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Indonesia-Cambodia ties advancing to greater heights: Envoy

Indonesia-Cambodia ties advancing to greater heights: Envoy

Indonesian ambassador to Cambodia Santo Darmosumarto (pic) spoke to The Phnom Penh Post about the 65 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations, while highlighting historical connections that date back to the 9th century.

He discussed the evolution of these ties, emphasising leadership interactions, defence cooperation, tourism links and capacity building, as well as cultural understanding and scholarship programmes.

Indonesia is currently the kingdom’s sixth-largest trading partner, with trade exceeding US$1 billion.

Can you share some insights into the diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Cambodia over the past 65 years?

In fact, our relationship goes back even further to the 9th century, when the King who unified the Khmer Empire, Jayavarman II, spent time in Indonesia. People-to-people ties are historic, but as two modern countries, we established our relationship in 1959.

We are also very proud of the role Indonesia played in bringing peace to Cambodia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We look forward to elevating our relationship in the next 65 years.

There has been closeness between the leaders of the two countries, both former Prime Minister Hun Sen, with the various Indonesian leaders he met throughout his career, and more recently Prime Minister Hun Manet, who very early in his term met with President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, when he visited Jakarta for the Asean Summit.

These high-level relationships make life easier for us at the technical level. With regards to political cooperation, there are many interactions between our parliamentarians, both through Asean mechanisms and international ones.

We have just had an election, so I believe we’ll see more visits by Indonesian parliamentarians next year, or even later this year.

We are also seeing strong cooperation in defence, as well as cooperation in capacity building programmes. We aim to strengthen this.

Could you describe the current state of bilateral trade between the two nations?

It is very good, but I believe there is room for us to develop our economic cooperation. Right now, Indonesia is Cambodia’s 6th largest trading partner. According to statistics from Cambodia, trade surpassed US$1 billion in 2023.

There are a number of Indonesian companies that have invested in Cambodia. They are also a part of several joint ventures.

We are seeing greater interest among Indonesians wanting to be part of Cambodian economic development. They believe there is room to in various sectors, such as agriculture, manufacturing and real estate. The entertainment and advertising sectors are also sources of potential growth.

Are there any new trade agreements or initiatives that both countries should look forward to?

Agreements on economic cooperation are very important, but what’s most important is to actually implement them.

In 2012, Indonesia and Cambodia agreed on an MoU [memorandum of understanding] on the trade of rice. At that time, we agreed to import up to 100,000 tonnes of Cambodian rice. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to realise that yet, although we have begun importing the Kingdom’s rice.

With that being said, there is interest in developing a bilateral investment cooperation agreement. We look forward to seeing how the negotiations are carried out.

What are the main challenges to expanding bilateral trade?

I can think of two major challenges. The first one is logistics. Currently, the cost of transport remains high. Indonesian products are not expensive, but once they arrive in Cambodia, they cost more than goods from countries that share a land border. We need to enhance connectivity, so logistics become less expensive over the years.

The second challenge is the perception that the Cambodian market is small. This causes some Indonesian businesses to shy away, but I believe this is a mistake. Cambodia is well positioned to serve as an economic hub for the Mekong area. I’m trying share this.

At the same time, I believe there is a market here for luxurious Indonesian products, as Cambodia is projected to have the highest economic growth rate in South-East Asia.

Cambodia’s population is very young. Young people are innovative, so there is potential for more than traditional economic cooperation, like startups. Indonesia is known as one of the strongest incubators for startups in South-East Asia.

We’re looking forward to seeing Cambodian startups working with Indonesian partners.

How do educational exchanges contribute to strengthening the relationship?

Education cooperation leads to people-to-people interactions, which lead to a better understanding of one another.

We are very pleased that so many Cambodians have had the opportunity to pursue scholarships in Indonesia. Some of them have gone on to become high-level officials. We are trying to continue this tradition by encouraging Indonesian universities to offer more scholarships to Cambodians.

This year we’ve opened applications for the Darmasiswa Scholarship, and there is considerable interest from Cambodians. This is why I’m asking a lot of other universities to support our government programme and offer scholarships to Cambodia.

Are there any upcoming initiatives to promote educational cooperation?

