Waving Blue in the Eyes of Nusantara

Standing in front of the United Nations building with an array of flags. Photo by author.

Through her experience as an intern representing Indonesia at the United Nations, Sarah Pardede grapples with her identity as an Indonesian, and what it means to be a youth in today’s Indonesia. In her own words, here is the Political Philosophy of a UN intern representing Indonesia: Past, Present, Future.

“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”

  • Frantz Fanon / Martinican psychiatrist and revolutionary

This isn’t my dream… Do I even deserve this?”, I grasped my United Nations tag and looked at the name encrypted. The letters are squid black and stretch across the ID card – it says my name, and the title: “Indonesia adviser”. Once you have acquired something drastic, there is always that isolating cusp between reality and the thought. I was dissolving in that cusp, wondering how on earth would I advise the 261,6 million people crammed in Indonesia’s archipelago. There is a wide-range of misconceptions about interning at the United Nations that brews from accuracy to absolute faux truth. Some say that working there is glamorous, where you would adorn dapper suits and clench handshakes with high-ranked politicians. Some may also suggest that every day at the UN equates to people positing themselves with the best-heated arguments in such rigor and dynamite that a possible “win” or “lose” situation could be met and solutions would result instantly. But there are no points, real friends, or real enemies at the United Nations. All that is left are humans that were tattooed deep in the colors of the flag that they carry, along with the millions that each of them represents. There is no individuality, the focal attention is on setting your country’s position on issues that question the whole world. Thus, being an Intern for the Permanent Mission of Indonesia is a political act. I am Indonesia, but who is the United Nations for me?

My internship at the United Nations began during the critical pulses of September 2017, where the 72nd General Assembly commenced. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is composed of all political leaders from 193 nation states and is convened to discuss matters on peacekeeping, development, security, drug control, and justice. Hence, the air trimmed short. Security in the United Nations tightened, with police force armed with jet-black weapons and tanks barracking the vicinity. Conversations on Trump, North Korea, Russia, Israel-Palestine, Puerto Rico, and the sovereignty of Spain’s Cataluña region danced among the corridors beneath the smiles and handshakes of thousands of diplomats polishing from all pockets of the world. The Vice President of Indonesia, H.E. Jusuf Kalla, posited Indonesia’s views in the GA with his blood red tie and assured smile, along with Macron, Trump, and other world leaders. Mrs. Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, and Indonesia’s Ambassador to the UN, Mr. Dian Triansyah Djani, took the baton of diplomacy by giving speeches and conducting bilateral meetings on Indonesia’s stances on peace and security issues all packed through the 72nd General Assembly’s grueling week.

Meeting H.E. Jusuf Kalla. Photo by author.
Meeting H.E. Jusuf Kalla. Photo by author.

Amidst the diplomatic chaos, there I served as an Economics, Social, and Media intern for the Permanent Mission of Indonesia and a part-time translator for the United Nations Development Program – which seemed fitting to my major at Fordham as an International Political Economy student. Dotting behind my attaches with layers of papers and notes, I translated pages of the Indonesian constitution that represents our standing on economic and social development, as well as pages of U.S laws and constitution from English to Indonesian, and translated from English, French, Spanish to Indonesian during UNDP Equator meetings within the topic of climate change and social organizing. I was assigned to craft reports on Indonesia’s economic standing and debt-restructuring, and Indonesia’s foreign policy on the Rohingya insurgency. As H.E. Jusuf Kalla and other Indonesian representatives commenced their speeches, I assisted media attaches in taking photo ops of Indonesian representatives and reported on their behalf.

At the United Nations’ Sustainable Fashion meeting. Photo by author.
At the United Nations’ Sustainable Fashion meeting. Photo by author.

