Yawning Bread. March 2007

Sandstorm masks politics of diversion




It has been rumbling for a month -- Indonesia's ban on sand exports to Singapore. Imposed quite suddenly in February 2007, it has put a question mark on a material critical to our construction industry. Till the ban, Singapore got most of our supplies of sand from Indonesia.

Now, there is talk of granite being added to the prohibited list.

From the Indonesian side, there have been a number of different explanations for the ban. Far from representing uncoordination, I am more inclined to believe it is an elaborate Javanese shadow play.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda has repeatedly said, at least in official pronouncements, that the ban was simply to protect Indonesia's environment. Sand-mining had gone too far. Indeed others suggested that dredging of seabed sand had caused so much erosion that coral reefs were dying and entire islands washed away. The only problem with that explanation was that seabed sand mining had been banned some time previously and Singapore was importing land sand -- or at least that's what the exporters were declaring.

Ignoring the question of whether it was land sand, others have claimed that the loss of these islands near Singapore through so much dredging and erosion would lead to Indonesia having to redraw its boundaries based on the coastlines of the remaining islands -- to Indonesia's loss and Singapore's gain. However, officials on both sides conversant about the boundary matter dispute this pseudo-analysis. The sea boundary between Singapore and Indonesia is fixed on absolute co-ordinates, not dependent on shorelines, though demarcation is apparently still a problem in some zones.

Then, there are the other senior officials who outspokenly said that the ban on sand exports was to pressurise Singapore over the proposed extradition treaty. As reported by Bernama news agency in mid February 2007, the "Director-General (East Asia, The Pacific and Africa) of the Indonesian Department of Foreign Affairs Primo Alui Joelianto was reported as saying that Indonesia's ban on the export of concreting sand was a 'key way of placing more pressure' on Singapore (to resolve differences) in extradition and some border negotiations." He seemed to be contradicting his own boss, the foreign minister.

A few days before that, the Jakarta Post reported that Navy Commander Vice Admiral Djoko Sumaryono said the sand ban was due to "security concerns". He had ordered an investigation into the illegal and "rampant" sales. "If the local administration is found to be incapable of safeguarding its areas we will take over security matters there."

The prohibition on export of sand applies to all markets, not just Singapore, though we're the largest customer. China too bought sand from Indonesia and is affected by the ruling as well.

Granite is now likely to be added to the ban. There is some confusion as to whether this is to apply only to granite chips or will include granite blocks. Likewise, there is confusion as to the motivation for extending the ban to granite.

Despite official denials, the most believable reason for the Indonesian government's move is that of putting pressure on Singapore to sign an extradition treaty favourable to them. Given the near-total inaction on the part of the same government annually over the months of choking haze caused by indiscriminate land-clearing by means of burning in Kalimantan and Sumatra, it is hard to take their environmental credentials seriously.

The conflicting signals, even if not carefully orchestrated, certainly serve the Indonesian government well. The "unauthorised" statements linking the ban to the extradition treaty (or border demarcation) make it clear to Singapore what is expected of us. At the same time, the official insistence that the measure is for environmental reasons, makes it hard for Singapore to take issue with the ban. These are classic diversionary tactics.

* * * * *

Also diversionary is the very focus on the extradition treaty itself, a matter that Indonesian parliamentarians have raised frequently in the past.  It is the lawmakers' way of responding to widespread voter dissatisfaction with the lack of progress against corruption in the country. What better way to answer critics than to blame Singapore for stalling? We're doing the best we can to bring the biggest culprits to justice, but Singapore keeps protecting them, they say.

The fact is, they are doing nowhere near the best they can. The biggest plunderer has been ex-President Suharto himself and his family. While Tommy Suharto, the youngest son, is in jail (with extremely comfortable apartments, reports have said), the rest of the family are happily free and in the country. There are no ongoing attempts made with any vigour towards investigating or prosecuting them.


