Wed, 09 Mar 2005

RI needs diplomatic strength in dealing with Malaysia

Wahyu Susilo, Jakarta

The diplomatic tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia have been escalating over a border dispute concerning the oil in the Ambalat block. It started nearly two weeks ago when Malaysia's state oil company Petronas claimed that the oil field in the Sulawesi Sea was its exploitation area, and proceeded to sell a concession to the multinational company, Shell.

The unilateral decision by the state company promptly received a strong reaction from the Indonesian government, which also claimed that Ambalat was an inseparable part of the unitary state of the Republic of Indonesia. The oil dispute became a full- fledged crisis after warships and fighter jets were deployed to the area by both countries. The ships are apparently still there on high alert.

As a background, Malaysia's bold claim on Ambalat was not only based on historical considerations, but also on Malaysia's analysis of the performance of Indonesian diplomacy, which has always "lost" to Malaysia. In previous weeks, Malaysia noticed its "victory" in the diplomacy of migrant worker deportation, though it had been cornered by the case of Damansara Damai, which revealed Malaysian companies' wage payment arrears and deliberate recruitment of migrant workers without documents.

In the beginning, Indonesia aggressively declared that there was "something serious about the issue of migrant workers without documents in Malaysia" and even planned to hire 10 renowned lawyers in Malaysia to sue the companies in order to make them bankrupt. But the Malaysian government was not deterred and stuck to its guns, believing that, "migrant workers without papers is a crime so they have no right to sue". Finally, Indonesia backed down -- with an anticlimax at the summit meeting between President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Premier Abdullah Badawi on Feb. 14, 2005.

When the Indonesian public expected the meeting to improve the fate of migrant workers without documents (particularly on the issue of unpaid wages), the result was the reverse. Instead of urging Malaysian firms to pay the wages overdue, the Indonesian government left its settlement fully to Malaysia and agreed to allow the stern actions against Indonesian illegal workers. The Indonesian "agreement" legitimized the Malaysian operation. Indonesia's "defeat" was apparent with the cancellation of the Indonesian government's lawsuit against the Malaysian firms.

This failure in Indonesian diplomacy encouraged Malaysia to launch its political maneuver by claiming the Ambalat offshore area as its territory. The move will again force Indonesia to solve the Ambalat border crisis through the mechanism of diplomacy. Indonesia will definitely avoid settling the dispute through the international court because of the trauma of its loss in the 2002 Sipadan-Ligitan case in this tribunal.

I predict that by inviting Indonesia to bilateral diplomatic talks, there will certainly be room for negotiation on the control over Ambalat. Should Indonesia be trapped in a fait accompli, it would mean that Ambalat will indeed be recognized legally as Malaysia's oil field.

The Indonesian government should conduct a profound evaluation of its performance of foreign diplomacy. Admittedly, Indonesia has so far been ensnared in the myth of the "common ethnic family" policy with Malaysia, so that the pattern of diplomacy tends to avoid the approach of bargaining and be more oriented to the politics of harmony.

By the model that gives prominence to the politics of harmony, the interests of migrant workers demanding their rights and protection were brushed aside for the sake of harmony in bilateral relations. So, if in this process of the Ambalat diplomacy, Indonesia still applies the politics of harmony, the outcome will again harm Indonesian interests. In a territorial dispute, our diplomacy should be totally maximized by pooling all political resources.

Observing the main issues in the Indonesia-Malaysia bilateral crisis (migrant workers and territorial dispute), Indonesia should strengthen its political bargaining position in its diplomacy by analyzing the interdependence between Malaysia's economy and the labor market. On Saturday, March 5, a Malaysian delegation under Interior Minister Azmi Khalid visited Jakarta to meet with Indonesian Minister of Manpower and Transmigration Fahmi Idris for a discussion on the quick return of the migrant workers who left Malaysia during the amnesty period.

According to Azmi Khalid, companies in Malaysia are facing a labor shortage due to the scarcity of low-wage migrant workers, and Malaysia expects the fulfillment of its industrial demand within two months (for around 300,000 migrant workers).

Therefore, this reality should serve as a political bargaining chip. The Indonesian government should not always comply with Malaysia's requests. Indonesia's bargaining position will rise if the government says, for instance: "Indonesia is prepared to speed up the return of 300,000 migrant workers to Malaysia, if within a month the Malaysian government is ready to force Malaysian firms to pay wages still overdue."

The government can add more demands including the arrest and punishment of Malaysian employees who deliberately recruited migrant workers without papers, make sure that the migrant raid proceeds peacefully without rights violation, and withdraw the unilateral claim on Ambalat."

The writer is a labor policy analyst in Migrant CARE -- Indonesian Association for Sovereign Migrant Workers.