Jakarta – After several weeks of relative calm, tensions in the disputed waters of the Sulawesi Sea rose again at the weekend following an incident – labelled as a “collision” by some Indonesian papers but later officially described as a “series of brushes” - involving Indonesian and Malaysian navy vessels on April 8.
However, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono moved in quickly to calm the situation by instructing the Republic’s Navy vessels to refrain from action against Malaysian naval ships patrolling near the disputed maritime border area. At a closed-door meeting with top military officers on April 9, the President reminded the Navy that the two neighbours had agreed to settle the overlapping claims on an oil-rich section of the waters, which the Indonesians call Ambalat, through diplomatic channels.
“The President doesn’t want the incident to happen again,” Navy chief Slamet Subiyanto said.
The Jakarta Post had earlier quoted Admiral Slamet as saying that an Indonesian warship, KRI Tedong Naga, “collided” with a Malaysian navy ship, KD Rencong, that it was trying to drive away from Indonesia’s territorial waters.
According to the Indonesian Navy, the left side of the Indonesian ship's hull was damaged while the Malaysian ship's front was also damaged.
Kompas also quoted the local navy commander, Rear-Admiral Soeparno, as saying that the Malaysian warship had been trying to disrupt the construction of an Indonesian lighthouse.
On April 10, both countries sought to downplay the incident. Indonesia navy spokesman Guntur Wahyudi said: “This is not a collision. A brush would be more appropriate. It was caused by the vortex of sea water from the ships, which pull the two together, but that’s not a problem, no significant damage was caused.”
But the spokesman added that the Malaysian ship had “violated our waters because it was travelling 500m off Karang Unarang. They often provoke us, but we stand by our orders not to react".
The New Sunday Times also quoted Malaysian navy chief Mohamed Anwar Mohamed Nor as saying the two vessels only “brushed” against each other.
In a television interview on April 10, Defence Minister Najib Abdul Razak urged the Malaysian Navy to maintain its professionalism in the face of what Utusan Malaysia termed as “Indonesia military’s aggressive attitude”.
“We have ordered the Navy to adhere to the rules of engagement and to always display a high degree of discipline in order to avoid any untoward incident,” Mr Najib, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister, said.
* Yudhoyono tells navy to keep cool in row (The Straits Times, April 11)
* Maintain professionalism when facing Indonesia (Utusan Malaysia, April 11)
* RI, KL warships collide in Ambalat (The Jakarta Post, April 10)