Indonesia Sinks 34 Foreign Ships in War on Illegal Fishing

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Indonesia Sinks 34 Foreign Ships in War on Illegal Fishing

A closer look at Jakarta’s latest mass public sinking.

Indonesia sank 34 foreign vessels on Tuesday in conjunction with its independence day celebrations in its latest bid to deter vessels from illegally fishing, local media outlets reported.

The mass public sinking itself comes as no surprise. As I’ve written previously, Indonesia under President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has launched a tough crackdown on illegal fishing in Indonesian waters, which he says causes the country to suffer annual losses of over $20 billion (See: “Explaining Indonesia’s ‘Sink the Vessels’ Policy Under Jokowi”). That has resulted in a series of highly public sinking of boats from neighboring countries over the past year – part of what Jokowi has described as a “shock therapy” approach in spite of concerns among some of Indonesia’s neighbors.

Furthermore, as I reported earlier this month, the Indonesia’s Minister for Maritime and Fisheries Susi Pudjiastuti had actually said publicly that the country may blow up 70 foreign sips – a number which coincides with the 70th year of Indonesian independence (See: “Why is Indonesia Sinking 70 Foreign Vessels on its Independence Day?”). As I wrote then, that would have made it the largest mass public sinking since President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo first introduced his tough crackdown on illegal fishing in Indonesian waters since coming to power.  The last one of its kind, which occurred on May 20 to commemorate National Awakening Day, involved 41 foreign vessels, including the first vessel from China to be sunk (See “Why Did Indonesia Just Sink a Vessel from China?”).

Eventually, the actual number of ships sunk was nearly half that number at 38 vessels – 34 foreign vessels and 4 Indonesian vessels. That number is significant for at least two reasons. First, that means that – contrary to some media reports – this was not the largest mass public sinking of illegal fishing vessels under Jokowi, since it falls short of the 41 vessels sunk on May 20 for National Awakening Day. Second, it does away with the link between the number of ships and the number of years of Indonesian independence which Susi had indicated earlier. Both have a combined effect of making the sinking much less dramatic than it would have otherwise been with 70 vessels. The latter choice would have only heightened fears that the Jokowi administration is using the issue to stoke Indonesian nationalism amid its waning popularity.

Beyond numbers, it is also interesting that the lineup of vessels to be sunk included those from Southeast Asian countries – Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – but not from China unlike the previous mass public sinking. The Jakarta Post reported that the absence of Chinese vessels from the lineup is due to “unresolved legal processes.” While that might well be the case, such exclusions have tended to raise questions about consistency of treatment and whether Jakarta is simply reluctant to incur Beijing’s wrath.

Apart from this, the mass public sinking was still carried out in largely the same manner. The empty ships were sunk in different parts of the country by various departments, and the event was broadcasted live. Notices were also sent through the Foreign Ministry to the countries of the vessels ahead of time. Asep Burhanudin, senior official at the maritime affairs ministry, had emphasized before the sinking that only a few of the boats were actually blown up using low-level explosives, while the rest would be scuttled so that fish can use them as artificial reefs. The decision to scuttle most of the boats comes amid environmental concerns. In addition, he also said that the ministry had emptied the ships of oil and had chosen to sink them in locations far from sailing routes.

The sinking was also accompanied by the usual nationalist rhetoric by Indonesian officials. Susi herself noted that since Indonesia – the world’s largest archipelagic nation – has two thirds of its territory comprised of water, it must have sovereignty over its territorial waters to ensure its unity.

“We have to be able to show that we can be triumphant on the sea because the sea is the future of our nation,” Susi said in a statement.