We are advertising opportunities for scholarships for Cambodian students through our social media. We also intend to host a large exhibition called Sousdey Indonesia, which will take place in Phnom Penh in September. It will showcase Indonesia’s trade, investment and tourism as well as education.

We have invited a number of universities, and they will explain what they can offer.

In addition, we welcome Cambodian schools which want to visit the embassy.

I have met with not just university students, but also high school students, and even kindergarten age kids.

Could you highlight some cultural exchange programmes?

One of the things we are most proud of is the embassy’s cultural centre. It offers lessons in traditional dance and music.

A lot of Cambodians who learnt dances here have given performances for the Cambodian public. Some of them even sign up for scholarships for further training in Indonesia.

At the same time, we are also working to introduce the Bahasa language. We have plans to invite teachers to run classes in universities and workplaces.

In what ways will stronger cultural ties benefit both countries?

I think enhancing our cultural ties will make people realise how similar our traditions really are.

The moment they see an Indonesian dance, they will realise, hey! this looks like one of the dances that are performed here. The Apsara dance is very uniquely Cambodian, but some movements can be seen in Balinese or Javanese dances.

Stronger cultural ties mean a stronger understanding that we are basically the same type of people, and that we came from the same roots a long time ago. This will allow us to have more trust and more confidence in developing modern-day cooperation.

What are some of the ways the two countries are working to boost tourism links?

One of the first things that we did was establish an MoU on tourism cooperation, which was signed in 2022. How will we implement this? There are a number of ways.

The key question is how do we enhance our cooperation, not only in the exchange of tourists, but in capacity building and the development of tourism destinations?

A lot of things can be learned from Cambodia, with the way that you are developing your tourism sites, your historical sites.

At the same time, there are some things that Cambodia can learn from us, be it the development of Bali or the “new Balis”. We are also trying to improve connectivity between our two countries. Right now, there is only one direct flight from Cambodia to Indonesia.

Another thing we want to do, and I don’t know if this is going to be possible, is a joint promotion of our tourist destinations, maybe by promoting Borobudur and Angkor Wat as two very strong destinations for Buddhists.

Are there strategies in place to promote lesser-known destinations?

In Indonesia, we are trying to increase the exposure of lesser known tourist destinations through media and social media. Last year we invited Cambodian and Laotian journalists to come and visit not just Bali and Jakarta, but Padang in West Sumatra.

They produced many articles, so hopefully more people will get to know Padang and its fantastic food.

Hopefully we’ll be able to get more people to visit places other than Bali and Jakarta.

What do you see as the next steps to enhancing cooperation?

What’s important is to connect the younger generations of Indonesia and Cambodia. I am fortunate that I have been posted to Cambodia at a time when there is a new government installed here, and one which is led by a young prime minister. Youth allows us to see potential that past generations may not have seen.

In Indonesia, 52 per cent of our population is between 18 and 39, and maybe 60 per cent of Cambodians are under the age of 30, hopefully there’s connection there. I recently escorted a delegation from the Cambodian Young Entrepreneurs Association for Development to Indonesia.

A lot of them were there for the first time. When they saw the progress we have made over the years and some of the things we have achieved on our own, it opened their eyes. They saw potential for cooperation beyond the things we are doing right now. So for me, youth is the key.

As we celebrate the 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations, what message would you like to convey to the people of both Indonesia and Cambodia?

Our two countries are connected by history; both ancient as well as modern. We both became independent in the mid-20th century.

Over the years, we’ve managed to enhance our cooperation to a high level, yet I believe that we have a lot of room to further strengthen cooperation in various fields. Of course, the more impactful fields will be in the areas of people-to-people cooperation or trade, but I can imagine other types of cooperation.

For example, in security and how the two countries can contribute towards regional stability, peace and prosperity through the Asean community, as well as our interactions in multilateral settings.

Looking forward, I hope that our two countries and two peoples are proud of what we’ve done in the last 65 years and will use it to give us the energy to elevate our cooperation in the next 65.

Hopefully we’ll be able to do that. While it sounds clichéd, Indonesia and Cambodia right now are at a point where we must step up our cooperation. This is what I want to share with the Cambodian audience and the readers of The Phnom Penh Post.

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