Being an intern with the emblem of Indonesia is a political stance. It is much more than simple “pencitraan” or a glorification for one’s intellectual or political capabilities with “lit” posts or tethering comments on Instagram. In a split of clock ticks, the public image became a question to my identity as I posted a picture of myself at the UN on Instagram. It is within the quell of people’s minds that there is a certain caricature once you have played in the game of politics at a very young age. People assume that you are a capriciously ambitious individual with aims to take over the public office and would crush anyone who comes in your way. However so,  “Please, sorry, and thank you” and repetitive nodding became the norm. I stripped away my black ripped jeans and black t-shirts, in favor of batik and suits during my classes in my university to writing reports at the Indonesian mission to upheld Indonesia’s mark in the open world. I learned to acknowledge the multiple complexities of an individual – unraveling their flesh from their nationality, gender, political views, or appearance all the way to their true manic ambitions and vulnerability as a human being. As a 20-year-old, this was a new life.

In regard to ambition, I find that people tend to forget the very purpose of the United Nations. It is not about glory or power, but it is all about fear. The United Nations itself is birthed out of fear. After the Cold War in 1945, the allied big four (the U.S., the U.K., the Soviet Union, and China), as well as 47 other countries, were in ruins. These 51 countries, which has now grown to 193, then created a forum in order to decrease fear through the emulation of security meetings and development promotion.

Every time I placed my laptop on the woody table of the General Assembly or Economic and Social Development room (ECOSOC), I deciphered how fear is discussed—from the existence of refugees, nuclear proliferation, natural insecurities, economic development, to the permutations of political violence in various states peppering across the globe. Fear in the United Nations is discussed daily. Every day, missions from 193 nations crafted speeches and reports in addressing these issues with very little time to take a breath and observe the lives of the individuals living in the countries they represent. I then wonder, how is fear distributed into the question of self-determination of West Papua, fishing quotas, or pre-marital sex in Indonesia, or the development of tactics fighting climate change? In addition, is it right for the United Nations to create an army and begin implementing military coercion to countries? The world has rampaged the very purpose of the United Nations or the country missions that each nation represent, which is in actuality to bring dialogue about peace and security; not coercing force of which would destruct the very basis of the sovereignty of honoring statehood, culture, and everything a country represents.

Translating for the United Nations Development Program. Photo by author.
Translating for the United Nations Development Program. Photo by author.

The UNGA 72’s theme was “Focusing on people: Striving for Peace and A Decent Life for All Sustainable Planet”. I quickly deciphered this as a complete oxymoron to the truth today—given the uprising of racist sentiments, rejection of climate change, and protectionism peppering around the globe. Seeing the reality of Indonesia and our reach for the naturalization from a total democracy is absolutely mind-boggling. We have survived 305 years of colonization, 20 years of militarization coupled with economic upsurge and decline, natural disasters, racial tensions, and now seeing growth in the realms of youth and technology. The soul thing for Indonesians who are yearning for a career in politics is not to crush or deceive, but to refuse the ashtrays of dirty politics and ask ourselves to what is the echoing reality of being alive? Of which what the Syrian writer Rayya Ellias pressed as “The truth has legs, it always stands.” Hence, what is the truth for Indonesians? Is it to fully reject minority groups and create an overarching ideology?

Our truth as Indonesians is “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” or Unity in Diversity, which creates the luscious diffusion of hearing the Azhan Maghrib (Call to Prayer) in the early chirps of morning both in the drylands of NTB to the tropical lush of Bali, and seeing women adorning cross-necklaces or cradling an aromatic offerings at a Hindu temple, houses, all the way to the Indian men selling textiles in Jakarta’s Kota. This richness of culture and ecosystem is a power that should be embellished and recognized every day as our identity as Indonesians. To which calls to our attention to Quran 5:16, where it beautifully echoed: “Through which God shows unto all that seek His goodly acceptance the paths leading to peace and, by His grace, brings them out of the depths of darkness into the light and guides them onto a straight way.” Thus, this message of Qur’an and “Unity in Diversity” is universal and eternal and presses this idea of a “straightway”, to where we must remember the political theory of Clausewitz; In his book “On War”, he pressed that resistance or the success of war equates to the strength of the will of the people times the means that they have achieved, or: ( R = SOW * Means). Insofar that if we would like to build Indonesia from its roots up to its branches, we should strive for a united will of the people to develop as a whole. As Indonesians in politics, we must act within our constitution: perusing the force of culture, ecosystem, economic power, military prowess, and religions for the complete development of the 17,000 islands which our ancestors point as home.


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