Is Indonesia's daring, chain-smoking, fisheries minister doing good by sinking illegal vessels? The Jakarta Post columnist

Indonesia's Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti.
Indonesia's Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti.PHOTO: THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Kornelius Purba

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - After her shocking policy to drown ships found illegally fishing in Indonesian waters, it is time for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti to apply more far-reaching policies, such as empowering fishermen and boosting fish husbandry.

Chinese Ambassador for Yellow Sea Affairs Wang Xiaodu harshly criticised the sinking of Chinese fishing vessels by Indonesian authorites in front of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti, who earlier boasted of her success in her "war" against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUUF) practices.

Both the ambassador and minister avoided naming their target, but the exchange of harsh words between the two officials demonstrates the sensitivity of the issue for the two countries.

Many countries, including China, Vietnam and Thailand, have strongly protested the bombings and sinkings of the confiscated vessels of their fishermen by Susi, arguing that Indonesia does not have the right to treat their citizens like criminals just because they exploited much-needed marine resources.

Speaking on the second day of the United Nations-organised symposium on fisheries crime in Vienna last week, the ambassador said: "Enforcement of a violent nature, such as shooting and bombing and even informing Interpol to hunt the fishers, is not in line with international law, including UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), or regulations on fisheries."

One day earlier, Susi told the audience that transnational fisheries crime was a serious business that mocked Indonesia's national sovereignty. "I am glad that the perpetrators of these crimes have been punished," Susi said proudly.

"Every state has the right to take enforcement actions pursuant to its national laws and regulations against any violation committed by any state," Susi said later, countering Wang's warning in a written statement.

Susi's critics and opponents are quite right in criticising her policies and even questioning her capacity as a Cabinet member. They may also be right in their claim that she is giving the nation fake hope and that she is merely a genius in managing public relations and manipulating people's expectations.

Many Indonesians, including some Cabinet members and businesspeople, have lambasted Susi because her actions have severely affected the lucrative maritime industry at a cost to the country's tax revenue and employment.

"What she has done is no more than a public relations stint," a minister reportedly told President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo at a recent Cabinet meeting.

Due to its complexity, the maritime sector needs more than just shock therapy, according to a senior military officer.

Critics say Susi does not have the long-term vision necessary to boost the sector, and Indonesian companies lack the capacity to replace the decline in foreign companies investing in the industry.

But rightly or wrongly, as proved by several opinion polls, scores of Indonesians praise and even adore Susi, because her harsh actions against foreign companies are in line with their aspiration that Indonesia should stand firmly in defending its national interests.

For them, Susi knows what she is doing, as she has long experience in the fishing industry. Indeed, Susi abandoned her business in 2004 because she said it had become harder to harvest seafood in Indonesian waters, allegedly due to severe overfishing by foreign companies.

People personally trust the eccentric minister, a very rare thing in this country.

For too long the people have been cheated by more "capable" politicians and officials.

For them, Susi is one of the rare ones, regardless of how well President Jokowi measures her achievements.

The minister has acknowledged to her close friends that she has had to confront severe resistance, including from her own Cabinet colleagues.

Her opponents have their own their reasons, either because of vested-interests, or purely because they believe Susi has been harmful to the industry.

Their arguments are probably right. But for millions of Indonesians, the senior high school dropout remains one of the most popular ministers.

They do not care about vision and the fundamental progress delivered by the chain-smoker.

For them, Susi is a minister who works for the people and has the guts to say no to powerful foreign countries, including China.

Just three hours after the Chinese official rebuked Susi, about 200 Indonesians and members of the diaspora cheered Susi.

Indonesian Ambassador to Austria Darmansjah Djumala, who hosted the meeting, said many of the guests were highly educated people.

They were excited when the Susi Air founder talked about how she commanded the bombing and sinking of many foreign vessels, including vessels from China, because they had stolen fish from Indonesian waters.

Arguing that fish production had steadly risen once more after her stern actions against illegal fishing by foreign vessels, she said she had ordered "the sinking of Indonesians who do not consume fish."

It is true that Susi should follow up on her shock therapy actions with more far-reaching policies, such as empowering fishermen and boosting fish husbandry.

In previous governments, her portfolio was thought of as an "accessory."

Now this has totally changed. Rightly or wrongly, millions of Indonesians regard Susi with affection for her work.

The Jakarta Post is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.