Agribusiness and resource companies embroiled in land disputes with rural communities in Indonesia appear to be using the lull in oversight during the COVID-19 outbreak to strengthen their claims to contested areas. Since the first confirmed cases of the disease were reported in the country on March 2, two local land defenders have been killed and four arrested in connection with disputes in Sumatra, Java and Borneo.
Dozens of Chinese vessels that were fishing in Indonesia's Exclusive Economic Zone off the disputed island of Natuna began leaving the area Jan. 9, after days of stand-off. Indonesia deployed eight warships and four fighter jets to the area in response to the presence of the Chinese vessels, and summoned Beijing's ambassador in Jakarta to complain. A military statement said: "Our Navy and air force are armed and have been deployed to the North Natuna Sea [to] drive out the foreign vessels." China was reported to have sent three coast guard cutters into the area during the stand-off. The Natuna archipelago, off the northwest coast of Borneo, occupies a particularly strategic spot in the South China Sea. Its waters contain significant oil and gas reserves, and it guards the eastern opening of the narrow Malacca Strait, a critical chokepoint for shipping lanes. The archipelago falls within China's "nine-dash line," an area covering nearly the entirety of the South China Sea.
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo was sworn in for a second term Oct. 20 amid an official ban on protests, and Jakarta's streets flooded with 30,000 police and military troops. The inauguration was preceded by a wave of mass protests in September, mostly led by students. The demonstrations were sparked by a new law that weakens Indonesia's anti-corruption agency, and another that instates such moralistic measures as a ban on extramarital sex—the latter a play to cultural conservatives who accuse Widodo of being insufficiently Muslim. But protesters' anger was also directed at plans for a tough new criminal code, at troops mobilized to put down the unrest in Papua region, and at the failure to stem forest fires in Sumatra and Borneo that are causing toxic haze across Southeast Asia.
The Sultanate of Sulu, an autonomous kingdom within the Philippines, claimed March 1 that 10 members of the royal army were killed and four more injured in an attack by Malaysian authorities on Lahad Datu, the village seized by the Sulu partisans in Sabah state on Borneo. Malaysian authorities deny any reports of violence. Sultanate spokesman Abraham Idjirani told reporters in Manila that he was informed of the attack by Raj Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, who is leading the royal army partisans at Lahad Datu. Kiram is the brother of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III. Idjirani said Malaysian officials are seeking "to cover up the truth." (Philippine Star, Reuters via Malaysia Chronicle, March 1)
Malaysian security forces remain in a stand-off with some 100 men they say are armed insurgents from a rebel faction in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, who are accused of having taken over a village in a remote part of Sabah state on Borneo Feb. 14. But the Philippine government maintains the men are unarmed Filipino peasant migrants who had been promised land in the area. The Malaysian inhabitants of the village, named as Kampung Tanduao, have reportedly been forced to flee. Malaysian police forces say the invaders procialmed themselves the "royal army" of the Sultanate of Sulu, which has an historic claim to the area. By some accounts, the men have raised the Philippine flag in the village, which is now surrounded by Malaysian troops. The Philippine military has meanwhile deployed naval vessels and an aircraft to the coast of Malaysian Borneo.