia and the Philippines cited as examples). Regionally, the report goes on, there is a lack of clarity on ‘what a Drug-Free ASEAN looks like’. Given the increasing number of drug seizures and drug cases, the report concludes that the approach is not working at either level, and stresses the need for ‘evidence-based, humane and effective’ alternatives.

Duterte’s ‘quixotic war on drugs’ is roundly condemned in the February 2017 edition of Thinking ASEAN, a monthly publication produced by The Habibie Center in Jakarta. But opinion in Indonesia is by no means so clear cut.  In 2016, an informal poll within Indonesia showed a divided public, with some approving of Duterte, and encouraging Indonesian President Joko Widodo to imitate his style of leadership, and others seeing him as ‘a cruel figure’. The split in opinion was also confirmed by the CEO of Indonesia’s Tempo magazine, who noted that the way Indonesians feel about Duterte’s campaign ‘depends on what kind of person you are’.

Most notoriously, perhaps, the head of Indonesia’s National Narcotics Agency (BNN), Police Commissioner-General Budi Waseso, made headlines in 2016 when he described the life of an individual drug dealer as ‘insignificant‘, and advocated a Duterte-reminiscent policy of ‘not hesitating to shoot drug-dealers dead‘. The marketing of narcotics in Indonesia has reached ‘crazy’ proportions, he reportedly continued: ‘If the drug-dealer is crazy, we also must be crazy in order to face this crazy circulation of drugs.’

According to the head of public relations at the BNN, the views of ‘Buwas’ should not be understood literally.

A host of human rights defenders have also pushed back against such language, recalling the so-called ‘mysterious shootings’ of President Suharto’s New Order, and the incompatibility of any such actions with Indonesia’s post-reformasi character. A spokesperson for KontraS, for example, a group that campaigns on behalf of victims of political violence, insists: ‘For the sake of justice and legal certainty, these kinds of actions cannot be taken any more.’

Nevertheless, in February 2016, President Joko Widodo was quoted as calling for steps towards the eradication of drugs that are ‘still more tireless, still more daring, still more crazy, still more comprehensive, and carried out in an integrated fashion’. The idea of a ‘war‘ on drugs continues to have discursive currency, even necessitating, according to ‘Buwas’, the involvement of the army.

ASEAN’s Diversity

ASEAN is well known for its diversity, and when negotiations proceed at a snail’s pace, it is easy to assume that it is solely the wholly autocratic elements that are applying the brakes. A glance at the case studies highlighted here, however, illustrates that diversity separates the supposedly comparable as well as the overtly dissimilar, and divides societies as well as member states.

In this context, devising and streamlining the policies necessary to realize the various elements of ASEAN’s community-building plans, particularly in areas as politically charged as protecting migrant workers and dealing with the problem of narcotics, will continue to be an uphill battle.

Linda Quayle is a lecturer in the School of Politics, History, and International Relations at The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus. Her main research areas are ASEAN (particularly the areas covered by the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community), and Indonesia’s role in the region and the world. Image Credit: CC/ Wikimedia Commons.

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