Indonesia declines to sign UNESCO Convention for Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage

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Asanti Astari from ASEAN is with Moe Chiba from UNESCO, Chihiro Nishikawa from UNESCO Paris, Tukul Rameyo Adi from the Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs and Tinia Budiati, head of the Maritime Museum. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

 On the 5th of November 2019 UNES­CO held a forum on Safeguarding and Reviving the Shared Maritime Cultural Heritage of Southeast Asia at the Mar­itime Museum in Tanjung Priok where it attempted once again to convince Indo­nesia and ASEAN nations to sign the Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage.

IO – The head of the Maritime Museum in Tanjung Priok, DR Tinia Budati opened the UNESCO forum and wel­comed maritime and cultural experts from many parts of the world. Then Moe Chiba, Program Specialist for Culture from UNESCO’s Jakarta Office ex­plained that Southeast Asia has a very rich yet for the most part unexplored shared maritime heritage which needs further research and study. This shared heritage includes such things as diverse as the heritage and culture of the Bajau or Sea Gypsies who live in the seas around several Southeast Asian countries including Indone­sia, to the knowledge and exchange of knowledge about shipbuilding amongst Southeast Asian states and the tradition of using beaten tree bark as textiles and paper to name just a few of the many other under-studied maritime traditions of Southeast Asia.

Moe Chiba from the UNESCO Jakarta Office speaks at the UNESCO forum for Safeguarding and Reviving the Shared Maritime Cultural Heritage of Southeast Asia. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Although shared maritime cultural heritage is a hot topic in many parts of the world it does not appear to be so amongst ASEAN countries. Ms Chiba mentioned some high impact working projects for shared cultur­al maritime heritage worldwide in­cluding the UNESCO cultural Route Project for Peace and Dialogue, the Slave Route Project, the International Dialogue on Cultural Roots Project, Thirty-eight Certified Thematic Cul­tural Routes of Fifty Countries and a Thousand Stakeholders, the Mekong Moments Common Tourism Platform for six Mekong regions. She said that UNESCO considered it a challenge that something similar be done for Southeast Asia.

Dr Tukul Rameyo Adi who was rep­resenting the Coordinating Ministry of Maritime Affairs explained, “Jakarta is the most historical port in Indonesia and there are only over thirty-eight shipwrecks most of which are located around the Thousand Islands in the Bay of Jakarta.”

Bearing in mind its rich history and underwater heritage he said that the Ministry was keen to enter into a cooperation to create an integrated underwater cultural heritage muse­um. Meanwhile, Prof Singgih Sulistyo­no from Universitas Diponegoro or Undip spoke about Southeast Asian maritime history before the arrival of Europeans. Prof Singgih has begun preliminary research into the role of indigenous people in the maritime history of the region. He quoted his­torian Anthony Reid who has written much about maritime commerce in Southeast Asia as saying that there are still many texts from indigenous sources about this that have not yet been properly studied and researched. “It is important to expose the histo­ry of the voyages of Austronesians to countries such as China, India and Madagascar as the sea is one of the most important factors for Indonesia,” remarked Prof Singgih.

At the forum UNESCO also mentioned the low rate of ratification of the UNES­CO Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage of 2001 and the Convention on the Means of Prohib­iting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970. The main focus however appeared to be the first mentioned convention. Moe Chiba said that it was hoped that the reasons why Southeast Asian states although carrying out events and activities geared to shared maritime cultural heritage outside the conven­tions, showed a lack of enthusiasm for ratifying the conventions could be clarified. She said that at this fo­rum UNESCO hoped to hear about Southeast Asian nations latest dis­coveries in maritime research as well as various countries’ priorities and visions for shared maritime cultural heritage including underwater cul­tural heritage as well as the challeng­es, solutions and cooperation such countries faced or were undertaking in this field.

Indonesia has been on major trade routes for centuries and a con­sequence is that there are many ship wrecks in Indonesian waters most of which are merchant ships. Their main surviving cargoes are usually ceramics from China. These ships and their cargoes are part of Indo­nesian history and heritage. Indo­nesia’s Ministry of Marine and Fish­eries says that it has identified 468 known shipwrecks in Indonesian waters. There are experts however who reckon that the figure is in fact much higher. They say that the ar­chival evidence in countries from all over the world show that there were over 1500 shipwrecks in Indonesian waters from the period after 1500. For ships of that period there are many ships of which there are no archival documents in existence or whose historical documentation has not yet come to light. This number also does not include shipwrecks from before 1500 for which there is usually no archival documentation. Some ex­perts estimate the number of ship­wrecks in Indonesian waters to have been closer to 3000 shipwrecks.

