Mandela Remembered in Southeast Asia
Image Credit: Twitter @FerryJuliantono

Mandela Remembered in Southeast Asia


Southeast Asian nations joined the world in mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero and first black president. Mandela is remembered in the region as a freedom fighter and the most popular endorser of batik, a traditional Indonesian fabric.

Following his release from jail in 1990, Mandela visited Jakarta and received a souvenir batik shirt from then President Suharto. He eventually made the batik shirt his trademark outfit for international gatherings, impressing Indonesian leaders.

“He had the courage to wear batik during a United Nations’ session. Even I might have had doubts wearing a batik shirt and speaking before the audience at a UN meeting,” said former Indonesian vice-president Jusuf Kalla.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Some of Mandela’s batik shirts were designed by Indonesian batik maestro Iwan Tirta. In South Africa, the batik came to be known as the Madiba shirt.

But many Indonesians also acknowledged Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle and linked it to the anti-colonial legacy of 17th-century Indonesian icon Sheikh Yusuf of Makassar. When Mandela first visited Indonesia, he visited the site of the historic Asia-Africa Conference held in Bandung in 1955, which he said was an important and inspiring event for many oppressed peoples.

Meanwhile, journalist Aboeprijadi Santoso recognized Mandela’s role in raising the prestige of the liberation movement in East Timor. When Mandela met Suharto in November 1997, he insisted on talking with Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao, who was imprisoned for leading the independence struggle against Indonesia.

“Mandela’s intervention and encounter with Xanana became public relation’s greatest victory for the Timorese. The 1997 momentum had, therefore contributed to the changing circumstances and awareness among both the Timorese resistance and in the international community,” wrote Aboeprijadi Santoso.

Fellow Nobel Laureate and Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi praised Mandela for raising the standard of humanity.

“He also made us understand that we can change the world – we can change the world by changing attitudes, by changing perceptions. For this reason I would like to pay him tribute as a great human being who raised the standard of humanity,” Suu Kyi said.

Prior to her election victory in parliament, Suu Kyi was often described as Myanmar’s Mandela. But Suu Kyi has been criticized in recent months regarding her decision to work within the corrupt and military-controlled parliament as well as for her silence on the persecution of the Rohingyas. Mandela’s death has further highlighted the challenges facing Suu Kyi in her bid for the presidency and the reforms she wanted to implement in her country.

In the Philippines, President Benigno Aquino III fondly recalled his conversation with Mandela regarding his mother, Cory Aquino, who is another democracy icon in Southeast Asia:

“On a more personal note, I recall with gratitude and humility the kind words he told me during his visit to the Philippines when I was still a Representative. He told me then, ‘You chose your parents well.’ My mother admired him; like all of us, she would have been deeply saddened by his passing.”

In Malaysia, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad named Mandela as the leader he admired the most. Malaysian politicians also claimed that Mandela, who visited the country three times, was “fascinated” by the country’s multi-racial and multi-religious harmony and that he regarded it “as an example of moderate development.”

In Thailand, where street protests have engulfed the capital in the past three weeks, pacifists are urging political forces to learn from the struggle of Mandela.

“Mandela’s death at this time should serve as a reminder for Thais to wake up and think about the conflicts that caused so much loss in South Africa, and the patience and time it took for Mandela’s peaceful fight to be successful,” said Gen Ekkachai Srivilas of the Office of Peace and Governance at King Prajadhipok’s Institute.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief