Thursday, February 27, 2014

KRI Usman Harun - Indonesia's ship of shame

"There is no way Indonesia can derive honour from the bombing of the MacDonald House. There is not a nation with military forces on Earth that has not had a uniformed member commit an atrocity at some time or other - including the United States. But Indonesia is unique in demanding the right to parade her historical shame." - Johnas Presbyter
"This symbolic naming gesture is a spit in the eye of important international law and the sensibilities of  their neighbours; and has the potential to sour a needed alliance for the life of the warship, and that can easily be in excess of 20 years." - Johnas Presbyter
By Johnas Presbyter, American Admiralty Informational Services (AAIS)
The AAIS is an informal association of maritime professionals and academics from around the world. Click here for the AAIS blog - a site dubbed the "Mother of All Maritime Links" - on maritime matters. We thank Johnas for contributing his views as a naval observer to Senang Diri.
Naming a warship is a sovereign right. Not all exercises of sovereign rights are a wise thing to do.
Refusing to exercise with an insultingly named ship is also a sovereign right which Singapore has exercised.
We, the rest of the World, and the World's naval professionals certainly hope that Singapore, Malaysia , and Indonesia will continue to work together to protect the vital regional shipping routes. But I don't think the World's naval professionals or the community of nations is going to let it go at that. Even if Singapore lets it drop in the interest of cooperatively meeting today's naval challenges, the Ship if she continues to carry that name will find itself blocked from some ports, shunned in international exercises, and where it is allowed into a port as part of an international exercise you can rest assured that there is a human rights movement that has not forgotten the MacDonald House incident.
Story of state terrorism retold
When the ships go to dress ship, and lower the visitor gangway there will be the occasional visitor boycott as the story of this act of state terrorism is retold. There will always be the whispering among the sailors of other nationalities. Within a couple of years , if it even takes that long, no Indonesian sailor will want to be assigned to that ship.
Indonesia can't get around the MacDonald House story. Their two dead marines deliberately detonated explosives in what was basically a civilian office complex on military orders when there was no official state of hostilities. The results of their bombing were about 33 ordinary people injured some maimed for life, just regular folks Moms and Dads whose only "crime" was going to work that morning to support their families. Among the dead not a single uniformed military member, but there were two young civilian women killed. There are no military professionals in the world who would actually take pride in that operation. But the government of Indonesia did at the time, and apparently still does, and that is going to bring shame to them. Indonesia is still refusing to acknowledge that such orders as these two marines received are unlawful under the International Law of Armed Conflict.
Most importantly, Indonesia is refusing to acknowledge that the International Law of Armed Conflict places individual responsibility upon individual military members to obey the law and to refuse illegal and immoral orders. This stance unjustifiably calls into question the ethical training of her military forces today.
Tragic, impolite but teaching moment
The naming of a warship may seem like a tempest in a teapot to many. But the eyes of naval professionals around the world who have had an opportunity to work with the modern naval forces of the region admire the professionals of these services and believe in their capabilities and professionalism.
We see this as a moment in the white hot spotlight of history for the Indonesian Navy.
This symbolic naming gesture is a spit in the eye of important international law and the sensibilities of  their neighbours; and has the potential to sour a needed alliance for the life of the warship, and that can easily be in excess of 20 years.
We, the English-speaking naval professionals and other global naval professionals have confidence that the Indonesian Navy is not behind this ill advised move. We have confidence that if the politicians take the face saving move of allowing this to be a Navy-to-Navy discussion that it will end amicably to the benefit of all concerned including a large portion of the world community dependent on freedom of the seas.
We have long accepted all three navies (Note: Naval forces of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore) as brother naval professionals and fellow guardians of this concept of freedom of navigation. Give the issue to the navies...and brothers don't disappoint us but settle this and give us a move forward to show the world  just how effective regional collaborative naval security can be.
The issue is tragic, impolitic, and potentially deal killing. But it can also be a teaching moment. These navies in concert are capable of their globally important mission. Will one let a long ago historical incident drive a wedge into the successful accomplishment of that mission? Those of us who have had the pleasure of working with these navies can not  imagine any one of them sabotaging the mission. Let the respective state departments transfer the issue to a direct navy to navy exchange. We believe that many of your respective best and brightest are in your navies and coast guards.
Doubts cast on ethical training
"I was just obeying orders" has rung hollow as a defense against "war crimes", terrorism, and crimes against humanity not just since Nuremberg, but at least as far back as the American Andersonville military trial in the 1860s. We have not read the Andersonville transcript yet but frankly we would be surprised if the prosecution didn't cite even earlier precedent against the obedience to orders defense in their successful effort to send the Commandant of Andersonville  Military Prison to the Gallows. By the name they chose for their new warship Indonesia casts doubt on the ethical training of their armed forces. Indonesia has embarrassed her military professionals. More over they have again exposed the deceased marines to another round of vilification just when people everywhere were inclined to see them as unfortunate victims of their own superiors and inadequate training.
As human rights activist organizations from time to time urge people to shun the ship they will be asked why. The story of the MacDonald House will be told again and again. The marines paid the price for their crime, their responsible superiors did not and few if any are alive today.

