KL played rough with Indonesia over islands

Indonesians dispute Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s account in their long-standing dispute over two islands. He claimed Malaysia was not aggressive the way he accuses Singapore of behaving at Pedra Branca.

Malaysia took several measures – including firing shots to warn off Indonesian military personnel in some cases – to stake its claims on the once-disputed islands of Sipadan and Ligitan.

And despite diplomatic protests from Jakarta at the time, Indonesian officials said Malaysia built tourist resorts on one of the islands and gave Indonesians a hard time when they visited the islands.

Such revelations are coming to light more than a month after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that the islands belonged to Malaysia. The Dec 17 decision came five years after the dispute was referred to the court.

Sipadan is one of the world’s top diving spots with picturesque marine parks. Ligitan is an uninhabited, mostly submerged islet.

Sources here said tension mounted between the two countries in the mid-1990s as the two sides stepped up naval patrols in the area to assert their claims. There were also reports of minor skirmishes in the vicinity of the two islands.

A senior intelligence officer said there were instances in which Malaysian forces guarding the islands fired at Indonesian military personnel for getting too close.

‘We were always ordered to back off to prevent a full-scale conflict, and these were reported back to the government although they were never made public to protect ongoing diplomatic efforts,’ he said.

Civilians and tourists from Indonesia were also not welcomed on the islands. They received shoddy treatment.

Such accounts contrast with assertions made on Sunday by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad that Malaysia did not behave aggressively.

‘In Sipadan, the Indonesians went there and some of them landed there. We didn’t stop them. We didn’t behave like Singapore, we didn’t chase them away – and we didn’t fight against them and we didn’t try to shoo them off,’ he said.

He said this when commenting on a point Singapore Foreign Minister S. Jayakumar had made in the Singapore Parliament on Saturday. He had said that Singapore, in upholding the status quo on Pedra Branca, was doing what Malaysia did when

it maintained its position on Sipadan and Ligitan. Mr Hasyim Djalal, a former senior diplomat and an expert on international maritime law, noted: ‘When Indonesia tried to send people to carry out studies on the island … they had to go through an arduous process in Malaysia, before eventually being turned down.’

A more detailed account of Malaysia’s attitude was revealed in a recent report in the Indonesian weekly, Tempo. One of its journalists who tried to arrange a visit to Sipadan, two weeks before the ICJ ruling, revealed that several Malaysian tour agents turned him away when they realised he was Indonesian.

Eventually, he got on the island. But Malaysian police picked him up soon after and detained him. He was questioned and harassed for several hours, and even accused of being an agent of the Indonesian military. He was then deported.

The dispute over the two islands began in 1969, when Indonesia and Malaysia marked out their boundaries. Both sides shelved their dispute in a bid to improve ties.

In 1991, Malaysia appeared to stake its claim openly by developing Sipadan as a diving resort island.

An angry Jakarta accused Kuala Lumpur of breaching the accord to maintain the status quo pending a negotiated settlement on the sovereignty issue.

The two sides met in Kuala Lumpur in June that year and decided that no one should develop the islands until the governments reached an agreement on their status.

But Malaysia appeared to have breached this agreement by continuing to develop the island. It moved aggressively to market Sipadan and oversee the construction of more upscale resorts.

The Visit Malaysia 1994 campaign, for example, featured the island as a tourism spot. Three years later, it promoted the resort in a brochure titled ‘Sipadan Paradise’ at a Berlin exhibition, provoking protests from Indonesia.

Malaysia responded in a third-party note to Jakarta on Jan 3, 1994. ‘Since Sipadan and Ligitan are parts of Malaysia, any and all activities undertaken by Malaysia on or pertaining to those islands and their surrounding waters constitute legitimate exercise of its sovereignty and jurisdiction,’ the note said.

‘The continuing acts of intrusion by Indonesian naval vessels and aircraft in Malaysia’s territorial waters and airspace around Sipadan and Ligitan similarly cannot in any way advance Indonesia’s claims over the islands.’

Indonesia’s claim to ownership is based on an 1891 Anglo-Dutch Convention, arguing that the two countries were legally bound to this after inheriting their territories from the Netherlands and Britain.

This was reflected in all maps issued until 1979, when Malaysia began to declare the two islands as part of its territory. Malaysia has maintained that it had effective control of both islands for more than 100 years since 1878, based on a 1907 Anglo-American agreement.

It was even prepared to use force to hold on to them. In October 1994, a new rapid development force staged a mock military exercise to capture nearby Langkawi island from an imaginary enemy. This prompted Indonesia to express its concerns over the exercise.

More recently, observers said that Malaysia stepped up its development of the resorts on the island, perhaps in the belief that Indonesia was too distracted by domestic problems to object.

Malaysia’s ambassador to Indonesia, Datuk Rastam Mohamed Isa, brushed aside the occasional protest from Jakarta. Maintaining its right to develop the islands, he declared in April 2001 – eight months before the ICJ verdict: ‘We reject the Indonesian version of the status quo, in which the people in Sipadan and Ligitan should stop all construction work in the two islands.’


When Indonesia tried to send people to carry out studies on the island … they had to go through an arduous process in Malaysia, before eventually being turned down.’
– Former diplomat Hasyim Djalal, on attempts to go to Sipadan

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