Jakarta and KL leaders downplay territorial spat

Foreign ministers from both sides to meet today to find diplomatic solution.

DAYS after a dispute escalated over an oil-rich area in the Sulawesi Sea, leaders from Indonesia and Malaysia appeared to pull back from inflaming the situation further yesterday.

Both sides made conciliatory statements. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, touring a military base near the region, called for ‘self-restraint’ while Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar made it clear that Kuala Lumpur did not ‘want to be confrontational’.

Despite the rhetoric, however, the warships and fighter planes from Indonesia remained in or near the contested waters off the coast of Malaysia’s Sabah state and Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province.

Also in Indonesia, demonstrations against what is perceived to be Malaysian encroachment of the country’s sovereignty continued unabated. About 100 people gathered outside the Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta calling for Malaysia to be ‘crushed’ – echoing sentiments that harked back to the days of konfrontasi in the 1960s.

In Makassar, South Sulawesi, protesters torched Malaysian flags.

Feisty legislators also jumped on the nationalist bandwagon, with some calling for Jakarta to use force to protect its territory.

Mr Theo Sambuaga, the head of the legislative commission overseeing foreign affairs, said: ‘We endorse efforts to protect the area by dispatching jets and warships. And if Malaysia refuses to abide by it, we’ll even consider military action.’ His commission also urged Jakarta to recall its ambassador to Malaysia.

Against this backdrop of nationalist heckling, Dr Yudhoyono sought to downplay tensions as the foreign ministers of both countries prepared to meet today to discuss the problem.

Senior presidential aide Dino Pati Djalal told The Straits Times: ‘The President wants all parties to exercise self-restraint and to deal with the problem in a constructive way. He wants an amicable solution because he values Indonesia’s relations with Malaysia.’

Dr Yudhoyono, currently touring islands near the disputed area, told journalists that the two countries would weather the row.

‘Bilateral ties have not undergone drastic changes. Do not picture this relationship as in a bad state. It has not worsened in a relatively brief time,’ he said.

‘We really hope that the negotiation and the diplomatic steps will proceed well … what is clear is that we will prioritise negotiations.’

Datuk Seri Syed Hamid is scheduled to hold talks today with Indonesian counterpart Hassan Wirajuda on the overlapping claims.

On the eve of the talks, he told reporters in Malaysia that the problem is just a hiccup in bilateral relations that is being blown out of proportion by the Indonesian media.

‘The media in Indonesia have initiated a tremendous raising of feelings,’ he said, adding that the dispute is ‘short-term’ and ‘situational’.

‘Beefing up all these emotions is not good,’ he said.

‘I do not want to add fire to what already looks or has a semblance of anger that is being whipped up in Indonesia. In Malaysia, we should stay calm.’

Both parties will look at several proposals to resolve the issue, including bringing up the matter to the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

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