In­done­sian min­is­ter doesn’t mind mak­ing en­e­mies

Bangkok Post - - ASIA/ FOCUS - By Han­nah Beech and Muk­tita Suhartono in Pan­gan­daran, In­done­sia

Susi Pud­ji­as­tuti was scoop­ing up lunch with one hand, us­ing her thumb and two fin­gers to ex­tri­cate bones from a chunk of fish. With the other hand, she sim­u­lated grind­ing a stiletto heel into the ground.

“This is what I can do if the Chi­nese try to play tricks on me,” said the mar­itime af­fairs and fish­eries min­is­ter of In­done­sia. “I can smile very nicely and then I can use my high heel.”

“Very sharp,” she added, pop­ping the piece of fish into her mouth.

Ms Susi is not a con­ven­tional In­done­sian woman, much less a con­ven­tional cab­i­net min­is­ter. She chain-smokes, al­though In­done­sia’s health min­is­ter — one of eight women in the cab­i­net of Pres­i­dent Joko Wi­dodo — has warned her that a pub­lic fig­ure should not be seen light­ing up.

She likes her cof­fee black and her al­co­hol only in the form of Cham­pagne. “My fam­ily thinks I’m a lit­tle bit of a nut case,” she said.

Per­haps it takes a lit­tle bit of a nut case to chal­lenge Bei­jing, go­ing so far as to seize Chi­nese fish­ing boats poach­ing in In­done­sian waters. Ms Susi has cre­ated a lot of en­e­mies along the way, at home as well as abroad, but she says her suc­cess can be mea­sured by the im­proved health of In­done­sia’s fish­ing grounds, and she is not about to back down.

With more than 17,500 is­lands, In­done­sia is the world’s largest archipelagic na­tion, yet its mar­itime sovereignty had long been ne­glected. When she was ap­pointed in 2014, Ms Susi, a seafood and avi­a­tion mag­nate who never fin­ished high school, in­her­ited a min­istry that was in dan­ger of be­ing elim­i­nated.

But she has trans­formed the port­fo­lio, declar­ing war on for­eign fish­ing boats that had en­croached on ter­ri­to­rial waters and threat­ened some of the world’s most bio­di­verse seas.

Not all of the of­fend­ers have been from China. Boats from other South­east Asian coun­tries, no­tably Viet­nam, stray into In­done­sian waters as well, cost­ing the coun­try at least US$1 bil­lion a year in lost re­sources, the United Na­tions has re­ported.

Ms Susi has not re­lied on sub­tlety: she has or­dered hun­dreds of im­pounded for­eign ves­sels to be blown up.

But it is her en­tan­gle­ments with the Chi­nese that have cre­ated the great­est up­roar, while also mak­ing her an un­likely hero­ine for those call­ing for in­ter­na­tional de­fi­ance of Bei­jing’s mus­cu­lar for­eign pol­icy.

In­done­sia is not an of­fi­cial claimant to con­tested ter­ri­tory in the South China Sea, where Bei­jing is land­ing bombers on dis­puted islets. But the “nine-dash line” that Bei­jing uses on maps to de­mar­cate the swath of the South China Sea it con­sid­ers its own nev­er­the­less ex­tends into waters that lap up against In­done­sian is­lands.

That is where the fish — and Ms Susi — come in.

“I’m not the mil­i­tary, I’m not the for­eign min­is­ter,” she said. “The Chi­nese can­not re­ally get an­gry at me be­cause all I’m talk­ing about is fish.”

An­other smile, an­other bite of lunch, this time doused in an in­cen­di­ary sauce Ms Susi made from part of a 30-kilo­gramme haul of chiles she bought dur­ing a re­cent trip to eastern In­done­sia.

In June 2016, an In­done­sian war­ship towed away a Chi­nese fish­ing boat that had been caught near the Natu­nas, In­done­sian is­lands lo­cated in the south­ern­most reaches of the South China Sea.

An at­tempt ear­lier that year to bring in an­other Chi­nese boat had been foiled when the Chi­nese Coast Guard in­ter­vened, sev­er­ing the tow­ing line con­nect­ing the im­pounded ves­sel to an In­done­sian pa­trol boat.

