A keynote speech "Nationalism and Sea Piracy on the Malacca Strait" presented at the "Maritime Piracy in Southeast Asia" at Hotel Equatorial, Kuala Lumpur, 14 July 2006
In November 1998, a Sangir sailor who used to work for a Chinese businessman, boarded his former boss’ Pulau Mas tanker ship in Malaysian waters, near Johor Baru. He tried to solve an old dispute by asking for 50,000 Singaporean dollars. Sailor Franky Kansil brought three Indonesian Navy officers and two thugs to make his point.
“Mister Wong,” the businessman, did not have the money. He made some phone calls, including one to his girlfriend, Ayu Nani Sabri, a Javanese woman who works at a karaoke bar on Indonesia’s Batam Island. Batam is a lousy small island about 30-minute ferry ride south of Singapore. “He told me about the situation and asked me to contact someone at Kodim Batam,” Ayu recalled. Kodim is a Bahasa Indonesia acronym for a district army command.
Wong claimed that he is an oil shipper. But Indonesian government alleged that he had masterminded some major maritime piracies on the Malacca Strait. It is not a small piracy involving one or two boats by small-time pirates based in Belakang Panjang Island or Jemaja Island, just across Singapore. But his is a big operation. He once allegedly paid Kansil to captain a hijacked tanker from the Malacca Strait to Sihanoukville in southern Cambodia.
Wong’s real name is a mystery. His passport, once seized by the Indonesian Navy, showed that his name is “Chew Cheng Kiat.” The Singapore Embassy to Jakarta, however, claimed that it was a stolen passport. A Batam hotelier, where Ayu and Wong regularly stayed, told me that “Mister Wong” usually used a “Chong Kee Fong” passport.
That night aboard the Pulau Mas, Wong persuaded Kansil to leave the tanker ship and promised to solve the problem in Batam. It is not clear what that money was for. A protection money? An unpaid payment?
The following day on Nov. 24, Wong visited Batam and stayed in his regular Hotel Kolekta. He used some days between Nov. 24 and Nov. 29 for unknown activities — "Waiting," he said — but disappeared from Batam. Ayu Nani Sabri also did not know what her man had actually done during the period.
Meanwhile, Kansil repeatedly made phone calls both to Ayu and Pulau Mas captain Arief Lasenda, threatening to beat and to kill Wong if the Chinaman did not appear and pay a ransom.
Wong appeared again in Batam on Nov 29 and decided to spend the night with Ayu at Hotel 88, rather than Hotel Kolekta. "We saw some Navy intelligence officers at Kolekta," said Ayu. She recalled that Wong was calm that evening. Perhaps, he was confident that the Kodim officer, whom Ayu had initially contacted, had helped secure his problem. Wong spent the nights together with Ayu until the Navy raided their hotel room on Dec 1.
According to Indonesian Rear Admiral Sumardi, who held a press conference after the arrest, his men had detained Wong and seven Pulau Mas crewmembers. They had allegedly produced fake immigration stamps and hijacked foreign ships such as the MT Atlanta and MT Petro Ranger in Indonesian waters.
Admiral Sumardi said that his men had been focusing their attention on Pulau Mas for months as it was repeatedly sighted in the Batam waters. But every time an Indonesian patrol boat approached the vessel, it would sail into either Singaporean or Malaysian waters.
Through an “ex-member” of the Wong syndicate, Admiral Sumardi received information that Pulau Mas would be sailing closer to Batam in late November. Inside the tanker ship, the Navy found ample evidence of criminal activity which included 15 handcuffs, 14 facemasks, knives, fake immigration stamps, paint, and ship stamps that let the pirates convert hijacked vessels into "phantom" ships.
Captain Arief Lasenda, who is among the seven crew jailed in a Batam prison, denied the charges. He told me that Kansil had most probably had a secret arrangement with some Indonesian officers to both extort money from Wong and to use the Indonesian Navy to extend their interests. When asked about the handcuffs and facemasks, Lasenda said it was normal for a captain to possess such equipment. "A captain onboard his ship also functions as a policeman, a prosecutor and a judge," he said, adding that if they were pirates why they had no firearms.
I covered this episode from Jakarta, Batam and Kuala Lumpur, writing wrote some reports for the Bangkok-based Nation daily. Wong was later found guilty in the Batam court. His lawyers pointed out (correctly) that his arrest did not follow proper procedures. Some years later, Wong escaped from the prison but rearrested and transferred to the Pekanbaru prison on Sumatra Island.
