Fri, 09 Aug 2002

Malaysia turns down Indonesian requests on workers

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Tampak Siring, Bali

Indonesia asked two things from Malaysia about illegal workers: give them another one month to leave Malaysia and give them assurances that they could return to the country.

But Malaysia rejected them all.

Speaking at the opening of a joint press conference with the visiting Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad here on Thursday, President Megawati Seokarnoputri confirmed that they discussed the controversial issue of illegal workers.

But Megawati did not have much to say. Even when asked to explain, the President only remarked: "As I said. We discussed it during our bilateral talks. We have also formed a task force to handle the issue of illegal workers."

It was Mahathir who gave a lengthy explanation about the ordeal of the Indonesian illegal workers.

Mahathir argued that his government had given enough time for illegal workers to report and leave the country. But many of them failed to do so.

"As a government, we have an obligation to protect our citizens. That is why we need to get these illegal workers out of Malaysia.

"We also have provided enough time for them to go home. It is too bad that they did not use it," Mahathir told the joint press conference.

As Mahathir spoke in Bali, thousands of illegal workers were arriving in various parts of the country from Malaysia, mostly in poor circumstances.

Many came home penniless, while others had bruises after suffering caning at the hands of Malaysian officials, a harsh punishment imposed under the new immigration law, which went into effect on August 1.

More than 400,000 illegal workers are returning home from Malaysia due to the tough immigration law. Many of them are believed to still be stranded in borders areas.

Despite the sorry ordeal of the workers, Mahathir hoped that relations between the two countries would remain good.

"Should some harsh things happen to the Indonesian workers, as they have been flooding the exit points over the past few weeks, we hope that this will not jeopardize the long-standing relationship between our two countries," Mahathir said.

Mahathir also said that his government could not give assurances that all those who left Malaysia voluntarily would be able to return to Malaysia as legal workers.

He noted that his country still needed Indonesian workers, but not as many as in the past years. Besides, they would have to enter Malaysia legally.

As well as the labor problem, Mahathir and Megawati also discussed border issues, illegal logging and terrorism.

"I do not think that we have different perceptions on that (terrorism). I think Indonesia is doing very well and I have not see any terrorists while I've been here," he remarked.

"In any country there are places where activities damaging to the state take place. We must not generalize that Indonesia and Malaysia have any problems with terrorism. There is no problem we cannot handle," Mahathir said.

Mahathir and Megawati witnessed the signing of five memorandums of understanding on immigration, women's empowerment, a business council, the oil and gas trade, and a friendship association.

The two leaders were later joined by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They then signed a trilateral cooperation agreement on the rubber trade.

Their meeting in Bali coincided with the 35th anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN). The three countries are all founding members of ASEAN.