Interview with Indonesian Ambassador H.E. I Gusti Agung Wesaka Puja

25 Jul 2020

June 2020 – Interview with Indonesian Ambassador H.E. I Gusti Agung Wesaka Puja
By Monica Bouman

Today is a Present

A clear and sunny afternoon early June 2020. All over the country everyone is looking forward to an easing of the government’s measures against coronavirus. My first trip since the lockdown is to the ambassador’s residence in Wassenaar.

As I walk through the quiet, green Kerkeboslaan in Wassenaar, I remember the annual ambassador’s reception on an always wonderful summer evening. Guests flocked from all sides and all parking spaces were occupied to the wide perimeter.

In the garden of their residence, Ambassador I Gusti Agung Wesaka Puja and Mrs. Rusdijana Puja offered their eight hundred guests a diplomatic, cultural and culinary unforgettable evening program. On these evenings an Indonesian garden in the middle of the province of South Holland, was full of the sounds, colours and smells of Bali and the soft talks of guests under the green trees.

This afternoon the garden is all the quieter.

Ambassador Puja arrives from his office a little later. Since the lock-down measures and travel restrictions related to the spread of COVID-19, the embassy is extremely busy to assist Indonesian and Dutch citizens who want to enter or leave the country. At the same time, the usual embassy activities have virtually ground to a halt. That makes the end of his tenure for AmbassadorPuja unusually busy and quiet at the same time.

We are both happy to meet in person instead of digitally via Skype or Zoom. Fortunately, he and Mrs. Puja are doing well, but the prospects for a rapid spread of the coronavirus in Indonesia are worrying. On behalf of the Indonesia Netherlands Society I convey our cordial greetings, telling the Ambassador that the INS Board will not let him leave the Netherlands without a dignified farewell dinner. Fortunately, we find a suitable date.


How do you look back on your ambassadorship in the Netherlands?

The end of his tenure reminds Ambassador Puja of how he started here, four years and four months ago. ‘It was February, cold, rainy and dark. I had not been to the Netherlands before and I did not know anyone here. That afternoon I went to the gym and played badminton. That gave me balance.’ The contacts with the Indonesia Nederland Society soon helped him find his way in the Netherlands. He has always appreciated this friendship.

In the weird corona lockdown of the past few months, he used to cycle through the green avenues of Wassenaar. While cycling he came up with the philosophy of cycling: ‘You can only keep your balance when you are moving.’

During his tenure there was plenty of movement. ‘In so many fields the Dutch and Indonesian private sector, knowledge centers, civil society and governments are working together. How can they meet challenges in infrastructure issues, maritime issues, agrifood, health care, waste management and so on? Their collaborations are best illustrated by the fact that The Netherlands is now the top first European investor in Indonesia. Another remarkable fact is the yearly growing number of tourists to Indonesia coming from the Netherlands.’ What Puja learned to value most from the Dutch is their competence in ‘omdenken‘. He explains it thus: ‘You can say “the glass is half empty, or half full.” But better is to ask; “Where is the tap?”’.


What do you see as the highlight of your tenure?

To Ambassador Puja the recent state visit of the Dutch King and Queen to Indonesia, accompanied by a Dutch trade mission, was the ‘cherry on the cake’. With nearly two hundred delegates from the private sector, government, knowledge centers and civil society it was the largest Dutch trade mission ever. Except for the boat accident in Kalimantan, both the state visit and trade mission were very successful with new investments in the sectors of agrifood, water management, waste management and health care. Organized early March, they are the last bilateral events before the travel restrictions, announced by the Dutch and Indonesian governments to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

A highlight for himself during this state visit was the returning of the famous golden Keris of Indonesia’s national hero Prince Diponegoro. As the story goes in 1831, after the war at Java, the Keris was handed to the Dutch King Willem I. Nearly two centuries later, the golden Keris became an object for research. ‘A team of The World Museum (Museum Volkerkunde) visited me at the Indonesian Embassy in The Hague and discussed a collaboration on the research to identify and find the original Keris of Prince Diponegoro.‘ The Keris in the museum indeed belonged to the Javanese Prince. ‘I was very proud to bring the Keris to Indonesia again.’ During the visit at Bogor Palace, the Keris has been exhibited there, and the Royal couple and the President as well as the First Lady, had the opportunity to observe the Keris. After two centuries the golden Keris of Prince Diponegoro   returned to Java again.’


How  did the Indonesian people respond to the excuses made by King Willem-Alexander?

‘The Indonesians love the Dutch king and queen. In Bogor, in Yogyakarta, at Sumatra near Lake Toba, everywhere where they came during their visit people received them enthusiastically and warmly. ‘The people were so happy, nearly as if Willem-Alexander and Maxima were their own king and queen.  King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima themselves looked relaxed, enjoying their state visit.’

In the Netherlands Ambassador Puja regularly visited communities of Dutch-Indies people, mostly elderly people. One of them, an old man, asked him to listen to his life story. It was a heavy story, that touched the ambassador. ‘I saw that the man felt relieved that he could share his story with me.’ He also visited a nursery home for the elderly with family backgrounds in Indonesia. He learned from these encounters. ‘There are so many Dutch people who love Indonesia very much and who deeply miss Indonesia. For an Indonesian ambassador it is important to know about the ties between the two countries.’


What do the three C’s mean to you?

Providing people and organizations opportunities to connect, to form a community and to cooperate means more to Ambassador Puja than just doing his job. ‘So many communities in the Netherlands have active connections with Indonesia.’ One of his many visits in the Netherlands, was to Zundert. ‘The municipality has a partnership with the Karo region in Northern Sumatra. They have exchanges of expertise and knowledge in the fields of care, tree cultivation, strawberry cultivation and van Gogh.’

Connecting, community and cooperation are not only important in the field of economics, but also in cultural affairs. The Ambassador is a lover and connoisseur of modern art of the first half of the twentieth century. When he heard from the National Museum of World Cultures about a forgotten collection of Balinese art treasures of the 1940’s in the museum’s depot, this was a welcome opportunity to connect and cooperate with the museum to discuss ways to preserve the collection of 130 Balinese art works, which were 60 years unseen by the public eye.

‘The 1940’s Balinese arts are very special. They have a global and international level, due to a former exchange of cultural identities.’ In the early twentieth century at Bali lived a community of Western artists, who shared their passion and admiration of Bali and its indigenous beauty, and also inspired the Balinese artists.  Through their influence the nature of Balinese arts has transformed from being ethnic, classical, local and conventional into one more variant, individualistic and modern. Some of the collection was recently exhibited as ‘Bali, Welcome to Paradise’ in Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden.

Ambassador Puja is proud and happy that he could bring back to Indonesia this forgotten collection of Balinese art treasures.

At the end of his tenure as Indonesian Ambassador of the Republic of Indonesia to the Kingdom of the Netherlands the words of his famous and favorite proverb suit the moment perfectly:

‘The past is history, the future is mystery, today is a present.’

We both are grateful for the ‘present’ we share.

Monica Bouman