Remarks on Civil Society, Youth Leadership and Democracy in Southeast Asia

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State

@America
Jakarta, Indonesia

All right, good afternoon. It is wonderful to be here at @america with all of you, and I want to start by thanking our Ambassador Bob Blake, first of all for his very kind words of introduction but much more important for his wonderful leadership of our embassy and his wonderful friendship with the people here in Indonesia. I’d also like to recognize someone else who might be familiar to some of you, and that is Scot Marciel, who is now the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. But he might look a little familiar, that’s because he served as Ambassador here in Jakarta. And he is very familiar to many of you. So Scott it is good to be with you as well.

And I’m deeply grateful to Andini Effendy for doing this today, to John Choi, and to all of the staff here @america. There aren’t many places in the world where you can get help applying to American universities, bounce ideas around for a new business, and even rock out to Katy Perry—all in the same place. And I did a very brief tour and the only thing I didn’t see is the Genius Bar. But maybe you will get one of those in the next year.

I’m very pelased to be here with all of you—and the ambassador said to welcome those watching from Surabaya and Phnom Penh. It’s great to have you too. Thank you for being here.

I especially want to recognize members of President Obama’s Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiatives who are here with us today. Would you stand up if you are part of the YSEALI group? All right! You all represent an incredible group of leaders, and I can tell you that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry feel the same way. So thank you for being part of the program. Oh, and there they are. All right, yeah. So, some of you may have taken part via video in some of the town halls in Kuala Lumpur and Rangoon last year, President Obama fielded some very tough, and some very insightful questions, everything from the challenge of managing democratic transitions to the meaning of happiness.

So I try to be here and be prepared today—I’ve studied up on just about everything, except probably the meaning of life and happiness — and exactly when they are launching of the next iPhone.

But, regardless of the topic, when the President was answering questions, the answers had one common theme, and one essential message—and that was the role that each of you can play in building free, open, tolerant, prosperous societies, whether you live in United States, in Cambodia, in Myanmar, or right here in Indonesia.

Last year, this nation of 300 languages, 17,000 islands, and 250 million people came together to hold the largest single-day election in the world and the most free, fair, and competitive presidential election in the history of Indonesia. Less than two decades since beginning its democratic experiment, Indonesia shines today as an example to the entire world and an embodiment of the spirit enshrined in your national motto.

And In fact, when President Obama visited Jakarta in 2010, he described how our two nations are bound together not only by the shared ideals and values, but almost literally by our mottos. Ours: E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one.

And of course yours is: Bhinneka Tunggal Ika. Unity in diversity.

Many of you in this room have played a big part in this story. During last year’s election, citizen-activists built a web app that crowd-sourced a parallel vote and helped give Indonesia confidence in its historic day. All across Indonesia—and indeed across Southeast Asia—you’re building organizations that fight corruption and protect the rights of the vulnerable.

You’re creating businesses that invest in solutions to great global challenges, like climate change or extreme poverty.

And you’re forging networks across ethnic and religious lines to build greater respect and understanding.

This is the essence of democracy—the hard, painstaking work day-by-day to shape a society that reflects the values and lives, and lives up to the aspirations of its people.

It is a journey common to all democracies, including the US. A journey marked not only by moments of triumph and success, but times of struggle and setback, when we strive to confront our own imperfections with honesty and with openness.

In this journey, Indonesia stands out for its persistence and its progress. Last year’s election was perhaps the most visible—but not the only—example of Indonesia’s commitment to the shared ideals of democracy for the benefit of those at home and abroad.

Seven years ago, Indonesia took the initiative to establish the Bali Democracy Forum, an annual gathering that the United States has been very proud to support. And this forum has helped to nurture the roots of democracy in nations like Myanmar, where traditions of human rights, civil society, and independent media are still nascent. Tomorrow, after I leave Jakarta, I’m very much looking forward to visiting Rangoon and Naypyidaw and emphasizing our commitment to that nation’s democratic transition, as it prepares to hold parliamentary elections in the fall.

Every nation has to chart its own path to self-government, but what we know is this, there are no short-cuts, there are no half-measures. Democracy is not achieved in a day—let alone on Election Day. It is about more than campaigns, more than votes.

It is about preserving the rights of citizens who take to the streets in protest, or journalists who pick up their pens to report, or activists who speak their mind in dissent.

It is about building institutions that are transparent in their decisions and accountable for their actions.

And it is about upholding a culture of tolerance, respect, and understanding of all people—regardless of faith, ethnicity, or nationality.

Just off your shores today, these shared values are in danger—as fears of ethnic violence and desperate hopes for a better life have driven thousands of Rohingya migrants to risk their lives on the open seas. And what we have seen is the extraordinary generosity of the Indonesian people in welcoming them here to Indonesia, despite the burden that they pose, and bringing them from the sea onto land. We greatly appreciate that generosity and Indonesia’s leadership, but of course many still remain stranded at sea, and we have a common obligation, the US, Indonesia, countries throughout the region, to answer their call.

We follow this crisis very closely and we stand ready to help the countries of the region to bear the burden and save lives today—that has to be our first priority. Ultimately though, Southeast Asia must take steps to address the root causes of the crisis that drove these people to risk their lives, to put their lives in jeopardy, and we need long-term, sustainable development and the protection of basic human rights. If we are really going to answer the problems.

As the world’s third largest democracy and most populous Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia has the opportunity to help share its model of government and society—to encourage in its example the progress of others. Just this morning, I visited Darunnajah Boarding School, an Islamic religious school where girls learn alongside boys and the curriculum reflects Indonesia’s proud tradition of faith and of tolerance. This approach has valuable lessons for all of us, especially as we work together to try to reach those who might be susceptible to the call of violent extremism and as we work to develop strategies to prevent exclusion, to prevent alienation, to prevent radicalization in the first place.

So, as we look at Indonesia, it is clear that you are speaking with growing authority on the regional stage and on the world stage—and it is a voice that the United States welcomes and celebrates, especially as we look forward to President Jokowi’s visit to Washington a little bit later this year. And, emblematic of our own rebalance to Asia, our partnership with Indonesia represents the deepening of economic, security, and cultural ties between the United States and Southeast Asia.

So let me just talk a little bit about some of those ties and then we will spend a little bit of time talking and taking questions.

The economic ties. The 16th largest economy in the world and the only Southeast Asian member of the G20, Indonesia has demonstrated a remarkable record of financial recovery and growth over the last 15 years. The challenge now is to make that growth last and to share its benefit—to diversify the economy, to promote competition, to create a better investment climate, and to fight endemic corruption. Despite its size and its strength, Indonesia is only the United States’ 28th largest trading partner—and that is a position that reflects the barriers that still remain as much as the potential that awaits.

Our commitment to greater trade and investment with Indonesia reflects our engagement across Southeast Asia. Whether commerce has raced with the Pacific trade winds or sped along broadband cables, it has brought shared prosperity and opportunity to both sides of the Pacific.

Today, American investments in countries that make up ASEAN are larger than Chinese, Japanese, and Korean investments combined. And as Secretary of States Kerry often points out, it is not only the quantity of these investments that matters. It’s their quality. U.S. businesses help develop a skilled workforce, contribute towards corporate social responsibility, and abide by the rules of the road.

Our engagement in the region is a long-term vote of confidence—not a mere transaction or extraction from it. It is why we’ve increased our direct and sustained engagement with forums like ASEAN, APEC, and the East Asia Summit.

As Southeast Asia’s most important institution, ASEAN has served as a vital pillar of the international order—a standard-bearer for a common set of rules that underpin global order and stability. We’re very proud to collaborate on a range of issues of global importance—from expanding economic integration through ASEAN Economic Community to signing a landmark statement on climate change.

And then through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that many of you have heard about, we’re working to bring 40 percent of the global economy and nearly half of ASEAN together behind shared labor, environmental, and intellectual property right standards. We welcome any country that wants to join, so long as they’re willing to meet these high standards, which are the basis for truly sustainable development.

And let me make very clear that this specific partnership is not—in any way—an attempt to isolate China, keep it out, or keep it down. On the contrary, this is not a zero-sum game. And we welcome the China’s peaceful rise. The more trade, the more investment we see in developing nations—especially in infrastructure—the better. The Asian Infrastructure bank and Investment Bank, its efforts can be complementary to our own, and we will look for opportunities for collaboration while continuing to champion high standards for multilateral financing.

Because not all investments and not all investors are created equal. You have to take a careful look. Do they mistreat their workers or promote safe, healthy, and fair working conditions? Do they displace local residents or do they strengthen communities? Do they degrade environment for short term gain, or do they fuel truly sustainable economic growth?

Over the last 70 years, we have invested in a system of international economic institutions and principles designed to protect and benefit everyone—and we don’t want to see those standards diluted.

Trade cannot thrive without stability and growth does not last without peace. Our commitment to the security of the Asia-Pacific is not only a legacy of the 20th century. It is an investment in the 21st century.

Vital commerce—from the gas and oil that power our economies to the food that sustains our populations—they travel the sea lanes of the South China Sea. It is one of the most important trade routes in the world, and it succeeds because international law promotes the rights and freedoms of all countries, regardless of their size, regardless of their strength.

