Dr. Dino Patti Djalal
The Jakarta Post – January 8, 2021
The recent controversy over the visit of a German Embassy staffer to the headquarters of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) shows what happens when a diplomatic event has a brush with domestic politics. Here is what we know. On Dec. 17, 2020, an employee of the German Embassy visited the FPI headquarters in Petamburan, Central Jakarta. Her entry into the compound and the car she arrived in, which bore a diplomatic license plate, was photographed, most likely by an intelligence officer assigned to watch the goings-on at the compound. Two days later, FPI secretary-general Munarman confirmed her visit to the media and the incident went viral. Reports began to surface that the woman in question was a member of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service (BND).
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry did not verify the speculation, only confirming that the woman was registered as a German diplomat. When the news broke, the German Embassy speedily repatriated the woman from Indonesia, either as disciplinary measure or to shield her from potential uproar. Whatever her intention, visiting the FPI headquarters was certainly poor judgment on her part. Whether a diplomat or an intelligence officer, she was, to say the least, naive and unprofessional in not considering the possibility that the FPI would capitalize on her visit to spark a political circus — which is exactly what happened. After all, the FPI was then in the middle of a huge domestic firestorm: Its leader Rizieq Shihab was engaged in a confrontation with the government and had defied numerous police summonses for questioning over his connection to mass gatherings that violated the COVID-19 protocols.
The German Embassy has issued a statement of regret and apologized for the incident. This did not, however, stop the public outcry and strong responses, or colorful conspiracy theories. In retrospect, what surprised me most is that in the midst of all the noise, no one really bothered to ask the right questions. Very few people took a step back to offer a more rational perspective. (While Padjadjaran University lecturer Arry Bainus, Kompasiana journalist Efrem Siregar and myself were among the very few who did, our voices were drowned out in the sea of protests).
Hardly anyone pointed out that it was inconceivable for the German government to support the FPI in its conflict with the Indonesian government. Hardly anyone argued that the German woman’s visit, bewildering as it was, was not part of some sinister German plot against our nation; or that while the visit to FPI headquarters was politically and diplomatically inappropriate, it was not a “violation of international law”. It takes no genius to figure out that the German government has zero interest in subverting a fellow democracy in the Indonesian government, let alone supporting a local hardline religious group. If this were the case, I am sure it would have caused a big scandal in the German Bundestag.
Germany has a long track record of cooperation with Indonesia. I also noticed that, in the emotionally charged atmosphere, hardly anyone made the crucial distinction between “seeking information” and “committing political intervention”. In the business of diplomacy as well as intelligence, it is our job to meet and talk to people of different persuasions. When I served as ambassador, I obliged all embassy staff, including intelligence officers, to develop wide-ranging relationships and extract useful information. This is not intervention. Intervention happens only if the foreigner turns a conversation into persuasion or inducement to commit political acts.
In the case of the German woman’s visit to the FPI, there was no evidence that she offered any kind of political or monetary support to the group. Perhaps what struck me the most is that hardly anyone defended Indonesian-German bilateral relations. Which is rather odd, considering that Germany is one of Indonesia’s most important partners. This is a bilateral cooperation without baggage, and with much history and positive substance. Given all this, surely somebody from the Indonesian government should have said: “Yes, the German woman was offside, but let’s be reasonable. It was an isolated hiccup and our confidence in Germany as Indonesia’s key partner remains unaffected.” Unfortunately, this did not happen – or at least, that message was neither conveyed to the German government, the Indonesian public nor our politicians. Instead, what prevailed was analysis paralysis and wild conspiracy theories with very little pushback from the government, contradicting the trend of evidence- and science-based perspectives in the COVID-19 era.
The diplomatic gaffe reveals how social media comments and “buzzers” (influencers) now have a greater impact on how we handle international relations — a new phenomenon in Indonesian foreign policy. I would personally caution against relying too much on them for foreign policy guidance. More significantly, it also shows that our foreign policy establishment tends to be timid when it comes to domestic politics, especially when there is too much heat. There is a tendency for reason to back down in the face of overwhelming passion.
This is rather ironic because we always stress the importance of “trust” in the conduct of world affairs. Trust takes a long time to develop and earn. What better way to demonstrate our trust in a long-time friend like Germany than by showing that we stand by them when unintended mistakes happen, and when the relationship is tested. Yes, it probably would have ruffled a few feathers. But diplomacy, after all, is not all about doing what is convenient. Sometimes, it is also about doing and saying the right thing.
Dr. Dino Patti Djalal is chairman of Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI). He is also a former Deputy Foreign Minister of Indonesia and a former Indonesian ambassador to the United States.