Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin: A path to diplomacy

Indonesian politicians thought the United States dropped a bombshell when President Barack Obama revealed a plan to station 2,500 marines i...

Indonesian politicians thought the United States dropped a bombshell when President Barack Obama revealed a plan to station 2,500 marines in the Australian city of Darwin just ahead of the US president’s visit to Bali in November of last year. 

But, more than three months later, who among politicians or the general public here are keen on keeping the controversy alive? Not even a single ultranationalist politician has bothered to raise the issue and make it a cause. Why?

The first possibility is that nobody cares about the issue now that domestic political wrangling has trumped the rotation of US marines to the Australian Army’s Robertson Barracks, which many Indonesian politicians considered a threat to Indonesia’s sovereignty back in November. The second explanation is rapprochement between the two countries as a result of diplomatic exercises.

To a certain extent, so-called military diplomacy did help appease the hostile reception to the US move, with Deputy Defense Minister Lt. Gen. (ret) Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin avidly promoting defense cooperation between Indonesia and the world.

“Military diplomacy takes shape in person-to-person contact between [military] professionals that serves to ease political tension between their countries,” Sjafrie said of the skill the Indonesian Military (TNI) needs to master to help advance world peace, which is one of the ultimate aims of Indonesian diplomacy.

Sjafrie said he had personally spoken with top Australian military officers, with whom he attended a joint military training when they were young officers, concerning the Darwin issue.

“I suggested that they open the marine base to the media as the vanguard of the public interest so that nothing is hidden. If they say the US marines will be deployed for a variety of contingencies, including disaster relief, prove it. And they agreed. We shared a common understanding about transparency,” Sjafrie recalled.

Building close ties with counterparts from other countries is open to TNI officers, as Indonesia frequently holds bilateral or multilateral exercises or trainings. The TNI has also allowed officers from neighboring countries to attend its command and school and vice versa, not to mention various courses to improve military professionalism.

Being the top Military Academy graduate in 1974, Sjafrie took courses in the US and Australia en route to an illustrious career that saw him appointed an adjutant to then-President Soeharto and the Jakarta military commander just before tumultuous regime change.

His acquaintance with defense policymakers across the world boosts the country’s bilateral military cooperation and oftentimes beyond, as evinced when diplomatic ties between Indonesia and Saudi Arabia were put to the test following the execution of Indonesian migrant worker Ruyati in June of last year. Against the backdrop of public anger with the Saudi government, Sjafrie helped communicate complex problems facing Indonesian migrant workers with Riyadh.

A few months prior to the execution, Sjafrie visited Saudi Arabia for a defense cooperation talk with his Saudi counterpart Prince Khalid bin Sultan. Joining the trip was Army Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad) chief Lt. Gen. Pramono Edhie Wibowo, now the Army chief of staff.

It was a memorable visit for Sjafrie, as the Saudi royal family provided him and Pramono unprecedented treatment, including a private jet that took them to Mecca where they performed a minor haj pilgrimage.

“I befriend many military and defense officials. The friendship among professionals will remain even if our diplomatic ties worsen, until a political decision is made,” he says. 

When it comes to diplomatic ties between Indonesia and its major partner the US, Sjafrie looks like a pebble in the shoe in the eyes of politicians there. 

The US government denied him a visa despite the fact that Sjafrie, who was then the Defense Ministry’s secretary-general, was on the list of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s entourage for a trip to Pittsburgh to take part in the G-20 summit in September 2009. The visa refusal was reportedly due to Sjafrie’s links to past atrocities in East Timor and Jakarta. 

Until he met visiting Pentagon officials during a seminar involving Indonesian and US defense authorities in early February, Sjafrie’s place on Washington’s blacklist remained unchanged.

But, Sjafrie says he is unperturbed by the treatment. The visa situation did not affect his responsibilities facilitating major international events that saw US presence, such as the ASEAN defense summit and its preceding official meetings last year.

“We have no problems with the US. It is them who have problems,” Sjafrie said recently as he was preparing for the Jakarta International Defense Dialogue scheduled for March 21. Former US president Bill Clinton, US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper are among the major attendants at the event, as well as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Indeed, in the early years of reformasi, Sjafrie was infamous for his alleged role in a number of human rights violations that contributed to Washington’s decision to halt military cooperation with Jakarta. Sjafrie, however, has never been charged with serious crimes in spite of persistent campaigns by human rights groups that he be tried.

The rights groups were also at the forefront in advancing public opposition to Sjafrie’s postings in either the military or the government. Like it or not, however, Sjafrie is among a few “public enemies” who survived four different governments since the fall of the New Order in 1998.

His informal, if not personal, attachment to the media is perhaps key to his survival. Apart from a few after-work media gatherings, Sjafrie frequently invited a pool of journalists just to chit-chat, which always lasted late into the night.

That Sjafrie has won the respect of the press despite his controversy-filled track record has been a long, even painful, fight. A journalist recalled how Sjafrie expressed a grudge through his aide with the media clamor in response to his appointment as the Defense Ministry secretary-general in 2005. “He felt like he was stabbed in the back,” the journalist said.

If Sjafrie has managed to put the media’s torments behind him, it was because of the mature diplomacy he put into play.

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