Sat, 12 Mar 2005

RI, Malaysia cool off, talks to start soon

Muninggar Sri Saraswati, The Jakarta Post/Jakarta

Indonesia and Malaysia pledged on Friday to use all means possible to defuse tensions, including some "adjustments" to prevent armed conflict, and have agreed on talks to end the border dispute over the Ambalat offshore oil field in the Sulawesi Sea.

"All parties will control their respective environments in a bid to ease tensions. The President will communicate with the Cabinet, and vice versa," Minister of Foreign Affairs Hassan Wirajuda told a joint press conference along with his Malaysian counterpart Syed Hamid Albar, after a meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on Friday.

Albar said that neither Indonesia nor Malaysia had any intention of using force.

"Malaysia and Indonesia will be forsaken by God if we think to threaten one another with troops. Our approach is cooperation, not military. (Armed conflict) will never happen, God willing," he said.

Albar denied accusations that Malaysia's plan to buy military equipment from Britain was connected to the dispute that has simmered over the past week.

The dispute heightened after Kuala Lumpur decided to award oil exploration rights in a maritime area also claimed by Indonesia.

Hassan said that Indonesia also had been trying its best to prevent possible military incidents that could increase tensions, adding that Indonesia is determined to normalize ties with its neighbor.

Indonesia plans to make some "adjustments" to the deployment of warships in the disputed oil block, he said.

"Should there be several Malaysian or Indonesian ships (in the area), then they must be considered to be just routine patrols," the minister added.

Warships from both countries had come into close contact in the disputed waters on several occasions since Feb. 16, after Malaysia's Petronas awarded Dutch energy giant Shell an oil concession in the Ambalat block.

"The President has communicated with the Indonesian Military (TNI). He even visited the area to ensure that troops obeyed the rules of engagement," Hassan said.

During his recent visit to Sebatik island near Ambalat, Susilo ordered TNI personnel not to activate warship radars, so "there would be no impression of an emergency situation that may give wrong signals", Hassan said.

"We'll try to put things back to the way they used to be before the tension," he said.

During talks with the President, Albar said that both countries' leaders had agreed to improve communications to ease tension.

"The President shall stay in contact with the Prime Minister (Abdullah Ahmad Badawi), myself with Pak Hassan, and military chiefs between themselves. This will be the wisest solution," Albar said.

They jointly agreed not to talk through the media about the substance of planned negotiations scheduled to take place over two days from March 22.

"We do not want to debate through the media; we'll leave (negotiations) to the technical team," Albar said, reiterating Malaysia's complaints that the Indonesian media had overreacted to the situation and had whipped up emotions resulting in anti- Malaysian demonstrations in Jakarta.

The dispute is one of the biggest tests of the Indonesia- Malaysia bilateral relationship since the 1960s, when former president Sukarno declared "confrontation" with Malaysia over the latter's control over northern areas of the island of Borneo, that are now the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

The Ambalat oil field is situated near the islands of Sipadan and Ligitan that had been in dispute for years between Malaysia and Indonesia. The International Court of Justice eventually awarded Malaysia sovereignty over the islands in 2002. However, Indonesia claims that Malaysia's maritime territory extends only 19 kilometers (12 miles) from the islands.