Indonesia’s maritime law enforcement faces troubled waters

Asia World

Author: Aristyo Darmawan, University of Indonesia

At the inauguration of the new chief of Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency (BAKAMLA) in February 2020, Indonesian President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo expressed hope ‘that BAKAMLA will be the embryo of an Indonesian coast guard’, with a long-term view to BAKLAMA having overarching authority over maritime security.

ndonesia's President Joko Widodo talks to Indonesia's Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo during a visit in Natuna, Riau Islands, Indonesia, 8 January 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Antara Foto).

ndonesia's President Joko Widodo talks to Indonesia's Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Edhy Prabowo during a visit in Natuna, Riau Islands, Indonesia, 8 January 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Antara Foto).

This isn’t the first time Jokowi has renewed his commitment to making BAKAMLA the leading law enforcement agency in Indonesia’s waters. Presidential Regulation 178 (2014) establishing BAKAMLA mandates that its primary function is to ensure maritime safety and security in Indonesian jurisdictions.

Since Jokowi took office in 2014, Indonesia’s sovereignty and security at sea has been under pressure. These include the presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the North Natuna Sea, human trafficking, illegal fishing and armed robbery at sea. The administration has sought to strengthen the capacity of the many maritime law enforcement institutions in response.

Indonesia’s law enforcement at sea is fragmented — separate institutions currently share authority to enforce maritime law. BAKAMLA itself occasionally organises joint patrols involving the other agencies, but coordinated information sharing is lacking. Should BAKAMLA be equipped to be the sole authority enforcing maritime law, Indonesia may have more success in managing its waters.

Jokowi’s two terms have witnessed the creation and the dissolution of the Presidential Task Force in Combating Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (IUUF). The task force, launched in 2014 under the command of maritime affairs minister Susi Pudjiastuti, played a significant role in combating IUUF through Jokowi’s first term and resulted in significant increases of Indonesia’s fish stocks. But in Jokowi’s second administration, his new maritime affairs minister Edhy Prabowo decided to dissolve it, arguing for the strengthening of existing law enforcement institutions instead. This is meant to pave the way for BAKAMLA to take control.

Establishing BAKAMLA as the sole maritime law enforcement agency won’t be easy. There is strong political resistance from agencies that currently enforce maritime law, fearing budget cuts as a result of the restructure. Indonesia has at least 12 laws relating to authority at sea. And five enforcement agencies have patrol capacity: the Indonesian Navy, the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries, the Water Police, the Ministry of Transportation and BAKAMLA.

Two of these organisations have the authority to run an Indonesian coast guard. The first is the Indonesian Sea and Coast Guard under the umbrella of the Ministry of Transportation, mandated by National Law No. 17 (2008) on Shipping. The second is BAKAMLA under Law No. 32 (2014) on Marine Affairs. This fragmentation prompted the idea of creating a single Indonesian coast guard under BAKAMLA, preventing overlap in authority among institutions.

Realising this vision requires political support not just from the President, but also from key cabinet figures such as Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, and Prabowo Subianto, the Defense Minister. This would minimise objections from other institutions and ensure effective policy coordination and implementation.

A single Indonesian coast guard requires sufficient budget allocation and resources reallocation to operate as the main maritime law enforcement at sea. BAKAMLA does not have enough vessels of its own to cover all of Indonesia’s maritime zones as, up to now, it has concentrated on coordinating patrols across agencies. This is why BAKAMLA’s patrols have so far mainly involved personnel and infrastructure from other agencies.

To be fully independent, BAKAMLA should be staffed by personnel separate from the other law enforcement institutions, with these personnel having specific coast guard training and qualifications. Currently it is comprised of a mix of civilian and military officials drawn from other institutions, such as the navy and police. Most of BAKAMLA’s high-ranking officials are admirals or police generals.

In both the United States and India, independent coast guards are the leading law enforcement agencies at sea. Their navies are responsible for national defence at sea, while coast guards enforce the laws under their national jurisdictions. This model would work for Indonesia with the right infrastructure, budget allocation and independent personnel recruitment and training.

The country needs a strong, independent agency with the power to respond to maritime challenges that are becoming only more pressing.

Aristyo Rizka Darmawan is a lecturer and senior researcher at the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy, Faculty of Law, University of Indonesia. This research is funded by the Indonesian Ministry of Research and Technology/National Research and Innovation Agency.

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