On the 2nd of November 2001 the UNESCO Convention on the Protec­tion of Underwater Cultural Heritage was issued. It began to come into force in 2009. Chihiro Nishikawa who flew in to Jakarta from UNESCO headquarters in Paris was sent to try to convince ASE­AN nations in general and Indonesia with its large sea area and shoreline in particular, to ratify both conven­tions. For many years UNESCO has been sending officials from its Paris headquarters regularly to Indonesia to try to reason, cajole and badger In­donesia to sign the Convention. Since 2001 only 62 nations have signed the Convention and that does not include nations such as the United States, China or the United Kingdom who have all not signed the Conven­tion. Among Asia Pacific nations only Cambodia, Iran and Micronesia have signed the Convention.

Through this Convention UN­ESCO basically asks states not to touch the shipwrecks and cargoes in their waters but to leave them for future archeologists who – perhaps in one or two hundred years from now – with more sophisticated tech­nology to investigate the wrecks and cargoes will be able to obtain more information about the past. Any ar­chaeological work such as removing cargoes should only be done by governments together with UNESCO. In general governments are simply meant to protect the ship wrecks. This is referred to as in situ protection.

The Nadak Ganjen Betawi dance was performed at the opening of the forum. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Indonesia has had several con­cerns with regard to the Conven­tion. The first is that Indonesia has 6.4 million kilometers of waters and it is extremely difficult to protect the large number of wrecks in its seas. The Ministry of Marine and Fisheries says that of the 463 shipwrecks that it believes are located in Indonesian waters only 20 percent have been verified and of those only 3 percent explored. It is at present working to­gether with the Indonesian navy and water police in order to try to create a strategy to protect these shipwrecks which they hope to do in coordination with the protection of fisheries against illegal fishing. They also hope to uti­lize the group community watch used against illegal fishing.

Such policies and actions are very much needed because there is at present a great deal of looting and theft of shipwrecks and their cargoes in both Indonesian as well as sur­rounding waters. A recent case was the barge Chuan Hong 68 which was accused of looting the shipwrecks of the Kokusei Maru, Higane Maru, dan Hiyori Maru which sank in 1944. It is also thought to be responsible for the looting and theft of several shipwrecks in the Natuna Sea near the South China Sea. This follows in the foot­steps of the discovery several years ago that several shipwrecks of Dutch, Japanese, American and Australian battle ships involved in the Battle of the Java Sea of 1942 were illegally ripped apart by salvage divers and stolen. Some of these wrecks which were the graves of thousands of sail­ors have completely disappeared. For a nation such as Indonesia it is extremely difficult and expensive to protect shipwrecks and their cargoes in situ.

The second of Indonesia’s con­cerns is that the convention contains a number of articles that appear to give the nations whose flag the ship wreck once sailed under and nations which can show a cultural connec­tion to the ship’s cargo, some say and involvement in the wrecks and their cargoes. This appears to apply more strongly for ship wrecks located in EEZ zones and continental shelves. Nevertheless, for nations that cur­rently have sole discretion with re­gard to ship wrecks these articles are not only worrying but also discour­aging. Some parties have even held that the articles have a distinctively neo-colonial flavor as a great many of the shipwrecks once flew the flags of former colonial countries. When add­ed to the fact that the convention was compiled for the main part only by archaeologists from North America, Europe and Australia with very little if any input from African, Asian or South American archaeologists, the articles become even less attractive for countries that in the past were formerly colonies.

Another concern for Southeast Asian nations is the growing pres­ence and influence of China in the re­gion. A presence which in the light of China’s occupation of several reefs in the South China Sea which it subse­quently turned into islands with mil­itary bases, has left ASEAN nations with very mixed feelings. While fre­quently welcoming China’s economic activities and trade ASEAN nations worry about its influence and dom­inance in the region. As most of the cargoes on shipwrecks are ceramics and China is the usually the country that can show a cultural connection to such cargo the Convention’s arti­cles become even more problematic. Most Southeast Asian nations do not want to give China any reason for having any say about anything at all in its waters whether they be territorial wa­ters, EEZ or continental shelf.

