As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan loomed this year, so did yet another diplomatic row between two of South-east Asia’s more difficult neighbours.
Tied by religion, language, proximity and a cultural heritage that dates back centuries, the social mores that separate Malaysia and Indonesia should seem small. Yet the pair have been lurching from one diplomatic spat to another as nationalists from both sides of the Malacca Strait trade insults and threats that—if carried out—could be hugely damaging to the region.
‘There’s been a succession of issues that have really angered a lot of people in Indonesia,’ says Keith Loveard, a regional security analyst with Jakarta-based Concord Consulting.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The latest spat flared on August 13, when Malaysian authorities detained three Indonesian maritime officers in disputed waters near the Indonesian province of the Riau Islands—considered the birthplace of the modern Malay language.
Indonesia’s Maritime and Fisheries Ministry, for its part, detained seven Malaysian fishermen, meaning that what should have been a minor infraction in a remote corner of the Strait escalated over Ramadan, with tempers continuing to fray into October.
‘They were all released very quickly, but the damage was done,’ Loveard says.
Leaping to the fore was a minority group, the Nationalist People’s Bastion for Democracy, or Bendera, which gained notoriety for its fiery protests outside the Malaysian embassy (and the rather unpleasant practice of throwing faeces).
In response, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono directed a speech to Malaysia from Indonesian Military (TNI) headquarters. He failed to impress firebrand groups like Bendera, but Loveard notes Indonesia’s military presence in Kelimantan on Borneo was beefed up.
‘Yudhoyono made his statement at armed forces headquarters. That was significant,’ he says. ‘If you look at the reaction of Indonesia to what is a very small incident, this is a very dangerous state of play.’
For now, the frustrations appear to have peaked, and late last week Indonesia called for a comprehensive solution to differences that hurt bilateral ties.
Yet finding such a solution is easier said than done.
Loveard sits squarely in the Indonesian camp, and says the arrests were just the latest expressions of antagonism to chill the diplomatic air, adding that a range of issues must be resolved by Malaysia if it’s serious about finding a comprehensive solution.
Issues bugging Indonesia include the abuse of Indonesian maids working in Malaysia, the mistreatment of illegal plantation workers and periodically flaring cultural disagreements (underscored by last year’s use of Balinese dancers to promote a Discovery Channel programme on Malaysia that resulted in accusations of cultural theft—and threats of war).
Loveard says there’s enough going on to make Indonesians feel that Malaysians are simply being ‘inhumane’ in the way they treat Indonesians.
‘Plantation workers will work illegally in Malaysia for six months. They’re told they’ll be paid at the end of that period, but once their time is almost done their employer will call the police and inform on them,’ he says. ‘They’re arrested, deported and not paid.’