‘I’m nasty’: Indonesian minister wins admirers by blowing up boats
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.
Susi Pudjiastuti, Indonesia’s minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, in Jakarta on April 6.