Fri, 03 Jan 2003

Govt plans to develop border islands

Berni K. Moestafa and Debbie Lubis, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Indonesia would intensify development on islands that form the country's borders to impress its sovereignty upon neighboring countries, with most of whom the government had yet to sign border treaties, an official said.

Eighty-three islands serve as Indonesia's points of reference to determine its marine territory, continental coastlines and exclusive economic zones (EEZ), said the director for small islands at the Ministry of Maritime and Fishery Affairs, Alex S.W. Retraubun, on Thursday.

He said his office had drawn up a five-step strategy to boost development on the 83 islands, starting with inviting investment there.

The investment may be related to tourism, fishery or husbandry, but most importantly, the investment must show activity on the otherwise deserted islands, he said.

"If we look at the court's decision, it's so simple: Malaysia (showed its sovereignty through) with conservation and it has shown continuous occupation over the islands -- things we could have done too," he told The Jakarta Post.

Alex was referring to the recent UN international court ruling in which Indonesia lost a border dispute with Malaysia over the ownership of the islands of Sipadan and Ligitan.

The court voted 16 to 1 against Indonesia, saying Malaysia had shown administrative control over the two islands long before Indonesia did.

In the subsequent wave of criticism against the government, President Megawati Soekarnoputri said on Tuesday she wanted Indonesia to show more control over its border islands.

Investors already showed keen interest in developing a resort on Nipah Island, located just 15 minutes away from Singapore, Alex added.

He said Nipah marked Indonesia's border with Singapore, as well as Malaysia.

The island, however, is sinking. Only five percent of Nipah was above sea level, and if it disappeared completely, it would obscure Indonesia's border demarcation with both Singapore and Malaysia. "So we're talking about heavy reclamation here," commented Alex.

Another step would be to draw a profile of each of the 83 islands then decide how best to develop them, he added.

Alex said the other three steps deal with the prospect of turning some of the islands into conservation areas, encouraging local fisheries to operate close to the islands, and increasing economic activities on those islands that were populated.

Indonesia is bordered by Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, Palau, the Caroline Islands, India and Australia.

So far, the country has signed continental coastline agreements with Malaysia, Thailand, India, Papua New Guinea and Australia.

There are only two existing agreements on marine territory, with Malaysia and Singapore, and just one EEZ agreement with Australia.

Laode M. Kamaluddin, economic advisor to Vice President Hamzah Haz and member of the Indonesian Maritime Board, said that five islands were at risk of becoming lost or becoming the focus of disputes with neighbors.

Aside from the diminishing Nipah Island, there is the case of Miangas Island, whose people are interacting more with the neighboring Filipinos. He saw in Mapia Island a similar risk because of its people's closer affiliation with the people of Palau.

He said Australia might be eying the Christmas Islands located close to Pasir Island, as it is a popular holiday destination among Australians.

Also at risk was one unnamed island in West Kalimantan that had become a base for illegal Thai fishermen, Laode said.

In total, he added, some 70 named and unnamed islands were drawing the interest of neighboring countries.

"Our neighbors will continue to set their eyes on our small islands because we ourselves haven't seriously exploited them as new economic resources," he explained.