Sand ban and border disputes: Domestic troubles amid bilateral tension

Updated On: Mar 20, 2007

Recent relations between Indonesia and the neighbouring states of Malaysia and Singapore can be characterised as terse, especially over border disputes with the former and the sand ban with the latter.

There are several theories circulated by observers to make sense of the unusual harsh words coming from the Indonesian side.

Indonesian Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Minister Freddy Numberi for example, had named Singapore as one of the foreign countries whose 'mafias' were destroying Indonesia's economy by paying locals to plunder its natural resources. Elsewhere, Mr Soeripto, a member of Indonesia's parliamentary commission for defence and foreign affairs, said ‘once in a while, we need to shoot [the Malaysians]’ in response to Malaysia sending warships and military planes to Ambalat. 

One possible theory is the rise of nationalistic sentiments in Indonesia, but not without the careful engineering by the political leadership and opportunists exploiting the media channels. Such nationalistic sentiments were also borne of fear, such as with regards to the loss of the Sipadan and Ligitan islands to Malaysia haunting the current Indonesian concerns over the Ambalat issue and the need to protect the island archipelago’s maritime boundaries. A telling example can come from President SBY’s 29 December 2005 decree to beef up its presence on Indonesia’s outermost islands to prevent territorial disputes with neighbouring countries. 

Another theory, according to some observers, is an outward criticism of ‘foreign bogeymen’ to distract the public from troubles at home. Some precedents established by Indonesia included the anti-Malaysia campaign during the 1960s used by Sukarno to deflect attention from Indonesia's paralysed economy. According to a South-east Asian diplomat, 'Indonesia's nationalistic tantrums get, or are allowed to get, really bad if there were other associated issues at the time.’ The current sand ban is a case in point, as it hinted at other outstanding issues of an extradition treaty between Singapore and Indonesia.

If such a theory has any basis for truth, a closer examination of Indonesia’s current troubles at home should afford context for the current problems with its neighbours.  

According to Indonesia watcher Bill Guerin, a new terrorist threat from Poso in Central Sulawesi is emerging in Indonesia, in spite of counter-terrorism efforts by the US and Australia-trained Detachment 88. Several Jemaah Islamiyah operatives have allegedly been gathering new recruits and planning new attacks in the area marked by years of communal fighting between Muslims and Christians.

This seemed to be confirmed by Indonesia's anti-terrorism chief, retired General Ansyaad Mbai, and General A M Hendropriyono, former State Intelligence Agency (BIN) chief, who alleged that the renewed violence in Poso in recent months is the work of JI-inspired terrorists. This assertion is evidenced by the uncovering of large weapons caches during recent raids by Indonesian authorities, and by reports released by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group demonstrating regional link-ups by JI groups.

Elsewhere, an alleged JI leader warned in an interview with The Associated Press last week that it is likely for more attacks to be carried out by independent terror groups. ‘Many people are not satisfied about the conditions in Indonesia. They can do many things under the influence of teachings on the Internet or books that are circulating widely,’ he said.

Besides terrorism, there is also the longstanding issue of the bird flu plaguing the nation. The current death toll is 65 with a 32-year-old man succumbing to the disease on March 14, and making it the 86th confirmed case of humans who have contracted bird flu in Indonesia.

According to chief veterinary officer at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Dr Joseph Domenech, 'in Indonesia we have the same problem that we had in Thailand, Vietnam and China and others three years ago - a lot of outbreaks, a lot of the virus in the environment, human cases.' He recommended that Indonesia steps up its  surveillance and control systems to prevent a possible pandemic.

An additional security threat comes from a growing water crisis in the country. The Working Group on Environmental Health and Drinking Water (Pokja AMPL) issued a press statement on March 17, claiming that water reserves on Java Island stand at only 1,750 cubic meters per capita annually while normally it should be at least 2,000 cubic meters per capita annually. By 2020, the figure would drop to 1,200 cubic meters per capita annually, and affect other provinces such as Bali, West Nusa Tenggara (NTT) and South Sulawesi.

Pokja AMPL also said that the water shortage problem has been worsened by the fact that around 76.2 percent of 52 rivers in Java, Sumatra, Bali and Sulawesi islands were contaminated with organic substances and 11 others were polluted by ammonium. Most rivers in urban areas on Java Island were also contaminated with coli form bacteria and fecal coli which could cause diarrhoea. According to 2002 data from the Health Ministry, some 5,789 people suffered from diarrhoea and 94 of them died of the water-borne disease.

The new unemployment data released by the government indicating a likely increase in the unemployed by another million from last year’s figure of 10.8 million is another source of concern.  In spite of 1.5 million new jobs estimated to be created this year, there will be a more overwhelming number of 2.5 million job-seekers, of which 2.3 million will comprise fresh graduates and dropouts from high schools and universities.

Although Manpower and Transmigration Minister Erman Suparno remains optimistic that the unemployment figure could be reduced based on last year's experience when the government managed to provide one million new jobs, others are more pessimistic. Former manpower minister and executive director of the Center for Labor Development Studies (CLDS), Bomer Pasaribu said that since the revitalization program was declared early last year no changes have been made. "The government has only this next nine months to achieve progress because all sides will then be busy preparing for the 2009 general elections," he said. Elsewhere, Bomer argued that the unemployment rate has reached around 13 percent in the past three years, partly due to the effects of Indonesia's numerous natural disasters, including the recent mudflow disaster (19 March 2007).


New terrorism front opens in Indonesia (Asia Times, 13 March 2007)

Indonesia confirms 65th bird flu death (Channel News Asia, 16 March 2007)

One million more jobless in 2007: Minister (Jakarta Post, 16 March 2007)

Jakarta using S'pore, KL as bogeymen? (The Straits Times, 17 March 2007)

Indonesian militant condemns bombings, but warns of more attacks (The Straits Times, 17 March 2007)

RI under threat of water crisis: NGO (Antara, 17 March 2007)

UN expert: Indonesia needs better bird flu controls (Reuters/The Straits Times, 17 March 2007)