(This year, 2010, Indonesia and Thailand celebrate their 60 years diplomatic relation and this article is dedicated to mark it. This piece is written by Kavi Chongkittavorn, published in The Nation on 8 March 2010). WHERE ON EARTH does the mere mention of the name “Bangkok” bring a breath of fresh air or a smiling face? Again, which country has a common history with Thailand that dates back thousands of years? Can you name a country that can be a democratic force for Asean along with Thailand?

The answers are simple. It is Indonesia – a country under the global microscope at every turn. This is a country where the Thai energiser drink, Krathing Daeng (Red Gaurs), has made hundreds of millions of dollars since its introduction in 1980’s. Thai flagrant rice, tom yam, durian and varieties of Thai fruits delight Indonesian palates everyday. To average folks there, “Bangkok” conjures up good quality, good food and freedom.

Within Asean, Indonesian people are the friendliest towards Thailand. They look up to the Thais as resourceful and fun-loving people. Our democratic experiences, both in the 1970’s and then the 1990’s, inspired the Indonesian young for generations when the country was under the Suharto dictatorship. Prior to 2001, Thailand was the textbook for political experiment and freedom of expression for Indonesian intellectuals, lawmakers, politicians and media. Now the tide has turned. They have learned the Thai lessons well, avoiding the pitfalls of Thailand’s 78-year political wilderness.

The country’s huge territorial size and Muslim population, as well as its economic dynamics and resource-rich archipelagos used to be identifiable qualities of the world’s fourth largest country. What has made the greatest impact on Indonesia these days has been its nascent but stable democratisation since 1998. Indonesia is no longer the turtle – the slowest mover or denominator of every scheme in the region. Its vibrant democracy, steady economic growth and increased confidence have attracted visits by dignitaries from around the world. Indonesia is proud of its branding as the world’s third largest democracy, after India and US.

Yesterday, the two countries quietly commemorated the 60th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. Obviously, the general public of the two nations are not deeply aware of this important event. In Thailand, the focus remains on political stability. Down in Indonesia, the planned visit of US President Barack Obama and his family later this month has dominated the daily conversations ever since it was announced last year. Obama’s four-year elementary schooling in Menteng provides such a wonderful and powerful backdrop for the US return of re-engagement with Southeast Asia. What he says and does in Indonesia will be scrutinised and remembered for years to come.

Although current Thai-Indonesia friendship cannot match the kind attracted by the personality of Obama, we can however delve into the past for inspiration. King Chulalongkorn visited Indonesia – known to the Siamese at the time as Java, three times (1871, 1896 and 1901) throughout his reign, bringing back all the best Indonesian culture had to offer: language and literature. His first trip when he was young was the most impressive. He was eager to learn from the local people and their direct interaction with the Dutch colonisers. He did the same in Malaya which he visited nearly a dozen times for the British experience. King Prachathiprok made a similar trip in 1929. Only 10 years after the establishment of diplomatic ties, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit paid an official visit there.

Contacts among common peoples were also in abundance in the old days.

The people from Makassar, South Sulawesi, had long emigrated northward to Ayutthaya, one of the trading hubs of old Southeast Asia in the 17th Century. They later moved and resettled in central Bangkok, which is the present-day Makkasan. Many Thai and Indonesia words and names are similar because of their Sanskrit roots. For instance, mentri, duta, wanida and swami mean minister, ambassador, woman and husband respectively. Names such as Suriya, Chandra, Aditya, Sawitri, Tri and Dewi are popular in both countries.

Long-lasting cultural imprints, beginning with the Buddhist Borobudur monument in Magelang, Central Java, can be found in the tale of the legendary Javanese prince in “Panji” called Raden Inu or Ino, who was popularly known to Thais as I-Nao for more than three centuries. King Rama II recomposed this classic into beautiful Thai verse, which has been a key source of traditional Thai songs and dances. Both countries continue to learn and draw inspiration from Ramaya and Mahabharata. In the front yard at the entrance to the National Museum of Indonesia, one can see a bronze elephant given by King Rama V. The list goes on.

What is sad about all these old tales and ties, they have yet to propel the current bilateral efforts to the next level. They are close and correct certainly, but they should be much closer and more intimate. The volume of two-way trade last year was only around 900 million dollars and Thai investment in the past three decades amounted to two billion dollars only. Old mind-sets among Thai businessmen and investors were to blame. They still believed they could arrive with some investment and then make money and leave (as they used to do in Laos, Burma or Cambodia). To be fair, few Thai companies have left a good reputation for their long-term and sustainable investment plans that include uplifting of livelihoods of local people and the improvement of infrastructure and communication.

When Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya met with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently, he told the president that Indonesia should be the driving force in the promotion of democracy in Asean. Indonesia’s national resilience as well as lessons learned from its young but dynamic political development could be emulated in the rest of the region. “Thailand will do whatever it can to support Indonesia’s endeavour,” he reiterated. Coming from Thailand, it demonstrated the growing political clout of Indonesia and its ability to build up democratic values and institutions in such a short time.

Within Asean, the two were known for their common stands – wanting the grouping to be more open, democratic and protect its citizens from any form of human rights violations.

Apart from joining forces in promoting democracy in Southeast Asia, perhaps the two countries could also combine their culinary traditions.

Already, at Blok M in the heart of Jakarta, local shoppers can order a new menu – durian nasi goring or durian fried rice – for 15,000 rupiahs. It tastes awfully delicious.

(Thanks to Counsellor Patranan Pattiya for early Thai-Indonesia history)