Sun, 06 Jul 2003

To most Indonesians, the tiny islands of Sipadan and Ligitan were once just insignificant specks on the map.

That was until the nationalistic stink kicked up by the tussle over ownership of the islands between Indonesia and Malaysia. The fight can be traced back to 1969 when the two countries, while holding negotiations on their continental shelf boundaries, agreed to enforce status quo status on the two islands.

In 1976, the two islands were included on the geographical map of Sabah, but this was not considered legitimate evidence of jurisdiction over them.

In 1991 then foreign minister Ali Alatas asked Malaysia to stop the construction of tourist resorts on the two islands. In subsequent years, negotiations went on between the two countries over which of them held jurisdiction over the islands.

In 1996 the two countries agreed to bring the dispute to the International Court of Justice. A hearing on this case began in mid-2001, and on Dec. 17, 2002, to Indonesia's consternation, the ICJ ruled that the islands belonged to Malaysia, and the dispute was settled amicably, even though it meant a loss for Indonesia and some subsequent jingoistic grandstanding by domestic critics of Jakarta.

This book is compiled mainly from papers presented at a panel discussion on the Sipadan-Ligitan case, held in conjunction with the 53rd anniversary of the University of Indonesia earlier this year.

One of the most interesting articles in the book is written by foreign minister Hassan Wirayuda. He explains the whole process of the settlement of the territorial dispute, tracing the historical background of ownership of the islands and the doctrine that finally prevailed in the ruling for Malaysia.

For the layman, this book is informative about how a country exercises its sovereignty over a specific territory. It tells us how, through annexation, accretion, surrender, prescription or occupation, a country declares its sovereignty. Then the country must demonstrate its will to act as a sovereign party and exercise this sovereignty properly.

In the case of Sipadan and Ligitan, Malaysia fulfilled the criteria on the grounds that Britain, former colonial ruler of Malaysia, controlled the collection of turtle eggs on the two islands as of 1914, established a bird sanctuary in Sipadan in 1933 and constructed lighthouses in early 1960.

This provides a good understanding of why we have lost the two islands, but also acts as a wake-up call. Only 7,353 of Indonesia's 17,508 islands have been charted and identified. Sixty-seven of these identified islands share a boundary with neighboring countries, particularly those islets lying on the outermost boundaries of the archipelago.

Unless we learn a good lesson from our loss of Sipadan and Ligitan, we may suffer the same bitter fate in the future.

-- Lie Hua