Troubled Waters: Indonesia’s Growing Maritime Disputes


Indonesia has had a rocky couple of weeks in its relations with its neighbors. While Ted Piccone and Bimo Yusman wrote last week about Indonesia’s decade of qualified diplomatic successes, in a series of separate and mostly unrelated naval developments the archipelagic nation has in turn aggrieved, or been aggrieved by, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, and Australia.


In the first incident, the Indonesian Navy sparked a row with Singapore after it announced it was renaming the final of three refitted frigates it purchased from Britain the KRI Usman Harun, in honor of Usman Ali and Harun Said. The pair of Indonesian marines conducted the 1965 bombing of MacDonald House in Singapore, killing three and wounding another 33, part of then-President Sukarno’s Konfrontasi—a violent effort to destabilize the formation of Malaysia, of which Singapore was then a part.

After their subsequent execution three years later in Singapore, Usman and Harun were in Indonesia memorialized as martyrs, prisoners of war wrongly killed, receiving a state funeral in the Kalibata Heroes Cemetery in South Jakarta and inspiring the sacking of the Singaporean embassy. Relations remained frosty between the two countries for the next five years until restoration of formal ties following a state visit from Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who sprinkled flowers on the marines’ graves in a highly symbolic act for the Javanese.

Indonesia’s defense chief stated the decision to rename the vessels was made in December 2012, but only widely publicized this month, stressing the vessel’s name will not be changed. Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or SBY, has himself cautioned Singapore about reacting “proportionally” to the naming.

Many Singaporeans understandably view the pair, who disregarded their orders to bomb an electric plant and infiltrated the city in civilian clothes, in a slightly different light. While other things throughout Indonesia have or are planned to be named after the marines, in the words of a Singaporean, naming a warship after them is particularly onerous.

Singapore’s foreign minister has expressed concerns over the issue with his Indonesian counterpart. The row has already led the rescinding of mid-level military-to-military engagement between officers of the two nations at this year’s Singapore Airshow, leading Indonesia to pull out all of its brass.


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