Q&A: Indonesia’s defence minister on the ‘boat people’

General Ryamizard Ryacudu talks to Al Jazeera about asylum seekers, executions, and tensions in the South China Sea.

Indonesia's Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu speaks at the 4th International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore [AP]

Jakarta, Indonesia – Amid rising tension over disputed territory in the South China Sea, Indonesia’s defence minister has proposed joint military patrols among claimant countries as a way to keep the peace in the region. 

General Ryamizard Ryacudu, 65, sat down with Al Jazeera to also discuss the issue of asylum seekers boarding rickety boats for the dangerous journey to Australia, and relations with its southern neighbour after the recent execution of Australian nationals. 

Al Jazeera: Australia’s navy is alleged to have paid people smugglers to turn back asylum seeker boats to Indonesia. What is your comment on this?

Ryamizard Ryacudu: We are members of ASEAN and Australia should talk with ASEAN countries in handling asylum seekers. Australia cannot do what it wants unilaterally for the sake of its own interests and harm its neighbour countries. It should also care about ethical and humanitarian aspects.

 Are China’s ambitions in the South China Sea a threat?

Al Jazeera: What are your concerns about Australia’s handling of the so-called boat people? 

Ryacudu: Australia and the West are always shouting about the enforcement of human rights. Australia should not handle the issue of human smuggling by breaking human rights principles. If Australia pushed them to turn back further from its border and deaths occur, then Australia is considered in violation of human rights

Paying off smugglers to turn the boat people back to Indonesia – if it is true – is breaking ethical standards. Australia seems concerned with its own interests without caring about others.

We have to sit together and talk. Australia and ASEAN countries should bear the burden of refugees together. As you know, Malaysia and Indonesia are the two countries that accommodate the biggest number of refugees who supposedly target Australia.

It is therefore not fair if Australia carries on in its own way without any coordination with ASEAN countries.

Indonesia has been helping migrants significantly over the past five years, although it never ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Al Jazeera: Indonesia-Australia relations were also recently challenged after the execution of two Australian drug traffickers. Will the issue further strain ties?

Ryacudu: Our bilateral relations with Australia is still cooperative. The execution of two Australians is not hampering our defence relationship at all. We have to see the diplomatic issues of the two countries proportionally. We are friends of all nations until they threaten our sovereignty. 

Al Jazeera: President Joko Widodo has said Indonesia wants to remain ‘an honest broker’ in the disputes over South China Sea territory. How do you translate his statement into your defence policy?

Ryacudu: Indonesia has nothing to do with the dispute actually. What we are going to do is to become an independent mediator between the conflicting parties.

What the president wants is a peaceful solution, reminding China that its claim to the entire South China Sea has no legal basis.

So the key point of the message is peace. The defence ministry translates his message into building political communication between the conflicting countries with Indonesia as the mediator.

Al Jazeera: Do you have a plan in mind?

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Ryacudu: I met China’s Defence Minister Chang Wanguan at the regional meeting of defence ministers and military chiefs in Singapore two months ago. He told me that most of the delegations attacked China’s position until he walked out of the forum.

I suggested to Chang that China should try different ways of communication and diplomacy. I proposed joint patrols in the waters among the conflicting countries. He agreed.

Al Jazeera: What is your aim with the joint patrols?

Ryacudu: The dispute is potentially leading to war if no one can manage the conflict. So we need a breakthrough. If the joint patrols become a reality then everything would be transparent. It would be joint peace patrols – not security patrols.

The proposed patrols would send a message that no single country should build up strength or threaten anyone in the water. 

Al Jazeera: Although Indonesia has long said it is a neutral party in the disputes, it has the oil-rich areas of Natuna and Tanjung Datu near the South China Sea. Do you think China has designs on these?

Ryacudu: I don’t think so. We have a good relationship with China as I mentioned previously. China has no right over them. We have a long history there.

Source: Al Jazeera