Over time an image of the marines standing on the gallows resolutely obedient to orders to the last has emerged but every time the story of MacDonald House is told the public mental image is of two young toughs standing over the dead bodies of two young women, ankle deep in the blood of their other victims.

Neither image is actually correct or fair.

Those marines broke the law and paid the price but people far more powerful than they set them on that course and they have never paid a price. Indonesia can't escape the basic facts of the story. They expose the memory of the deceased they buried as heroes of military virtue to public revulsion over their actual crime. 

Once again lost in the controversy is the fact that the real war criminals held civilian titles and were never made to even acknowledge responsibility.
No, Singapore doesn't have to lead the jeering squad, but the naval professionals of the world are feeling acute embarrassment for the Indonesian naval professionals saddled with this political misstep.
Soon human rights activist groups will crop up in the ship's path here and there. Once again the tired sad old story of the MacDonald House attack will be told. The facts speak for themselves. At the end of the attack civilians are injured , maimed, killed including two young women, not a person armed. Who did it? Indonesian Marines under orders.
Lost honour
There is no way Indonesia can derive honour from the bombing of the McDonald House. There is not a nation with military forces on Earth that has not had a uniformed member commit an atrocity at some time or other - including the United States. But Indonesia is unique in demanding the right to parade her historical shame. 
So let them. The global brotherhood of naval professionals don't blame the modern day Indonesian navy or marine corps for the MacDonald House bombing.
We do see Indonesia's excellent modern day military forces as betrayed by their politicians in this matter. We have a great deal of empathy for Indonesia's military members, we know that their integrity and ethics are in fact higher than their politicians. We have all been there, betrayed by politicians. We just hope that they don't have to live with this floating shame for a 20-year ship's life cycle.
Good luck to all involved but looking at it from the outside world Singapore can't make a mistake given the facts of the case.
The way forward
If Singapore appears angry as hell the international community will see it as justified anger.
If Singapore just decides to forget the whole thing Singapore looks incredibly magnanimous. Anything in between looks reasonable.
In the 1960s Singapore was the victim. The only possible action Indonesia could take at this point that would actually enhance their international prestige would be to immediately rename the ship, officially apologize to Singapore for the MacDonald House attack, and announce an investigation into the responsible chain of command. Then the Indonesian government on behalf of its predecessors in office should offer reparations to the victims and apologize to the families of the dead marines for exposing them to the risk and shame of unlawful orders.
What are the chances of that happening?
In lieu of doing the morally right thing Indonesia would have been well advised to have officially forgotten the incident. There is only one loser in this business and it is not Singapore.
You may also like:
Singapore voices concern of naming of Indonesian navy ship. Click here
An American Southerner addresses Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. Click here
An episode from Konfrontasi revisited, Singapore and Indonesia. Part 3. Click here
Two sides of the same strait: Singapore's neighbours determined to close development gap. Click here
KRI Usman Harun episode sets interesting poser for Indonesia-Singapore bilateral ties.  Click here

S'pore won't allow Indonesian ship "Usman Harun" to call at its ports - Channel News Asia. Click here


JD said...

Unknown said...
Look and learn Mindef don't hide with excuses, shame on you , talking with pride when you have the moral high ground, but cowardly when the have to clean their own filth in your ranks. Shame on you again.

Unknown said...

thanks David for posting this article. it is a v insightful perspective from a neutral naval professional.

this episode reminds me why a strong saf is not a want but a need.

earlyfalloutboy said...

I see we are practicing a form of censorship now. My post (criticizing an inane comment) was removed but I am more than pleased with the new arrangements.

David Boey said...

Dear above,
This blog has had a liberal stance towards Comments since 2009 as regular readers would testify and as the record still shows.

Not many blogs operate with this ROE. Have always treated points of view, even opposing and incendiary ones, as part of the conversation, which explains the light touch.

It's time we try a different approach.

Setting up an account on the fly to take advantage of a loophole isn't the way to go anymore.

We're as tolerant as before - perhaps naively so. Try stepping out of the shadows in a verifiable way and you can say your piece.

Am aware the views of men and women in uniform or gov't service (whichever country) may be crimped by this approach.

And the oddball remarks may eventually disappear.

But we'll see how it goes. TY.


earlyfalloutboy said...

I am happy with the new arrangement. But I wonder how many valuable comments have either been removed or not made.

In my comment, I wrote just one sentence asking 9:58 to "post only if you have something original and analytical to contribute." Which was not incendiary (except perhaps to 9:58) and shows we are going beyond just removing the incendiary comments.

I may yet miss the old way. I can separate the wheat from the chaff.

shawncentric said...

Sadly, the old way was starting to amass trolls who were quite out-of-topic with their flame bait. To be frank, it was getting worst than on a lot of forums, and I've been posting on for a decade!

David, the current situation in the Ukraine once more reinforces why Singapore needs a strong and robust defense force, one that not only has the equipment, but the morale and cohesion to fight for our country's defense.

David Boey said...

Hi earlyfalloutboy,
The earlier comment was removed as it came from a brand new Google account, set up perhaps to game the system? The comment itself wasn't incendiary.

But maybe you really don't have a Google account and set up one just to say something? In any case, your voice has been heard.

Time will tell if folks start setting up ghost accounts to game the system, which would rob everyone of a chance to see just how diverse the commentators are.

Best regards,