As if the recent divine fury of the tsunami that struck South-East Asia last December were not enough, the prospect of a war between that region's only two predominantly Muslim countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, came into the limelight after the deployment of warships by both countries in a disputed area of sea.
The trouble began when Malaysia granted oil-exploration rights off the east coast of Borneo, an area that is claimed by both countries, to Shell. This angered Jakarta, which maintains thatMalaysia is encroaching on Indonesian waters. On February 16 warships, submarines, fighter aircraft and elite forces were deployed in the area by Indonesia. Kuala Lumpur responded by trying to match the build-up with its own military, an attempt which it knows is impossible because of Indonesia's great military strength.
The latest military build-up is the climax of a series of tensions between the two countries in the past decade, and could not have come at a worse time. Already Malaysia's relations withJakarta have deteriorated because of Malaysia's crackdown on immigrants. The two countries' ties are being particularly tested because hundreds of thousands of undocumented ("illegal", according to Malaysia) Indonesian workers have been forced to leave Malaysia after an amnesty ended. Malaysia has blamed corrupt Indonesian officials for extorting money from Indonesian workers who crossed the border; Indonesia's anger is provoked by the harsh treatment meted out to arrested workers, such as the recent law of caning for Indonesian immigrants. This anger is compounded by Indonesian anger over non-payment of wages to Indonesian workers by Malaysian employers. Protests and flag-burnings have been held inJakarta and other cities in Indonesia, and many Malaysian-government websites systematically hacked into and replaced with pro-Jakarta images. But Malaysian leaders have been careful not to respond in kind, probably because they are aware of the dangers, especially with thousands of Indonesian workers within Malaysia's borders.
Indonesia's determination to not put up with any more provocation is unabated, especially because domestic pressure on Jakarta is increasing for it to stand up to its small neighbours. Jakarta is still smarting from the loss of two islands to Malaysia two years ago, when the International Court of Justice awarded them to Malaysia. That was embarrassing for the then Indonesian government, led by Megawati Sukarnoputri, and it is unlikely that the present rulers, especially under an ex-general such as Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, will allow Indonesia to be called “weak”. Even Malaysia's great assistance, rendered in Aceh at the height of the tsunami relief-work, cannot soften Jakarta on an issue such as this.
Both countries have a history of confrontation. They were created as states by the British and Dutch imperialist powers, who left the region after inflicting more than a century of plunder and genocide on the place and its peoples. In 1963, during the first presidency of Sukarno, Indonesia launched a "Crush Malaysia" campaign, in reaction to the formation of Malaysia by merging peninsular Malaya and two British-ruled states in Borneo (which bordered Indonesia) into a new federation. The campaign was well received by the masses, and threatened to wipe out the Malaysian federation. Arguing that the creation of Malaysia was for British imperialist interests in the region, Sukarno said that Indonesia would only accept Malaysia's formation if a UN-sponsored referendum were held in the disputed territories. Malaysia was announced on September 16, even before the referendum results were out. This angered Sukarno further, and in 1963 he declared the "Crush Malaysia" campaign, infiltrating the Borneon states of Sarawak and Sabah with troops. The war quickly spread to other areas inMalaysia. However, because of help for Malaysia from Australia and New Zealand, and with British and Gurkha troops, the Indonesian army had little success. When Suharto came to power in 1966, he had little choice but to sign a peace treaty.
Until recently war drums were rarely heard in southeast Asia, whose countries belong to a regional forum called the Association of South-East Asian Countries (ASEAN). All that is about to change: member countries are increasingly seen to be transgressing ASEAN's declared aim of ensuring a neutral and peaceful zone in the region. Almost every member-country of ASEAN now has some dispute with another. Singapore's strong military alliance with the US since the early 1990s makes ASEAN, whose success as a regional forum earned it praise from many not long ago, pale into insignificance. Tiny Singapore, the most economically developed state in the region, controlled by the Chinese diaspora, is viewed with suspicion by Malaysia andIndonesia, mainly because of its military and political ties with Israel.
In the mean time, countries in the region have also joined the US's ‘war on terror', which is looking for a new home and may find it in Southeast Asia, home to the second-largest concentration of Muslims in the world after the Middle East. Thailand and the Philippines have already signed up, and both have reopened territorial and political disputes with neighbouringMalaysia. Kampuchea has been arresting Muslim teachers on the pretext of "fighting terrorism", while Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia's new president, has been hailed as a man with whom the West is "comfortable" to deal. That leaves Malaysia, whose ex-prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, gave the country an anti-West reputation, alone. In order to not be seen as obstructing a superpower, the current Malaysian leadership is currying favour with the West by trying to block Burma's chance to hold the ASEAN presidency, because of its ‘undemocratic' military junta and the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi. This is amusing, as ‘democracy' has never been a concern of any ASEAN leader. The US has warned ASEAN countries against giving Burma the presidency of the organisation, which is rotated among its members. Such is the state of affairs in ASEAN, a confederation which now exists mostly in name, much like the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), which are largely talkshops and little else.
The question is whether history will repeat itself should Indonesia launch another attack on Malaysia. The scenario may be superficially different, as the West's political hold on the region has weakened slightly during the last three decades because of popular pressure on the governments and the re-emergence of Islamic parties in the political life of the region. It does not seem likely that Britain or the US will side with either Indonesia or Malaysia, unlike the past, when Britain tried to protect Malaysia, which it had helped create. What is likelier is that both countries will be sold all the weapons they need to fight each other.
With the US replacing Britain as an imperialist power, it feels the importance of having a foothold in the region all the more, particularly for the ‘war on terror' to be successful. Already the region has been declared the second front of that war, with many groups, either existing or presumed to exist, being declared al-Qa'ida offshoots.
For the West, making its comeback politically and militarily in the region may be difficult, but the experience of the Iraq-Iran war (1980–88) is just one example of how a intra-regional war can work just as well for Western interests. It all depends on how wisely people in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur handle the situation. It is to be hoped that both leaders will consider just what is at stake. With the tsunami still fresh in memory, Malaysia's foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar summarised what many ordinary people fear: "Malaysia and Indonesia will be forsaken by God if we think about using troops to threaten each other," he told reporters on March 11 after meeting the president of Indonesia.