Wed, 09 Mar 2005

Tension eases as RI pulls out warships

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta/Sebatik Island

Tension between Indonesia and Malaysia over border and mineral resources subsided on Tuesday with the Navy pulling out its warships from the disputed maritime area of Ambalat in the Sulawesi Sea.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was touring the islands near the disputed area off the eastern coast of Kalimantan, insisted that the two countries would not put their good ties at stake just because of a border issue.

Chief of the Navy's Eastern Fleet Rear Adm. Sosialisman, who was among the President's entourage, said he had ordered five of the seven warships that had been on guard in the Ambalat area to return to their base in Surabaya.

The withdrawal followed an agreement between leaders of the two countries to send their foreign ministers to Jakarta for talks to settle the dispute, which are scheduled to begin on Wednesday.

Concluding his tour of Sebatik Island on Tuesday, the President said the two countries would avoid a confrontation.

"(Our) bilateral ties have not undergone any rapid, unexpected changes. Don't imagine that the two countries' bilateral ties are in a critical condition. Good ties will not be severed in such a short time... I think we are in a more friendly, neighborly mood than in the past," Susilo said, adding that Indonesia was not the enemy of Malaysia.

Indonesia dispatched over the weekend seven warships and four F-16 jet fighters for closer surveillance over two deep-water blocks claimed by Malaysia to be its territory. Hundreds of soldiers and thousands of others were ready for deployment to the disputed area to counter the presence of Malaysian warships and patrol planes there.

The TNI chief said all four F-16s would stay at Balikpapan air base, while the remaining two warships would continue their patrols.

"Malaysia has only sent two small patrol boats out there, so it's not necessary for us to counter with bigger vessels," Endriartono said.

He added that the dispute would encourage the TNI to ask for an increase in the defense budget when the government proposed a revision to the state budget next month.

"Most of the additional money will be used for upgrading Navy and Air Force equipment," he told The Jakarta Post.

The dispute emerged after Malaysia's state-owned oil company Petronas awarded production sharing contracts to Shell in the oil-and-gas-rich water blocks last month. Jakarta protested Malaysia's claim over the territory but to no avail.

The country's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) joined the campaign for a peaceful settlement.

The NU's leader, Hasyim Muzadi, said the organization supported the use of diplomacy to resolve the row as it would prevent intervention by a third party.

"We should learn from the conflicts between Iran and Iraq and between Iraq and Kuwait, when a third party played a hidden role. Indonesia and Malaysia, two Muslim countries in Southeast Asia, should maintain their brotherhood to keep a third party from causing disorder," Hasyim said in Medan, North Sumatra.

Despite the call for peace, anti-Malaysia rallies were staged across the country on Tuesday. Protesters demanded the government declare war to maintain Indonesia's sovereignty over the disputed waters.

Thousands of students and youths in major cities of Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi took to the streets, calling out that they were ready for battle.

Several youth organizations in Palu, Makassar, Semarang and Surabaya opened registration for civilian volunteers who wished to help the TNI "crush Malaysia".

Jusuf Putra, the coordinator of the anti-Malaysia demonstration in Surabaya, said hundreds of youths and students had joined his task force, which is sponsored by Muslim students in the city.