China’s dominance is being felt not only economically and militarily but also culturally. Prof Tim Winters from the School of Social Sciences of the University of Western Australia who is studying the political drivers of heritage preservation in 21st Cen­tury diplomacy has been examining China’s Belt and Road Initiative as a vast platform for heritage diplomacy. At the forum he commented that, “China’s Silk Road is one of the most compelling geo-cultural concepts of the modern era, and the idea of its revival in the 21st century is creating new forms of cultural globalization and economic and politics ties across Eurasia.”

While creating trade deals in Asia China is also providing funds for Silk Road Cultural projects from Greece to Southeast Asia. These range from creating a museum in Sri Langka ex­hibiting Sri Langkan Chinese friend­ship in the past, to using Admiral Zheng He’s voyages as integration into the grand story of the Silk Road. It uses China’s maritime connections in the past to pave cooperation for future economic deals. This is one of the drivers of maritime heritage which is defining the story of mari­time heritage in Southeast Asia but it is a story which needs to be told in an inclusive and respectful manner and it should be remembered that there are other maritime stories besides the Silk Road such as for example the story of the spice route, regional collaboration around routes as well as the maritime role of the Austronesian etc.

The result of all the looting and pillaging of shipwrecks and their cargoes is the loss of underwater cultural heritage as well as valuable information and knowledge about the past. Meanwhile, from a purely eco­nomic perspective Indonesia’s Minis­try of Marine and Fisheries estimates that most shipwrecks have a value of between US$80,000 to US$18 million and if the wrecks are used for tour­ism, they can each generate from US$800 to US$ 126,000 per month. It is these amounts that form the base of the government’s economic calcu­lations. Nia Naelul Hasnah Ridwan, a maritime archaeology research sci­entist at the Research Institute for Coastal Resources and Vulnerability of the Ministry of Marine and Fisher­ies says that the government is intent on creating integrated marine tour­ism areas and in its work is at times aligned to the Convention or refers to its annex. She cites the wreck of the USAT Liberty off the shore of Tulam­ben in Bali and says that the village on the shore was during the 1980s amongst the poorest in Bali but through tourism created by divers intent on exploring the USAT Liberty it has become one the richest in Bali although a lack of supervision and too much diving has caused damage to the wreck.

Febrian Ruddyard, Director General of Multilateral Organizations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs eloquently explains why the government would not be ratifying the Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage. (Photo: IO/Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Febrian Alphyanto Ruddyard, the Director General of Mulitateral Orga­nizations of the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs attended the forum and explained the government’s po­sition with regard to the Convention. He explained that the Indonesian government is intent on maintaining Indonesia’s sovereign power with a resilient economy within a multicul­tural society. “Indonesia wants to salvage and protect existing maritime resources for the Indonesian people. The government policy is to promote Indonesia’s position as a global mar­itime fulcrum. In doing so it seeks to build its maritime culture and to expand its economy and global influ­ence.”

The Director General said that In­donesia is determined to maintain its national maritime sovereign security and to play a leading role in maritime affairs. Within the next 10 years Indo­nesia could be facing an energy crisis as it depletes its energy resources. In 15 years, Indonesia is predicted to start running out of water. So, the economy remains the government’s priority. Its primary focus is achieving its sustainable development goals.

Indonesia is a member of nearly 200 international organizations such as UNESCO and it distributes nearly US$ 55 million per year to these orga­nizations. The Indonesian Ministry of Finance asks where this money goes and whether it benefits the Indone­sian people. Now that it is classified as a middle economy state Indonesia is no longer eligible for UN grants whereas Indonesia’s priority is fulfill­ing the needs of its people. The 2001 Convention for the Protection of Un­derwater Heritage does not allow for the commercial exploitation of under­water heritage bringing it in conflict with Indonesia Cultural Heritage Law number 11 of 2010 which states that cultural heritage must be used for the welfare of all the Indonesian people.

For these reasons the Indonesian government will not be ratifying the Convention. Nevertheless, the gov­ernment’s moratorium on issuing permits to explore or salvage ship wrecks and their cargoes is in effect carrying out the terms of the Conven­tion without ratifying it and the result is a substantial increase in the loot­ing and pillaging of shipwrecks. Ac­cording to the Ministry of Marine and Fisheries before salvaging permits can be issued the Ministry of Educa­tion and Culture will need to issue the government’s implementing regu­lations for the Indonesian Heritage Law of 2010 which is now already 7 years late and the Ministry of Marine and Fisheries will also need to issue implementing regula­tions for such permits. The Ministry of Marine and Fisheries is currently awaiting guidelines from the Presi­dent on decreasing unnecessary reg­ulations and permits in order to stim­ulate the economy which remains the government’s top priority. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)