Both seizures took place in waters that are well within In­done­sia’s ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone, as de­fined by in­ter­na­tional mar­itime law. But the Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry protested and re­ferred to the seas as China’s “tra­di­tional fish­ing grounds”.

Ms Susi was not im­pressed. “The In­done­sians sailed all the way to Mada­gas­car in an­cient times,” she said. “Should we claim the en­tire In­dian Ocean as our ‘tra­di­tional fish­ing grounds’?”

Since she took over, most of the 10,000 for­eign fish­ing boats that once poached in In­done­sian waters have dis­ap­peared. Fish­ing stocks more than dou­bled from 2013 to 2017, ac­cord­ing to govern­ment sta­tis­tics.

But ear­lier this year, Vice Pres­i­dent Jusuf Kalla, said that enough was enough. Blow­ing up boats may have made Ms Susi the most beloved In­done­sian cab­i­net min­is­ter, but the shock tac­tics were scar­ing off for­eign investors. The In­done­sian Cham­ber of Com­merce echoed his com­plaint.

Even In­done­sia’s 2.4 mil­lion-strong fish­ing com­mu­nity was up in arms, protest­ing against the min­is­ter’s ef­forts to halt pop­u­lar but en­vi­ron­men­tally de­struc­tive prac­tices in­clud­ing deep trawl­ing and dy­na­mite fish­ing.

Ms Susi is un­sym­pa­thetic. “When I started off in the seafood busi­ness, the fish were this big,” she said, widen­ing her arms. “Then ev­ery­thing was small. The fish were gone, over­fished, and the govern­ment didn’t care.”

The ul­ti­mate self-made woman, Ms Susi is not about to go down with­out a fight. She was born in a fish­ing town on the south­ern coast of Java and dropped out of high school. There was a first mar­riage and a child. There was a sec­ond mar­riage and a child. There was a third li­ai­son and a child.

There was a night of drink­ing in which she got a phoenix tat­tooed on her right shin; the tat­too re­mains, even if the men who fa­thered her chil­dren do not.

Ms Susi sur­vived by driv­ing a truck trans­port­ing frogs and bird’s nests. Then she moved into the seafood busi­ness — lob­ster to Ja­pan, king prawns to Hong Kong — which spawned an avi­a­tion com­pany that started off trans­port­ing crus­taceans and ex­panded to car­ry­ing peo­ple.

To­day, Susi Air boasts a fleet of 50 light air­craft. When the 2004 In­dian Ocean tsunami devastated Aceh in western In­done­sia, killing 170,000 peo­ple, Ms Susi dis­patched planes filled with re­lief sup­plies.

In the po­lit­i­cal realm, she re­mains a po­lar­is­ing fig­ure. Fahri Hamzah, the deputy speaker of In­done­sia’s lower house of par­lia­ment, sug­gested that Ms Susi’s tat­too made her “a thug”.

Sup­port­ers have raised Ms Susi’s name as a pos­si­ble vice-pres­i­den­tial run­ning mate to Pres­i­dent Wi­dodo, who is up for re-elec­tion next year, de­spite a con­sti­tu­tional clause that lim­its the top two posts to can­di­dates with at least a high-school diploma. Ms Susi de­murred when asked to com­ment.

When­ever she can, she re­turns to the sea. Ear­lier this year, she and one of her house­keep­ers took a long-week­end break in Pan­gan­daran, the man­grove-fronted town where she grew up. She de­com­pressed by steer­ing a pad­dle­board out to sea.

The cur­rent was strong but af­ter 90 min­utes of hard pad­dling Ms Susi re­laxed on her board with a smoke and a hot drink. The set­ting sun glowed crim­son over the In­dian Ocean. “Screw Jakarta,” she said. “I’m happy when I’m out at sea.”

Susi Pud­ji­as­tuti, an ac­com­plished pad­dle­boarder, takes to the wa­ter near her home­town of Pan­gan­daran, In­done­sia.

“My fam­ily thinks I’m a lit­tle bit of a nut case,” says Ms Susi, re­lax­ing at her home in Jakarta.

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