Indonesia's media, including the Batam-based Sijori Pos daily, a subsidiary of the Tempo Jawa Pos group, never mentioned anything about Franky Kansil or Ayu Nani Sabri. They mostly quoted Navy and police officers in charge of the Wong case, suggesting that Indonesian media, both those in Batam and in Jakarta, did not know much about the clash in the Johor Baru anchorage.
Like most journalists, I moved on and covered other stories, from East Timor’s independence to the Jemaah Islamiyah’s bombings in Bali. Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times writes that the post-Suharto Indonesia has became a messy state: too big to fail, too messy to work.
The result is rampant corruption and a fragmentation of power in which neither the military, the parliament, the executive nor the remnants of the old order have the strength to assert their will. “That's why in messy states, you never quite know when arms are sold, people murdered or payoffs demanded whether this is by design of those ostensibly in charge or because no one is in charge,” writes Friedman.
A messy state, from a journalist’s point of view, means big stories.
I traveled into the jungles of Aceh and Papua, meeting Acehnese guerrillas and Papuan freedom fighters; I had gone to see Alifuru leaders in the Maluku Islands; I visited remote islands like Miangas in the Talaud Islands or Ndana Island near Australia. I covered the emergence of Minahasan nationalism in northern Sulawesi or the clashes between the Malay and the Dayak ethnic groups in Kalimantan, resulting in the killing of more than 6,500 Madurese settlers between 1997 and 2001.
Since the 1950s, Aceh has struggled to secede from Indonesia and Papua set up its own Free Papua Organization in 1965. Indonesia comprises thousands of islands stretching over a distance from east to west that is approximately the same as from London to Baghdad. Its 210 million people speak more than 500 different languages and 88 percent of its population are Muslims, especially on the islands of Java and Sumatra, making Indonesia the largest Islamic country in the world. But it has a Christian majority in its eastern provinces.
Ethnic violence and separatist movements are escalating in a messy Indonesia. The main reasons are injustice, human rights abuses and the growing gap between the main island of Java and the other islands. Now questions are being raised whether Indonesia can survive as a nation-state. Indonesia might disintegrate like Yugoslavia, given that its people’s only common history is their Dutch colonial past. Suharto managed to keep the country together by brutal means after he rose to power in 1965. But when he left power in May 1998, the institutions that he had built up also began to crumble.
I covered these messy activities but still remembered the Malacca Strait. When travelling around the Sangir Islands two years ago, I tried to find Franky Kansil in his hometown, Tahuna. He was not there. He was even not known among several Sangir sailors.
Whether it was a piracy on the Malacca Strait or the sectarian wars in the Malukus, I consistently found one thing in common: the involvement of Indonesian military officers, big or small, direct or indirect, in shadowy businesses. Mister Wong cooperated with at least one army officer. I am not surprised if he worked with more than one.
Franky Kansil cooperated with some navy officers. In Papua and Kalimantan, the military involved heavily in illegal logging activities. I once interviewed an Army sergeant who opened a bar with dozens of sex workers in Merauke in Papua, using his income to help pay his troops’ meals.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch last month published a 126-page report, Too High a Price: The Human Rights Cost of the Indonesian Military Economic Activities, in which it describes how the Indonesian military raises money outside the government budget through a sprawling network of legal and illegal businesses. They provided paid services –their clients included multinational corporations like Freeport McMoran and Exxon Mobil-- and marked up military purchases.
A dead Army brigadier general was last month found in his Jakarta house to have amassed various weapons, enough to completely arm one battalion. The findings included 96 rifles, seven ungrooved rifles and 42 short-barreled rifles. In all, the 145 weapons were of varying makes: SS-1, MP-5, M-16 and AK-47. Army investigators also found 28,985 bullets, eight grenades, and 28 pairs of binoculars. Brig. Gen. Kusmayadi was obviously aimed for something prior to his sudden death. Was he an arms trader? Was he involved in some sabotage?
The main problem is that the Indonesian military’s budget is sufficient to meet only half of its needs. It has to cover the remainder independently. Cornell University’s Indonesia journal, which publishes quarterly military analysis, came out with an even lower number: only 30 percent. The remaining 70 percent has been self-financed by the Indonesian military.
The journal reported that these funds come from three sources: (1) military enterprises under its complex foundations or yayasan; (2) security and other military services (e.g. transportation) for civilian “clients”; (3) illegal or criminal businesses orchestrated, or backed, by military personnel (and units), including protection rackets for prostitution and gambling businesses.
Type-3 business activities are mainly conducted by the lowest level in the army command structure (individuals and troops). Type-2 business activities are largely managed by the Kodam (army command on the provincial level) and Korem (under Kodam). The army central command in Jakarta is not in a position to supervise the type-2 and type-3 activities. It is only type-1 businesses that the army headquarters can deal with directly.