Then there is the case of the arsenic poisoning of Munir Said Thalib in September 2004, while on board a Garuda flight to the Netherlands. Munir was a thorn in the Indonesian military's side, being an outspoken critic of the military's involvement in various atrocities. A pilot, Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto, was convicted for this in 2005, though the original court also noted that evidence during the trial showed that Pollycarpus had not acted alone. The judge urged the police to conduct a further investigation to uncover those others responsible, including a mastermind many suspect high up in official circles. Unsurprisingly, that further investigation went nowhere, and in 2006, the Supreme Court quashed Pollycarpus' conviction altogether, leaving the murder unsolved. [1] 

The other high-profile case that comes to mind is that of the ambush and murder of  2 Americans and their Indonesian translator near Freeport-McMoRan's Grasberg mine in Papua, August 2002. Antonius Wamang and 6 others were convicted in 2006 for the attack. [2]

However, there have been many indications that the Indonesian military ("TNI") was involved too, in particular, its Special Forces, known as Kopassus. Paras Indonesia, an Indonesia blog, has, for example, noted that "Rights groups said Wamang has extensive ties to TNI as a business partner of Kopassus. In an August 2004 television interview on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Wamang said he received his ammunition for the attack from Indonesian military personnel. He has told the FBI and local human rights groups that these officers knew that he was about to carry out an attack in the Freeport concession. TNI has a history of using militia proxies to stage attacks, in the hope of covering up its role in acts of violence."[3]

Given this poor record of investigation, an extradition treaty can create even more problems. If the Indonesian authorities were to present a request for extradition before the Singapore courts under such a treaty, the courts here must give the party so named the chance to contest that request. You can expect the party to accuse the Indonesian authorities of bias and incompetent investigation. It then falls on a Singapore judge to make a determination as to the standards of fairness within the Indonesian police and judicial system. Can you imagine the diplomatic/nationalistic fallout from an adverse determination?

Should the extradition treaty then make it automatic, such that our courts do not have to do any scrutiny? That wouldn't be right. No one living peacefully in Singapore should be hauled off in the middle of the night and deported without protection of our laws and justice system. How do we attract immigrants if we did that? How do we gain the trust and confidence of Singapore citizens like that? The Singapore judicial system has enough problems with its own reputation for fairness and independence without adding to it.

Don't expect a solution anytime soon. However, dragging out the matter suits the Indonesian government and lawmakers well. They can continue to claim they're taking stern measures over corruption and seeking the return of the big culprits for trial, meanwhile sidestepping any other action domestically. And if ever they succeed over the extradition treaty and also manage to get the ill-gotten gains repatriated, why, there is the rich prospect of divvying up the spoils for their "pet projects" in the government budget.

Yawning Bread 


Law and freedom can pose problems with neighbours

It is an open secret that many of the rich Indonesian businessmen so prominent in Singapore's economic landscape became what they were through the nature of the Indonesian "system" under Suharto (and maybe his successors too).

I'm not seeking to paint them white.

However, this issue illustrates a problem that Singapore will perennially face. If we wish to be a place where the rule of law is supreme, then there will always be instances where we come into conflict with our neighbours who do things differently, for under law, the accused are innocent until proven guilty. And that proof must be rigorously and exhaustively tested. Given that high standard of proof, we will always be open to accusations that we are harbouring criminals.

But such is the nature of a law-based open society.

Another aspect we would do well to consider, especially for those of us who push for freedom of speech, is this: The society that we envisage is one where people, including dissidents from other countries, are free to voice their dissent. This extends to criticisms of foreign regimes. We would be hypocritical to say one can only criticise the Singapore government, but not other governments. Invariably, this must cause unhappinness on the part of those regimes, and will be a source of friction. Be prepared for that.



  1. See the Human Rights Watch story  Acquittal bolsters impunity for Munir's murder .
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  2. See the Asia Times story Papua puppetry leaves murders unsolved and the Softpedia story  Seven Papuans Convicted for Murdering Two Americans and One Indonesian  
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  3. Source:  http://www.parasindonesia.com/read.php?gid=399  
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