Now, China has been engaged in large-scale reclamation projects and activities and its claim of territory beyond that which is recognized by international law undermines the very freedom and stability that we are trying to protect. As China seeks to make sovereign land out of sandcastles and redraw maritime boundaries, it is eroding regional trust, undermining investor confidence, and challenging the energy security upon which all of us depend.

Its behavior threatens to set a new precedent—whereby larger nations are free to intimidate smaller ones, and that provokes tension, instability, and can even lead to conflict.

We need to manage competing claims over rocks and reefs and boundaries diplomatically, peacefully, and consistent with agreed upon norms and rules. We have consistently encouraged all parties to clarify the basis in international law of the claims that they make, including China’s so-called “nine-dash line.”

We don’t take sides on the merits of these different claims but we strongly oppose actions that aim to advance a claim by force, by intimidation, by coercion.

We will continue to stand for freedom of navigation, freedom of over flight, and the right to unimpeded commerce.

And we will continue to insist that all claimants exercise self-restraint and avoid actions that complicate or escalate disputes, which is what was called for in the declaration that China-ASEAN signed some years ago.

And we will continue to urge all claimants to resolve their difference in accordance with international norms and the rule of law. Finally a few words about the cultural ties that bring us all together.

Fifty or 100 years ago, if you asked how one defines the wealth of a nation, what makes ASEAN strong and successful, if you asked that question and you read some of the best thinkers’ writings, they would say: “Well, what really matters is how big is the population, how big is its land mass, what about the strength of its military, and does it have a lot of natural resources like oil?”

Of course all of those things are still important and they do measure the wealth of a nation.

But in the 21st century, the true wealth of a nation lies in its human resources and in the ability of countries to maximize their potential—to let all of their citizens be creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial, with the freedom to argue, to criticize, to challenge conventional wisdom.

For countries to do that, no matter how big they are, no matter how small they are, no matter if they have all these kinds of other resources, or if they don’t, countries that do that in 21st century will be the countries that succeed.

So, our responsibility has to be to strengthen our human resources and encourage greater collaboration between our scientists, exchanges between our students, brainstorming between our entrepreneurs and innovators.

Today, roughly half of Indonesia’s population of 250 million people is under the age of 30—a statistic that is common in much of the rest of Southeast Asia, where in fact two-thirds of the population is under the age of 35.

This is a powerful engine and it could drive us in one or two directions, to widespread disaffection, if there is not openness and freedom and opportunity—or toward unprecedented growth and unprecedented progress.

So, that is why we are working together to give young people across the world a launching pad for their ideas and their talents.

From Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur, we are connecting global and local businesses to young entrepreneurs who are pioneering the next frontier of innovation. In Indonesia, we started an incubator and organized a business angel investor network that has grown to 50 active investors, 18 of whom are women.

We’re sending Americans to Asia as students, Fulbright Scholars, and Peace Corps Volunteers. The number of Americans and Indonesian students who are studying in each other’s countries is higher than it has ever been and we want to make it higher still. This is a deep and lasting connection that we’re committed to growing.

And today we look to YSEALI fellows, not only as representatives of your communities, but as the leaders of this rising generation.

So, Derry Fahrizal Ulum—who is here, I think, this afternoon—could have done anything, and he chose to start “Buku Kami” for the express purpose of providing jobs, training, and a renewed sense of dignity for survivors of human trafficking.

Nilamsari and her husband could have rested on the success of their popular kebab franchise, Baba Rafi. Instead they chose to launch the Baba Rafi Academy to provide free training and mentoring for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Since President Obama launched YSEALI just two years ago, more than 33,000 young people from ASEAN countries have become part of this network, and it is a community whose size and impact will only continue to grow. Because in a democracy, the responsibility of good governance and sustainable development is not just in the portfolios of presidents and prime ministers. It’s in the hands of citizens.

The civil society, that so many of you are building is fundamental to democratic governance. It helps hold our leaders accountable. And it helps develop solutions to problems that government alone can’t tackle. Community groups, NGOs, labor unions, charities, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations: They drive innovations, and they spark new ideas that government can advance on a larger scale. And just as importantly, they provide peaceful avenues to advance interests and express convictions and ideas. And that is the best guarantor of progress and stability at the same time.

So, taken together, the courage of your choices has helped propel Indonesia to new and remarkable heights, where it must now guide the path of others across the Asia-Pacific. I know I speak for President Obama, for Secretary Kerry, and the American people when I say how proud we are to stand by Indonesia’s side.

Thank you very much.