INDONESIA’S ISLANDS IN THE STORM

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INDONESIA’S ISLANDS IN THE STORM

By Richel Langit

JAKARTA, Indonesia (Asia Times/Irian News, Dec. 20) - Indonesia is scrambling to keep its territorial integrity after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded Sipadan and Ligitan islands to neighboring Malaysia.

There are at least four more islands that Indonesia might lose if the principle of continuous administration - employed by the ICJ in awarding Sipadan and Ligitan to Malaysia after both claimants failed to present solid legal proof of ownership over the two islets off the northeastern tip of Indonesia's East Kalimantan province - is applied.

The four islands still in question are Nipah off Riau province, which is now controlled by Singapore; an unnamed small island off West Kalimantan province occupied by Thai fishermen; Miangas island off Sangir Talaud in North Sulawesi, currently occupied by Philippine fishermen; and Ashmore reef, situated south of Kupang, the provincial capital of Indonesia's East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). Ashmore reef, which had for centuries been a staging point for fishermen from Rote island in NTT, has been occupied by Australia, while Indonesia makes no attempt to regain control over the island, where ancestors of Rote people are believed to have been buried.

With the exception of Ashmore reef, Nipah, Miangas, and the unnamed small island in Indonesia's West Kalimantan province are generally recognized as Indonesia’s islands, but the country has yet to exercise sovereignty over them.

Aside from these four islands, however, more than 80 small islands are scattered across Riau, North Sulawesi, Maluku, West Nusa Tenggara, East Nusa Tenggara, and Papua provinces. Most of those islands are neglected though they form part of the country's territorial boundary. Theoretically, other countries could come and take over those "neglected" islands and should Indonesia protest, they could insist on bringing their case to the international court, where they could be expected to win in the light of the principle of sovereignty exercise or continuous administration.

Indonesia, the world's biggest archipelagic country, stretching almost 5,000 kilometers from the Asian mainland into the Pacific Ocean, has more than 17,000 islands, only 3,000 of which are inhabited. The rest are not only unoccupied but also left neglected, and most of them don't even have a name. Fears are running high that Indonesia could lose some of these unnamed islands.

So it is not at all surprising that almost immediately after the International Court of Justice in The Hague voted overwhelmingly to hand over Sipadan and Ligitan to Malaysia on Tuesday, the Indonesian government has come under intense pressure to demonstrate sovereignty over disputed islands or uninhabited islands, especially those situated at the outermost of the country's territory.

Experts have also urged the government to set up an inter-department team that will be in charge of handling maritime boundary issues, including problems arising from the delimitation of boundaries.

The government seems to have begun to realize the importance of maintaining a presence in remote areas. On Thursday, Home Affairs Minister Hari Sabarno urged regional administrations to oversee outlying islands and exercise the country’s sovereignty over them by setting up monuments, assigning security officials there or moving some Indonesian communities to neglected islands.

"The government, through the regional administrations overseeing outlying islands, must maintain the country's sovereignty through whatever means necessary to demonstrate this sovereignty. Otherwise, there will be more Sipadan-Ligitan cases," Sabarno warned.

The ICJ ruled that neither Indonesia nor Malaysia had a title-based claim to the small islands, but Kuala Lumpur had shown "manifestations of state authority" over the islands, notably in the 19

0s under British rule, while Indonesia did not protest Malaysia's actions until 1969.

Still, any attempt by Indonesia to exercise sovereignty over neglected outlying islands is likely to be undermined by the current prolonged economic crisis and ill-equipped armed forces. Indonesia, once considered one of Asia's economic powerhouses, was brought to its knees in 1997 when financial crisis plunged it into deep economic recession. Since then, the country has been depending on various international funding institutions, especially the International Monetary Fund, to finance its development programs. As such, Indonesia simply does not have funds to finance any initiative to exercise sovereignty over outlying islands.

Sabarno suggested that the country increase military patrols on outlying islands to ensure that other parties do not attempt to seize them. The trouble, however, is that the country's armed forces have been paralyzed by an embargo imposed by the United States and its allies after waves of bloody rampages that killed thousands of independence supporters in East Timor in 1999. More than half of the Indonesian Navy's warships are not working because they are obsolete or have no spare parts. So, the Indonesian military, or TNI, cannot be expected to increase its patrols or set up posts in outlying islands.

Unending ethnic and religious conflicts in West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, Maluku, and North Maluku provinces, which have been plaguing the country since the forced resignation of dictator Suharto in May 1998, as well as unresolved secessionist movements in Aceh and Papua provinces, have also absorbed much of the country's time and energy. Hundreds of thousands of troops have been deployed in those conflict-torn areas, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars, but with still no end in sight.

The loss of Sipadan and Ligitan islands to Malaysia may set as a precedent for other islands and provinces to break away from Indonesia. The government signed on December 9 a peace agreement with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), but peace remains elusive in the country's westernmost province, as the secessionist movement has not dropped its struggle for independence. In Papua, a low-level insurgence is still operating despite the government's decision to grant the country’s easternmost province a special autonomy status.

So Indonesia's humiliating defeat in a legal battle over the ownership of Sipadan and Ligitan goes beyond the loss of two small islands and national pride. Prolonged economic crisis, an ill-equipped military, and unending ethnic and religious conflicts have rendered Indonesia apparently powerless to defend the territorial integrity. As such, Sipadan and Ligitan might just be the first of many islands Indonesia loses in territorial disputes with neighboring countries.

December 23, 2002

Asia Times Online /KABAR-IRIAN ("Irian News") Websites: http://www.irja.org/index2.shtml and http://www.kabar-irian.com 

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