Mon, 23 Sep 2002

Visa policy change to go ahead despite criticism, minister says

Muhammad Nafik, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The government is likely to go ahead with its controversial plan to abolish its visa-on-entry policy given to citizens of 48 countries following the recent arrests of several foreigners in connection with separatism or terrorism activities in the country.

The move has drawn strong criticism from the business sector, especially from the tourist-related businesspeople, saying that the move would be a setback to the country's tourism sector and economic recovery process.

However, Minister of Justice and Human Rights Yusril Ihza Mahendra on Saturday dismissed fears that the new policy would harm the national economy, especially the tourism sector.

The 48 countries include the U.S., Japan, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan, which are Indonesia's major sources of tourists and foreign investment.

"I proposed to the government three months ago that the decision to grant visas (on arrival) for nationals of 48 countries be revoked. But the Bali governor and ASITA (the Association of Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies) rejected it, so we have to bear such risks," Yusril told journalists after attending a ceremony to mark the International Day of Peace at his office in Jakarta.

Nevertheless, he promised to have further discussions on the plan before acting on it in the near future.

Yusril's remarks were in response to Vice President Hamzah Haz's request Thursday for the relevant authorities to tighten the immigration system in order to prevent foreigners from making trouble in the country.

Hamzah also asked Indonesian embassies abroad to selectively issue visas, so that unexpected incidents involving people with ill-intent could be avoided.

The Vice President was apparently referring to the detentions of two foreign women -- 42-year old Scottish researcher Lesley McCulloch and 57-year old American volunteer Joy Lee Sadler -- in rebellious Aceh.

The two along with their Acehnese interpreter were nabbed by soldiers in South Aceh for misusing their tourist visas by allegedly involving themselves in activities linked to the rebel Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Also, the security authorities in the West Java town of Bogor had arrested Omar al-Faruq, reportedly a Kuwaiti citizen who was believed to be a mid-level operative of the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Al-Faruq, who was deported to the United States in June, had reportedly plotted to murder President Megawati Soekarnoputri, an accusation that was doubted by many as she appears not to be a prime opponent of fundamentalist groups here.

In an addition to the al-Faruq arrest, the police in Jakarta has been detaining Seyam Reda, believed to be a German national of Arab descent, since last week on charges of violating immigration rules.

He is accused of undertaking activities connected with a regional terrorist network.

The plan to scrap the visa facility is not a new one. In late 1999, the government entertained the idea of abolishing it, arguing that it had contributed to many negative factors in the country, including increased drug smuggling and a growing number of illegal workers.

The current visa arrangement was first introduced in 1983 by tourism minister Joop Ave, and was meant to lure more foreign tourists to the country. Under the scheme, tourists from certain countries automatically get a tourist visa valid for two months upon arrival.

Meanwhile, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu ordered on Friday all regional military leaders, particularly those in the troubled provinces of Aceh, Maluku and Papua, to increase surveillance of foreigners.

"I have instructed provincial military commands to 'supervise' them. If they (foreigners) want to have picnics, they can go to Bali or other tourist areas, Why should they go to Aceh? What do they want see? It's illogical. We are in a war here," he said while touring Aceh on Friday.