The military factor in Indonesia-Malaysia territorial dispute

Updated On: Mar 25, 2005

Jakarta- The first round of talks betweenMalaysiaandIndonesiato defuse a dispute in an oil-rich area in theSulawesiSeaended with an agreement to meet again in early May. However, if remarks made by several Indonesian leaders are anything to go by, the signal fromJakartais clear: Any concessions to end the dispute in the area which the Indonesians refer to as Ambalat would have to come from the Malaysian side;Indonesiawould not budge an inch.

"We stick with our claim. We are not backing down, because Ambalat is still our area. We're now constructing a lighthouse there and the project will continue,"Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda said after officials from both sides ended their first round of talks inBalion March 23.

InSingapore, visiting Indonesian Speaker of Parliament, Mr Agung Laksono, said his country is united in its stand that it owns the oil-reach area. He saidIndonesiais not interested in having the latest bilateral spat referred to the International Court of Justice, which in 2002 gaveMalaysiasovereignty over the disputed islands of Sipadan and Ligitan in the same sarea.

And in yet another sign ofIndonesia's uncompromising mood, the Indonesian ambassador toMalaysia, Mr H Rusdihardjo, was chastised by the Indonesian Parliament for apologising toKuala Lumpurfor the burning of Malaysian flags by demonstrators in Indonesia.

Mr Abdillah Thoha, a member of the parliamentary commission of foreign affairs, said: "The ambassador's remarks debased the nation. By saying sorry toMalaysia, we are in fact admitting that we are in the wrong."

The Indonesian military, TNI, has madeno secret of its hardline stance in the dispute from Day 1.On March 23, TNIchief, General Endriartono Sutarto, saidIndonesiamust not surrender its rights in the dispute.

"Our recommendation is that , well, we should not give in," he said.

In a commentary published in The Jakarta Post, journalist Dandhy Dwi Laksono, sees a strong connection between the Ambalat dispute and three issues: The leadership succession within TNI; the defence budget and military expenditure agenda; and the Aceh and Papua agenda.

The writer noted that the three chiefs of staff from the Army, Navy and Air Force are locked in a race to succeed Gen Endriartono as the next TNI commander.

"Without the Ambalat dispute, the Army's chance would be even greater because the Aceh problem could also be used as a card for bargaining between the military elite and political authorities. It is also hard to reject the fact that the offshore location of Ambalat, has enhanced the bargaining position of the Navy and the Air Force.

"In this way, if the Ambalat conflict continues until the time when the TNI commander has to be replaced, the chances of the three chiefs of staff of assuming the top military post would be more or less equal."

Then, there is the issue of the defence budget. "Records have indicated that conflict escalation is always directly proportional to a military budget hike," the writer said.

Indeed, on March 24, Minister of Defence Juwono Sudarsono said his ministry had proposed a 5-trillion rupiah budget for the development of the Indonesian Navy and Air Force. He said the budget proposal was primarily based on the need to develop the Navy and Air Force.The defence budget for 2004 was 13.3

Mr Juwono, whovisited the United States recently, said he told his American hosts thathe "led the best underpaid defence force in Asia".

* No decision at first meeting of technical experts on Sulawesi Sea issue (Bernama, March 23)

* Amid border dispute, defence minister proposes Rp 5t budget for Navy, Air Force (Jakarta Post, March 24)

* TNI chief: Indonesia cannot lose in Ambalat case (Kompas, March 23)

* Crush Malaysia, whose agenda? (The Jakarta Post, March 21)