‘I’m nasty’: In­done­sian min­is­ter wins ad­mir­ers by blow­ing up boats

The Myanmar Times - - Asean Focus - BY VIN­CENT BEVINS

TWO days af­ter In­done­sian Pres­i­dent Joko “Jokowi” Wi­dodo wel­comed the con­ti­nent to the Asian Games in Au­gust, the most pop­u­lar mem­ber of his gov­ern­ment of­fered the re­gion a very dif­fer­ent mes­sage. Susi Pud­ji­as­tuti, min­is­ter of Mar­itime Af­fairs and Fish­eries, sent 125 boats, mostly from neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, to the bot­tom of the sea.

It was the largest mass de­struc­tion of ves­sels linked to il­le­gal fish­ing since Pud­ji­as­tuti en­tered gov­ern­ment in 2014. And In­done­sians seem to love her for it.

The ex­plo­sions that scut­tle the ships have be­come a na­tional spec­ta­cle, mak­ing Pud­ji­as­tuti a wildly pop­u­lar sym­bol of In­done­sian strength by strictly en­forc­ing nau­ti­cal bor­ders and adding to her im­age as one of the na­tion’s most pow­er­ful women.

A to­tal of 488 ships now sleep with the fishes. More will likely join them.

“Our plan was to cre­ate a de­ter­rent by blow­ing up the ves­sels, pub­lish­ing the footage, and show­ing the world we are re­ally se­ri­ous,” said Pud­ji­as­tuti in late Au­gust vis­it­ing the Natuna Is­lands in the South China Sea. “Since the re­turn of democ­racy [in 1998], a lot of things have im­proved in In­done­sia, but noth­ing had changed when it came to our nat­u­ral re­sources. The oli­garchy still had con­trol.”

“We had to clean up! That means be­ing un­com­pro­mis­ing,” she added, be­fore puff­ing on a cig­a­rette, smil­ing, and say­ing: “I’m nasty.”

She spent the morn­ing in the Natuna ar­chi­pel­ago com­mand­ing two small boats and a crew of em­ploy­ees – with her grand­chil­dren along for the ride – sur­vey­ing the coast­line, meet­ing with lo­cal vil­lage lead­ers and di­rect­ing men to pick up trash. The men wore wet suit tops em­bla­zoned with the slo­gan, “the sea is our fu­ture.”

Then she went for a spin on a standup pad­dle board.

Pud­ji­as­tuti’s fo­cus is tech­ni­cally to reg­u­late fish­ing, but she’s keenly aware that these chaotic waters are host to an ar­ray of se­ri­ous is­sues. There is the fear of Chi­nese ex­pan­sion­ism. There is drug smug­gling, hu­man traf­fick­ing, and piracy.

And she knows that her hard­charg­ing, devil-may-care rep­u­ta­tion has made her a celebrity on so­cial me­dia. In­done­sians pass around images of her danc­ing out in the ocean, sprawled out sleep­ing at JFK air­port in New York, and, of course, blow­ing up ships.

The pres­i­dent, Jokowi – though re­spected as a ca­pa­ble, rel­a­tive mod­er­ate in the world’s fourth-most pop­u­lous coun­try – has not been par­tic­u­larly ac­tive in the global arena. Whether in­ten­tion­ally or not, it has of­ten fallen to the fa­mous “Min­is­ter Susi” to project strength abroad and fire up feel­ings of pride in the young, di­verse na­tion spread across more than 15,000 is­lands.

She’s far more pop­u­lar than the min­is­ter of For­eign Af­fairs, or in­deed any other Cabi­net mem­ber, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey re­leased last year. This year, an­other poll in­di­cated she is the most ad­mired woman in the coun­try, and cit­i­zens of­ten de­scribe her in epic terms.

“She is truly brave,” said 19-yearold Dali Her­man­syah, a na­tive of the Natuna Is­lands. “Maybe In­done­sia has had greater heroes be­fore. But they’re all dead. She is the great­est liv­ing In­done­sian hero.”

It’s of­ten re­ported that her beef is pri­mar­ily with China. But more than half the boats de­stroyed – 276 – are from Viet­nam, fol­lowed by ves­sels from the Philip­pines (90), Thai­land (50), and Malaysia (41). Only one ac­tu­ally flew the Chi­nese flag, but she says most, if not all, of 26 caught and de­stroyed fly­ing In­done­sian flags were re­ally un­der Bei­jing’s con­trol.

Photo: Bloomberg

Susi Pud­ji­as­tuti, In­done­sia’s min­is­ter of Mar­itime Af­fairs and Fish­eries, in Jakarta on April 6.

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