Indonesia’s urgent need for a unified coast guard to counter external threats

Indonesia is keen to install Bakamla as the coordinating body as currently there are several agencies with similar and overlapping roles.

Indonesia has to step up its effort to empower a sole coordinating body to facilitate maritime security and trade.  By Diana M, Indonesia correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade 

Indonesia’s effort to entrust the Maritime Security Agency as the country’s sole coast guard to oversees and coordinate the entire maritime affairs, including trade, might not work as effective as initially planned, a maritime expert said. 

Director of the National Maritime Institute Siswanto Rusdi explained the Indonesian government is keen to install the agency, known as Bakamla, as the coordinating body to protect Indonesia’s seas, as currently there are several agencies with similar and overlapping roles.

Besides the Indonesian Navy and Water Police, the country’s Ministry of Transportation also has its own agency with very similar responsibilities to those of Bakamla’s, not to mention the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries who is also tasked on securing the seas.

“The issue of Indonesia’s overlapping regulations is incredibly complicated because each organization, such as the Police and the Navy, has their own law – and none of them want theirs removed,” Rusdi told the Maritime Fairtrade.

He added that as a result, there have been uncertainty and confusion, not only among the agencies, but also traders and investors, both local and foreign.

First established in 1972, Bakamla currently operates with presidential regulation issued in 2014 as a legal basis, and it is under the jurisdiction of the Coordinating Ministry of Political, Legal, and Security Affairs.

China’s aggression in Natuna Sea

In early January this year, after Chinese coast guards escorting fishing boats entered Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EZZ) in the North Natuna Sea, several ministries immediately held a discussion on an omnibus bill on maritime affairs to sort out the overlapping roles among agencies as well as to strengthen Bakamla’s role as Indonesia’s coast guard. 

However, according to Rusdi, the omnibus bill plan had not materialized. Instead, Bakamla suggested a bill on maritime security which defines the agency’s authorities and responsibilities. The bill was included in this year’s House of Representatives’ national legislation program but was later dropped.

Be that as it may, the fact that the bill has not been made into law should not downplay Bakamla’s role as Indonesia’s coordinating body in maritime affairs. As Rusdi explained, mandate from the chief security minister is already sufficient to enable Bakamla as a sole coast guard.

“But the reality is different. For example, Bakamla almost never released a statement when, say, the Navy or other agencies, captured foreign boats. There was not any statement. That doesn’t seem like a coordinating body,” Rusdi said. “They simply don’t possess the right tool to keep tabs on who’s doing what.”

Then what’s disabling them from functioning like a coordinator?

With other agencies already having their own law, it is only expected that the shift into making Bakamla the sole and ultimate coordinator is not easy. The difficult horizontal relationship can further be jeopardized by bad inter-agencies communication and unclear law.

Then, if one day, the maritime security bill is finalized into law and Bakamla fully becomes Indonesia’s coast guard with clear authorities, would it bring a positive impact to trade in the country? Rusdi said it is unlikely.

As mentioned, with its current legal basis and direct mandate from the Coordinating Ministry of Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, Bakamla already has the authority to do its job as a coordinating body in maritime affairs, but has so far failed to do so.

“I do not share the optimism (that any positive impact will be made on trade). Instead, it is very likely that Bakamla crumbles and collapses at the end,” Rusdi said.

Rusdi gave one example of how regulation on maritime trade and its implementation remain very poorly managed in Indonesia.

“For example, in anchor let-go areas in Batam, Riau Islands, it is unclear to which agency traders must pay to in order to be able to anchor their vessels. And in some cases, even after they pay, they are still questioned or prohibited from anchoring their vessels by other agencies,” he said. “They are businessmen and willing to pay, but there is no certainty and clear regulation.”

The role of coast guard is a very crucial and strategic one, especially in maritime countries like Indonesia. According to Rusdi, in general, coast guard is a non-military organization. However, laws in each country may differ in further regulating the role.

In the United States, the coast guard is a branch of military, but it operates as part of the Department of Homeland Security and is not quartered in the Pentagon. Meanwhile in Japan, coast guard is a civilian organization.

“The is no uniformed model, but coast guard in every country is responsible to carry out law enforcement and search and rescue tasks, among others,” Rusdi said.

Image credit: Hengky Pagipho /

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