Bone of contention in Osman-Harun row

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 19, 2014

Tensions are running high between Indonesia and Singapore over the former's decision to name a naval vessel after two convicted members of the Indonesian Marine Corps who carried out the bombing of the MacDonald House office building in Singapore on March 10, 1965.

The bone of contention lies in how Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said, the two Indonesian commandos, are seen by both countries.

In Singapore, they are the perpetrators of the bombing of a civilian target, while the Indonesian government sees them as national heroes who carried out their duty during Konfrontasi (1963-1966) with Malaysia.

The disparate labels for the two men are understandable considering Singapore, still part of Malaysia at the time, and Indonesia were locked in a dispute that stemmed from the latter's objection towards the formation of the federal state of Malaysia, encompassing large swaths of territory on the island of Borneo that Indonesia had laid claim to.

But, objectively speaking, were Osman and Harun terrorists or war heroes? Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines terrorism as "the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal". By this definition alone, what the two men did qualifies as an act of terrorism.

Singaporean police records state that when they were arrested floating at sea, the two men said they were a fisherman and a farmer, before later confessing to the bombing. It was not, however, until later during their trial for murder that the two revealed they were members of the Indonesian Marine Corps with express orders "to cause trouble in Singapore" as part of confrontation with Malaysia.

Apparently, the two men chose to reveal their status in the hope of being treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. When the presiding judge denied them POW status, because "members of enemy armed forces, who are combatants and who come here with the assumption of the semblance of peaceful pursuits divesting themselves of the character or appearance of soldiers and are captured, such persons are not entitled to the privileges of prisoners of war", Osman and Harun retracted their statements that they were members of the Indonesian military.

Despite lobbying by the government for their release, Osman and Harun were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Yet, when their bodies were brought back to Jakarta after their execution in 1968, the two were interred in the National Heroes Cemetery with full military honours.

It could well be argued that the granting of national hero status to the two men was Indonesia's way of "saving face" after a failed diplomatic attempt to have the two released.

The hero status for both men was also anomalous even by Indonesian standards as people given this recognition are usually those who perished in combat against enemy forces.

Osman and Harun never actually met this criteria as never during Konfrontasi did the Indonesian government nor its Malaysian counterpart officially declare war on each other.

So, essentially, both were perpetrators of a state-sponsored act of terrorism. Hence, the adamant position by the Singaporean government that Osman and Harun were terrorists.

By the same token, Indonesians should look at the incident as a lesson in how not to conduct bilateral relations. To this date, it remains obscure why Sukarno instigated the "unofficial war" against Malaysia in 1963. Some historians have argued that his earlier success in wresting Papua from the Dutch emboldened him to try a similar tactic with the former British Malaya, though Sukarno always publicly denied any territorial ambitions.

In many ways, his model for the state of Indonesia was the ancient Majapahit Empire, which encompassed Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and parts of Thailand and Indochina.

Whatever his motives, the border skirmishes and acts of sabotage against Malaysia during Konfrontasi appeared to be designed to provoke the British, who had granted independence to Malaysia in 1957, into declaring war against Indonesia.

Had they done so, Sukarno would certainly have obtained his evidence that Malaysia was simply an extension of British imperial powers.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer and businessman from Surabaya. The article was first published in the Jakarta Globe on Feb 15.

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