The Asian economic crisis damaged the type-1 enterprises and exposed their weaknesses: endemic corruption and poor management. The Army headquarters, however, found difficulties to investigate the bankruptcies. Dozens of Kurmayadi-typed officers were involved in these corrupt practices.
Only by 2001, the Army headquarters came to understand that these bankruptcies posed a fundamental threat to the entire institution and decided to employ foreign accounting firms to conduct a full investigation into its biggest foundation, Yayasan Kartika Eka Paksi. The Ernst & Young result, after an eight-month audit, was a real jolt: only two of the 38 army enterprises were generating profit.
These financial pressures prompted military commanders to be “more creative” in financing their troops. Directly or indirectly, the 900-kilometer Malacca Strait is a source of funding potential as well as a hide-and-seek playgrounds for the Indonesian military. They could increase patrol to minimize crimes –when the international communities are screaming-- but also to give green-light signals to their underworld links.
Who do the screaming? Well, government officials, the U.S. and Singapore governments, scholars, al Qaeda experts and many other concerned citizens do that.
U.S. State Secretary Condoleezza Rice said one-quarter of the world’s oil and trade pass through the Malacca Strait every year. “Southeast Asia is more water and land, and maritime security is a top priority,” Rice said.
“We’re working with Indonesia and others to close this region’s waterways to drug smugglers and human traffickers, pirates and weapon proliferators.”
Tim Huxley, a London writer on piracy in Southeast Asia, estimated “62,000 shipping movements” through the strait every year. Huxley doubted the Indonesian military’s ability and seriousness in protecting these waters.
According to Christian LeMiere, Asia editor for Jane’s Country Risk in London, territorial sensitivities about a patrol chasing suspected pirates into a neighbor’s waters in so-called “hot pursuits” could make it easy for criminals to slip away. “There are doubts about the effectiveness of these patrols,” LeMiere said, adding that in some cases in Indonesia, law enforcement authorities are suspected of colluding with pirates.
Billateral disputes as well as sovereignty concern also undercut maritime cooperation. Last year, a dispute over an oil field in Ambalat, Sulawesi Sea, triggered a tense standoff between the Malaysian and Indonesian navies. Indonesian media played a role in creating a nationalistic brouhaha, prompting several militia groups to burn Malaysian flags and to arm themselves to go to Ambalat. Metro TV broadcasted patriotic songs, as if challenging narrow-minded militias to fight the Malaysian state. The Malaysian government even threatened to file a law suit against Kompas daily.
I am afraid, like what the pirates do with border issues, the Indonesian government, media and military manipulated nationalism and sovereignity concern to secure their respective narrow interests over the security of the Malacca Strait and other territorial matters. In fact, the nation building process of Indonesia had been seriously corroded since it gained international recognition in the 1940s.
It's been 60 years, but killing in the name of Indonesia still takes place. Indonesia kills almost as many of its citizens as Germany did under Adolf Hitler (six million victims) or the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (five million).
Hasan di Tiro of the Free Aceh Movement simply said that "Indonesia" is the pseudonym of bangsa Jawa or "Javanese nation". Indonesia was imagined and created to serve the densely populated Java Island.
Papua freedom fighters believed that the Papuans are dying. They are being exploited by Jakarta's imperialism. The Papuans were made to be dirt poor in their mineral-rich land and waters.
In Ambon, Semuel Waileruny said the people of Maluku had suffered tremendously under the "Javanization" program.
In Riau, where Batam and those small islands of pirates are located, many students, activists and intellectuals are talking about having a “sovereign Riau.” They know that Riau is one of Indonesia’s richest provinces –like Aceh, Papua and Kalimantan—but most money goes to Jakarta. They are not openly fighting against Jakarta but clearly differentiate themselves as “Malay” with their “Malay cultures” –not “Indonesians” and “Indonesian cultures.”
Indonesia’s most internationally-recognized novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who used his literary brilliance to help build its nationalism, told me that the mind-set among the Jakarta ruling elite is the main problem. They saw Indonesia more as a territorial matter than a nation-building process. "If Indonesia was to break up, wars will happen continuously. Java has too many people and they are mostly poor," said Pramoedya.
The security of the Malacca Strait is closely related to the rising new nationalism among many “nations” in Indonesia. ***
Andreas Harsono heads the Pantau Foundation in Jakarta. It is a media think tank doing journalism courses, newspaper consultancy and media research. He is currently writing a book, From Sabang to Merauke: Debunking the Myth of Indonesian Nationalism.
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